Inside Pulse TV Exclusive Interview: Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar of Burn Notice

Last week, two stars of the USA NETWORK’s hit series Burn Notice, Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar, took part in a conference call interview with select members of the media. Donovan plays Michael Weston, a spy who gets “burned” while on assignment in Nigeria. Basically that means his services are no longer required. He eventually gets dumped in his Miami hometown with no money or resources to his name. Fortunately, he gets some help from his mother, best friend, and ex-girlfriend, Fiona, played by Anwar.

The Season 3 Finale of Burn Notice, “Devil You Know”, will premiere this Thursday, March 4 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. It will guest star John Mahoney and Garrett Dillahunt. In this episode, Michael’s worst fears come to life when a world class terrorist is unleashed on Miami, threatening to detonate a bomb if Michael doesn’t give him what he wants.

Here are the highlights of what Donovan and Anwar had to say during this interview…

Are you surprised at the success of this show?

Jeffrey Donovan: Well, I think that all you can hope for is that you make something that people want to watch and then somehow keep integrity while doing that. And so I think we’re very happy with the ratings definitely. I know we work really hard, so surprised, yes, we’re always surprised when anything succeeds in this day and age.

Can you talk about your characters and just kind of the evolution that we’ve seen in your characters? Are you happy with where you guys have ended up with your characters? And if you’re in charge of everything, where would you like to see them go I guess in the season or in the future?

JD: I’ll speak for Gabrielle, I mean I know from talking with all the other cast mates, we’re very happy with where it’s going. But sometimes Matt Nix and all the other writers keep us slightly in the character dark, not because they don’t trust us with the knowledge, but they’re just trying to figure it out as well along the way. When you’re dealing with espionage and covert affairs, sometimes the secret is more exciting than the knowledge. If we were both in charge, I would love a deeper insight into Michael’s past, that’s for me. I don’t know about Gabrielle, what would you like?

GA: I’m quite happy with Fiona’s enigmatic state of being. I don’t think I need to know more about, I’d love to know more about where you’re from, absolutely, but I quite like not knowing. I don’t like to know who I am.

Jeffrey, in an upcoming episode it seems Michael will be going somewhere other than Miami and that he won’t be alone. Can you tell us where your characters going and why, as well as who’s going with him?

JD: Well, obviously I can’t. It’s the season finale, and it’s really literally in the last five minutes of the show. It’s a bit of a cliffhanger. Michael’s been stuck in Miami for quite some time, and there’s a couple of psychopaths on his tail, and things come to a hilt. And by the end of the show, Michael is actually transported out of Miami, but I can’t tell you where, but it’s a bit of a cliffhanger.

What first drew you to the show and to your characters?

GA: I was drawn to the character, Fiona, I just thought it was so brilliantly written. It was sparingly written, but so insightful. I couldn’t believe that a man had actually written the script, I mean at least her character. When I first met Matt Nix, who created and wrote the script, I actually said to him, you must have a remarkable relationship with your wife, because you have such incredible insight. So that was what intrigued me about playing a character. When you sign up for a TV show, you don’t know if it’s going to be for a pilot or for the rest of your life, so I wanted to play a character that I enjoyed thoroughly, and there weren’t that many of them out there. So that’s why I clasped onto this script with great hope.

JD: I got hooked on the voiceover, the first page is a voiceover, it says, “You know what it’s like to be a spy?” I love the idea that not only do I get to play a spy, I get to play a burn spy, and on top of that, I can talk to the audience about what it’s like being a spy. I thought I had never seen anything like that on television, so that’s what hooked me.

What do you like about this particular medium and why do you keep coming back to television? What do you like about this?

JD: I think that, especially with cable, it’s an avenue to be creative. I think why people are drawn more now to cable shows than ever is that they take more risks, they’re creatively pushing the envelope. I think that the networks have to answer to a bigger advertising calling, whereas the smaller cables have lower ceilings that they can bump their heads on. So I think that’s why I keep being drawn back to television, because I think it’s one of the most creative outlets. And if you think about it, we make 16 one-hour movies a season. You don’t get any opportunity like that in movies. I mean, I can’t say I’ll be able to do 16 movies in the next year, and so that’s how I see it. How about you, Gabrielle?

