We had a chance to chat with Jay Karnes and Ben Shenkman (who play Brennan and Tom Strickler respectively) from USA’s Burn Notice at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con!
Is this the first Comic Con for you guys?
Jay Karnes: It is for me.
Ben Shenkman: It is, yeah.
What’s your experience like so far?
Jay Karnes: Watching Bruce Campbell. I’m just in awe.
Ben Shenkman: The energy in that room was astonishing, I’ve done Q and A’s before, and stuff like, you know when the TV show gets launched, and you go out and do the junkets with a room full of TV writers and stuff like that. That’s sort of what I was imagining.
Jay Karnes: Yeah, the TCA’s. That kind of feel. And this was just like wow.
Ben Shenkman:There’s a lot of enthusiasm.
Jay Karnes: It was that energy, and then the way Bruce played it off was just amazing.
Was there a different vibe because the show is shot in Miami whereas most shows are filmed in L.A.?
Jay Karnes: Uh, Yeah. I mean in a sense. I mean television sets are within a basic frame of pretty much all the same. And I often find that you either have a healthy set, or an unhealthy set. And there is isn’t a lot of grey area. Burn Notice is a very healthy set in my opinion. Rational behavior is rewarded. There aren’t a lot of tantrums and people storming off. There weren’t any tantrums that I saw.
Ben Shenkman: And people are happy working on it. And it’s nice because the show is its first flush of like really, real success. It’s exciting to be around a set when that’s happening. You feel everyone there. You feel their pride in the show, and their pride in its popularity, and it’s great. It hasn’t gotten tired. And the show itself is fun, there’s a spirit of fun in the show. It’s not a heavy show. It’s about the audience having fun and the actors having fun, and it’s a fun place.
Jay Karnes: And what’s so great about it, and we’ve talked about this before, but that there is a very serious undercurrent to the show and I don’t think it works without that. Without that spy stuff that they deal with. It’s the spy who came in from the cold, with noel coward rippling across the top of it. And you take away either one of those elements and I don’t think it works nearly as well as it does.
With that said, coming off The Shield, in that sense of anarchy, is it nice to do something that deals with crime, but is not going to make you feel horrible.
Karnes -The funny thing, we’ve talked about this a lot, and I thought about it a lot. Holland Wagenbach, unique individual, goal for an actor to play, Brennen’s just fun. Lots of times, Wagenbach was just hard. The hum v, like the wolf stuff, it’s hard for me to watch now. Ill blush if I see that now. Brennen’s just so much fun to play and to bounce off of with most of myself who is with Michael Westen and to that was just really enjoyable and no having to delve into those dark places.
Ben Shenkman: I had a very similar thing too. The last thing I had done was Grey’s Anatomy where things worked out very badly for my character. That’s tough stuff. That’s a show where the fun is allocated to the regular characters and the grief is allocated to the guest actors very religiously. This was different. It was wonderful being a person who was sort of in on the fun of it, as dangerous as it got, and as intense as it got.
There’s a better wardrobe in the show to say the least.
Jay Karnes: Yeah, could it be any worse?
Ben Shenkman: Although I had a wardrobe scare when I got there and the guy said, “Oh, I think they were just going to have you in a Speedo.” Because they were shooting something on a boat. Before I could sort of say no. They changed their mind.
Jay Karnes: Did they really use the word Speedo?
Ben Shenkman: Yes, they did.
Jay Karnes: Wow! Wow!
Ben Shenkman: Is there another term you could use that’s more appropriate?
Jay Karnes: I’m so sorry that choice was not made, because I would really enjoy that, and holding it over your head.
The show has all this advice given to you by Michael Westen about how to be a spy. Have you ever asked Matt Nix where he finds all this stuff, and where it all comes from?
Ben Shenkman: That came up today in the panel. A surprising amount is on the internet.
Jay Karnes: It’s very interesting to me, sort of getting to know Matt, that he’s very interested in not specifically in the world of espionage, but in the world of history and Sun Tzu and the art of Machiavelli. All of that sort of world. Which, once you hear that, you realize that fits on top of this very well. You can see how someone with those interest would create a show like this. Sort of spin it for a modern audience. It is that sort of universal idea of getting information or pursuing something.
Ben Shenkman: The art of tactics
Jay Jay Karnes: Yeah, yeah
Jay, you’ve been on the show twice, and they are about to film the last four episodes, are you in the last four?
Jay Karnes: I am not.
They must like you despite Matt calling you monkey more than once; do you think you’ll be back?
Jay Karnes: Um, well I always joke that the most important line in the episode is, “You’ll hear from me again.” I’ve said that both times now. So, I assume I will be back. I don’t know. There talking about Brennen coming back and really upping the stakes. I like that idea. I also like the idea, although it would take a deft hand to write it, of Brennen coming back as the client.
Brennen being forced to work with Michael, what do you hate when you guys have such a good vibe? The hate that you feel towards Michael is so beautiful.
Jay Karnes: He’s marvelous to work with, and so dry. You went to school with him.
Ben Shenkman: I did, I’ve known him for years.
Jay Karnes: Has he always had that dry sort of wit?
Ben Shenkman: No, actually.
Jay Karnes: Really?
Ben Shenkman: He, in school, was uh-Well this is for the record, so I, you know. But uh, no, no, actually one of the things that I do remember about Jeffery as a student – we weren’t in the same class – I was in the class ahead of him, was that he was tremendously enthusiastic. He was not someone who tried to be cool. He was not blase or laid back. He was hungry for the work, for the writing, for the language and I’m not surprised that its worked out for him. That’s the thing more than anything else that I think you need is a real appetite for the work. Even now, there’s not a lazy or complacent bone in his body. He is watching the entire mechanism around him and constantly thinking about, not only creatively what decisions are the right ones, but also he’s thinking like a producer. He’s thinking about marshaling your energy over a certain amount of time. Not just his, the entire day he’s realizing what decisions now are going to hurt us later, or compromise us later because of time or logistics. To be able to do that, and handle the performance, I mean it’s very easy to get in a luxurious bubble and say, “What am I doing? What’s my line?” Do your line, take your money and go back to your trailer and let everyone else worry about everything else. He’s the opposite of that. He’s constantly massaging the whole process.
Jay Karnes: I had that experience working with him. He is one of the most camera smart actors I’ve ever experienced. He really does cut in his head.
Ben Shenkman: He’s doing as an actor what that character does as a spy. He is thinking two or three steps ahead.
Jay Karnes: I’ve heard Matt Nix say that without Jeffery Donovan as the lead role, you couldn’t shoot that on the money. You couldn’t shoot Burn Notice with the budget that they have. You know the expression of having extra coach on the field? He’s like having another producer in the ensemble.
Ben Shenkman: He literally, I think, is a producer of this season. He has a producer credit, which he earned.
Do you guys find that he’s given you pointers?
Jay Karnes: No, and in our world that’s a no-no. Actors don’t give other actors notes. You get into a weird place where sometimes when a person is a producer, or number one on the call sheet, that sometimes they will give a note. It can really be kind of a funky thing. But Jeffery does not do that.
Interview By: Emma Loggins