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Jeffrey Donovan Puts Us All On Burn Notice

Jeffrey Donovan stars in “Burn Notice.”

Jeffrey Donovan Puts Us All On Burn Notice

by Jay S. Jacobs

When we last saw Michael Westen – the super spy played by Jeffrey Donovan in the popular series Burn Notice, he and his friends were stuck behind enemy lines in Panama with his mentor at the CIA dead set on exterminating all of them.

A sticky spot to be in, but Westen and his team have gotten through tough situations before.  Burn Notice‘s cliffhangers are a specialty, and as the show revs back up for the second half of it’s sixth season, the intrigue swirls around the characters at a record pace.

On Election Day, Donovan was nice enough to take time off his non-filming hiatus to discuss the final half of the Burn Notice season with us and some other media outlets.

It’s got to be really fun to get to play so many different characters through Michael. Can you talk about kind of that and I assume it keeps it interesting?

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 is always to help the person that no one else can help. Only Michael’s skills can solve his problem. So we thought it’d be fun if certain cover ID just like spies had to do, were taken on. 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 at the time. 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?

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 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 season three, where I basically played the devil. I think this name was Louis – almost like Louis Cypher 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 that’s their favorite 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 just as an actor.

Who has been your favorite villain on Burn Notice and why?

Oh, see now that’s really tough. Because, six years of actors that have come through here – God, just let me see. I have to think. You know, I’d have to say Jay Karnes. He played Brennen. Jay Karnes, 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 James Bond, the 007 series always works is because the villains were always these mega-intelligent villains. 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. The closest person to ever do that was Jay Karnes. 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? Then I’m going to do this.” He always was one step ahead of Michael, which was always a great villain. A great foe is that the villain is smarter than you.

If you could act with any actor living or dead who would it be and why?

Oh geez. You know, I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to be able to be directed by Clint Eastwood twice. But 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. I would probably consider myself accomplished if I could ever go toe to toe with him. (laughs)

There are some great locations you guys have been shooting in and we know that Miami though has been a bit of a trouble area for the Burn Notice team. Is there any idea of a possible relocation?

Miami actually has been great. I think that you’ve read some news that was only recent regarding one commissioner.

No, no. I mean for Michael and friends…

Oh. Oh, I see. I was like God, what are you talking about? Yeah Miami is obviously a hot spot for Michael and all of the agencies and the foes and the villains know he’s located there, so he’s basically an easy target, a fish in a barrel. As far as story line, the network and the studio haven’t talked at all about moving it to any other locale whether it’s fictional or not. You know, whether we shoot in Miami but we pretend we’re in Malibu, California. None of that has been talked about. So I don’t see him moving obviously this coming summer if we get renewed for a seventh season, which it looks like we will be. 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?

Spend as little time with each other off the set. (laughs) When you play a role like Michael and Fiona, there is an intimacy and a spark that I think 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.

That way you smolder on screen.

Yes. Your words.

Well absence makes the heart grow fonder they say.

Exactly. Exactly.

Now that Michael knows who burned him and he’s tracked down his brother’s killers, what’s next for Michael now that he doesn’t have that driving force behind him to stay in the spy world?

You know, great question. I think what’s tough for this show is the title. (laughs) 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 kind of like calling the show Escape from the Moon and after the sixth season they got off the moon. Well what next? I think that the fans are going to love this last part of season six 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, more personal than you’ve seen him try to navigate the waters towards getting back in with the CIA and Burn Notice. 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 seven 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. But I think it’ll be more personal next year than it will be professional, if that answers your question without me giving anything [away].

At the end of the two hours Michael faces off with his mentor. And I just want to say I loved the way that you played that scene and the emotion that, you know, just propels on your face. But could you talk a little bit about what it was like selling that scene?

Now you’ve got to – now you’ve got to understand it’s November. (laughs) So you’ve got to remind me what scene particularly and with who?

With your mentor. The one that tried to kill you.