GA: I like the stability, the continuity of having a lifestyle where I know I can pay my rent at the end of each month. And also I have these children that I am raising and it’s nice for all of us to sort of know that we’re going to be in a specific place for a certain amount of time. I’ve never known that in my career. So I’m really quite grateful at this point that I get to have the sort of double existence and I can rely on both.

With regard to Michael’s pursuit of the truth of trying to erase the burn notice, what is Fiona’s sort of threshold? How long can she wait for him to sort of fulfill this quest that he’s on?

GA: I don’t know. It’s really not up to me is it? I have my own personal threshold and it was at the end of season one.

JD: Wow, wow.

GA: I think it’s going to be a real testament to have patience and adoration of Michael, which I don’t think she would admit either.

One of the strengths of the show is that each of the three major characters is capable of assessing the strength and weaknesses of an opponent or an ally. If you could put yourselves in the mindsets of your characters and then assess your own characters and each others?

JD: Well, Dr. Freud, I would say that Michael is probably some sort of borderline personality disorder who grew up in incredible fear in a dysfunctional hostile family. He ran away and escaped it, so he joined the U.S. Army to find a noble pursuit. Now, he uses all the things that damaged him as his abilities now to help others. I wouldn’t even go in to trying to figure out Fiona.

GA: Well, I don’t even understand your question, so let’s just leave it at that.

What would Fiona’s assessment of Michael be from an objective potential opponent or ally position?

GA: I think she finds it extraordinarily erotic.

JD: Really.

GA: I do. I think it’s foreplay, all of it. I think she finds him the most fascinating creature.

JD: Wait a minute, you said I do, and then you said she, is this Gabrielle talking?

GA: Well, Dr. Freud, who’s the bloody doctor here, Jeffrey?

JD: He is.

GA: Look what you’ve caused.

Will we be seeing Tim Matheson as Larry again?

JD: Yes, you will. Larry’s such a pivotal thorn in Michael’s … and that gives my character great ammunition to kind of fight with. He’s a terrific character and Tim’s such a wonderful man and an extraordinary actor. One, we were lucky to get him, and two, he’s actually happy to be on the show and wants to continually come back. He’ll be directing season four’s premiere. And also, he’ll return as Larry at some point in the season.

Gabrielle, can you talk about Fiona’s relationship with Madeline Westen on the show?

GA: Yes. I think that these two women have a tremendous amount of respect for one another. And you’re right, there’s so little spoken about what’s really being felt and really being witnessed with that connection to Michael, which I think is pretty accurate to real life, especially with the in-law figures. There’s so much that’s not spoken out loud, and yet there are so many physical undertones and it’s very apparent, and that’s thanks to Sharon. I mean, her performance is so beautifully nuanced and I find it terribly inspiring. She’s a wonderful woman and actress.

Who would be your dream guest stars you’d like to see appear on the show?

GA: Steve McQueen.

JD: Yes, he’s dead.

GA: He is?

JD: Gosh, you don’t read the papers.

GA: I didn’t realize it had to be somebody who could actually appear on the show, but I would say Steve McQueen.

JD: I would love Angelina Jolie.

Do you think there might be perhaps any other USA network show crossovers in the future or would you like to see that happen?

JD: I actually would like to do a crossover somehow with White Collar, I think that the show tonally is similar to ours. I don’t know how that would work, but I would like to see that. I don’t think we would work with any other show. I think Psych and Royal Pains doesn’t figure into our tone.

Have you had a favorite kind of accent or persona that you’ve done or how you get the inspiration for that or if you just go with what’s in the script?

GA: Well, Jeffrey’s the final king. I don’t know how Jeffrey can come up with these creations that he does. It’s pretty remarkable, especially he’s got such a heavy workload and yet he still can create these fabulous side characters. It’s really, really fun to watch. I don’t have that in my repertoire, so I’m glad it’s all on his shoulders.

