The hit USA Network drama series Burn Notice is back with its remaining episodes for Season 6. Already renewed for Season 7, which will likely be the show’s last season, things are on a dark trajectory for Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan), that will culminate with a shocking season finale, in which he makes a decision that affects not only his friends, but will be a huge betrayal. From creator Matt Nix, the show also stars Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar, Coby Bell and Sharon Gless.
During this recent interview to promote the return of the popular TV show, actor Jeffrey Donovan talked about how much fun it is to play so many different cover characters on the show, his favorite villains, maintaining chemistry among the cast, where things are headed with the storylines, how long he sees playing this character, the major challenges in directing episodes of the show, his responsibilities as a producer, how different he is from Michael Weston, and what he likes to do on hiatus. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
JEFFREY DONOVAN: Yeah. One of the fun things, that we didn’t actually realize when we first started the show, was that, even though I’m a burned spy and I’m trying to get back in, the fun of the show has always been to help the person that no one else can help, and only Michael’s skills can solve his problem. We thought it’d be fun, if that certain cover ID were taken on, just like spies have to do. And some of the things that were asked of me were great. If I had to do an accent or some kind of character, it was always fun to make that up with the writer. And then, over the years, they evolved into some wacky guys and some pretty sadistic guys. So, yeah, it keeps it interesting.
From an acting standpoint, what’s been the hardest cover ID that you’ve had to do?
DONOVAN: The hardest ones were always the ones that I hadn’t ever done before. Just like a writer might have a certain style that they write in and they’re comfortable with, and then someone says, “Okay, I want you to do a short story form,” it might be out of their comfort zone. Those are the most difficult ones. One of the most difficult ones was this character I did, I think it was in Season 3, where I basically played the devil. I think his name was Louis Cifer, as in Lucifer. He was a cross between the devil and Clint Eastwood, and I just went out on a limb and played him. I’ve never received better feedback from fans about any cover ID that I’ve ever played, but it was the scariest one because I thought it was so different from anything I’d ever done, not only on the show, but just as an actor.
Who has been your favorite villain on the show?
DONOVAN: That’s really tough because it’s six years of actors that have come through the show. I’d have to say Jay Karnes. He played Brennen. He’s a wonderful actor and very well known. One of the things that I always say to Matt Nix and all of the writers is, “Never dumb down the villain.” I think why the 007 series always works is because the villains were always these mega-intelligent villains. I’ve said, “When you dumb down a villain, then you dumb down Michael. Always make the villains smarter than Michael, but have Michael figure out that one Achilles heel that the villain has.” The closest person to ever do that was Jay Karnes. He always was one step ahead of Michael. A great foe is the villain that is smarter than you.
DONOVAN: Miami has actually been great. Miami is obviously a hot spot for Michael and all of the agencies, foes and villains. He’s located there, so he’s an easy target, kind of like a fish in a barrel. As far as the storyline, the network and the studio haven’t talked at all about moving it to any other kind of locale, whether it’s fictional or not, or whether we shoot in Miami, but pretend we’re in Malibu, California. None of that has been talked about. I don’t see him moving in the seventh season, so we’ll probably be staying put.
There’s such great chemistry between you and Gabrielle Anwar on the show. How do you continue to maintain that?
DONOVAN: We spend as little time with each other, off the set, as possible. When you play roles like Michael and Fiona, there is an intimacy and a spark that is hard to maintain, over seven years, when you spend every working hour with them, and then every social hour with them. So, we do our best to never lay eyes on each other after work.
Now that Michael knows who burned him and he’s tracked down his brother’s killers, what’s next for him?
DONOVAN: Great question. What’s tough for this show is the title. Burn Notice was not only an unfamiliar word to me, but I think to most fans, until they understood what the show was about. It’s like calling the show Escape from the Moon and, after the sixth season, they get off the moon, and then what next? I think that the fans are going to love this last part of Season 6 because it focuses on Nate’s death, finding that killer and bringing him to justice. I think that you’ll see a more of a hell-bent Michael, trying to navigate the waters towards getting back in with the CIA. And then, at the end of the season, it’s a bit of a cliffhanger. There’s a huge event that happens between Michael and Fiona that will propel Season 7, which, if all goes as planned, will be a very different kind of Burn Notice because of the trajectory, but no less dangerous for Michael. I think it’ll be more personal next year than it will be professional.
