For seven seasons, actor Jeffrey Donovan starred as Michael Westen in the crime drama Burn Notice, a series that stayed light on its feet with a mix of dry humour and the expected helping of style that comes in the on-screen espionage business.
In 2015, his bulked-up turn as the gruff mob enforcer Dodd Gerhardt in the second season of Fargo shifted his work into chillier territory, thanks to both his character’s penchant for violence and the dominant Midwestern weather patterns.
For his latest role, Donovan has shifted gears yet again for the Hulu original series Shut Eye.
Donovan plays Charlie Haverford, an amoral tarot card reader and failed magician who is trying to survive and provide for his family while operating in the crime syndicate that dominates his industry.
Oh, and after a blow to the head, Haverford begins having real visions of the future, which aren’t immediately as good for business as one might expect.
Last time I saw you, you were with the Gerhardts in Fargo. This is a bit of a departure.
Well, physically it’s a departure. Mentally, I think I’m still drawing from the same dark soul.
Yeah, Charlie’s not a particularly good guy, it seems.
No, he’s not, and I think that’s what’s interesting, and I’ve never played a character like this. For example, Dodd Gerhardt, from frame one to the last frame, will always be a bastard. Michael Westen, though he changed over seven seasons, at his heart was a good guy.
I think Charlie, at his centre, is actually a bad person. But I think, the arc is going to change him to become not only a good person but, I think the overall aim was to see if this morally corrupt deceiver could actually transform into a saint.
I know that sounds like a big arc, but that’s what we had in mind when we started the show.
Can someone who is robbing people of their life savings become rehabilitated through, for lack of a better word, spirituality?
How did you prepare for a role like this. Did you talk with fortune tellers?
Yeah, I corresponded with a mentalist who works in England, and he helped me kind of deal with the whole idea of persuading people through debunking your own industry.
Because that’s a subtle but fascinating angle that Charlie uses.
And then I also met with a palm reader and tarot card reader, and I watched her, how she would lay out the cards, how she would do what is called a cold reading – to assess someone off a first glance, a first impression and then be able to make judgments about who they are and persuade them to go down a certain path so they start hearing what they want to hear.
I watched her do that with me. It was kind of a trip – I was pretending to be a client while at the same time being an actor observing her and deceiving her while she was reading me as a civilian and trying to deceive me that she knew my future.
It was working on many different levels.
Had you ever visited a fortune teller before getting this role?
No, never. And you know I lived in New York City for 10 years and I lived in LA for five and those neon signs were everywhere. And just like anybody, you walk by and go, “Huh, I wonder.” And then you just keep walking.
And I don’t think anybody really expected it to be a massive criminal concern.
Nobody does. And you know it’s true. (Shut Eye creator) Les (Bohem) actually went to the LAPD, and he visited the fraud unit and said, “Hey, can I see your files on the psychics,” and he thought he was going to be given a file.
They opened up a closet – that was the supply of files they had amassed over a decade in LA alone of fraud.
One of the beautiful things about this show is the “cosmic joke,” where a con man like Charlie starts getting real visions of the future. But he doesn’t tell anybody. Why do you think that is?
He’s so terrified of his wife (laughs); she’s the alpha in their relationship. And there is a line that Charlie just does not want to cross, and that’s the dysfunction of their relationship. He doesn’t want to lose her, he doesn’t want to lose his son. It’s all fear: “If I tell you this, then you might leave me.”
It’s tough being under the thumb. I’ve never played a character that has been so run by others as much as Charlie.
One of the paradoxes that came up in this show is when Isabella Rosellini’s character calls Charlie “an honest liar.”
It’s a great line – it’s kind of on my wall of his superpowers. “As honest a liar as I have ever met,” meaning: “I know you’re lying to me, but how you come off is like you’re one of the most honest people I know. And I’m going to call you out when it benefits me.”
That’s her superpower, she sees through all the cons, she sees through everything.
Did you come out of this having more empathy for people who see people like Charlie or people who do what he does?
I’m not sure if that barometer changed. But what it did do was show me that we desire on the most base level someone to tell us we matter, our existence on this planet matters.
And that’s what I think religion provides, that’s what I think spirituality provides, and that’s what I think, in its own dark corner of our universe, what psychic readers and tarot card readers provide.
And when it does no harm? Meaning there’s no currency exchanged? I think it’s fine.
But when you pay for it, that’s where I think you get into a dark world. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Chris Barton