BURN NOTICE: Jeffrey Donovan Interview re Escape From Panama (2012)

burn notice panama

When we last saw our heroes on BURN NOTICE, they had been left for dead in the jungles of Panama after foiling a rogue CIA operative’s attempt to blow them into smithereens. As a special 6-episode treat, BURN NOTICE returns this week to check in on our heroes Michael Weston, Fiona, Sam and Jesse and to see how they are fairing now that the entire world thinks they are dead and without their usual resources to return back to the United States to clear their names. In a recent press conference call, star Jeffrey Donovan shared what is next and what other fun surprises the show has in store as they endeavor to escape from Panama.

Obviously it’s got to be really fun to get to play so many different characters. Can you talk about that and what keeps it interesting for you?

JEFFREY: 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 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. 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. Then over the years they kind of evolved into sometimes some wacky guys and sometimes some pretty sadistic guys. But it keeps it interesting.

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

JEFFREY: 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 one of the most difficult ones was this kind of character I did, 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. 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 just as an actor.

Who has been your favorite villain on BURN NOTICE and why?

JEFFREY: Now that’s really tough. Because six years of actors that have come through here — just let me see, I have to think — I’d have to say Jay Karnes. He played Brennan. Jay Karnes, I mean, he’s 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 that’s why James Bond and 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.” 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? Then I’m going to do this.” He always was one step ahead of Michael, which was a great villain; a great foe is when the villain is smarter than you.

Has the show ever considered relocating from Miami?

JEFFREY: Miami actually has been great. Miami is obviously a hot spot for Michael and all of the kind of agencies and the foes and the villains all know he’s located there so he’s basically an easy target — a kind of a fish in a barrel. As far as storyline, the network and the studio haven’t talked at all about moving it to any other kind of locale whether it’s fictional or not. Whether we shoot in Miami but we pretend and we’re in Malibu, California –none of that has been talked about. So I don’t see [Michael] moving 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?

JEFFREY: [Laughs] Spend as little time with each other off the set. 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, 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.

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

JEFFREY: Great question. I think what’s tough for this show is the title. BURN NOTICE was not only an unfamiliar word to me but I think to most fans until they understood what the show was about. And it’s kind of like calling the show “Escape from the Moon” and after the sixth season they got off the moon. Well what’s next? I think that the fans are going to love this last part of Season 6 because it focuses on Nate’s death, finding that killer and bringing him to justice. And I think that you’ll see a more of a hell bent Michael, more personal than you’ve seen him try to kind of 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 7, which if all goes as planned, will be a very different kind of BURN NOTICE because of the trajectory but no less kind of dangerous for Michael. But I think it’ll be more personal next year than it will be professional.

At the end of the upcoming episode, Michael faces off with his mentor. Could you talk a little bit about what it was like selling that scene?

JEFFREY: Going toe to toe with John C. 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 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’s me looking up to him that way. I 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.” 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 what happened with Nate and Michael’s mom. Might Michael makes some mistakes because the stakes are different this time around?

JEFFREY: I think anything that’s personal and emotional will always cloud judgment. One of the fun things I’ve kind of developed with Matt [Nix] is in real life, with a normal person, you are in everyday life with your family and that’s easy. Then you go to work and that’s hard, and 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 kind of an intense high stakes moment when I was being chased or shot at; and 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.

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: First of all there’s nothing official yet about Season 7. 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. 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 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, and I think that will probably be what Season 7 is about. I guess 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. So I think Season 7 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 cast mates. Do you have a 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: You do run the risk of getting into a monotonous rut because you shoot 70 hours a week as the same character and sometimes overlapping dialog from other episodes kinds of creeps back in. But whenever you show up, especially with someone like Sharon or with Bruce, they have such a freshness when they come onset and such a great attitude that it kind of inspires you. So staying sharp – I thank the actors for being sharp, because it can become kind of monotonous.

What is interesting or appealing to you about going in a different direction from where you’ve been these past six years?

JEFFREY: 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 — 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. 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, 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 like 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.

How do you think the fact that Michael and Fiona are embracing their relationship completely is going to affect them both personally and as co-workers?

