Jeffrey Donovan Talks 'Shut Eye,' the Joys of Binge-Watching and the "Huge Toll" His 'Fargo' Role Took

The actor previews Hulu's new psychic drama and discusses the reading he received for the role.
Trae Patton/Hulu/Sony Pictures Television
Jeffrey Donovan in 'Shut Eye'

Jeffrey Donovan returns to the small screen as the star of Hulu's first-year psychic drama Shut Eye, but once again the veteran actor is going against expectations.

Two years after ending his seven-season run as whip-smart ex-spy Michael Westen on Burn Notice, Donovan finds himself on the opposite side of the law, playing a con-man psychic named Charlie Haverford on the darkly comedic series. A failed magician, Charlie now oversees a number of fortune-teller parlors in Los Angeles for a Romani kingpin. However, his perspective on his work and life is forever altered when he begins to have visions that may or may not be real.

Shut Eye is just the latest unpredictable turn for Donovan, who last year earned acclaim for his turn as criminal Dodd Gerhardt on the second season of FX's anthology darling Fargo.

"I love the fact that I've been allowed, or at least given the opportunity, to play a role that I haven’t ever played before and they're drastically different," Donovan tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I don't think people are given that opportunity enough and I've been blessed to be given that chance."

Before Hulu drops all 10 episodes of Shut Eye's first season on Wednesday, Donovan also spoke with THR about getting his own reading done for the first time, the "freedom" of working with Hulu and how his Fargo role inadvertently impacted his performance in Rob Reiner's upcoming biopic LBJ.

How were you first approached about this? Were you looking to do TV again?

I wasn’t necessarily looking to do TV again, except I had done Fargo and, no disrespect to the rest of television, I didn't consider that TV. (Laughs.) I consider that a 10-hour movie. I'm very script-oriented. I don't care if it's a movie or a TV show, I really am attracted to story and when Hulu sent the script, I really responded to the premise of, what are fake psychics doing? Is it all scams? Is it everyone just trying to make a buck? Or are they really trying to help people? And that's when I wanted to talk to [Shut Eye creator] Les [Bohem] about that and that's when he told me about how the gypsies — but they don't like that term — control almost all their tarot cards shops in Los Angeles, so I didn't know that there was kind of a mafia behind it. Though, again, they would never admit that. And that's when Les finally said, when he went to visit the LAPD, he said, "Do you have any files I could look at?" And they said, "Yeah, that room over there." It was just a huge room of files on all of these people that just got scammed. So, yeah, it was just remarkable that we didn't know about it.

What kind of research did you do once you signed on for the role?

Obviously I needed to go get my reading done and I had never had that done. It's not a world that I was very familiar with. So I went and met with a psychic and had her read my cards. I studied her — she didn't know that, obviously. And I went in and interestingly enough, she was so pleasant and so nice and nothing like the L.A. kind of psychics that people talk about that are scamming us. They wanted to really get to know me and they were really very much almost like a friend. I realized that is such a great way to disarm me, just to make me feel like I'm not being taken advantage of, I'm not getting a reading done. It was more like just a conversation, so that was a big thing that I took from them: Just be it real, keep it a conversation and let that person get disarmed to start revealing who they are. That's when you start to analyze their answers and start to manipulate them down a road that they can believe, actually, that their fortune is being told.

What was the reading that you got? Any details that stand out?

It wasn't mind-blowing, let me just say that. (Laughs.) What it was was she kind of asked very general questions, which are very leading questions. It's called a cold reading and we talk about that in the show. And once that cold reading was done, she tried to bring me down a certain path and that path was, obviously, she was trying to lead me with leading questions and she wanted the affirmative and if she ever heard something that was negative, meaning it wasn't right, she would quickly move over it to something else. The example is, I was about to go do this show, she didn't know that. I was about to move my family — she didn't know that. And when I said I have a move coming up, and she said, yes, and you're taking your family. And I said yes, which was an easy question to answer. And she said, but you have family where you're moving, and I said actually we'll know no one. She said, yes, that's right.

