Jeffrey Donovan Interview: ‘Burn Notice’, Cast Chemistry and His Advice to Actors

Jeffrey Donovan talks Acting, working with the Burn Notice cast and more!

Jeffrey Donovan in Burn NoticeJeffrey Donovan stars as Michael Westen on USA’s hit show, Burn Notice. Already renewed for Season 7, the show is at its half-way point for Season 6 and each episode is getting more tense and darker as it winds its way to the finale.

Donovan has become a huge name since starring on the show but the guy has chops you might not know about, appearing in some major films, theater and starting his career with an assortment of TV roles. Donovan appeared in two Clint Eastwood films’s J. Edgar, as Robert Kennedy opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Naomi Watts and Changeling with Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. He’s classically trained, been on Broadway and recently starred in Don’t Dress for Dinner at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago.

During a recent Q & A, he talked about how much fun it is to play the different “cover” characters on the show and which one has been the hardest, the chemistry he has with the Burn Notice cast, his responsibilities as a producer and his advice to actors.

Burn Notice airs on Thursdays at 10/9c on USA

It’s obviously got to be really fun to get to play so many different characters. I assume it keeps it interesting?

Jeffrey Donovan: Yeah. One of the fun things that we didn’t actually realize when we first the show was that even though I’m a Burn spy and I’m trying to get back in, the kind of fun of the show is always to help the person that no one else can help and only Michael’s skills can solve his problem.

So we thought it’d be fun if that certain cover ID just like spies had to do, were taken on. And some of the things that were asked of me were great. You know, if I had to do an accent or some kind of character it was always fun to kind of make that up with the writer at the time.

And then over the years they kind of evolved into sometimes some wacky guys and sometimes some pretty sadistic guys. But yeah, it keeps it interesting.

What’s been the hardest cover ID you’ve had to do from an acting standpoint?

Jeffrey Donovan: You know, the hardest ones were always the ones that I hadn’t ever done before. I mean just like a writer might have a certain style that they write in and they’re comfortable 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. And the – one of the most difficult ones was this kind of character I did about – I think it was Season 3, where I basically played the devil and I think this name was (Louis) – almost like (Louis Cifer) as in Lucifer.

And he was a cross between the devil and Clint Eastwood and I played him – I mean I just went out on a limb and played him. And I’ve never received better feedback from fans about that’s their cover ID 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 as – just as an actor.

Who has been your favorite villain on the show?

Jeffrey Donovan: Oh, see now that’s really tough. Because, you know, it’s six years of actors that have come through here and I – god, just let me see. I have to think. You know, I’d have to say Jay Karnes. He played Brennen.

Jay Karnes, I mean a wonderful actor and very well known and he played for the first time – 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 James Bond is, you know, the 007 series always works is because the villains were always these mega intelligent villains. And I said when you dumb down a villain then you dumb down Michael.

Always make the villains smarter than Michael but Michael just figures out the one Achilles heel that the villain has. And the closest person to ever do that was Jay Karnes. And an actor like that is incredible anyway but to put him in that role where he basically tells Michael, what are you going to do?

Are you going to do this? Well then I have the answer to that. Are you going to do that? I’m going to – then I’m going to do this. He always was one step ahead of Michael which was always the – kind of a great villain, a great foe is that the villain is smarter than you.

If you could act alongside any actor living or dead who would it be?

Jeffrey Donovan: Oh geez. You know, I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to be able to be directed by Clint Eastwood twice. But, you know, he didn’t act in either of those films, in Changeling or J. Edgar and I would have loved to have stepped into the ring with him.

There is an authenticity and a reality that he just brings because of the person he is. So I would have loved to have done that. That would probably be – I would probably consider myself accomplished if I could ever go toe to toe with him.

There’s such great chemistry between you and Gabrielle Anwar on the show. How do you continue to maintain that?

Jeffrey Donovan: Spend as little time with each other off the set. You know? When you play a role like Michael and Fiona, there is an intimacy and a kind of spark that I think is hard to maintain over seven years when you spend every, you know, 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.

How was it working with John C. McGinley?

Jeffrey Donovan: You know, going toe to toe with McGinley is, you know, you should – though you will never be recognized you should just win an award for going toe to toe with John C. McGinley. The guy is such a powerhouse it’s hard to keep up.

I mean 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. So a lot of the things that I kind of tried to bring to that scene was sheer fear of please don’t screw up in front of such a great actor.

So that kind of – me looking up to him that way, kind of 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.

And so though it wasn’t easy it was certainly much more compelling because of McGinley himself.

How long can you see playing this role and do you have a vision of how you would like to see it end for Michael?

Jeffrey Donovan: Well, you know, first of all there’s nothing official yet about Season 7 so I – I mean I don’t even know if it’s going to happen. I’m assuming it is but I have not received a phone call so I’m still, you know, waiting just like everybody else is.

Whether an online magazine writes about it or not I don’t believe it until a contract is here because you never know.

So 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 going after Burn Notice, him trying to get reinstated has played itself out. But the only thing that can happen is that it becomes much more personal.

