Interview: Jeffrey Donovan from Burn Notice

Interview: Jeffrey Donovan from Burn Notice
Super-spy Michael Westen has a rough day at the office

Super-spy Michael Westen has a rough day at the office

Burn Notice has been a huge success for the USA Network, pulling in a total of over 5 million viewers each week and scoring strong ratings in key 18 to 49 as well as 25 to 54 age demographics. Who would have thought that a quirky, fun, and hip series about a blacklisted spy would garner such critical and ratings success. Burn Notice is wrapping up the second half of its second season with its finale airing on Thursday, March 5. Recently, TVOvermind got to participate in a phone interview with Jeffrey Donovan, who plays spy Michael Westen in the hit series.

The second season of Burn Notice has had Michael Westen searching for the man who tried to kill him at the end of season 1, and who botched a mission Carla (Tricia Helfer), Michael’s forced handler, was leading. Though Michael’s real goal has always been to use any information he comes up with as leverage against Carla to help him discover just who it was that blacklisted Michael in the first place. But with Tricia not returning for next season, the lingering question going into the finale is what is going to happen to her character, and is Michael going to be responsible for her demise?

‘Well, you know, I think it’s no surprise that Carla and Michael were going to eventually be in each other’s crosshairs,’Donovan confirmed. ‘And in the final episode literally that happens. Without giving too much away the eventual outcome was necessary. What’s going to happen is that she gets basically – she has powers above her that control her and she basically relies on Michael to save her butt at the end. And he tries but it doesn’t go as well as expected for her.’

With that kind of information it’s tough not to be excited about the upcoming finale, but after two season of Michael searching for the person who burned him, the question of whether he will ever find the man responsible looms large over the series.

‘I think that the actual person who burned me, you’re actually going to meet in the season finale,’Jeffrey Donovan said during the interview. ‘And he’s going to have answers that only – will satisfy people halfway; dealing anytime with any kind of covert organization they can’t ever spill the beans totally. But what you’re going to see in the finale is pretty exciting because though Michael does find out who burns him it doesn’t release him from the perils of his career choice.’

Those perils, and the information Michael is able to get from his nemesis will ultimately lead the show into its third season.

‘…this will be the guy who burned me. And he’ll explain what happened and what’s going to happen to Michael Westen if basically he keeps making trouble,’Donovan said, elaborating on the discovery of who burned him. ‘And that’s what season 3 is going to really focus on is who in his past is a threat to his livelihood. And that’s what basically you’re going to find out in season 3.’

Donovan was also asked about the future of Michael and Fiona’s (Gabrielle Anwar) relationship for season 3. Donovan claimed to know nothing specific about their future but said that he assumes, ‘you’ll probably see more of Michael and Fiona trying not to be together,’confirming that we should in no way assume that their romance is about to blossom yet again.

Jeffrey Donovan recently renegotiated his contract on Burn Notice, which extends his commitment through 8 season of the show, if the series is lucky enough to get renewed for that many seasons. This is exciting and shows the commitment that Donovan and the creators have for the long term development of this show, and all we can do is hope that they continue to deliver.

For a transcript featuring the highlights of the conference call with Jeffrey Donovan, please proceed to the next page. He had some great tidbits to share with fans on staying healthy, doing his own fight scenes, and working with Bruce Campbell.

Q: Tell me where you think Michael Westen’s willingness to help the little person comes from.

You know, there’s an interesting theme between Madeline and Michael that was on last week where she describes the map of how to fix the car’s radio and how it’s tied to the ignition. It was really well written. And she says, you know, I think he did this so that he would always feel needed and wanted and useful and would want him around.

And I think that Michael went away from his family because he didn’t feel wanted or needed. And so he went with a bigger family, you know. He went for the flag and the country needed him. And so I think that when he’s back in town, when he helps a little guy, it’s less about the little guy and it’s more about that Michael is somehow validating that need, that someone needs him. And he never got it as, you know, not to be too psychological but he never got it as a child.

Q: Does that feel a bit incongruous to you that this hard nosed spy who can do these incredible things would have that – would care so much?

No I think the – I think that paradigm is everywhere, you know, you see straight laced governors who are having – who have a family, children, and go after corruption in their career and then you find out they have prostitutes and they’re screwing pros in hotels. You know, you see our, you know, our past administration saying we want to protect the American people and then they go and make America the most sought after dangerous place to go after in the world.

