MDA: articles

Jason Donovan

A long way from Ramsay Street… Jason Donovan as Richard Savage in MDA.

Return of the prodigal son

Jason Donovan's back in his home town, playing it straight in the ABC's new medico-legal drama MDA. "As long as I'm not trying to be cool, I'm going to be happy," he tells Debi Enker.

His brown hair is cropped short and his hairline is receding. His beard is trimmed tight. His face looks lived in, and those brown eyes look like they've stared down some demons. The soap star with the blond mullet and the pop star pin-up are both long gone. Every now and then, though, the boyish smile and sunny spirit break through, especially when he talks about his family.

This is Jason Donovan - early resident of Neighbours' Ramsay Street, former pop sensation and one-time West End musical star - at 34. The father of two children under the age of three, he's a performer who found fame and fortune fast, veered off track and, by his own colourful admission, "crashed the car". Now it looks like he's back on the road again.

Donovan sees himself as incredibly lucky. For a while in the ‘90s, his name was a punchline. He was better known for his libel suit against The Face magazine and passing-out in public than any work he was doing on stage or screen. Now he's found his focus and says he no longer lives each day as if it were his last.

Donovan is back in his home town of Melbourne with his children, Jemma and Zac, and partner Angela Malloch, working on the new ABC medico-legal drama, MDA. When his name was announced, alongside those of Kerry Armstrong and Shane Bourne, there were gasps of surprise. Jason Donovan? In an ABC series? Nah. Couldn't be.

But it's true, and Donovan and his employers couldn't be happier.

"When I saw the audition tape, there was no question," says the ABC's head of drama, Robyn Kershaw. "He'd done so much work. You could tell that he had worked through a number of different ways of looking at the material, and he delivered. There were three audition scenes and he did them three different ways, with some throwaway stuff at the end. There's a work ethic that you can definitely see in Jason as an actor."

With the exception of a drug-addled interlude that he openly acknowledges, Donovan has always been a hard worker, with a disciplined approach instilled by his father, actor Terence Donovan. He has a palpable passion for acting, but makes no pretence of being at ease with his craft. He's not the type to amble on to the set late, glance at the script and hope that his God-given talent will carry him through.

"Dialogue has never come that easy," Donovan admits. "I was never one of those kids who could read a text book and suddenly understand a mathematical equation. I always had to work pretty hard.

"I've been very disciplined. That comes from school. I didn't perceive myself as a gifted learner - I had to put in the hours to get the results. But I don't believe that the person who's the quickest and the brightest necessarily comes out with the best results."

On MDA, Donovan plays Richard Savage, and the name is no accident. He's a proficient lawyer, representing those who believe they've been badly treated by doctors. He's not an advocate to be taken lightly.

"Richard's fairly reptilian," explains Kershaw. "He's capable of absolutely anything, depending on the situation. He can be ruthless, brutal, savage, and he has an ability to connect with like-minded individuals. There's an intelligence there that is very much about seeing what he can get from a situation. We're totally thrilled and delighted that Jason can carry it off. He's got that sort of big-screen charisma and he has an extraordinary voice."

As Savage, Donovan talks low and slow. He projects quiet power and unexpected intensity. But the actor had to work hard to get on top of all the technical terminology that rolls so easily from his character's lips. Savage talks about birth asphyxia, vaginal fistulas and "appalling negligence occasioned by illegal activity" with the ease most folks discuss a photocopier paper jam.

"My character tends to come in as the fighter," Donovan says. "I'm putting up the argument most of the time and I have to be precise, and I have to have strength in that precision. I'm sure that in something like The Secret Life of Us, where it's a more social interaction, maybe you could get away with the odd change here or there. But with MDA, if you're on the floor and they're running an hour behind and you're not quite on top of the dialogue, you panic. You're suddenly lying about what you're saying; you're not in the moment.

"As soon as I get the script, I start learning the words. A lot of people look at it the night before; not this guy. I just can't. I want to be ready, up to the best performance I can get. My father goes through my lines with me almost every night. And if I've covered all the ground going in, I've got the best chance of coming through with that focus. Do you know what I mean? Focus is a really important thing for me in this job and an important thing for me at this time in my life."