What was it like to get to face off with John C McGinley?
DONOVAN: You should win an award for going toe-to-toe with John C. McGinley. The guy is such a powerhouse, it’s hard to keep up. He’s a guest star that shows up and knows not only his lines, but your lines, back and forth, before you even rehearse. It’s quite remarkable. A lot of the things that I tried to bring to that scene was out of sheer fear of, “Please don’t screw up in front of such a great actor!” Me looking up to him, in that way, fed that fuel of, “Wow, this is a great actor, but now I have to actually believe that he’s someone that taught me so much and has betrayed everything I invested in.” Though it wasn’t easy, it was certainly much more compelling because of McGinley himself.
Do you think Michael will make some mistakes because the stakes are different, this time around?
DONOVAN: Yeah. That’s a great, great observation. I think anything that’s personal and emotional will always cloud judgment. In real life, with a normal person, you are in every day life with your family and that’s easy, and then you go to work and that’s hard. You show the strain at work because the stakes are so high. A lot of the directors coming in would always want me to have an intense, high stakes moment when I was being chased or shot at, and I always thought that was wrong and didn’t ring true. It’s the opposite. Michael’s judgment is so clear, when he’s being shot at or he’s being chased or he’s trying to figure out a solution with a bottle of Clorox and a car battery. That’s all clear to him and it’s objective. When he’s at home with his mom or he’s talking to his brother Nate or he’s in a fight with Fiona, those are the most subjective, emotional moments for him and he doesn’t know how to handle it. I’ve always said that he’s out of his element when he’s with his family and friends, and he’s in his element when he’s being shot at. That’s counterintuitive. So, this last season, it’s been all about his judgment being so clouded and so subjective because of how his feelings towards his brother are, what happens to him and what his mother accuses him of. Those kinds of stakes, Michael has never really dealt with.
How long can you see playing this role? Do you have a vision of how you would like to see things end for Michael?
DONOVAN: I don’t know what Season 7 could possibly be, other than maybe a different kind of trajectory for Michael, which has to happen because him trying to get reinstated has played itself out. The only thing that can happen is that it becomes much more personal. Now, it becomes about his family, his past and his friends. I think that will probably be what Season 7 is about. It will come full circle because, when Michael was burned, he was plopped in Miami and he had to deal with his mother and Fiona. Season 7 will probably be our final season, and it will probably come down to those two people, in some devastating fashion.
DONOVAN: You do run the risk of getting into a monotonous rut because you shoot 70 hours a week with the same character and sometimes overlapping dialogue from other episodes creep back in. Whenever you show up, especially with someone like Sharon [Gless] or with Bruce [Campbell], they have such a freshness when they come on set and such a great attitude that it inspires you.
What is interesting and appealing to you about going in a different direction, from where the show has gone these past six years?
DONOVAN: Not only am I kind of tired of it, I think the fans are a little tired of me trying to get back into the CIA and being burned. One of the things that we’ve never really explored – and this is just my thoughts because no one’s actually said this to me – is the whole mystery behind Michael’s past and his relationship with his father is an interesting road. We’ve also never really seen how dark Michael can go when someone close to him has been hurt. When his brother was killed, you could see a rage in Michael, which hopefully the audiences connected with. I think that there’s something even deeper there. Michael’s a serial killer and will cut people up, but for a greater good. There is a side of Michael that would channel some kind of monster, if he felt like that was the only way to get retribution for someone being hurt that he loved.
Do you think the fact that Michael and Fiona are finally, totally giving into their relationship that it will affect them, business wise? How is the show going to keep them interesting, now that they’re together?
DONOVAN: Michael and Fi are as dysfunctional as they get. I don’t think them becoming closer or them growing apart is really going to affect what is probably an ultimate time bomb between those two. There’s nothing written or any story that I’m referring to, but I think that, down the road, those two are going to combust. They have to because she’s nitro and he’s glycerin, and they are going to blow up. How they blow up is probably going to be very unique to them. Blowing up to them might be them getting married. But, blowing up may also be them killing each other. I don’t know. But, I know that the more conflict that those two have, the better for the show. When they become romantic and cute towards each other, that’s when the show gets boring. You’re probably going to see more of a combustible Michael and Fiona in Season 7.