I didn't let her know I had picked up on it. It was that very interesting little side stuff, as I called it: We're going down a road — if it's a negative, sidestep — keep it going, keep it positive.

I ask because a good amount of people watching the show might be unfamiliar with this world. It's not something you see on TV very often.

That's why I wanted to do it. There was nothing like Burn Notice on before Burn Notice, if you look at it. There were no spy capers. There were no kind of clandestine ... but with a cheeky tone to it. There was nothing like it. So that's what I wanted to do. Then, with Fargo obviously, you just wanted to be in that pedigree. You're just honored to be selected. Then if I were to return to something that wasn't a movie, then this was something that really was interesting to me because, yet again, it wasn't like anything on television again, and I don't think the tone is on television.

The Fargo character was a huge departure from what you had played for so many years on Burn Notice. When you were looking at this character of Charlie, how did you figure on the spectrum compared to your previous roles? What specific traits appealed to you?

Though Michael Westen was dysfunctional and certainly Dodd Gerhardt was incredibly dysfunctional, Charlie isn't dysfunctional; he's damaged, and that's what I found really fascinating. He wasn't the alpha in the room. I look at [co-star] KaDee's [Strickland] character, Linda, as the more powerful person in the relationship, and I've never really played that kind of a role before where I was subservient, I was the weaker of the power struggle and he's put upon by Fonzo [Angus Sampson], he's put upon by Rita [Isabella Rossellini], he's even put upon by his wife. He goes along with it because I think this guy is so lost — he was a magician, he failed, but he was living in a world of illusion and I think he got caught up in believing that he was powerful but he realized, I think he realized, that he doesn’t have these powers. And he said, "Well, if I'm not going to have them, then I'll fake that I have them" and I think that's where he got into this whole psychic world and the tarot card-reading world. Because he had an affability to him, he had a disarming quality to him, he wasn't threatening and so that was really, really cool. Michel was threatening, Dodd was threatening and Charlie's probably the least threatening person you'll ever meet.

I think a lot of people were surprised to see a turn from a show like Burn Notice to Fargo, and you received such acclaim. After showing this different side, how much of a change did you see in the types of projects you were approached with coming out of that?

Part of my career is that I play roles that I think people go, "Oh, that's what he must be like." That's my job — is to make you think that's who I am, that's how I am, those are close traits. I was never as smart as Michael Westen, he was always the smartest guy in the room. Dodd Gerhardt was the most dangerous guy in the room. I put on 45 pounds to play Gerhardt. I worked out for four months doing dead lifts and squats with a professional trainer and ate 5,000 calories a day. I truly wanted to see if I had it in me the ability to transform into someone. Though it was incredibly positive, the response I got, it took such a huge toll on me that I really didn't know what was going to happen, on my body and on my mind and on my spirit. It was such a hard role to inhabit. And when that came out, the other roles that were offered to me — they weren't all Gerhardts and things like that. And after Michael Westen, they certainly weren't spies. I wasn't offered James Bond by the way, I just want you to know. (Laughs.)

You talked about the toll Fargo took on you. When you wrapped that project, how did you come out of that and make sure you were ready, both emotionally as well as physically, to move onto the next thing?

It took me almost four months to gain the 45 pounds, but it only took me four weeks to lose it. That wasn't conscious, I wasn't trying to, it's just my body type actually is very acclimated to be on the slimmer side, so gaining the weight was actually harder than anything I had ever done. What I didn’t realize — and this is way too much info, I'm sure — but I didn’t realize I actually tore my labrum in my hip while lifting such heavy weights. I was lifting, I was doing 300-pound squats. That's something I've never done before, and it's a lot of weight and what it did was I accidentally tore my labrum and I didn’t know it because the muscle around it had compensated so well that when I lost the muscle tone, the injury revealed itself and I couldn't walk very well for two months.

