Character actor Jeffrey Donovan likes the idea that ‘Honest Thief’ has more heart than action
Jeffrey Donovan had a busy start to his professional acting career. It began 25 years ago, with a part in an Off-Broadway production of “Troilus and Cressida.” Before 1995 ended, he also had a role as a doctor on an episode of “As the World Turns,” starred as a two-bit drug dealer in the (little-seen) feature film “Throwing Down,” and played twins (one of which was a vicious killer) on “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
Trained as a stage actor at University of Massachusetts and later the Tisch School of Arts in New York, the Amesbury, Massachusetts, native made the decision early on to stick with acting. That resulted in a career of steady work in TV and film, usually with small roles, and then a seven-season run starring as the discredited spy Michael Westen in the action-crime show “Burn Notice.” He also had the singular experience of playing Robert F. Kennedy in the film “J. Edgar,” and John F. Kennedy in the film “LBJ,” and had a great run as the mobster Dodd Gerhardt on the second season of “Fargo.”
In the upcoming cop-criminal film “Honest Thief,” Donovan is veteran FBI agent Meyers, whose marriage is falling apart just as he’s getting involved in the case of a safecracker (Liam Neeson) who wants to turn himself in after meeting and falling for a woman (Kate Walsh). Donovan was pleasantly surprised that after reading the script, it was not quite what he expected it to be. He spoke about the film by phone from his home in Colorado.
Q. Can you recall first sitting down to read the script, and your reactions to it?
A. I got a phone call or an email saying that the script was being sent to me, and that they wanted to know my thoughts on it. They didn’t sugarcoat it or preface it with anything, so they could let me have my own take on it. When I read it, I read what you see on the screen. I saw a lot of heart, which I don’t think people will walk in expecting. I thought the film was trying to go a little deeper than typical action popcorn fare.
Q. So, did you jump right in or did you have questions about it?
A. First I had a discussion with (director and cowriter) Mark Williams. He said, “I’m not an action guy, that’s not what I’m interested in doing. I’m trying to find what it means to ask for forgiveness and figure out how can love change someone’s heart, things like that.”
Q. He sold it to you as a love story?
A. Not exactly. I was impressed that it was at first a crime film that had some action in it, but as it went along it turned out to have a love story at the center of it. As far as the way he pitched my character, he said he thought Meyers was on the opposite spectrum of what the hero (Tom) was going through. Tom is finding love and redemption, and Meyers is losing love. He said, “I think you guys are going to try to feed off of that with each other.” So, I took it as two sides of the same coin.
Q. How different is the Meyers in the film from the one you first saw on the page?
A. It’s not all that different from the page. I would do certain things and they might not have been exactly the way he had envisioned it, then we would discuss them and I would do some of them the way he suggested it, and we would always come up with what would be a collaboration. I’d say that the main difference in Meyers from what was on the page is that I brought more of a sense of humor to the role. Mark said he hadn’t thought of him that way, but really liked what I was doing with it, that it made him a more interesting and inviting character.
Q. There are some moments in the film where you’re silent, just sitting and staring and thinking, yet we know what’s going on in your head. Was that an example of you doing some inner acting, or were you being directed closely?
A. Thank you for noticing that. I’m really glad you got what the character was thinking. Most of those scenes are made up of what I came up with. But there’s a specific one, where I’m talking to two junior FBI agents, and something has gone wrong in my character’s life. Mark said, “You need to be thinking about that while you’re talking with and reacting to them, and let it be seen on your face, because that shows that you work in a job that has a lot of consequences that you have to deal with.” So that was some real collaboration.
“Honest Thief” opens in theaters on Oct. 16.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.