Jeffrey Donovan Talks BURN NOTICE

jeffrey donovan burn notice
By: Amrie Cunningham [My Take on TV]

In the fourth in our series of interviews with the cast and creative team of BURN NOTICE, proudly presents a Q&A with the the ever so cool Jeffrey Donovan — who was kind enough to spend time with Senior Editor Amrie Cunningham [as well as numerous other media outlets] on a recent visit to the set.

Panel: [laughs] Uh oh!
Jeffrey Donovan:
How’s it going? Have you had a good day today, so far? You got to interview everybody exciting so far…

We’ve been waiting for you!
It’s all downhill from me. All downhill.

Sharon Gless talked you up a lot.
Oh, my mama. My mama. [laughter] Isn’t she amazing?

She said nothing but lovely things about you.
She’s been like a mother to me down here. She is so great. Her and her husband, Barney – you know famous producer – they’re just so great. I wish they were my parents.

She seemed like she’s pretty much adopted you.
Yeah, she has, she has. I’m filing papers next week.

jeffrey donovan burn notice
Jeffrey Donovan with numerous members of the digital press

Everyone said you don’t sweat, what’s the secret to that?
[laughs] Who’s everyone?

Everyone. [laughter from all]
Well, it’s like the yogurt, it’s like a running gag now. It’s not that I don’t sweat, I don’t look like I sweat. I can’t do this job without thirteen to fourteen hours of energy per day, you know? So, what I did… I got in pretty good shape last year but I got in better shape this year. And I don’t mean just working, I really looked at my diet and how athletes train to peak during a game? Well, they’re looking at a sustainable energy of three hours, let’s say, well mine is thirteen hours. So I started talking to a nutritionist about that and learned a lot about diet, learned a lot about your body as an eco-system and a furnace at the same time and how all the organisms live with the food and burns, blah, blah, which will never get printed… But, anyway, your body is an engine and I just want it to run as efficiently as possible so that I can have sustainable energy in the dip because, if I’m in every scene and I give my all to a scene with Gabrielle, I don’t want to walk in and short change Bruce or Sharon. So, I try to parcel out my energy throughout the day and I realized everything has to do with diet and that’s my fuel. So, long answer is that my diet allows me to burn energy the most efficient way throughout the day so I never get hot.

Did you have to radically change your diet to do this?
Uh, no. My diet was like 80% there then I met with a nutritionist and talked it out and showed him what my day was like and he said, “You’re doing pretty good, just I would eat more of this in the morning and this is what you should have throughout the day and blah, blah, blah…”

The stunt coordinator said you’re naturally good at the stunts and the props guy said you’re naturally good with the guns so… were you in fact a spy at one time?
I owe them so much money! [lots of laughter] Man! Uh, no, I’m like a jack of all trades but I’m not great at any one thing. I mean, at any thing, I’m just good at a lot of things. And because it’s a TV show and you have a true— I mean, Charlie Props is a MACGYVER, I mean that guy’s really MACGYVER. He’s unbelievable. So he’ll do it and I just have a particular ability to watch something done once and I’m able to repeat it [snaps] right away. Like lines, I never know my lines before I walk into a scene and I’ll have the script and I’ll rehearse with you and I’ll know that I sit a certain line and I kinda of move over here [gestures] on a certain line. And then I’ll memorize it physically from that and as soon as we shoot, fifteen minutes later, I’ll know three pages of dialog. I don’t know why but, then, I don’t know – we just shot – I don’t know one line now. It’s all gone. It’s like a toilet, it just flushes away.

How did you get this role?
[knowing look] Everyone’s been asking that, right?

[laughs] No, but I’m wondering… [more laughter]
That’s great. There’s a lot of confidence now…

No, I’m serious, how did it come…
I met with Matt Nix. The script was sent to me from USA, they wanted to work with me again. Bonnie Hammer and Jeff Wachtel, they had done Touching Evil with me. So I went and met with Matt and did a couple of scenes for him. He basically said, “You’re my guy.” And that was it. It wasn’t that I was that great, it was my take on the material. I didn’t know all my lines, I didn’t have everything right. He just saw my angle on it and my angle was: Bring levity to a serious situation and be real serious about something that’s real casual.

So, saying hi to Mom was like, [lowers voice, straightens face, real serious] “Mom.” And that was an intense moment. [laughter] And when I’d walk into a knife fight, I think in the second episode, he comes out with a knife and I stop him and he comes out with a second knife and I’m like [surprised look of delight], “Wow, he’s really good.” [laughter] So that kind of levity I brought and I ad-libbed a little bit and he knew I wasn’t do it to be funny, I was doing it to kind of sell this character to him, saying, ‘This is my angle on it.’ And he bought it and USA was already on board so it was kind of an easy fit. And we were really lucky to strike gold on our first season with ratings and reviews. Hopefully we can repeat that this year.