It – now it becomes about his family, his past and his friends. And I think that will probably be what Season 7 is about. And I guess, you know, it will come full circle because when Michael was burned he was plopped in Miami and he had to deal with his mother and he had to deal with Fiona.

And I think probably Season 7 will be our final season and it will probably come down to those two people probably in some devastating fashion.

Jeffrey Donovan and Burn Notice Cast

You have such good chemistry with your cast mates, I’m wondering, when you have that kind of shorthand does it make it easier for you as an actor or does it make it sort of more challenging to be sharp from episode to episode?

Jeffrey Donovan: You know, you do run the risk of getting into a monotonous rut because you shoot 70 hours a week the same character and sometimes overlapping dialog from other episodes kind of, you know, creep back in.

But whenever you show up, especially with someone like Sharon Gless or with Bruce Cambell, they have such a freshness when they come onset and such a great attitude that it kind of inspires you. So staying sharp is – I thank, you know, the actors for being sharp because it can become kind of monotonous.

As you mentioned, for another season to happen you do sort of have to take the show and the character in a different direction. What sort of is interesting or appealing to you about going in a different direction from where you’ve been these six years?

Jeffrey Donovan: Well I think that not only am I kind of tired of it, I think maybe the fans are a little tired of just me trying to get back into the CIA and burned.

But I think that one of the things we’ve never really explored and I’m actually – this is my thoughts, no one’s actually said this to me, is that the whole mystery behind Michael’s past and his relationship with his father, I think that’s an interesting road.

But I also think that we’ve never really seen how dark Michael can go when someone close to him has been hurt. I mean when his brother is killed I mean you can see a rage in Michael that – which hopefully the audiences kind of connect with.

But I think that there’s even something deeper there. And not that, you know, where a show like Dexter where, you know, Michael’s a serial killer and will cut people up but for a greater good.

But I think that 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.

I also love the way that the villains all have sort of different characteristics. Tim Matheson was almost sort of very good natured except for when he was being evil. And John C. McGinley’s character seems a little bit goofy before you realize how devious is.But I really thought you did some really amazing work with Jere Burns who obviously – his character was killed off. But what was he like to work with as a villain?

Jeffrey Donovan: Jere is one of my favorites. He’s a phenomenal actor and he has such a presence when you work with him. I mean nothing, nothing affects him. I mean a piece of equipment could fall on him and it’d still like just be right on target. He’s an amazing actor.

I had a great time with him. And, you know, the sad part about it is all the great villains die. It’s just killing me. I mean John C. McGinley, Jere Burns, I mean these people are awesome actors and they just – they get killed.

Ben Shenkman in Season 2 who was my, you know, 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 up me. You know, they keep bad actors around me so I look better.

When you’re talking about Michael being in a dark place with his brother being shot and everything, how does that work for you as an actor? How do you get into that mindset looking so sad and dark and…

Jeffrey Donovan: I just think of the long hours I’m working and then I just channel that. You know, I think as an actor, you know, not that I’m experienced but at least I have, you know, about 25 years under my belt.

You know, just like any kind of pro athlete, you know, it’s like asking a pro athlete like David Ortiz who gets up at home plate, how do you hit that home run? It’s just you do what you do, you know? It’s kind of ingrained in you and then you just try to find that kind of motivation that will spark each take.

And it might be that, you know, they’re out of M&Ms at Craft Service and that really makes you sad. Or, you know, it’s something from your personal life that you draw on that was, you know, maybe hard or devastating in your past.

But I mean I think that actors do what they do well when they can just make it their own. And that’s up to them. You know, the way my process works is very different the way Bruce Cambell works and very different the way Sharon works but we all kind of accomplish the same goal.

So it’s hard but I draw upon different things, you know, per day, per scene, per character.

When you’re done doing these things where you’re supposed to be so upset, is it easy just be like, “Okay, scene over, no problem.” Or does it stay with you for a while?

Jeffrey Donovan: It sometimes lingers with you. You know, you might be in such an emotional state that you kind of need a few minutes to just kind of recompose yourself, especially if they’re saying okay, moving on to the scene where Michael chases the bad guy and grabs and ice cream cone and licks it while doing it.

You know, and you’re like oh this is supposed to be slightly comical at the same time. But, you know, that’s what we do. It’s not brain surgery. And it certainly isn’t on a level of national importance, you know, like an election or disaster relief.

But, you know, hopefully for those few minutes you believe what I’m doing and you’re entertained and you kind of – you can kind of escape that, you know, that world that you’d maybe be bothered with for an hour and have fun.

This season seems to be so pivotal in how it all has rolled out and particularly the way it was left hanging that at the end of last season the finale was kind of like going you’re leaving it there? Did you plot this out how you were going to unroll this emotionally?

Jeffrey Donovan: I kind of go episode to episode because unfortunately we don’t see a script until about two days before we start shooting. So it’s difficult to kind of do an overall arc to track your character especially emotionally.