Oh, John C. McGinley’s character?


Oh, okay. Well, going toe to toe with McGinley is… 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 tried to bring to that scene was (chuckles) sheer fear of “please don’t screw up in front of such a great actor.” Me looking up to him 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.” So though it wasn’t easy it was certainly much more compelling because of McGinley himself.

You mentioned that this season will be a little more personal because of Nate, also the fact that your mom isn’t really speaking to you even though she did help save your life. Might Michael makes some mistakes because the stakes are different this time around?

Yeah. That’s a great, great observation. I think anything that’s personal and emotional will always cloud judgment. One of the fun things I’ve developed with Matt is in real life, with a normal person, you are in every day life with your family and that’s easy. Then you go to work and that’s hard. You show the strain at work because the stakes are so high. What was hard to kind of convince a lot of directors who were coming in was they would always want me to have an intense high stakes moment when I was being chased or shot at. I always though that’s wrong, it doesn’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. So what I always said was 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 and that’s kind of counterintuitive. So this last season it’s 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. I mean those kinds of stakes Michael has never really dealt with.

You mentioned the renewal. 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?

Well, you know, first of all there’s nothing official yet about season seven so 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 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 seven 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. Now it becomes about his family, his past and his friends. I think that will probably be what season seven is about. 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. I think probably season seven will be our final season and it will probably come down to those two people probably in some devastating fashion.

You have such good chemistry with your castmates, when you have that kind of shorthand does it make it easier for you as an actor or does it make it more challenging to be sharp from episode to episode?

You do run the risk of getting into a monotonous rut because you shoot 70 hours a week the same character and sometimes overlapping dialogue from other episodes creep back in. But whenever you show up, especially with someone like Sharon or with Bruce, they have such a freshness when they come on set and such a great attitude that it inspires you. So staying sharp – I thank, you know, the actors for keeping me sharp because it can become kind of monotonous.

You mentioned a minute ago, for another season to happen you do 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?

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 after being 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 which hopefully the audiences kind of connect with. But I think that there’s even something deeper there. And not that, where a show like Dexter where 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.

You were just talking about how with Michael having closer relationships that obviously clouds his judgment.  I was wondering how do you think that the fact that Michael and Fiona are giving in to their relationship completely is going to affect them both personally and as co-workers?

Well, listen 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 probably is an ultimate time bomb between those two. I think that – and there’s nothing written or any story that I’m referring to – but I think that down the road these two are going to combust. I mean they have to because I mean she’s nitro and he’s glycerin and they are going to blow up. But how they blow up is going to probably be very unique to them. Blowing up to them might be them getting married. (laughs) You know? But blowing up may be also them killing each other. I don’t know but I know that the more conflict that those two have I think is the best for the show. I think when they become romantic and cute towards each other I think that’s where the show kind of gets boring. So I think that you’re probably going to see more of a combustible Michael and Fiona in season seven.

I also love the way that the villains all have sort of different characteristics. Like 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?

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 get killed. Ben Shenkman in season two 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 up me. You know, they keep bad actors around me so I look better.

You had just mentioned that you thought that you’re sort of getting a little bit bored and the audience might be with the idea of Michael trying to get back into the CIA. Do you think that Michael could ever go back to being just a normal CIA agent?

I don’t know. Good question. I think that 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. And I think the audiences are going to kind of be excited about season seven to see where Michael will go once he made probably one of the worst decisions he’s ever made.

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?

I just think of the long hours I’m working and then I just channel that. I think as an actor not that I’m experienced but at least I have about 25 years under my belt. Just like any kind of pro athlete, 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 ingrained in you and then you just try to find that kind of 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 maybe hard or devastating in your past. I think that actors do what they do well when they can just make it their own. That’s up to them. The way my process works is very different from the way Bruce works and very different than the way Sharon works but we all kind of accomplish the same goal. It’s hard but I draw upon different things, per day, per scene, per character.