Sharon said you went to her for advice. What kind of advice did she give you?
Well, she’s been around the world in so many different roles and so many different series but mostly it was about Cagney & Lacey. How do you do this role, any role – a specific role like hers or mine, for such a long time and not burn out? And she kept on talking about how it was always everyone else. It’s always about, “Well, I don’t want to let anyone else down.” So she was really great, kind of sage advice about knowing that you’re part of a team and just keep thinking that, that five guys go out there and play in the NBA finals – and the Lakers got spanked, Go Celts! – but you’re part of a team. It’s funny, I don’t know if you read the New York Times today, the sports section is about Doc Rivers coaching style is all about selling ‘team’ to superstars. And you’ve got Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar, and Sharon Gless and then a little guy named Jeff Donovan. So I’m like, “Oh, what the hell am I doing…” They all think it’s my show, they keep telling me that, but I said, “No, it’s our show.” Because I can’t play Michael the way I’m playing him, without how great their energy is towards me, making me who I’m supposed to be.

How do you keep your head on straight knowing that so much is riding on you— it’s a team but…
Wow, you guys are just killing me here. [laughter] No one had said that yet… [laughs] Umm, it’s almost a joke on this set. I drive my bicycle – I have a bicycle because it’s just easier to get back and forth from set – and a grip will yell out, “Don’t fall.” A teamster will walk by and go, “You’re messing with my children’s education.” I mean, and it’s a joke, but they’re serious! To know that 300 people are employed every year, not because of me, but because of the show is a great responsibility to know, don’t let anybody down. That’s why I worked out so much on the off-season. I got healthier. Because if I do a sick day then the show shuts down and loses $125,000 a day. I had a film in Cannes and I wanted to go. They told me it would cost them $250,000 because they had to pay everybody while I was away and there was no scene they could shoot without me.

What’s your take on Michael? Is he truly stuck in Miami? Is he starting to adapt to it, how do you see it?
He is stuck in Miami for a couple of reasons. Not just because of the BURN NOTICE but I think he’s stuck in his life. He’s been running away from who he is for so long and his family and now he’s been thrust back into his family because of his work. His work allowed him to get away from his family and his work is forcing him to now be with his family and that’s a real interesting dilemma. Miami is Michael’s Gilligan’s Island and, if he ever gets off that island, then the show’s over. So there is a type of conceit that you have to just go with that he’s stuck in Miami but, for a viewer, like “Don’t ever leave Miami” but, for Michael, “I got to get the hell out of Miami.” So that kind of conflict I think is perfect for the show and I don’t think it’ll ever leave.

Season two, though, it seems like it’ll be a different dynamic. Now that he’s sort of taking orders as far as Tricia Helfer’s character is concerned. How does season two find him? What is the new dynamic?
I guess you’ll have to watch. [laughter] Ummm, did you talk to Matt Nix? What’d he say?

He said, “Jeff’ll tell you anything you want to know!” [laughter off Jeff’s look in response]
No, he didn’t.

He said to ask about your shortened version of Law & Order… So we want to hear that before you go.
[laughs] Great.

There always has to be the bad guy that is against Michael. It can be Tricia. It was Phillip Cowan in the first season. It’s Carla this year. I don’t know who it’ll be next year or if there will be or if it’s always Carla. I don’t actually know but there’s always going to be a kind of manipulative secret force that is forcing Michael to do things he doesn’t want to do. But the great thing about Matt and all the writers and what they do is that Michael accepts the job under those conditions but somehow manipulates it to his own benefit. It’s easy to write a show where, and I actually like this show, Prison Break. Two guys, they’re in prison, they have to break out. Well they did [laughs], remember? Now what do they do?

What Matt is going to try to do, and I think it’s great, is that there’s always going to be some force that keeps him in that little aquarium and all these different fish keep going in, some of them predator and some of them prey. It’s his way of just keep surviving, just keep swimming, don’t ever stop, you know? I don’t know if that answers it but it’s the best I can do.

How is it working with Tricia? I know you’ve only done couple a days together…
I’ve only done a couple of days. She’s great. I really haven’t gotten to know her that well. Her dynamic is unique in the sense that I’m now face to face with a force that’s keeping me down and I have to just keep getting information from her whether she knows she’s giving it to me or not and that’s going to be the fun spy stuff.

