For me, "Burn Notice" has re-defined the spy genre. What was previous about car chases, fisticuffs, and a little charm, has now become about resourcefulness, savvy, psychology, sociology, and a whole lot of charm (although "Burn Notice" doesn't run from chases and fights; tonight's finale has TWO car chases).
A large reason the show works so well is its lead, Jeffrey Donovan as blacklisted spy Michael Westen. It's the kind of performance that's so good it's bound to get overlooked by the Emmys. Every episode features Donovan usually having to take on a cover of some kind but whereas a show like "Alias" did the disguises with wigs, foreign languages, and an elaborate costume, Donovan plays it all personality. He's a master of accents, attitudes, and best of all, strategy. For my money, Michael Westen is one of the best characters on television right now.
Below is the conference call we had with Mr. Donovan and it's a great read.
The season finale of "Burn Notice" airs tonight at 10/9c on USA.
So obviously, you know, the relationship between Michael and Carla picked up a lot this season; they were starting to get a little bit chummier. I understand Tricia is not going to be back for next season so could you tell us a little bit about her final appearances and what kind of closure we maybe can expect from the two characters?
JEFFREY DONOVAN: Well, you know, I think itís no surprise that Carla and Michael were going to eventually be in each otherís crosshairs. And in the final episode literally that happens. Without giving too much away the eventual outcome was necessary. Whatís going to happen is that she gets basically - she has powers above her that control her and she basically relies on Michael to save her butt at the end. And he tries but it doesnít go as well as expected for her.
All right, fair enough. Now, you know, at the same time it seems like weíre getting perhaps a little bit closer to finding out who burned Michael. How much more in depth do you imagine this is going to be? How many more layers might we expect before he maybe comes close to an answer?
DONOVAN: I think that the actual person who burned me, youíre actually going to meet in the season finale. And heís going to have answers that only - will satisfy people halfway; dealing anytime with any kind of covert organization they canít ever spill the beans totally. But what youíre going to see in the finale is pretty exciting because though Michael does find out who burns him it doesnít release him from the perils of his career choice. And thatís what season 3 is going to really focus on is who in his past is a threat to his livelihood. And thatís what basically youíre going to find out in season 3.
Where do you think Michael Westenís willingness to help the little person comes from?
DONOVAN: You know, thereís an interesting theme between Madeline and Michael that was on last week where she describes the map of how to fix the carís radio and how itís tied to the ignition. It was really well written. And she says, you know, I think he did this so that he would always feel needed and wanted and useful and would want him around.
And I think that Michael went away from his family because he didnít feel wanted or needed. And so he went with a bigger family, you know. He went for the flag and the country needed him. And so I think that when heís back in town, when he helps a little guy, itís less about the little guy and itís more about that Michael is somehow validating that need, that someone needs him. And he never got it as, you know, not to be too psychological but he never got it as a child.
Does that feel a bit incongruous to you that this hard nosed spy who can do these incredible things would have that - would care so much?
DONOVAN: No I think the - I think that paradigm is everywhere, you know, you see straight laced governors who are having - who have a family, children, and go after corruption in their career and then you find out they have prostitutes and theyíre screwing pros in hotels. You know, you see our, you know, our past administration saying we want to protect the American people and then they go and make America the most sought after dangerous place to go after in the world.
You know, I think those paradoxes and paradigms are prevalent in all our society and I just think itís in keeping with Michaelís career choice that heís going to live a parallel life.
One of my favorite elements of the show is Michaelís narration because itís - inside his head is a very interesting place to be. How much work goes into creating those still? I mean, you all arenít ever guilty of fluffing those off late in the day right? I mean, theyíre still vitally important to you all, right?
DONOVAN: Theyíre very important. I think that theyíre the heart of the show because whatís great about Burn Notice especially with Michael is that Michael never lets on how he feels about something except when heís with his family. So thatís 90% of the time of his job is heís covering.
And whatís great about playing that role that way is I donít have to show anything that I actually feel or think because I know that in the back of my mind that narration is going to let you know. And I think thatís kind of a cool device that we take really seriously that we get to say, hey, hereís a secret; this is what Iím thinking.
And itís a little conspiratorial with the audience and I think itís a great element.
Thereís another element that I really like - do you remember the A-Team? Every episode would build, they would build a war machine. Theyíd have music over the montage of images and BAís hands and Murdockís hands and it was clearly obvious that it wasnít Mr. T and it wasnít Dwight Schultz, it was stand-ins. And as a viewer it would take me out of the moment. And you guys donít do that or at least if you do it - if theyíre not your hands you all have faked me out well enough.