I mean we would love to but the writers don’t give us any material until, you know, basically right before we start shooting so it’s difficult to chart emotionally.

So what we do is that day we kind of look at the script and then I kind of plot through well if Michael gets to here let’s say – let’s get – let’s say he gets to Z at the end of the episode. Then I want to start as far away from that as possible. So I want to start at A and hopefully you’ll see a kind of journey.

And now unfortunately with that is once I’m done with Z how – where can I go in the next episode? I mean I can’t start a new alphabet. So that’s kind of difficult. But what’s great about the show is that, you know, it’s a TV show.

Once we do it it’s gone for that one episode and we can kind of pick ourselves back up and start over again and create another hour of entertainment. But as far as the dark journey overall I mean Michael’s going to go down I think a dark hole, especially from Bruce’s character.

I mean, you know, the way Bruce plays Sam is so incredible. He’s so observant of Michael because he’s his best friend.

And I think you’re going to see so many indictments from Sam that Michael – it will actually reflect on how dark Michael is getting because Sam knows the kind of dark person Michael’s becoming.

You directed two episodes of the show. Were there any huge challenges you had?

Jeffrey Donovan: You know, what’s tough about episodic TV and also about Sam Axe was a deadline. You know, the scripts are huge. You know, typical episodic scripts are about 46 to 50 pages and Burn Notice tends to write between 52 and 58 pages. And that’s difficult to shoot in a cable studio budget.

We’re constantly running over time and out of money. So that – 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 Bruce. He’s an awful, awful actor and he needs all the help he can get. I don’t know how he got this job.

But thank god I’ve been directing him for years.

Which do you enjoy most, television or film?

Jeffrey Donovan: You know, I’ve answered this before and it hasn’t changed. I always enjoy what I haven’t done in a while. I grew up actually in the theater. I did my BFA at UMASS Amherst, I did my MFA at NYU and I got classically trained. I was doing Shaw, Ibsen and Shakespeare.

So when I got out of school I though that’s what I – 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.

And then they’re asked, while all of the lights are there and all of the crew members and hanging instruments and cameras and directors staring right at you, you have to be honest. It’s a very difficult but technical medium.

With theater it’s a feedback and a reciprocation that you get that’s immediate every night. And now that I’ve done the show for 6-1/2 years, you know, I’m missing theater. And if I get on a Broadway show and I’m doing that for half a year I’ll probably miss film.

And it’s a little cycle. And I’ve been lucky to be able to do all three.

With that, what do you find more exciting, producing or directing?

Jeffrey Donovan: I love directing. I mean, you know, I – 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 in that show than is on Burn Notice because of the great talents of Bruce. I loved it.

And I have a more of a comic sensibility though you wouldn’t really see much of it on Burn notice because – lately, because it’s so dark. But you’d see it in the early seasons.

And, you know, I’m working hard right now on developing my own material and, you know, down the road I think directing, not so much writing. I’m not a good writer and there are so many great writers out there.

But I’d love to be able to kind of develop somebody – some talent and create a TV series or create a film. And I’ve talked with people 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.

What’s your advice to actors?

Jeffrey Donovan: Don’t.

Thank you. Goodnight!

Jeffrey Donovan: Yes. It’s such a hard profession. I don’t wish it upon anyone. You know, I don’t know if I have advice but I’ll just give you this kind of comparison. I graduated high school considered the best actor in my high school.

I graduated college the best actor in my college and I was – I graduated NYU with 18 other actors that were all considered the 18 best actors in the country and three of us are working from that class; just to show you how difficult it is.

I think that if you want to be an actor I think that what’s dangerous is that you act like what you see. It’s kind of like seeing a baseball player go up and hit a home run.

They just go oh, you just hit the ball, and you don’t realize the years since they were five years old of hitting a ball how – to make that look so easy. It’s a lot harder than it looks. The great ones make it look easy. And to be great I think you have to just study.

I think you have to study like there’s no tomorrow. And I don’t think a lot of actors these days think that that’s the way to become an actor.

As one of the show’s producers, what are your responsibilities and how much input do you actually have in the development of the show as it goes on?

Jeffrey 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. And one of the things that we’ve found is that the tone of the show is very difficult to grasp.

We watch it and you watch it and you’ve watched it I’m sure every season, you get the tone. 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 the first day 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 tone that is very – there’s a paradigm that is going on in the scene always. It’s kind of a two tiered journey. One is how am I going to act in this scene and two, what do I ultimately want in this scene.

And a lot of time it’s very duplicitous. So me kind of pointing out occasionally to some guest stars is really my job. And for the most part everyone is incredibly receptive. And they know that I’m there just 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. And they’re never asked back.

You’re on hiatus, what are you doing for you in terms of just chilling out and having fun?

Jeffrey Donovan: Well I am – I kind of get away from Miami. I have a house in the woods, literally and we kind of retreat there. And it couldn’t be further from Hollywood as far as lifestyle. And I kind of 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, March to September. And then so I just basically go away and I find some time in the woods.

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