Sitting at a table in the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, munching on a bag of chips after a morning in the studio, Donovan is a little edgy but keen to answer questions helpfully and fully. He says "Do you know what I mean?" a lot, as though he's unsure whether he's making sense.

He's chosen this location for the interview because it's become part of his life in Melbourne after 12 years of living mainly in London. He visits regularly for gym-and-swim sessions. He jokes that he's put his body through a lot of punishment, so this is his attempt to do something good for it, although he still can't kick the smoking habit.

Other vices, however, seem to have been forsaken. Now, he's more likely to be found at night at home with a glass of red wine in his hand and a script on his lap than out clubbing until the wee hours.

It seems fatherhood was the turning point for this only child of a broken marriage (his mother is former Melbourne ABC newsreader Sue McIntosh - the only subject that's off limits for this interview). "It's turned me right around," he says. "I've been a little reckless, I suppose, in my life. Being a dad made me look at the long distance rather than the sprint. Do you know what I mean? The reality of their needs forces me to go back to where I was when I first came out of school, the direction I was trying to forge for my life."

Donovan met the mother of his children while they were working on The Rocky Horror Show in England. He was doing a stint in high heels as Dr Frank-N-Furter and she was the stage manager. Although their relationship had ended before she found out she was pregnant, they drifted back together after she had Jemma.

He sees his relationship with Malloch as a stabilising influence. "The whole fame thing came along, and I was trying to deal with what was on my plate, which was more than I'd ever dreamed of. It led me on a different course and Anj made me stop and look at my actions and made me responsible for my actions. The children are really a by-product of that and they're the best things that I've got. Emotionally, physically, financially, educationally - it's the whole package, and I feel that I want to see this through clear eyes.

"I don't think I'm living each day as if it were my last anymore. But I don't regret the ‘crashing the car' phase. I figure I needed a bit of time to be able to do what I wanted to do and I wasn't affecting too many people at that time. But there just came a natural resolution, without a rehab sort of situation, of getting myself back on track. I just got bored.

"I look back on that phase of my life and I wouldn't wave a flag about it, but somehow I'm not too worried about it. I think the media probably made a bigger deal of it. Had I been not as known, I'd just have been another brick in the wall."

People who worked with Donovan back in the late-'80s on Neighbours reckon he's the same sweet-natured, unaffected person he was then. Despite his years of exposure to the media, some of it scathing, he remains disarmingly open. While more cautious personalities have minders to check them quietly into clinics and issue press releases about fatigue, Donovan has always been up-front about his personal life.

"I'd rather be honest and be crucified for that than be dishonest and be caught out," he says. "I don't see why I should have to lie. I'm not trying to fluff up my life and be someone I'm not. One of my sayings is: 'Three chords and the truth'. Keep it simple, try not to complicate things too much. I'm not trying to rule the world."

Now, both the philosophy and the lifestyle seem straightforward - learn the lines, clock on, focus. When the first series of MDA finishes shooting in October, he'll return to London. It might come as a surprise to those who think of him as that pretty-boy pop star who went off the rails, but he's invested wisely in property, here and abroad.

"I made a few good investments in my moments of craziness," he says with evident satisfaction. He traded up from a flat to a mews house in Notting Hill before the movie made it a fashionable address and sent prices soaring, and he bought a beachfront apartment in Bondi before the boom and before James Packer moved in up the street.

Now, as he muses about one day buying a cottage in the English countryside, he says, "England's been great for me; the pound's been great."

And as he travels, he's found out something valuable about himself. "As long as I'm not trying to be cool, I'm going to be happy. I spent too long trying to be cool and that's maybe where the crashing of the car came into play. Now I've got kids, I've got what I perceive as a career, I've got focus. Now it's just building the blocks. And I'm pretty instinctive. I tend to jump.

"Jump, you might fly, is sort of my attitude. Do you know what I mean?"

MDA begins on the ABC this Tuesday at 9.30pm.

By Debi Enker
July 22 2002
The Sydney Morning Herald