Interview: Jeffrey Donovan – BURN NOTICE

     March 5, 2009


Written by Matt Goldberg



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 it’s no surprise that Carla and Michael were going to eventually be in each other’s crosshairs. And in the final episode literally that happens. Without giving too much away the eventual outcome was necessary. What’s 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 doesn’t go as well as expected for her.



All right, fair enough. Now, you know, at the same time it seems like we’re 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, you’re actually going to meet in the season finale. And he’s going to have answers that only – will satisfy people halfway; dealing anytime with any kind of covert organization they can’t ever spill the beans totally. But what you’re going to see in the finale is pretty exciting because though Michael does find out who burns him it doesn’t release him from the perils of his career choice. And that’s what season 3 is going to really focus on is who in his past is a threat to his livelihood. And that’s what basically you’re going to find out in season 3.



Where do you think Michael Westen’s willingness to help the little person comes from?



DONOVAN: You know, there’s an interesting theme between Madeline and Michael that was on last week where she describes the map of how to fix the car’s radio and how it’s 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 didn’t 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 he’s back in town, when he helps a little guy, it’s less about the little guy and it’s 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 they’re 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 it’s in keeping with Michael’s career choice that he’s going to live a parallel life.



One of my favorite elements of the show is Michael’s narration because it’s – inside his head is a very interesting place to be. How much work goes into creating those still? I mean, you all aren’t ever guilty of fluffing those off late in the day right? I mean, they’re still vitally important to you all, right?



DONOVAN: They’re very important. I think that they’re the heart of the show because what’s great about Burn Notice especially with Michael is that Michael never lets on how he feels about something except when he’s with his family. So that’s 90% of the time of his job is he’s covering.



And what’s great about playing that role that way is I don’t 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 that’s kind of a cool device that we take really seriously that we get to say, hey, here’s a secret; this is what I’m thinking.



And it’s a little conspiratorial with the audience and I think it’s a great element.



There’s another element that I really like – do you remember the A-Team? Every episode would build, they would build a war machine. They’d have music over the montage of images and BA’s hands and Murdock’s hands and it was clearly obvious that it wasn’t Mr. T and it wasn’t Dwight Schultz, it was stand-ins. And as a viewer it would take me out of the moment. And you guys don’t do that or at least if you do it – if they’re not your hands you all have faked me out well enough.



Is it important to you that you don’t cut corners like the A-Team did even if it gets tedious? And are those moments fun when you’re building your war machines?



DONOVAN: Yeah, it’s really important that not only do I build my own gadgets that I do my own fights. They don’t let me do my own stunts for insurance reasons, but it’s 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 I’m doing workouts in the weight room three days a week and then I’m doing mixed martial arts those other three days and on Sunday I rest. And it’s really important that when I do something it looks like I can actually do it.



David Martindale: Wow. I’m sold. You got me.


But do you have a favorite episode or a favorite moment or a series of moments?



DONOVAN: Oh gees, that’s 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 hasn’t aired yet is pretty remarkable. You see Michael go to depths of pain that we’ve never seen him show before. And so so far that’s 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 you’re doing, you know, your different accents and you’re 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 I’m a ten-year-old and I’m imitating John Wayne for my mom. You know, that – it didn’t – no one came calling after that but it did kind of give me confidence that I could do accents and voices and mannerisms.



But that’s 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 you’re up and working on your craft 10-12 hours a day for three years. And that’s really kind of where I honed it.



Do you prefer acting in movies, TV shows or I heard that, you know, you’ve done several stage acting; that you’re actually part of a group so.



((Crosstalk))



DONOVAN: Yeah, it’s real important – the theater is really important. It’s hard to say what my favorite is because they all for different reasons. But I’ll tell you why I need each one. TV it’s exciting, it’s very quick. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes so you’re on the fly all the time.



Movies, movies are so epic and they’re so grand and you can’t 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 that’s unique only to stage. And that’s 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 you’ve 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 don’t 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 couldn’t 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. I’m too dumb to think of cool things like that.



Is there any gadget that you’ve ever, you know, wanted to just take home like from, you know, the prop department or anything like that?



DONOVAN: Yeah, well it’s 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 goggles…those are pretty cool. Yeah, driving at night or out in the wilderness in the woods, that’d be kind of cool.



What’s going to happen next season with Fiona and Michael; where are they going in their relationship?



DONOVAN: I don’t know; what have you heard?



I don’t know. It’s fun to watch.



DONOVAN: Yeah, well it’s 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 you’ll probably see more of Michael and Fiona trying not to be together; really, really just trying to find out maybe there’s someone else. Maybe there’s someone else out there that we can fall for and can give us the love that the other person can’t, you know.