Is it important to you that you donít cut corners like the A-Team did even if it gets tedious? And are those moments fun when youíre building your war machines?
DONOVAN: Yeah, itís really important that not only do I build my own gadgets that I do my own fights. They donít let me do my own stunts for insurance reasons, but itís really important that I keep it authentic. And one of the things that I take pride is in that even though we shoot 16 episodes and it takes six months I actually train in the off season - I call it my off season like an athlete - to get ready for those 16.
So Iím doing workouts in the weight room three days a week and then Iím doing mixed martial arts those other three days and on Sunday I rest. And itís really important that when I do something it looks like I can actually do it.
David Martindale: Wow. Iím sold. You got me.
But do you have a favorite episode or a favorite moment or a series of moments?
DONOVAN: Oh gees, thatís a tough a question. You know, you know, I really liked the bank [robbery] because it was one set; it was self contained. And that was really fascinating and I thought the writing on that was just incredibly good. I also liked the finale, the season finale of season 2 which hasnít aired yet is pretty remarkable. You see Michael go to depths of pain that weíve never seen him show before. And so so far thatís probably the most interesting to me.
Okay I heard that you used to do a lot of impressions in high school which is kind of what got you into the acting biz because somebody said that, you know, oh you should be an actor. So I was kind of curious, how has that helped with your different roles I mean especially in Burn Notice when youíre doing, you know, your different accents and youíre trying to be different people out on your mission?
DONOVAN: Yeah, you know, I did have a gift for mimicry when I was a kid and, you know, growing up Iím a ten-year-old and Iím imitating John Wayne for my mom. You know, that - it didnít - no one came calling after that but it did kind of give me confidence that I could do accents and voices and mannerisms.
But thatís not really where I honed my skill, I actually studied a lot. I studied at - in college and then I went and got my MSA in Acting at NYU. And at NYU is really where I kind of perfected how to do accents and dialects so I worked with a speech, vocal and accent coach there for three years.
And just like any specialized profession acting can be specialized in that sense that youíre up and working on your craft 10-12 hours a day for three years. And thatís really kind of where I honed it.
Do you prefer acting in movies, TV shows or I heard that, you know, youíve done several stage acting; that youíre actually part of a group so.
DONOVAN: Yeah, itís real important - the theater is really important. Itís hard to say what my favorite is because they all for different reasons. But Iíll tell you why I need each one. TV itís exciting, itís very quick. Thereís not a lot of room for mistakes so youíre on the fly all the time.
Movies, movies are so epic and theyíre so grand and you canít lose your specificity in that so it creates a really interesting challenge. And then as far as theater is concerned I love the reciprocity of being on stage and I do something and something comes back. And thatís unique only to stage. And thatís why I need to do theater.
MacGyver has nothing on Michael as far as the spy gadgets go. What are some of your favorite spy gadgets to date that youíve actually, you know, gotten to play with on the show and things like that?
DONOVAN: You know, I thought one of the coolest things was the episode where I built an x-ray machine in my trunk. I thought that was - and you know what I found out from our consultant he actually did it.
Oh my gosh.
DONOVAN: Well our consultant is an ex-spy and he gave us the idea that you can put a taser through a old TV tube that has - still has a radioactive - not radioactive - I donít even know what it is - but a radio wave that you can ignite which would create an x-ray with a lead plate behind it. I couldnít believe it and it did it. But that was one of my favorites.
Do you ever get a chance to contribute like your own gadget ideas or anything like that or do you guys pretty much leave it to the consultant?
DONOVAN: I leave it to people who are far smarter than me. Iím too dumb to think of cool things like that.
Is there any gadget that youíve ever, you know, wanted to just take home like from, you know, the prop department or anything like that?
DONOVAN: Yeah, well itís not so much a gadget but kind of a device. I really thought the infrared detector where you can see at night, the goggles, those are pretty cool. The night vision gogglesÖthose are pretty cool. Yeah, driving at night or out in the wilderness in the woods, thatíd be kind of cool.
Whatís going to happen next season with Fiona and Michael; where are they going in their relationship?
DONOVAN: I donít know; what have you heard?
I donít know. Itís fun to watch.
DONOVAN: Yeah, well itís fun to do. We have great chemistry. And we love exploring the kind of push/pull attraction that we have for one another. But I think that, you know, season 3 youíll probably see more of Michael and Fiona trying not to be together; really, really just trying to find out maybe thereís someone else. Maybe thereís someone else out there that we can fall for and can give us the love that the other person canít, you know.