JD: Oh, sure you do. You played the French character, you played a hillbilly kind of girl, white trash girl, Gabrielle—

GA: That’s it, we’ve seen all I’ve got.

JD: I think a lot of the characters that we play really do come out of a script. The writers are incredibly talented and they really help us with specific dialogue and note and kind of character descriptions. My favorite—

GA: Yes, you do still come up with these fabulous little quirky things, like the chewing tobacco and the tooth picks and it’s really fun. Those little tiny quirks make it so much more interesting than if it were just what was on the page I think.

JD: Some people call those crutches, those are crutches. I think those are crutches. But my favorite character of all has to be Michael McBride, the Irish character that I played. It’s because it’s the character that Fiona had fallen in love with, so it’s very dear to my heart.

GA: Oh.

Each week is it just like here’s your script and have at it or is there more training and research involved in your roles?

JD: We have an ex-operative that actually is a consultant on our show that Matt Nix and the other writers have access to, so everything that is put into the show gets vetted through him before we air it. Ninety-five percent of it you can find on the Internet anyway, but everything that is put into a script has been researched and vetted, so that when we speak it or we do it, we know it’s actual.

What has been your most memorable experience with meeting the fans of the show?

GA: I think actually to be honest, it’s the fact that so many couples are enjoying it together. It’s become sort of a date night theme, which is really fabulous. I’m happy for bringing the love, it’s all about the love.

JD: Yes, that’s actually true, Gabrielle. A lot of husband/wives and boyfriend/girlfriends come up to me, the husband will say, “Oh my gosh, my wife loves the show. I got her onto it,” or she’ll say, or a woman will come and say, “My husband didn’t watch the show until I told him about it.” It’s pretty neat that it is kind of a date night for couples.

Now that we’re seeing how Michael is and how the group is without the big overall mystery of who burnt Michael Westen, and who’s doing this, is there going to be a return of management anytime soon? Are we going to see that at all, maybe in season four?

JD: Yes, season four is actually pretty remarkable. I met with the writers last week and we kind of broke down the next eight or nine episode ark. A new character is going to be introduced. I don’t know the name yet, but he is going to be a young operative, but he’s going to play a significant new role on the show. And then there is actually going to be a change of management. There’s going to be a new management that controls Michael’s life, and you’ll see Michael have to go on even more dangerous missions under this new management with the new operative.

We know Fiona wants Michael to settle down, Fiona wants the life, and at this point, we’re not sure Fiona’s going to get the life. What do you think the life that Fiona seeks would look like or could look like, obviously it’s not going to be Suburbia and the 2.5 children and the dog and the cat, so what could it look like?

GA: I don’t know to be perfectly honest whether she does want to settle down. I don’t think that that is interesting to her at all. I think she wants to feel secure, but again I don’t know what that definition of security might be to her. It’s certainly not your typical conventional idea of marriage for example, but I think she wants to feel secure because she’s a woman and it seems innate in all of us.

When watching Burn Notice there are always tags that they put on the freeze screens for the newer temporary characters such as Gilroy Freelance Psychopath or Damon … What would each of your tags be under your names, not for Michael and Fiona, but for Jeffrey and Gabrielle?

JD: If I got introduced, a smiling shark.

GA: Oh, gosh, still figuring it out.

JD: That’s true actually.

Much of what we see you do is most likely complements of the stunt coordinator. Can you fill us in on any fight training that you might have done for the show?

JD: Actually what you see is 90% me actually. I have a black belt in Shotokan karate, about 15 years experience. I have eight years in Jujitsu and Akito, and about three years of boxing. So what I try to do in every episode is the stunt coordinator makes it safe, but most of the time I choreograph it. And it’s a great relationship, because I will say what would really happen here is this, and then he comes in and makes it safe for the guest stars. And if something gets too physical, then the stunt men come in and take over.

Jeffrey, you spend a lot of time, because you’re the main character, you are very physical in this role, and you obviously spend so much time on set, what do you do for fun in what little off time you have?