You know, I think those paradoxes and paradigms are prevalent in all our society and I just think it’s in keeping with Michael’s career choice that he’s going to live a parallel life.

Q: One of my favorite elements of the show is Michael’s narration because it’s – inside his head is a very interesting place to be. How much work goes into creating those still? I mean, you all aren’t ever guilty of fluffing those off late in the day right? I mean, they’re still vitally important to you all, right?

They’re very important. I think that they’re the heart of the show because what’s great about Burn Notice especially with Michael is that Michael never lets on how he feels about something except when he’s with his family. So that’s 90% of the time of his job is he’s covering.

And what’s great about playing that role that way is I don’t have to show anything that I actually feel or think because I know that in the back of my mind that narration is going to let you know. And I think that’s kind of a cool device that we take really seriously that we get to say, hey, here’s a secret; this is what I’m thinking.

And it’s a little conspiratorial with the audience and I think it’s a great element.

Q: Do you remember the A-Team? Every episode would build this war – they would build a war machine. They’d have music over the montage of images and BA’s hands and Murdock’s hands and it was clearly obvious that it wasn’t Mr. T and it wasn’t Dwight Schultz, it was stand-ins. And as a viewer it would take me out of the moment. And you guys don’t do that or at least if you do it – if they’re not your hands you all have faked me out well enough.

Is it important to you that you don’t cut corners like the A-Team did even if it gets tedious? And are those moments fun when you’re building your war machines?

Yeah, it’s really important that not only do I build my own gadgets that I do my own fights. They don’t let me do my own stunts for insurance reasons, but it’s really important that I keep it authentic. And one of the things that I take pride is in that even though we shoot 16 episodes and it takes six months I actually train in the off season – I call it my off season like an athlete – to get ready for those 16.

So I’m doing workouts in the weight room three days a week and then I’m doing mixed martial arts those other three days and on Sunday I rest. And it’s really important that when I do something it looks like I can actually do it.

Q: So do you prefer acting in movies, TV shows or I heard that, you know, you’ve done several stage acting; that you’re actually part of a group

Yeah, it’s real important – the theater is really important. It’s hard to say what my favorite is because they all for different reasons. But I’ll tell you why I need each one. TV it’s exciting, it’s very quick. There’s not a lot of room for mistakes so you’re on the fly all the time.

Movies, movies are so epic and they’re so grand and you can’t lose your specificity in that so it creates a really interesting challenge. And then as far as theater is concerned I love the reciprocity of being on stage and I do something and something comes back. And that’s unique only to stage. And that’s why I need to do theater.

Q: MacGyver has nothing on Michael as far as the spy gadgets go. What are some of your favorite spy gadgets to date that you’ve actually, you know, gotten to play with on the show and things like that?

You know, I thought one of the coolest things was the episode where I built an x-ray machine in my trunk. I thought that was – and you know what I found out from our consultant he actually did it.

Well our consultant is an ex-spy and he gave us the idea that you can put a taser through a old TV tube that has – still has a radioactive – not radioactive – I don’t even know what it is – but a radio wave that you can ignite which would create an x-ray with a lead plate behind it. I couldn’t believe it and it did it. But that was one of my favorites.

Q: What makes the bromance with Sam so special? It must be fun to do?

You know, I haven’t figured it out and I don’t want to. It’s just so easy and so fun and but I’d say 90% of it is just Bruce. He’s such a good spirit. He has great comic timing and he truly loves being on the show and it shows. So when we’re together it’s us, you know, Jeff and Sam just having fun with the writer’s work. You know, and as long as we keep going with that then the (bromance) will be (healthful).

Q: Well my last question is I read an congratulations on this that you got a big raise for the show. And I was wondering if you purchased anything special? If there was any special indulgence as a result?

No. You know, I grew up really poor and very frugal. And so whenever money did come in I always thought well it will never come in again. So, you know, I have this kind of gut reaction of don’t spend money. In fact I think spending less money now than I did before the raise because I’m scared of it.

But the one thing I do want to learn and it will take a little bit of money is I want to get my pilot license for small single engines. And I think that being in Florida with all the local airports I think I’m going to try to do that and that will be my gift to myself.

Q: I also wanted to know if you’re not allowed to do your own stunts are you working out just for the shirtless scenes, is that the reason?