Did you do a lot of research to prepare for this?
I read a lot. I’m more of a reader actor than a seer actor. I think I went and saw three movies in the last six months. I’m not a big TV and movie guy. Matt and all the writers have seen everything and they’ll say, “Hey, you remember on…” I watched stuff as a kid but, when I research a role, I just kind of read. I read about spies, I read biographies, autobiographies, fictional stuff. Anything that just showed me the world that these people had to live in. I’m less concerned with a person but more of the environment they have to survive in. I extrapolate from that how I would do it, what are the circumstances that are similar with Michael and I go from there.

Because it seems like everyone we spoke with today – I was trying to find the one method actor – and it seems like everyone is kind of laid-back and just kind of takes it as it comes. Does that make for a better working environment? That you’re not dealing with people who are really intense?
I think the demands of a TV show, especially this one, wouldn’t allow a type of – in the worst sense – method actor. Because we’d constantly be waiting for them to shift their method to the scene but these are pros, everyone on the crew as well, and you’re just dealing with everyone really good at their game. So just play your game, expect that everyone else is going to catch the ball that you throw to them and, uh, occasionally someone just goes above the rims and dunks… on the Lakers’ ass! [laughter] And then everyone’s really happy.

I can’t tell, are you a Celtics fan?

Sharon said that at first it kind of freaked her out a little when you just wanted to go without rehearsal but now she’s really getting into it and that it’s fun for her to go at a faster pace.
Well, Sharon… we rehearse, don’t get me wrong, we do a rehearsal. What she means is we won’t rehearse, rehearse, rehearse then decide ‘oh, there it all is, now let’s shoot what we know it is.’ I’m more of a believer in rehearse so that we are all on the same page but we haven’t decided what we’re actually going to do in the scene. So that when we actually go through it, it’s actually being created right in front of the camera and that’s what you capture. Then you cut it together and find out what you have, rather than deciding beforehand, planning it all out, shooting something that has now become stale and now you have to artificially bump it up in post and edit and blah, blah, blah.

Sharon is so much better than she thinks she is. So she wants to feel secure before she acts because she wants to please – because all actors want to please – but she’s so much better than she knows she is that her rehearsal is ten times better than most people’s prepared. So what I do is I encouraged her and I asked Matt, “Let’s just do it and see what happens.” It’s a riskier way of working but I think the gains are greater.

How does that compare to your working with Bruce?
Umm, similar. Bruce likes to rehearse to know where everything can be just the same as Sharon. I’m just less concerned with it being right. [laughs] I don’t know why, I’m just less concerned and they haven’t fired me yet so I must be doing something right. I’m just less concerned…

When you ad-lib on the show, do you allow to improvise and ad-lib or is more like the writers’ are like, “Stick to the script.”?
It depends. If it’s a story point, I won’t ad-lib. I am story first, character second. In my thinking. You’ll never hear me say, “Oh I think it’d be kind of cool if Michael…” That’s thinking my character is more important than the story. My whole agenda, every time I walk on set, is what is the event in the scene that is utterly crucial the audience get? As long as we know we hit that, everything else can be played with. So, if I walk in, and the scene is something like I sit down and I need to get information from you and that big information is ‘it was a red car,’ now we know, right? We’re all on agreement? Yep, the red car was the thing. So now when I come in I can play around with how I come in, what’s my attitude towards you, I can ad-lib a little bit at the beginning, maybe at the tail, maybe there’s a funnier button to it. Do you know what I mean? So it’s not like, “Oh, I’ll ad-lib every scene.” It’s what can withstand improvisation but never at the expense of the story.

Well in the case, then, say when you’re sitting with Bruce and – I know you both can probably like improvise and banter back and forth – do they let a lot of that slide and go into the show?
We banter, it’s funny, you’re very smart. Bruce and I can banter ‘til the cows come home. It’s an easy thing for us—and he listens, he’s a really good actor—I’ll say something, he’ll respond to it and the scene is over and he’ll continue and we’re just, “Blah, blah, blah.” What the writers and producers have learned is let us do that. That doesn’t mean they’re going to shoot it, doesn’t mean that they’re going to use it, but it’s informing, not only us, but it’s informing everybody of where is the limit of the scene. We’ll all hear it, we’ll all, “It’s spilled over, we can’t go that far.” But the only way you’ll know it is if you jump. That’s what I’m saying, it’s risky. Just jump into it. I mean, I’ve fallen on my face so many times and things are funny and people are like, “Well, why’d you do that?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” But then the next time I won’t do that but because of that choice it will inform an actual line and that line pops for some reason.