JD: I golf. Luckily down in Florida, there’s a lot of golf courses, and I just put a golf hat on and take my sticks out and I usually walk a course. And sometimes I’m by myself and sometimes I just kind of walk onto a twosome or a threesome and join them, and most people just kind of leave me alone, and that’s my quiet time. I love walking about four or five hours on a golf course. I’m a single digit, I’m down to a seven.

Gabriell, you have a complicated life too, you’ve got kids and you live out in LA, how do you juggle all this and then find time for yourself?

GA: I don’t. I don’t have any time for myself. In fact, sitting here in this hotel room in New York is as exciting as it gets for me, my alone time. There really is no time, I’m a mom, and mom’s don’t have days off.

Having three seasons under your belt, is it getting easier or harder to keep playing these characters and stay invested in them? Are there any challenges you’re facing now that maybe you didn’t have in the beginning of the show?

JD: I’m getting older.

GA: Here, here.

JD: And as you get older it’s harder to run and jump over cars and beat up bad guys, but it becomes easier in some ways because you know the characters so well, so it’s a little bit of both. What would you say, Gabrielle?

GA: Yes, I always get a little anxious like the first day of school when we’ve had our hiatus and we’re coming back, because I think I’m not as insane as I was when we started shooting, which really landed itself to Fiona. And now I’m afraid I might be getting a little boring in my old age, so I think that I don’t know if I can step into her shoes and deliver. I have that anxiety before we start shooting.

JD: Oh, you underestimate your insanity.

GA: Really, oh, thank you, I really appreciate that support.

Have you ever tried any of the spy tips you give on the show?

JD: No. No, absolutely not. Gabrielle?

GA: Not the spy tips, no, but I do think that I can do super human things like drive my car at 150 miles an hour on the PCH and then get into trouble for it.

You have such fantastic chemistry on screen, so what is it like off screen with each other and with other cast members?

GA: Oh, it’s a problem.

JD: Well, we don’t find each other at all funny, that’s a hard thing. We’re very blessed, we really are. I know cast mates usually probably hide the fact that there’s tension and turmoil, but Bruce, Sharon, Gabrielle, and I, we get along, not only on screen, but off screen. They’re extraordinary actors, but even better people, and the chemistry is just terrific. We have dinner, we hang out whenever we have time off, which is very little.

On a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, they did a parity game show called, What is Burn Notice? Where people who had not seen the show tried to figure out what it was about based on vague promos and sort of an obscure title. Did you know that aside from your massive number of viewers, that there were people out there who didn’t really know what the show was about? And do you think it’s a hard show to wrap your head around either based on the title or on the concept?

JD: I don’t know. It seems like everybody knows the show, because I walk down the street and everyone yells, “Burn Notice, I love your show.” So I thought it was kind of a funny parity, quite funny actually, to make a show, it’s like what is Seinfeld on cable? So I just thought it was hysterical. What did you think, Gabrielle?

GA: I thought it was funny. I think Ashton Kutcher’s awfully cute. He can make fun of me anytime.

The addition of Chris Vance as a psychopath Mason Gilroy is really given you guys a violent insane villain this season. How is working with him added to the show during the season?

JD: Yes, he’s definitely added a great tension to every scene that I’m in with him, and I think kind of a great super villain that kind of governs over the show. I think the best part of Burn Notice is always when the villain or guest star is either more talented, smarter, or crazier than the rest of the cast, because it ups all our game. What do you think, Gabrielle?

GA: Yes, I agree. I don’t actually get to work with Gilroy, but I agree with you. There’s nothing more inspiring than to have to pull everything you have out of your back pocket on the stage. And we have so little time to rehearse and to find everything imaginable in one scene, that when you do have this fantastic talent to work with, it really is, it’s fun, it makes it so much more enjoyable.

It’s really obvious that Miami is as much a character in the show as the setting. What’s your guys favorite part about filming in such a diverse and vibrant city?

JD: I actually love the weather, to be honest with you. I love that the climate is constantly being washed and rinsed. You’re living in the Caribbean in the United States and sometimes it’s incredible blue skies and sometimes it’s an incredible thunderstorm that kind of screams through, but I love that part of Florida.