DONOVAN: Jere is one of my favorites. He’s a phenomenal actor and he has such a presence when you work with him. Nothing affects him. A piece of equipment could fall on him and he’d still be right on target. He’s an amazing actor. I had a great time with him. The sad part about it is that all the great villains die. It’s just killing me. They are awesome actors, and they just get killed. Ben Shenkman, in Season 2, who was my CIA agent, was just an amazing actor, and we killed him. I don’t know why we kill all the great actors. Maybe because they don’t want to show me up. They keep bad actors around me, so I look better.
Do you think that Michael could ever go back to being just a normal CIA agent?
DONOVAN: I don’t know. Good question. In the season finale, which I think the audience is going to be shocked at, Michael makes a decision which affects not only his friends, but mostly Fiona. I think there’s going to be a huge betrayal that you’re going to see. Audiences are going to be excited about Season 7, to see where Michael will go, once he makes probably one of the worst decisions he’s ever made.
When you’re talking about Michael being in a dark place, how does that work for you, as an actor?
DONOVAN: I just think of the long hours that I’m working, and then I channel that. As an actor, not that I’m experienced, but I’ve had about 25 years under my belt and, just like any kind of pro athlete, you just do what you do. It’s ingrained in you, and then you just try to find the motivation that will spark each take. It might be that they’re out of M&Ms at craft service and that really makes you sad, or it’s something from your personal life that you draw on that was hard or devastating. I think that actors do what they do well when they can just make it their own. The way my process works is very different than the way Bruce works, and very different from the way Sharon works, but we all accomplish the same goal. It’s hard, but I draw upon different things, per day, per scene, per character.
Is it easy for you to go to those dark places, or does that stay with you for awhile?
DONOVAN: It sometimes lingers with you. You might be in such an emotional state that you need a few minutes to re-compose yourself, especially if they’re saying, “Okay, we’re moving on to the scene where Michael chases the bad guy and grabs an ice cream cone and licks it while chasing him.” t’s not brain surgery, and it certainly isn’t on a level of national importance, like an election or disaster relief. But hopefully, for those few minutes, you believe what I’m doing and you’re entertained and can escape that world for an hour and have fun.
DONOVAN: What’s tough about episodic TV, and also about Sam Axe, was a deadline. The scripts are huge. Typical episodic scripts are about 46 to 50 pages, and Burn Notice tends to be between 52 and 58 pages. That’s difficult to shoot, on a cable studio budget. We’re constantly running over time and out of money. Those are the big challenges. The actors are always the easiest thing. The cast is great. I don’t actually even have to direct them, except for Bruce because he’s an awful actor and he needs all the help he can get. I don’t know how he got this job. Thank god, I’ve been directing him for years.
Would you like to go into any other of the characters’ backstories and learn more about them?
DONOVAN: I don’t think so. What was great about the Sam Axe story was that Bruce has such a huge following from all of his Evil Dead film stuff and he’s just a cult hero, so it was interesting to look into where Sam Axe came from and why was he forcefully retired from the Navy Seals. I don’t think that any other story would be as compelling. I’m sure Sharon would have no interest in going back and showing herself 20 years ago and trying to figure that out.
What’s it been like to work with Sharon Gless and develop that mother-son relationship?
DONOVAN: Sharon is like a second mother to me. She’s an extraordinary actress, but even more so, she’s an incredible woman. She took me under her wing, since day one, and has always protected me and sheltered me, in the greatest way. I didn’t have an experience like she had, with all of the history she has in television, and she’s been such a great educator. Her husband, Barney Rosenzweig, is an incredible producer and I’ve learned so much. They’ve become like my second family, and I could talk for hours about them.
How will Michael and Madeline’s relationship change this season? Do you think they can ever get back to where they were?
DONOVAN: I think that you’ll see mending, in the latter part of the season. I think that Madeline’s love for Michael is unconditional, in the best way. But, what I think is the hardest thing on Madeline is not seeing Michael go back into the CIA or maybe cross the line in accomplishing some kind of mission. At the end of this season, you’ll see Michael make a choice that I don’t think that Madeline will be able to justify, but her love is unconditional and she’ll try to find that compromise. Michael is going to put his friends and his mom in a very difficult position, at the end of the season.