I think that because the more in 2 and 3 we get the more youíre going to see people from Michael and Fionaís past come back into their lives.
And what makes the bromance with Sam so special? It must be fun to do.
DONOVAN: You know, I havenít figured it out and I donít want to. Itís just so easy and so fun and but Iíd say 90% of it is just Bruce. Heís such a good spirit. He has great comic timing and he truly loves being on the show and it shows. So when weíre together itís us, you know, Jeff and Sam just having fun with the writerís work. You know, and as long as we keep going with that then the (bromance) will be (healthful).
Congratulations on that you got a big raise for the show. I was wondering if you purchased anything special? If there was any special indulgence as a result?
DONOVAN: No. You know, I grew up really poor and very frugal. And so whenever money did come in I always thought well it will never come in again. So, you know, I have this kind of gut reaction of donít spend money. In fact I think spending less money now than I did before the raise because Iím scared of it.
But the one thing I do want to learn and it will take a little bit of money is I want to get my pilot license for small single engines. And I think that being in Florida with all the local airports I think Iím going to try to do that and that will be my gift to myself.
Is there an end date for the whole show do you know? Like will this thing end in five years or four years?
DONOVAN: No, no, you know, I just renegotiated a eighth season so they have high hopes for it going at least to eight seasons. But, you know, itís a clichť but weíre just going to take it one season at a time. We know that this season this is what we would like to do. But thereís no ending date right now.
Okay so basically when we learn the - when we see the guy who burned you itís going to be like an onion I guess, right, another layer of who got him to do it and then who got them to do it...
DONOVAN: Basically but this will be the guy; this will be the guy who burned me. And heíll explain what happened and whatís going to happen to Michael Westen if basically he keeps making trouble. Itís going to be an interesting season 3.
Okay. And I also wanted to know if youíre not allowed to do your own stunts are you working out just for the shirtless scenes, is that the reason?
DONOVAN: No, you know, Iím serious when I say that itís for my health. And I mean that in many, many ways. Staying in shape it just keeps you healthy; it keeps your immune system up. But also I canít be injured, I mean, I do my own fights. So just because Iím not driving a car into a wall doesnít mean I canít get hurt because I do all my fights. So thatís what Iím training for. Iím training to stay in shape so Iím healthy; I donít get hurt when I do the fights and God forbid I get sick because if it does, you know, unfortunately production shuts down.
With the narration being such an important part of the show if thereís ever a chance weíd have a different narrator like Fiona or Sam for an episode?
DONOVAN: You know Iíve pitched that. Iíve pitched that that Fiona and Sam actually start talking in my narration and then I go, hey, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing? This is mine. This is my narration. And then weíd get in a fight as a voice over. So I pitched that; they thought it was funny and then they said no.
With all the twists this season do you think it - the season pretty much turned out how you would have predicted it from the beginning or was it a lot different?
DONOVAN: No, no, I think itís in keeping with what our aim is which is giving just enough to keep you wanting to come back but also give the storylines room to grow where you say I wonder where this is going to go. You know, I have to give the writers so much credit, this show, not only a dialogue, but the craftsmanship of the show is so intricate.
And until you try to write a Burn Notice youíll never know how hard it is to write these things. And so Iím really happy with how the show is going because I know how hard it is.
Are there any guest stars for next season that you know of?
DONOVAN: Not yet because we havenít started shooting yet. You know, thereís some people on our radar that would love to get on the show. And then there are actually people who have called and said they want to be on the show. So weíre actually right now I think negotiating with a big TV actress to start recurring on the show. I canít just say because itís not closed but if it happens Iíll be really excited.
Michael has a wonderful diversity of accents when he puts on a cover and I was just wondering if thatís been on the page or do you apply the voice to the character and how much room do you sort of have to play with all these different covers?
DONOVAN: Good question. Thereís no hard and fast rule governing my performance with each accent and with each dialect. It is kind of a dance between me and the writers. The writers say something like Michael walks into a bar and sometimes itíll say with an Australian accent or sometimes itíll say Michael walks up to the bar and starts talking to so and so.
And it wonít say I have a new voice but Iíll go, you know what, heís a good old boy; we hired an actor whoís a good old boy. I donít want to play him like a good old boy as well because it will knock down his defenses. So itís a bit of a dance, we kind of find it on the day.
Do you have a particular favorite cover that youíve used during the series?
DONOVAN: Well, you know, thatís funny you say that. Last year I did a British accent ala kind of James Bond. And the writers felt that it was too on the nose so I had almost done half of the episode with the British accent so I had to redub the entire performance with my standard American dialogue accent. So that was my favorite but no one ever saw it.