How was it working with Tyne Daly from Cagney and Lacey?

GA: I didn’t unfortunately get to work with her.

JD: Yes, and neither did I, it was almost all with Sharon. So we all, to be honest with you, sat back and watched two pros go toe-to-toe 12 rounds. It was quite remarkable. We were all just blown away by it. So I was more of a spectator like you than I was an actor in it.

What would you guys say is most dangerous stunt you’ve had to do? Were you ever actually afraid doing it?

GA: I don’t like fighting with Jeffrey, because I always hurt him. Because I don’t know what I’m doing, and he’s such an expert, and I always manage to accidentally cause some damage.

JD: Yes, the most dangerous is either a bomb or something going off or a fight with Gabrielle. They’re about the same.

Over the years Michael and Fiona sort of brought this romantic feeling and this background story of their past, and it seems like there are little hints that they’re giving in a little bit more, both as a character and also as the straight actor. Do you think that that could ever work, like just as part of the show? Do you think that maybe it’s a good idea not to give into those things, getting into sort of the Ross and Rachel, Dave and Mattie type of thing, where you sort of like too much of the tension in the show?

JD: What do you think, Gabrielle?

GA: No, what do you think?

JD: No, you go first, I’ve done it all.

GA: No, no, no, no answer.

JD: Fiona and Michael are our real relationship in as much as TV relationships are built off of tension, and let’s say it’s Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting. Once the banter ended after a couple of seasons and they slept together, there was no tension. That is a typical TV relationship. Ours actually is atypical, we have had sexual relations, we have fought, we have gotten back together, we’ve hated each other, we’ve become friends to each other, that is the tumultuous relationship of their dynamic, and that will never change. So the tension is not about them hooking up, the tension I think is their love for each other and how that’s displayed every episode.

Michael’s relationship with his mother has softened a lot this season from where it was in the early season, they were constantly fighting, and now you see more of the strong bond and the love together. And they are really trying to help each other, was that something that just sort of came naturally from working with Sharon over the years or how did that come about?

JD: Well, you can help but love Sharon, but at the end of the day, we’re actors and we can create any hatred or tension that we need for a scene to work. So I don’t think the writers were ever thinking like, “Oh, how nice, Jeff and Sharon get along, let’s make them love each other on the show.” I think what you’re seeing is just a natural evolvement of what does a viewer want to watch. Do you want to see a mother and son antagonistically attack each other every single episode for five years? I don’t think so. So it’s just a natural progression, just like Fiona and Michael’s natural progression.

You mentioned about Michael’s past, it seems that his father seems to be a significant part of who he is and we always get little bits and pieces about him. There’s been some fan speculation that maybe the show isn’t always what it seems, that maybe his father could be alive or could not be alive. How would you feel if that were to change, if he found out some new information about his father?

JD: Well, that device is always in play every season. I don’t think we ever sit around and plot that Michael’s father is going to come back. It’s not something that we think about, we just know that the device is in play and we like it that way. I think the only shocking thing would be if Sam turns out to be my dad, that would be awkward.

Are there any favorite or challenging scenes that you’ve done so far that kind of stick out in your mind? Anything that’s a favorite that you two have done and worked together that kind of stand out as memorable?

JD: Yes, I really love a scene that kind of came out of working with Gabrielle this past season where we created a scene that wasn’t necessarily on the page where I slap her across the face. And Gabrielle did such an incredible performance of having to deal with her feelings for Michael hitting her and then acting as an undercover character. That I think was probably some of the best work I’ve ever seen her do and that was one of the most memorable moments for me.

GA: Thank you.

Jeffrey, you’ve recently donated some money to your high school in Angsbury, Massachusetts; but you’re also very involved in Life Rolls On, could you tell us a little bit about that cause and what drew you to it specifically?