At what point do you do narration, do you have the narration in mind when you walk into a scene and you know this is your voiceover stuff? Have you already done the voiceover stuff and know it?
I usually do the voiceover stuff at the end of the episode, of the shooting. Last year was brutal, last year they put the narration anywhere I had a break and I never had a break. So they found that when I would finish one scene and they literally had to move from my loft to here, I would have five minutes before rehearsal because it took that much time. And right behind that ‘Food & Drink’ sign is an ADR sound room and I would run in there, put on the headphones, do two pages of voiceover, and then run back. And it became so much that I actually very sick. I got tonsillitis and a huge bronchial infection. I was out in the middle of a scene, I couldn’t talk anymore. It was about halfway through the season. And I was talking like this [imitates talking with no voice] and I was trying to act, like that. And they said, “Well, we should probably send you to the doctor but, uh, we’re trying to get this shot.” [laughter] And, literally, going, “We could always just dub it later.” [more laughter] And I was like, “I gotta…”

So I went to the doctor and he’s like, “You have tonsillitis, you’re almost getting bronchitis, I’m checking for pneumonia…” So I go home. They sent me alone – you know with a driver – I went back to my apartment and I laid down and I assumed everyone knew but they’re calling going, “Are you coming back?” [still imitating having no voice] “I’m not coming back.” “You sound really sick.” “Because I am!” [laughter] “Alright, take tomorrow off.” “Thanks! Wait a minute, tomorrow’s July 4th, everybody has that off.” They gave me July 4th off and I had to come back July 5th and I showed up on set, I gargled with salt all morning to get it clear, and then they shot me with B12. And I just…

So you did the whole show on steroids.
[chuckles] Yeah, basically.

What would you say is the most dangerous or most challenging stunt that you’ve performed?
What’s interesting is that it’s not what you think. I was going to say that in the pilot I rode a motorcycle in the first scene and it was a dirt bike, which are big knobby tires which only grip in the dirt not on flat surfaces but it was cobblestone. So, I told them I rode, which I do, I was spinning it around doing all these fun things. Then one time the director, in the middle of the shot, went, “No, go that way.” [motions the other way] And I tried to turn and I laid it down and I tore my ankle open. And I was like, “Oh yeah…” And everyone’s scared and, you know, “Hundreds of thousands of dollars…” And, you know, they wrapped me up and said, “Get back in there.” [everyone laughs and says it with him] So that would seem like that was the one but it wasn’t. It was the second to last season finale episode where I meet Phillip Cowan on the roof and he’s shot? Well, he was right in front of me and he had an exploding pack which is, 9 times out of 10, is very inert and it doesn’t really do anything. It just usually explodes and then the blood comes out.

Well, for some reason, it exploded and there was a coagulated piece of blood and paper that was about the texture of Play-Doh that came out of the explosion at about 300 feet per second and went right into my mouth and blew my mouth open and it was just all inflamed. It was like a golf ball, if you put a golf ball in your lip that’s the size. And, if it had gone two inches above, I would have lost my right eye, without question. If you go back to that episode, after that scene is a phone conversation where I’m telling Nate to come get me. Well, I have it right here [holds an invisible phone over the upper-right side of his mouth] because I’m covering a huge blood clot that had collected right underneath my nose and they were icing it in between scenes because I had to shoot the rest of the day. So that was the most dangerous thing…

Does that make you leery of doing other stunts?
Not other stunts because I don’t mind laying a motorcycle down, I don’t mind twisting my ankle doing a run because I’ve done all these things. I’ve had glass shatter and cut me all up my arm. I don’t mind that stuff. That kind of stuff, I just should not have been in that position that should have been a stunt man. I want to do all my own stunts and now I can’t do any of them because of that. Because something like that – everyone was surprised – but, of course, who expects something to go wrong. Everyone’s thinking, “Well we’ve done all the precautions…” That was the most dangerous thing that happened last year.

You have some great action hero moments in this show. They just showed us the scene from the first episode of season two where you’re trying to break into a place and, when it goes wrong, you pull this giant Terminator-sized gun out of the bag.
[laughs] A grenade launcher!

Yeah and you do this thing where you throw the propane tank and blow it up. When you’re filming that stuff, do you sometimes just go, “This is pretty bad ass…”?
Yeah, yeah, that’s pretty cool. I like that stuff, I like that stuff a lot. But I like the propane tank better than the grenade launcher because anyone can carry a big gun. But to design that thing, to throw it, to know you have to hit it at a specific thing and rotation… that was pretty cool.

Do you show that stuff to your family and go, “Don’t piss me off!”