But my favorite is the one which is in one of the scenes in - where the stylish car jackers and I go into my loft and I say to Fiona - she says, "What was the name of your cover in Ireland?" And I said Michael McBride. And she says, yeah, I fell in love with him. And she said - and Michael McBride is going to make an appearance again, that cover and that will probably be my favorite cover.
So like a lot of the questions have been asked but I guess the final one for me has the role of Michael Westen been your favorite character to play in your acting character because youíve done so much.
DONOVAN: Iíll say this: Michael Westen is the most fun character. I have more fun doing this role than any other role Iíve ever played. But given that itís the hardest role Iíve ever done. The pressure I felt in Changeling, Detective Jones, was pressure Iíll never ever forget to be in that rarified air of Eastwood and Jolie. But this show is the hardest thing Iíve ever done. And that I can churn out every seven days a Burn Notice episode and it doesnít look like we did it only seven days and with all the accents, all the stunts and all the fights, Iím really proud of that.
Wow so itís basically seven days an episode?
DONOVAN: Itís Monday to Friday then we have Saturday and Sunday off and Monday and Tuesday and thatís it. All - the entire show is done in seven days.
Do you sleep ever?
DONOVAN: I get about six to eight a night and I work 14 a day.
I love your scenes with Sharon Gless because thereís a lot of emotion plus comedy in them and I was wondering if you could talk about working with her and dealing with the smoke.
DONOVAN: Man, sheís such a pro. Sheís such a pro. I call her mama and I mean that in such an affectionate way. Sheís so motherly to me, so caring and endearing and talented and God, man, you walk on set, she starts rehearsing with you and youíre like youíre in the scene; you are just in the scene. Sheís your mom, youíre her son and the comedy that comes out of it, she knows what sheís doing, man, and she makes it look like she doesnít. Itís pretty remarkable to watch.
The smoking - the smoking is tough. She really smokes real tobacco. And itís kind of hard to deal with - knowing that every time Iím in a scene with her is smoking. But that is what Michael goes through, he canít stand it either.
Youíre headed to season 3, youíve renegotiated your contract; did you ever expect that Burn Notice was going to become the success it has?
DONOVAN: You know, I donít think anyone goes into projects thinking theyíll fail. I think we all believe that what weíre doing is going to be good. But more specifically with me and that mix we sat down and very pointedly said to each other weíre going to make a TV show that we would watch, that we would be interested in, not the networks, not the fans, not anybody, just us. What would we want to do because we have to do this for seven years; and that was the pilot.
And that it was received so well critically and that the fans, you know, started seeing us a couple million and has grown to over five million is just - itís just icing on the cake of what we started with at the beginning which was pursue something you believe in with your entire heart in your craft and want to do that and only that and donít you feed to well weíll milk it down, weíll water it down. Make what you want and see if it sticks.
And USA was so gracious to give us that room and let it grow and itís been growing ever since.
What is it about the show you think enables it to transcend from being a wonderful personal project to having such great appeal to a wider audience?
DONOVAN: You know what, and this is going to sound vague, because the groups that watch it watch it for different reasons. I meet kids, I meet teenagers who run up to me and go we love your show. And I say well why do you like it? And theyíre like oh man those cool gadgets.
And then Iíll meet some like 40-year old guy whoís like man you and Fi, God, that reminds me of my marriage. And Iíll meet like, you know, old ladies who are like you and your mom are so sweet together. So I think that thereís just these really specific elements that are really identifiable to a lot of people. I donít know if thereís just one thing.
I just wanted to know what your other plans are as far as upcoming possible movies or other guest TV spots.
DONOVAN: Well Iím not doing anything believe it or not. On my hiatus between 1 and 2 I did Changeling and that was three months. And then between 2 and 3 I went to Chicago and I did a play. So that would have been when I would have done a movie that would come out in the fall of this year. But I needed to be back on stage so thereís nothing come out in the pipeline and no TV as well.
Iím just going to focus on Burn Notice for the next six months and then after that I need to take a small break. Iíve worked almost 20 months straight so Iíll probably take a break and be very picky about what movie Iíd like to do.
Is there somewhere youíd like to travel on vacation then during that time or something youíd like to do maybe start your family?
DONOVAN: Yeah, you know, Iím - I went on vacation last year to Costa Rica and I fell in love with it; what an incredible country. I think I might want to go back there but I also miss where Iím from, my familyís from rather is Ireland. And I might go to Cork - County Cork in the summer. So those are two places Iím looking at.