JD: Well, many years ago, an actor friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go to a charity golf event out in Malibu for Life Rolls On, and I hadn’t heard about it. And he explained it’s a charitable foundation to raise money for spinal cord injuries in young athletes. And Jesse Billauer suffered a life changing surfing accident at the age of 19, and this foundation was created out of his name. It’s a wonderful foundation that raises funds that aren’t necessarily being put into by the government or a lot of private foundations, to research how we can get these kids either wheelchair assisted living or new types of devices that will help them either walk or stand or even ride a surf board again or any sport that they got injured in. And so that’s how I got involved and it’s an incredible organization.

We see a lot of TV shows getting the action figure treatment now, Lost, Dexter, would you guys be interested if the opportunity came up to be a mortalized little plastic figure?

JD: I would love a Michael Westen action figure and a Fiona Glenanne action figure, and then I could blow them up at home.

Are we ever going to see any flashback episodes to see how your two characters met or maybe how Bruce and one of your characters meet or anything like that, if that’s ever been talked about?

JD: Flashback has been talked about, but not in a nice way. We’re not, one, we’ve never done a flashback ever of anything and it’s just not a device that we employ, so I doubt it, but I can’t rule it out. One of my favorite episodes of Magnum PI, which I was a fan of was when Tom Selleck got knocked off a boat and he had to wade in the water until he was picked up. So they just basically shot him for about a half an hour wading in the water and then did the entire show of flashbacks. I liked that idea.

Jeffrey, any plans to return to Chicago and do some more theatre here?

JD: Not in the winter, I will guarantee you that my friend, never again. I give Chicagoans all the credit in the world. No wonder Barack Obama became President, the man survived winters in Chicago, that man can handle anything.

Are there’s any other projects you guys are working on?

JD: None for me.

GA: Me neither.

Gabrielle, don’t you have two movies that are due to come out?

GA: Oh, that’s right, yes, I do. In fact, I don’t even know what’s one of them is called, because they keep changing the title on me, so I’m not going to be able to do much of shout out for that. I have nothing coming up, only Burn Notice for now.

What about Warrior and The Family Tree?

GA: Oh, gosh, those. I shot those more than three years ago. That’s not a good sign when they’ve been sitting on the shelf that long, just FYI.

JD: I’ll be the first in line.

Jeffrey, is it true you have an actin school in Miami?

JD: Well, it’s not a formalized school, but it is, I teach seminars. I’ve partnered with a casting director who’s been working in South Florida for about 20 years, Ellen Jacoby, and we created a acting seminar, basically a small little institute for beginners, advanced, and intermediate actors in the area. And it’s really a selfish journey for me, because we’re running out of actors on our show to hire locally. So instead of going to Louisiana or South Carolina or any of these places around us, I thought why don’t we just increase the talent level of the locals, so that’s why I’m doing it.

What has been your most memorable episode to shoot?

JD: Gabrielle?

GA: Wow. I think the episode that’s airing tonight was memorable for me, because I actually had to work every day.

JD: For once.

GA: For once. It’s true, I actually had a much greater significance in the storyline for this particular episode, so I got a taste of what Jeffrey has to contend with on a daily basis, and I was absolutely bloody exhausted. So it was memorable, because I just had to work really hard “for once.”

JD: And I guess my most memorable is the pilot. No one had ever heard of Burn Notice, not even the term. They put this rag-tag team together of Bruce, me, Sharon, and Gabrielle, and Matt Nix who had never been given a show before, and we just kind of went down to South Florida and we made our show. We made the Burn Notice and what every episode has been based on since, so that’s the most memorable. Because I’m so proud that we took a risk, we did the show we wanted to do, and that it caught on is just gravy.

Since the majority of the questions have been addressed, what is one question that you wish someone would ask that they haven’t asked you before?

JD: There isn’t a question out there that hasn’t been asked to be honest with you, all the way down to a why I don’t sweat, and I do, I just hide it well.

The Season 3 Finale of Burn Notice, “Devil You Know”, will premiere this Thursday, March 4 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. It will guest star John Mahoney and Garrett Dillahunt. In this episode, Michael’s worst fears come to life when a world class terrorist is unleashed on Miami, threatening to detonate a bomb if Michael doesn’t give him what he wants.

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