When you’re done is it easy just to “okay, scene over, no problem” or does it stay with you for a while?

It sometimes lingers with you. You might be in such an emotional state that you need a few minutes to just 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’re like oh this is supposed to be slightly comical at the same time. But that’s what we do. It’s not brain surgery. It certainly isn’t on a level of national importance, like an election or disaster relief. Hopefully for those few minutes you believe what I’m doing and you’re entertained and you can escape 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? And now you’re picking up and going forward and I get the feeling that there’s so much stuff that’s been buried inside Michael that’s suddenly starting to come out. Did you plot this out how you were going to unroll this emotionally?

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 basically right before we start shooting so it’s difficult to chart emotionally. What we do is that day we look at the script and then I plot through: well if Michael gets to here 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 journey. Now unfortunately with that is once I’m done with Z – where can I go in the next episode? I mean I can’t start a new alphabet. So that’s 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, Michael’s going to go down I think a dark hole, especially from Bruce’s character. The way Bruce plays Sam is so incredible. He’s so observant of Michael because he’s his best friend. I think you’re going to see so many indictments from Sam that will actually reflect on how dark Michael is getting because Sam knows the kind of dark person Michael’s becoming.

The journey after Nate was killed and you see some of the light parts come up but there’s still that journey that Michael is taking is very evident. For the viewer and I’ve been there and watched probably every single season at least twice. It has been so intoxicating and so addicting that it’s like as you get to the season finale for season six then we’re just going wait a minute, wait a minute, we can’t live without this.

(laughs) You sound addicted and you may need help. But admitting it is the first step as they say. Well thank you. That’s awesome. I don’t know if Michael will come back from this emotional hell that he’s gone down. He’s lost his brother. The only family he has left is his mother. And I think he’s losing his friends. I see this journey eventually compromising his friendship with Sam and with Jesse. And ultimately probably being the destruction of his relationship with Fiona. But I have to. You can’t just keep a show going after six seasons and go yeah, everyone’s just the same. After Michael has seen his brother die, his father die, there’s just too much death that has gone inside Michael that you won’t be able to just kind of pass it off. I think maybe season seven, if we finally get that order and create that, I think that’s what season seven’s journey is going to be.

Since your mom raised three boys alone what did you gift your mom with when you became financially stable?

Well first off, thank you for obviously having interest in my family and where I came from. But, my mom and my family has never really been talked about that much and I’d kind of like to keep that that way.

I definitely respect the family privacy. You do such a great job of channeling a closeness with Sharon Gless as far as the mother/son, can you say whether or not you were at least close to your mom growing up? I really don’t know much about it. It seems to come through and I just wanted to see if that’s what I’m sensing?

Well I can talk about Sharon and first of all, she 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. So she’s been such a great educator and her husband, Barney Rosenzweig, he is an incredible producer and I’ve learned so much. They’ve become kind of like my second family and I could talk for hours about them.

You directed two episodes of Burn Notice as well as The Fall of Sam Axe. What were the major challenges you experienced while directing?

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 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. 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.

You were talking a bit before about Sharon Gless. Can you talk about how Michael and Madeline’s relationship is going to change this season? Can they ever get back to where they were do you think?

I think that you’ll see mending in the latter part of the season. And 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 do a job or maybe cross the line in accomplishing some kind of mission. It’s when he hurts his friends. 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 has been for six seasons it’s unconditional and I think that she’ll try to find that compromise. Michael’s going to put his friends and his mom in a very difficult position at the end of the season.

By the way, happy Election Day.

Yes. Happy Election Day. Did you vote?

Yes, I did.

Did you early vote or were you not allowed by the RNC?

Well I didn’t early vote. I was allowed to but I didn’t. I just wanted to do it with everybody else and that was probably a mistake since there were a lot of lines, but it’s done. So I saw the season premiere. The one thing I noticed is how I guess violently realistic the scenes [are] – especially when you and Gray are getting beaten around. What does it take to get to that mindset to make it look so realistic?