DONOVAN: Oh, that’s a great question. They were so good. I don’t know where the next villain will come from. We’ve always done a great job in finding some interesting actors. The irony about the actors who play great villains is that they’re the nicest people. They really are. Those guys are just the salt of the earth, and they show up and play such dastardly characters. It’s always fun, and I know it’s fun for them to come out. Next season, who knows? I think we’re going to have to raise the bar because these actors are so great.
If you could act with any actor, living or dead, who would it be?
DONOVAN: Oh, geez! I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to be able to be directed by Clint Eastwood twice, but he didn’t act in either Changeling or J. Edgar. I would have loved to have stepped into the ring with him. There is an authenticity and a reality that he brings, just because of the person he is, so I would have loved to have done that. I would probably consider myself accomplished, if I could ever go toe-to-toe with him.
Which medium do you enjoy working in most, television or film?
DONOVAN: I always enjoy what I haven’t done in awhile. I actually grew up in the theater. I did my BFA at U-Mass Amherst, my MFA at NYU, and I was classically trained. I was doing Shaw, Ibsen and Shakespeare. So, when I got out of school, I thought that’s what my career was going to be. I got on Broadway right away, and then I started doing a little bit of television and a little bit of film. It’s such a different world. It’s very, very technical, what we do in film. While all of the lights are there and all of the crew members and directors are staring right at you, you have to be honest. It’s a very difficult, but technical medium. With theater, it’s about feedback and a reciprocation that you get that’s immediate, every night. Now that I’ve done the show for six and a half years, I’m missing theater. But, if I get a Broadway show and I do that for half a year, then I’ll probably miss film. It’s a cycle. I’ve been lucky to be able to do all three.
DONOVAN: I love directing. One of the great pleasures and honors I had was to direct Bruce in the Sam Axe movie, and try to show a little more humor than is on Burn Notice because of the great talents of Bruce. I loved it. I have more of a comic sensibility that you can’t really see much of on Burn Notice because it’s so dark. You’ve see it in the early seasons. I’m working hard right now on developing my own material. Down the road, I think it will be directing, but not so much writing. I’m not a good writer, and there are so many great writers out there. I’d love to be able to develop some talent and create a TV series or a film. I’ve talked with people about that, and I’m working on something right now that hopefully will work out in the next year. But, I love directing. I absolutely love it.
As one of the show’s producers, what are your responsibilities and how much input do you actually have with the development of the show, as it goes on?
DONOVAN: Basically, my role as a producer is to make sure the pretzel jar is full. No, I’m kidding. My role as a producer on Burn Notice is very specific. It’s maintaining the creative truthfulness, day in and day out. One of the things that we’ve found is that the tone of the show is very difficult to grasp. It’s high stakes and dangerous, but it has a little cheekiness to it. It’s very hard to act that. Amazing actors have guest starred on our show and, on the first day, what usually what comes out of their mouth is, “Is this how fast we’re going to do this?,” or “Do you really want me to say these lines this quickly, but with a smile, even though I’m saying I’m going to kill you?” There’s a paradigm that is always going on in the scene. It’s a two-tiered journey. One tier is, “How am I going to act in this scene?,” and the other is, “What do I ultimately want in this scene?” A lot of the time, it’s very duplicitous. So, me pointing that out to some of our guest stars is really my job. And for the most part, everyone is incredibly receptive. They know that I’m there to help them with a very difficult tone, and there are a few actors that say, “Screw off, I’m going to act it the way I want to!” They’re never asked back.
How are you most like and most different from Michael?
DONOVAN: I’m as super intelligent as him. That’s probably the thing I’m most like. No. I’m nothing like Michael. I can’t operate on his level. That guy is like a master chess player. He’s thinking 10 moves ahead while he speaks, and I can’t even think of one good sentence at a time.
What do you like to do on hiatus?
DONOVAN: I get away from Miami. I have a house that’s literally in the woods, and we retreat there. It couldn’t be further from Hollywood, as far as lifestyle. I get away from all of the business, and especially Miami. It’s a very hard shoot down in Miami. We shoot at the hottest time of the year, from March to September.
Burn Notice airs on Thursday nights on the USA Network.