Jeffrey Donovan talks about Burn Notice
Nobody's handed anything to Jeffrey Donovan. He's been at it for a while, doing notable turns in CSI: Miami and Monk, playing recurring characters in The Pretender and Touching Evil, and practically stealing Hitch from Kevin James and Will Smith by playing a nasty S.O.B.
Like his alter ego, Jeffrey Donovan is a very cool customer. He never lets you see him sweat, even when he's got ever right to in the glare of the spotlight, the heat of the Miami sun, and the hardball questions of the media roundtable he was facing. Okay, we weren't all throwing hardballs, but as this Q&A shows, Jeffrey D. can handle himself in any and all situations.
Gallery: TVS interview-Jeffrey Donovan
Q: Everyone says that you don't sweat, what's your secret?
Jeffrey Donovan: Well, it's like yogurt, it's a running gag now. It's not that I don't sweat, I just don't look like I sweat. I can't do this job without 13-14 hours of energy per day, so, what I did was I got in better shape this year. And I don't mean just working; I talked to a nutritionist and learned a lot about diet, learned that your body is an eco-system and a furnace at the same time. If I'm in every scene and I give my all, I try to parcel out my energy throughout the day. So, long answer is that my diet allows me to burn energy the most efficient way throughout the day so I never get hot.
Q: Did you have to radically change your diet to do this?
JD: No, my diet was like 80% there then I met with a nutritionist and showed him what my day was like.
Q: The stunt coordinator said you're naturally good at stunts and the prop guy said you're naturally good with guns...
JD: I owe them so much money! No, I'm like a jack of all trades but I'm not great at any one thing. Charlie [the props guy] is a MacGyver, I mean that guy's unbelievable. He'll do it and I just have a particular ability to watch something done once and repeat it right away.
Q: What about dialogue?
JD: I never know my lines before I walk into a scene; I'll have the script and I'll know that I sit on a certain line and I kinda of move over here on a certain line. Then I'll memorize it physically as soon as we shoot and 15 minutes later, I'll know three pages of dialog.
Q: How did you get this role?
JD: I met with Matt Nix. The script was sent to me from USA, Bonnie Hammer and Jeff Wachtel, they had done Touching Evil with me and they wanted to work with me again. 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 was my take on the material. I didn't know all my lines, I didn't have everything right, but he just saw my angle on it.
Q: Which was?
JD: 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. And I think in the second episode, in a knife fight, someone comes out with a knife and I stop him and he pulls out with a second knife and I'm like [surprised look of delight], "Wow, he's really good." So, I ad-libbed a little bit and Matt knew I wasn't doing it to be funny, I was doing it to sell this character to him, saying, "This is my angle on it." He bought it and USA was already on board so it was kind of an easy fit. We were really lucky to strike gold our first season with ratings and reviews. Hopefully we can repeat that this year.
Q: Sharon Gless said you went to her for advice about how to be the star of your own show...
JD: 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 talking about how it was always everyone else. Her sage advice was about knowing that you're part of a team and just keep thinking that. Five guys go out there and play in the NBA -- Go Celtics! – and you're part of a team. You've got Bruce Campbell, Gabrielle Anwar, and Sharon Gless and then a little guy named Jeff Donovan. They all think it's my show, they keep telling me that, but I say, "No, it's our show." Because I can't play Michael the way I'm playing him, without their energy making me who I'm supposed to be.
Q: How do you keep your head on straight knowing that so much is riding on you?
JD: It's almost a joke on this set. I drive my bicycle, 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, it's a joke, but they're serious! 300 people are employed every year, not because of me, but because of the show. It's a great responsibility to let anybody down. That's why I worked out so much in the off-season. I got healthier because if I do take a sick day the show shuts down and loses $125,000. I had a film showing in Cannes and I wanted to go, then 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.
Q: With Michael taking orders from Tricia Helfer's character's this season, what's the new dynamic?
JD: There always has to be the bad guy against Michael. 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. There's always going to be a 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, remember? Now what do they do?
Q: Will Burn Notice avoid that by never having him find out why he was burned?
JD: 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?
Q: Did you do a lot of research to prepare for this?
JD: I read a lot. I'm more of a reader actor. 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..." When I research a role, I read. I read about spies, I read biographies, autobiographies, fictional stuff. Anything that 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.
Q: Are you a method actor?
JD: I think the demands of a TV show, especially this one, wouldn't allow – in the worst sense – a method actor. We'd constantly be waiting for them to shift their method to the scene. These are pros, everyone on the crew as well, and you're just dealing with everyone who's 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.
Q: Sharon said that you freaked her out a little when you just wanted to go without rehearsal...
JD: No, we rehearse, don't get me wrong, we do a rehearsal. 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. "Let's just do it and see what happens." It's a riskier way of working, but I think the gains are greater.
Q: How does that compare to working with Bruce Campbell?
JD: 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. I don't know why, I'm just less concerned and they haven't fired me yet so I must be doing something right.
Q: Do you think you're going to be able to keep up this pace for the long run, for another five years?
JD: My honest answer is that I'll do it as long as my body doesn't give out. My body may give out because it's just so physically demanding. I'm trying to stay healthy, trying to stay a step ahead. In my first season, I knew a handful of dialects and accents. I have a black belt in karate and six years of aikido. That was good, but I wanted to get better.
Q: What did you do?
JD: I took jujitsu and studied ten dialects that I've never really studied before. I'm just trying to stay above it and as long as I do that, I'll probably have some longevity with this role. No one has any idea how hard this job is and 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 may make it look easy and it's the hardest job I've ever done.