Do you feel like MACGYVER sometimes? Do you like the MACGYVER aspect of the show?
Yeah. Umm, I never feel like MACGYVER because… I love MACGYVER, I grew up on MACGYVER. MACGYVER did things that were, for the most part, implausible. That was kind of a fantasy show. I looked at MACGYVER before I did this. I watched this and said, “How is this going to be different?” Everything we do on the show, you can actually do in real life, that’s what’s neat about it. And what I really like about it is that we try to take responsibility if we introduce anything to the audience that is dangerous, like an explosive device. That we always hold back a key ingredient that without that keeps it from working.

But everything we do— There’s an episode coming up actually, and I don’t think I’m revealing anything, but I make an x-ray machine in my trunk and you can actually do that. And that’s pretty cool. I mean, this is stuff that they work their butts off to research and you can do it. It may take a little longer than what we do it but what Matt’s saying is that, “Make sure on this show you can do everything, we just do it in a condensed time.” That’s what’s fun about it.

Do you think you’re going to be able to do this and keep it up at the same pace for the long run, for another 5 or 6 years?
I was just asked that today in another interview. My honest answer is that I’ll do it as long as my body doesn’t give out. But that doesn’t mean I get old. [laughs] My body may give out after two, three seasons because it’s just so physically demanding. I’m trying to stay healthy. I’m always trying to stay a step ahead of this role. In my first season, I knew a hand full of dialects and accents. I have a black belt in karate and six/seven years of aikido. That was good for the first season but I wanted to get better. So, in the off season this year, I took ju jitsu for three and a half months. I studied ten other dialects that I’ve never really studied before. I hired a nutritionist. So, you know, I’m just trying to stay above it and as long as I do that I’ll probably have some longevity with this role.

Do you think people realize the physical nature? I mean, it’s one thing to say, “Oh, I’m an actor…” but do you think people know—
No one has any idea how hard this job is and they don’t understand how dedicated I am, or any of these actors are, to this job. I just have to be – not more dedicated – I just have to have a dedication to a lot more facets and a lot more areas. The irony is… I make it look easy and it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done. [chuckles] So, I love that you guys – and I can tell that all of you actually like the show and are fans of it – but, in some ways, the people who like it doesn’t realize how hard it is to make it look this easy.

Well Fred Astaire and Charlie Chaplin said the same thing; they worked so hard to make it look so simple.
So simple.

It’s just funny that it’s fun, escapist television but that much work goes into it.
Yeah and our goal in this show, at least Matt and I’s, is how do we take something that everyone has seen for years, standard spy thriller/action/comedy show, and bring levity to it. That’s, I think, difficult without making it campy. MACGYVER was, in some ways, campy. The A-TEAM was an action comedy, campy. You never believed it, did you? You never believed The A-Team actually was real.

Only when I was eight.
Well, yeah, eight. You wanted to be “B.A.” Baracus, with the chains. [makes a gesture toward his neck where the chains would hang if he had him as laughter sounds] But I think, 9 times out of 10, you ask any BURN NOTICE fan, “Do you think it’s real?” It is, meaning that the world Michael Westen lives in and is doing things in, is real, he’s actually doing… I don’t think people are deluded but I think that people will buy it. That is so hard, so hard to do, and that’s what we try to do. Not every episode, every day. Every day we walk into a scene going, “Would this fly? Would this really go down?” And, then on top of that, “How do we make the audience smile?” That’s basically our mantra.

So everyone says this is a really fun set, can you give us some examples?
I wish I had anecdotes, I don’t have any. I mean, “The other day, Bruce…” I don’t have any. I don’t. It’s just, everyone’s really good at their job and with that confidence of allowing people to do their job you get a comfortability. People make jokes, people laugh, people will be sarcastic, just like any work environment. Everyone feels like we can joke around and we’ll still get our jobs done.

Does having such a small cast foster that sense of community?
Well, what’s interesting is that I hardly see Bruce, Sharon, and Gabrielle. And Bruce hardly ever sees Sharon, Gabrielle, and me. We do have scenes but a lot of it is the A-story which is all going off with where the espionage is and what’s behind the BURN NOTICE. And then the B-story is all the guest stars and how do we help them out. It’s really a rotating family, it’s never feeling like we’re all just there— it’s not SEINFELD where we’re there every week like it’s just the four of us.

[Editor’s note: here is where Jeffrey did his own version of an hour of LAW & ORDER in 5 minutes. It’s hard to explain in print. Just know that the next time you see him, you need to ask him about it!

Thank you for coming out here and taking the time out of your busy schedules. I really appreciate the support you give our show.

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