I think that because the more in 2 and 3 we get the more you’re going to see people from Michael and Fiona’s 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 haven’t figured it out and I don’t want to. It’s just so easy and so fun and but I’d say 90% of it is just Bruce. He’s such a good spirit. He has great comic timing and he truly loves being on the show and it shows. So when we’re together it’s us, you know, Jeff and Sam just having fun with the writer’s 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 don’t spend money. In fact I think spending less money now than I did before the raise because I’m 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 I’m 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, it’s a cliché but we’re just going to take it one season at a time. We know that this season this is what we would like to do. But there’s no ending date right now.



Okay so basically when we learn the – when we see the guy who burned you it’s 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 he’ll explain what happened and what’s going to happen to Michael Westen if basically he keeps making trouble. It’s going to be an interesting season 3.



Okay. And I also wanted to know if you’re not allowed to do your own stunts are you working out just for the shirtless scenes, is that the reason?



DONOVAN: No, you know, I’m serious when I say that it’s 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 can’t be injured, I mean, I do my own fights. So just because I’m not driving a car into a wall doesn’t mean I can’t get hurt because I do all my fights. So that’s what I’m training for. I’m training to stay in shape so I’m healthy; I don’t 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 there’s ever a chance we’d have a different narrator like Fiona or Sam for an episode?



DONOVAN: You know I’ve pitched that. I’ve 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 we’d 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 it’s 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 you’ll never know how hard it is to write these things. And so I’m 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 haven’t started shooting yet. You know, there’s 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 we’re actually right now I think negotiating with a big TV actress to start recurring on the show. I can’t just say because it’s not closed but if it happens I’ll be really excited.



Michael has a wonderful diversity of accents when he puts on a cover and I was just wondering if that’s 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. There’s 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 it’ll say with an Australian accent or sometimes it’ll say Michael walks up to the bar and starts talking to so and so.



And it won’t say I have a new voice but I’ll go, you know what, he’s a good old boy; we hired an actor who’s a good old boy. I don’t want to play him like a good old boy as well because it will knock down his defenses. So it’s a bit of a dance, we kind of find it on the day.



Do you have a particular favorite cover that you’ve used during the series?



DONOVAN: Well, you know, that’s 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 you’ve done so much.



DONOVAN: I’ll say this: Michael Westen is the most fun character. I have more fun doing this role than any other role I’ve ever played. But given that it’s the hardest role I’ve ever done. The pressure I felt in Changeling, Detective Jones, was pressure I’ll never ever forget to be in that rarified air of Eastwood and Jolie. But this show is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And that I can churn out every seven days a Burn Notice episode and it doesn’t look like we did it only seven days and with all the accents, all the stunts and all the fights, I’m really proud of that.



Wow so it’s basically seven days an episode?



DONOVAN: It’s Monday to Friday then we have Saturday and Sunday off and Monday and Tuesday and that’s 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 there’s 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, she’s such a pro. She’s such a pro. I call her mama and I mean that in such an affectionate way. She’s so motherly to me, so caring and endearing and talented and God, man, you walk on set, she starts rehearsing with you and you’re like you’re in the scene; you are just in the scene. She’s your mom, you’re her son and the comedy that comes out of it, she knows what she’s doing, man, and she makes it look like she doesn’t. It’s pretty remarkable to watch.



The smoking – the smoking is tough. She really smokes real tobacco. And it’s kind of hard to deal with – knowing that every time I’m in a scene with her is smoking. But that is what Michael goes through, he can’t stand it either.



You’re headed to season 3, you’ve renegotiated your contract; did you ever expect that Burn Notice was going to become the success it has?



DONOVAN: You know, I don’t think anyone goes into projects thinking they’ll fail. I think we all believe that what we’re doing is going to be good. But more specifically with me and that mix we sat down and very pointedly said to each other we’re 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 – it’s 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 don’t you feed to well we’ll milk it down, we’ll 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 it’s 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 they’re like oh man those cool gadgets.



And then I’ll meet some like 40-year old guy who’s like man you and Fi, God, that reminds me of my marriage. And I’ll meet like, you know, old ladies who are like you and your mom are so sweet together. So I think that there’s just these really specific elements that are really identifiable to a lot of people. I don’t know if there’s 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 I’m 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 there’s nothing come out in the pipeline and no TV as well.



I’m just going to focus on Burn Notice for the next six months and then after that I need to take a small break. I’ve worked almost 20 months straight so I’ll probably take a break and be very picky about what movie I’d like to do.



Is there somewhere you’d like to travel on vacation then during that time or something you’d like to do maybe start your family?



DONOVAN: Yeah, you know, I’m – 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 I’m from, my family’s from rather is Ireland. And I might go to Cork – County Cork in the summer. So those are two places I’m looking at.





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