Then, interestingly, Rob Reiner cast me as John F. Kennedy in LBJ and I had to transform to become him, and the interesting thing in my research for that was the back injury that was hidden from the American public of how bad Kennedy's back was, and how it affected his walk and his gait and his posture. So I kind of used the injury and kind of researched what the walk and the pain he would be going through, and it was not exact, but it was similar enough that I could draw upon the injury to play Kennedy.

It must have been interesting to go between these two very distinct, very different accents.

Absolutely, and I credit my dialect teacher, Deb Hecht. She helped me find the Dodd way of talking in that Minnesota Fargo accent, and then I had to break out of that to do Kennedy and to say that they're opposites is an understatement. ... What I had to do was completely change the way I physically made sounds, and when I first started to do that Kennedy speech, it sounded very Dodd-like. (Laughs.) It was so bad. I had a bad Fargo accent doing Kennedy. No one really wanted to hear it, my wife especially. She was like, "Please stop talking like that."

You talked about moving your wife and family for this role in Shut Eye. When you were approached about the project, Hulu was just starting to get into original series. What were your initial thoughts about Hulu as a platform that made you want to do it and gave you that confidence to make these changes?

Well, you never know. I mean, listen, did we think Burn Notice, the pilot, that it was going to go seven years and over 100 episodes? You just never know. But what I knew is I wanted to work with Johan Renck, who directed the pilot. I wanted to work with [producers] Melissa Bernstein and Mark Johnson from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I wanted to work with Sony and I wanted to work with Hulu because I knew they were an emerging market and were going to put a lot of money into making a great, great product. Then when the cast started being formed — KaDee and Susan Misner and then David Zayas and Angus Sampson and Isabella Rossellini. The cast started coming together. I realized they were going after real actors; real, good, top-quality actors that were not the obvious choices. I've always not been the obvious choice. I feel like they were finding niche actors to fill these niche roles and create this whole new world that hadn’t been seen, so it made me very excited to do the series.

There's a lot of freedom that can come with being on a Hulu or a Netflix because you can do episodes of different lengths. There are no censors. Did you find that to be true when you read the scripts and when you were filming?

Freedom is a word that we felt, definitely. I think that the world itself needed that freedom. It is a whole new world. We're creating something that really hasn't been seen. We're kind of lifting the veil on this gypsy-controlled tarot-card world. These are scam artists and it's kind of hidden, so we had a lot of freedom because it was necessary. Hulu's been so supportive from day one. The phone call I received to say, "Hey, this is something that we want you to create. We hired a bunch of artists we believe in, so go and make it and I'm sure we'll love it." And it seems like they do.

Shut Eye is one of the first Hulu shows where the entire first season will be released on the same day to encourage binge-viewing. What are your thoughts on that model?

I think the traditional model is weekly, and I think that that came out of the limited choices. Ten years ago there wasn't really as much competition. To allow yourself to watch three of four episodes a night and get through a season in a couple of weeks — though before 10 years ago, that was unheard of — I think it's an interesting model because it allows you to consume something the way you want to rather than the way someone dictates it. Whether it's good or bad, I don't know. I know that I prefer it. I know my wife and I, we sit and go, "Well, the episode's over, we can't watch another. Yes, we can, press play." Especially with kids, we can't make a weekly nine o'clock, let's just watch this. With your schedule and responsibilities you have, you might have only a three-hour window a week, and we just kind of cram all of our shows in that three-hour window.

What are the two of you watching or binging right now?

We just finished Stranger Things. We loved it, one of our favorite shows. It was awesome. We just started Better Things, we loved that. It's hysterical. We started Chance, we really like that. And my wife really liked The Path last year. I know I'm saying Hulu shows, but we wanted to watch a lot of the Hulu stuff because we wanted to see what they were doing so, we just happened to be binge-watching a lot of that stuff.

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Shut Eye's entire first season will be available Wednesday on Hulu.

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