No, you know, I’m serious when I say that it’s for my health. And I mean that in many, many ways. Staying in shape it just keeps you healthy; it keeps your immune system up. But also I can’t be injured, I mean, I do my own fights. So just because I’m not driving a car into a wall doesn’t mean I can’t get hurt because I do all my fights. So that’s what I’m training for. I’m training to stay in shape so I’m healthy; I don’t get hurt when I do the fights and God forbid I get sick because if it does, you know, unfortunately production shuts down.

Q: True, okay. So I guess Sam is – what’s his workout regime like, like a six pack a day maybe?

Yeah, yeah, maybe even a 12 pack.

Q: I was curious with the narration being such an important part of the show if there’s ever a chance we’d have a different narrator like Fiona or Sam for an episode?

You know I’ve pitched that. I’ve pitched that that Fiona and Sam actually start talking in my narration and then I go, hey, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing? This is mine. This is my narration. And then we’d get in a fight as a voice over. So I pitched that; they thought it was funny and then they said no.

Q: Michael has a wonderful diversity of accents when he puts on a cover and I was just wondering if that’s been on the page or do you apply the voice to the character and how much room do you sort of have to play with all these different covers?

Good question. There’s no hard and fast rule governing my performance with each accent and with each dialect. It is kind of a dance between me and the writers. The writers say something like Michael walks into a bar and sometimes it’ll say with an Australian accent or sometimes it’ll say Michael walks up to the bar and starts talking to so and so.

And it won’t say I have a (new) voice but I’ll go, you know what, he’s a good old boy; we hired an actor who’s a good old boy. I don’t want to play him like a good old boy as well because it will knock down his defenses. So it’s a bit of a dance, we kind of find it on the day.

Q: Has the role of Michael Westen been your favorite character to play in your acting character because you’ve done so much.

I’ll say this: Michael Westen is the most fun character. I have more fun doing this role than any other role I’ve ever played. But given that it’s the hardest role I’ve ever done. The pressure I felt in Changeling, Detective Jones, was pressure I’ll never ever forget to be in that rarified air of Eastwood and Jolie.

But this show is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And that I can churn out every seven days a Burn Notice episode and it doesn’t look like we did it only seven days and with all the accents, all the stunts and all the fights, I’m really proud of that.

Q: I was wondering – I love your scenes with Sharon Gless because there’s a lot of emotion plus comedy in them and I was wondering if you could talk about working with her and dealing with the smoke.

Man, she’s such a pro. She’s such a pro. I call her mama and I mean that in such an affectionate way. She’s so motherly to me, so caring and endearing and talented and God, man, you walk on set, she starts rehearsing with you and you’re like you’re in the scene; you are just in the scene. She’s your mom, you’re her son and the comedy that comes out of it, she knows what she’s doing, man, and she makes it look like she doesn’t. It’s pretty remarkable to watch.

The smoking – the smoking is tough. She really smokes real tobacco. And it’s kind of hard to deal with – knowing that every time I’m in a scene with her is smoking. But that is what Michael goes through, he can’t stand it either.

Q: You’re headed to season 3, you’ve renegotiated your contract; did you ever expect that Burn Notice was going to become the success it has?

You know, I don’t think anyone goes into projects thinking they’ll fail. I think we all believe that what we’re doing is going to be good. But more specifically with me and that mix we sat down and very pointedly said to each other we’re going to make a TV show that we would watch, that we would be interested in, not the networks, not the fans, not anybody, just us. What would we want to do because we have to do this for seven years; and that was the pilot.

And that it was received so well critically and that the fans, you know, started seeing us a couple million and has grown to over five million is just – it’s just icing on the cake of what we started with at the beginning which was pursue something you believe in with your entire heart in your craft and want to do that and only that and don’t you feed to well we’ll milk it down, we’ll water it down. Make what you want and see if it sticks.

And USA was so gracious to give us that room and let it grow and it’s been growing ever since.

Q: I just wanted to know what your other plans are as far as upcoming possible movies or other guest TV spots.

Well I’m not doing anything believe it or not. On my hiatus between 1 and 2 I did Changeling and that was three months. And then between 2 and 3 I went to Chicago and I did a play. So that would have been when I would have done a movie that would come out in the fall of this year. But I needed to be back on stage so there’s nothing come out in the pipeline and no TV as well.

I’m just going to focus on Burn Notice for the next six months and then after that I need to take a small break. I’ve worked almost 20 months straight so I’ll probably take a break and be very picky about what movie I’d like to do.

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