Photograph by Brian Smith/Corbis Outline
On this sunny morning at the Farmers Market, Jeffrey Donovan isn’t booby-trapping a doorway or defusing a bomb. He isn’t shaping cake frosting into blocks of counterfeit C4 authentic looking enough to fool an arms dealer or making an audio bug from a pair of cheap, rewired cell phones. No, the 42-year-old star of the number one show on cable—the wry spy drama Burn Notice—is simply reciting his recipe for vegetable soup. But since he’s already confided that he believes the best part of Burn Notice is that “nine times out of ten what we’re telling you is counterintuitive,” it’s easy to see his veggie brew as a metaphor.
“Take a lot of parsnips and carrots, summer squash—a medley. Then chop everything up, sauté it with a little bit of butter and olive oil, and boil it,” he says as he surveys rows of organic produce. “What most people do is make that their soup. No.”
This last directive he utters with a finality that fans of his USA Network series, whose fourth season premiered in early June, will recognize. Jaunty in a white formfitting T-shirt, gray suit pants, Puma sneakers, and a gray baseball cap, Donovan looks taut, like you could bounce a quarter off almost any part of his body. Not that you’d dare. His navy blue eyes squint slightly now as if to say: Pay attention. There might be a quiz later.
“What you do,” he continues, politely making way for an elderly shopper as she eases by with her cart, “is you boil it, strain it, then boil it some more. There’s going to be scum. Take the scum off. Then put that into the fridge. Then you come here”—he waves a muscled arm around the stalls at Fairfax Avenue and 3rd Street—“and buy what you’re going to put in the soup: more carrots, some green beans, a little onion, some celery, more squash. You can add a little pasta. Then I add fresh dill right at the end. Because you don’t want to cook dill.”
Anyone who’s watched Burn Notice, which follows a former spy named Michael Westen as he tries to figure out who issued the order (or “burn notice”) that got him expelled from his agency, will see the irony of taking cooking lessons from Donovan. His character, after all, keeps only one thing in his fridge: yogurt.
“You know the whole story about the yogurt?” Donovan asks. Apparently the show’s writers have an ex-intelligence operative on call as a consultant. “They asked him, ‘What do spies eat?’ And he said, ‘Protein in a cup.’ On surveillance you’re sitting in a car for 12 hours. So you pack a cooler. Yogurt has enzymes, cultures, proteins. It’s a perfect little meal.” A beat, then he adds: “I get pretty sick of it.”
Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of Burn Notice. It’s plugging along just fine without you, with 7 million viewers a week. Equal parts spy-games cool and slapstick funny, it’s been compared to MacGyver (for the homemade gadgetry), The Avengers (for Westen’s chemistry with his ex-lover Fiona, an Irish terrorist played by Gabrielle Anwar), and The Rockford Files (for Westen’s Mutt-and-Jeff relationship with a drunken FBI informant, played by Bruce Campbell). It also recalls the ’60s British series The Prisoner, starring the late, great Patrick McGoohan.
“I rented it for research,” Donovan says of that show. “I wanted to find these kind of fish-out-of-water flawed characters who cannot escape their own circumstances.” Donovan’s Westen, like McGoohan’s Number Six, is consistently confronting his previous employer in search of answers (Number Six is stuck on an island; Westen is trapped in Miami).
“He doesn’t enforce the law, he solves problems,” Donovan says of Westen. “He’s a rogue operative helping the little guy.”
Donovan relates to little guys. Raised in Amesbury, Massachusetts, he grew up on welfare after his mom left his dad, taking Donovan and his two brothers (he’s in the middle) with her. As a kid, he was a cutup. He discovered acting in high school after an English teacher attempted to have him focus by making him memorize Shylock’s “Hath Not a Jew Eyes?” speech.
An acting major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he went on to get his M.F.A. at New York University. Small roles on soaps led to Broadway, where he won praise (The New York Times once noted his “convincingly ragged charm”). But until Donovan moved to Los Angeles, on New Year’s Day 2002, he says he struggled. Nine months later he landed his first pilot, Touching Evil. “That changed the landscape,” he says.
Though that USA series was short-lived, the network liked Donovan enough to find him another vehicle, Burn Notice. A black belt in karate, the actor does most of his own stunts (thus the physique). Despite good reviews and a loyal viewership, the show has endured its share of ribbing, most notably on Saturday Night Live. Last season a skit revolved around “What Is Burn Notice?,” a mock game show on which three contestants, one of them played by Ashton Kutcher, try in vain to describe the program. Finally Kutcher blurts out, “Are they in Miami?”
The show is, in fact, shot on location. Donovan moved recently to Miami, though he still owns a house in Topanga Canyon, whose remoteness he adores. “I loved how hard it was to get there and how hard it was to come down off that mountain,” he says. “There’s an entire side of Topanga that gets no cell service. It’s a black hole. I love that.”
As for what else he loves, Donovan is amiably tight-lipped. “I’ve never spoken about my personal life,” he says. “It’s not that I’m so guarded. My life isn’t that juicy. I’m not in the tabloids. I’m not stumbling out of clubs.” Of paparazzi, he says, “I don’t understand these stars who are going ‘Why won’t they leave me alone?’ Well, because you’re shopping on fucking Robertson and Rodeo! There are other places to shop. Or, ‘I just can’t stand it when the paparazzi take photos of my kids.’ You’re in the Malibu playground where all the paparazzi wait for you to bring your child!”
Now Donovan’s assessing green and purple kale. “It’s really good for you. Chop it up. Squeeze a few lemons into the leaf,” he advises. He’s equally as clear about the best way to manage a career. “You don’t want to be a flash. As fast as you rise in this business is as fast as you fall,” he says as we wander past Pampas Grill, the Brazilian barbecue place he calls “my favorite restaurant.” Like Clint Eastwood, who directed him in the 2008 film Changeling, Donovan is directing now as well as acting (he did the third episode of this season’s Burn Notice). But he’s in no rush. “If it takes me 20 years to rise in this business, then hopefully it’s another 20 years till my demise. That’s a good 40 years. Then I can retire.”