Amesbury native and star of TV’s Burn Notice Jeffrey Donovan attributes his success in Hollywood to his more humble North Shore roots. by Julia Quinn-Szcesuil – photograph by Jim Fiscus
When Jeffrey Donovan recalls his Amesbury childhood, he doesn’t wax poetic about Fourth of July celebrations or football pep rallies. Instead, he immediately praises former Amesbury High School English teacher Patty Hoyt, the woman who started him on his path to acting.
Donovan recalls that when he first started reading Shakespeare in Hoyt’s class, it was almost like trying to comprehend a foreign language. “She translated it and had me dig deeper,” Donovan says. With Shakespeare’s penchant for showing the subtly duplicitous ways of his characters, Donovan says his teacher peeled away the layers of the plays to expose the complicated workings of human emotions.
“It was a huge epiphany to realize there are so many levels to life and to myself,” Donovan says. “[Hoyt] lifted the veil on that.” Like many teens, Donovan says he did not yet understand the complexity of relationships, but by reading classic literature and connecting with it, Donovan found a new world. Hoyt’s influence put Donovan on a road that led him from Amesbury to a successful acting career that includes not only many roles and subsequent red carpet appearances, but also a happy life for Donovan.
Starring as Michael Westen in USA Network’s Burn Notice, the 44-year-old actor has a grueling schedule when his show is in production. Playing the lead in a weekly hour-long drama requires heavy commitment and high energy. From March through September, Donovan works 70-hour weeks, churning out shows in which he plays a spy who has been “burned” or blacklisted by the government that employed him. Cast out into a world where his cover is blown and his future uncertain, Donovan’s character uses his operative skills to earn money while he seeks out the source of his burn notice.
Now in its sixth season, the action-packed show suits Donovan just fine. “I have a great time playing him,” says Donovan of Westen. “It is a great role to sink my teeth into. The acting is different in every episode.”
The long hours are nothing new to Donovan, who diligently built his career with straightforward hard work. Donovan, who attended both UMass Amherst and New York University, spent years on New York stages fine-tuning his skills with each new role. He also amassed a lengthy array of stage, television, and eventually film appearances, all of which gave him a knack for adapting to the ever-changing environment of an acting career.
“Longevity is the most difficult thing in this profession,” says Donovan. “You have to maintain the pursuit of the next level.” And Donovan says much of his own drive comes from within. No one else can define his version of success or achievement, he says, because it changes every day and with every new role.
In the 1990s, Donovan appeared in several television shows with parts in the soap opera Another World, and drama series like Homicide, Law and Order, Crossing Jordan, and The Pretender, among others. But it was Donovan’s role as David Creegan on USA Network’s short-lived but well-received Touching Evil that gave him more recognition and a growing fan base. Playing a detective who returns to work after sustaining a head injury that leaves him emotionally unfiltered and fearless, Donovan’s work on the show was a segue into his current role on Burn Notice.
Donovan has earned acclaim for his work on the big screen as well, working with some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors, including Will SMith in Hitch and Angelina Jolie in Clint Eastwood’s 2008 movie Changeling. Although he had earlier parts in independent films, it was Book of Shadows: The Blair Witch Project 2 that put him in front of mainstream audiences in 2000. His most recent movie role was last year as Robert Kennedy in J. Edgar, another Eastwood-directed film, starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.
The responsibility for the lead character in Burn Notice is not one Donovan takes lightly. Donovan’s focus is constant, especially as fans anticipate new plots and more action.
“When I am working on the show,” Donovan says, “I am thinking, ‘How do I make the show better?’” The pursuit can be relentless. As his character changes with the script, Donovan must remain flexible, and he always seeks new approaches to make his character interesting, appealing, and true to the story line. But some of the traits are not hard for Donovan to call up. “Michael will do anything to protect his family,” Donovan says of his character, but his actions are firmly rooted in honor and faith.
Donovan’s work ethic and drive to continually make himself a better person and a finer actor is obvious. Not one to sit back and discuss his achievements, he would rather discuss the constant change his career requires and the pesky, elusive definition of success—one that is different for every person.
“If what you’re doing in life makes you happy, then you’re there,” he says. “As an actor, if that means that community theatre is your chosen venue, then that’s a good spot.” The key for him, he says, is to remain positive about what he’s doing.
Donovan, now living and working in Miami, says he returns to New England every year to visit and partake in a few things not found anywhere else. “I can get lobster [in Miami],” he says with a laugh, “but I can’t get steamers.” There is also a regional attitude that Donovan appreciates. “What is great about New England is you know what you are getting,” he says. Rather than hide an agenda, he believes New Englanders give it to you straight. “I like that kind of openness,” he says.
He recalls fondly things like driving up to New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway, pulling over, and camping out in a sleeping bag and a tent amid the glorious beauty of the region. The memories, he says, are something he appreciates even more as he gets older. “I am New England-raised and proud of it,” Donovan says.
But Donovan has also spoken openly about his childhood in Amesbury, during which his family struggled financially. Mindful of how one opportunity can change a student’s life, Donovan established the Jeffrey Donovan Scholarship for the Arts through the Amesbury Educational Foundation, Inc. in 2009. The $10,000 scholarship is awarded to a promising Amesbury High School student who plans to pursue a fine arts degree in college and who demonstrates financial need.
With an affinity for new avenues, Donovan, who has produced episodes of Burn Notice as well, was also an investor in and producer of the Broadway play Magic/Bird. The play, which finished its run this spring, explored the intense 1980s rivalry between L.A. Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Boston Celtics icon Larry Bird. The play explored how the two men, after years of professional basketball rivalry, eventually developed a friendship. The topic is close to Donovan’s heart. “Being from New England, I grew up in the Bird era,” he says. “That was a great time to be a sports fan in Boston.”
So what is Jeffrey Donovan’s next goal? “To just stay happy,” he says. “I know it sounds simple. I am happy with my life, and I love my career.”