JEFFREY: Well, 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. There’s nothing written or any story that I’m kind of 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. But blowing up may be also to them killing each other. I don’t know, but I know that the more conflict that those two have I think 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 7.

What was Jere Burns like to work with as a villain?

JEFFREY: 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 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 get killed. Ben Shenkman in Season 2 who was a 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 me up. They keep bad actors around me so I look better.

Do you think that Michael could ever go back to being just a normal CIA agent?

JEFFREY: 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 7 to see where Michael will go once he made this probably one of the worst decisions he’s ever made.

You directed two episodes of BURN NOTICE and the “Fall of Sam Axe.” What were the major challenges you experienced while directing?

JEFFREY: 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. That’s difficult to shoot in a cable studio budget. We’re constantly running over time and out of money. So 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. [Laughs] 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.

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?

JEFFREY: 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. I think 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 like her love has been for six seasons, it’s unconditional and I think that she’ll try to find that compromise. But Michael’s going to put his friends and his mom in a very difficult position at the end of the season

When you are getting beaten around, what does it take to get to that kind of mindset to make it look so realistic?

JEFFREY: Well thank god the camera can lie because we’re safe and nothing’s happening to us. But you kind of imagine all of that violence kind of coming down — you kind of just channel all of those kinds of bruises and punches that you had over the years and put it into that kind of emotion. It’s not that hard to imagine yourself getting beat up.

Would you like to go into any other of the characters’ back-stories? What would you still like to learn about them?

JEFFREY: I don’t think so. I think what was great about the Sam Axe story was that it based on Bruce. Bruce has such a huge following from all of his “Evil Dead” film stuff and he’s just a kind of a cult hero. So I think that that was kind of interesting to kind of look into where did Sam Axe come from and why was he forcefully retired from the Navy Seals. I think that that was interesting. I don’t think that any other story would be as compelling. I mean I’m sure Sharon would have no interest in going back and showing herself 20 years ago and trying to figure that out. So the back-story stuff I don’t think is going to happen about anybody else. I don’t think it would work.

You’ve had Jere Burns, John C. McGinley, and Ben Shenkman previously. How can you top that with the next villain to bring in? Who would you like to have?

JEFFREY: Oh, that’s a great question. I mean they’re so good. I don’t know where the next villain will come from. We’ve always done a great job in finding some interesting actors. Here’s the irony about the actors who play great villains: they’re the nicest people. They really are. I mean Jay Karnes, Jere, Ben, — you’re talking about guys who are just the salt of the earth and they show up and play such dastardly characters. It’s always fun. I know it’s fun for them to come out. Next season, who knows. I mean I think we’re going to have to raise the bar. That’s certainly because these actors are so great.

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: Basically my role as a producer is to make sure the pretzel jar is full. [Laughs] 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 what usually comes out of their mouth is, is: “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 specific and 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. For the most part everyone is incredibly receptive. They know that I’m there just to help them with a very difficult tone. There are a few actors that screw off saying, “I’m going to act it the way I want to” and then they’re never asked back.

How are you most like and most different from Michael?

JEFFREY: I’m as super intelligent as him. That’s probably the most likely. [Laughs] No, what? I’m nothing like Michael. I can’t operate on his level. That guy is like a master chess player. He’s thinking ten moves ahead while he speaks and I can’t even think through more than one sentence at a time now.

What can you share about the relationship between Gray and Michael through the rest of the season?

JEFFREY: I think you’re going to be in for a big surprise with Gray. It’s going to be very shocking. You’ll realize after you see what happens why that’s kind of a difficult question to answer.But I will say that the relationship that Michael has with Gray and Card is going to turn Michael down a path that even Sam will question Michael’s integrity. I think that’s what the fans are going to really be interested in is: How dark will Michael go?And I think that the fans are going to kind of enjoy seeing Michael go down a very dark path and that’s what’s going to be enjoyable about the rest of the season.

To see how dark the path of Michael Weston may get as the team attempts to escape from Panama, be sure to tune in for an all new 2-hour episode of BURN NOTICE on Thursday, November 8th at 9:00 p.m. on USA Network – and be sure to use the #EscapeFromPanamahashtag if you are participating in the live-tweet of the 2-hour episode.

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