MDA: articles

Jason Donovan

Jason Donovan: "I don't believe that the person who's the quickest and the brightest necessarily comes out with the best results."

Takes two

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 blonde soap star with the mullet haircut and the teeny bopper pinup seem long gone. But, every now and then, the boyish smile and the sunny spirit break through, especially when he talks about his family.

This is Jason Donovan, early resident of Neighbours' Ramsay Street, former pop singing 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 into drugs and, by his own colourful admission, "crashed the car". Now it looks like he's back on the road again.

A Melbourne-bred boy whose dreams came true beyond his wildest expectations, Donovan sees himself as incredibly lucky. For a while in the '90s, his name was a punchline. He was better known for passing out in nightclubs and for his libel suit against The Face magazine than he was for 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 with his children, Jemma and Zac, and partner, Angela Malloch, working on the new ABC medical-legal drama, MDA. When his name was announced, alongside those of Kerry Armstrong and Shane Bourne, the gasps of surprise were audible. Jason Donovan? In an ABC series? Nah. Couldn't be.

But it is, 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 the drug-addled interlude that he openly acknowledges, Donovan has always been a hard worker with a disciplined approach, which he says was instilled by his father, actor Terence Donovan. But he makes no pretence to be at ease with his craft, though there's a palpable passion for it. 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.

He's loved acting since his school days, but he says, "Dialogue has never come that easy. 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 who represents people who believe they've been badly treated by doctors and he's not an advocate to be treated lightly over a negotiating table. Those who regularly front him, like Dr Louella Davis (Armstrong) and Bill "Happy" Henderson (Bourne) from Medical Defence Australia, regard him with respect. "He's very good," Happy cautions a client in episode two. "Sharp. Clever. Quick." And, as Louella notes in the first episode, he also looks good in his expensive imported suits.

"Richard's fairly reptilian," explains Robyn 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 has had to work hard in order to feel that he's on top of all the technical terminology that has to roll easily from his character's lips. Savage talks about birth asphyxia, vaginal fistulas and "appalling negligence occasioned by illegal activity" with the ease with which most folks would discuss a photocopier paper jam.

"My character tends to come in as the fighter. 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," says Donovan. "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.

"You don't go and play tennis not having practised for every shot. It doesn't mean that you can say, 'I know where the guy's going to hit the ball.' But I suppose the good actors are the ones who can work with the ball going anywhere and bring it back into line. But shoulders down is always a good place to start.

 "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 at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, munching on a bag of salt and vinegar chips that's standing in for lunch after a morning in the ABC's Elsternwick studios, 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 as an interview location 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 small hours. And he's enjoying the routine. "I love clocking in. I'm definitely a morning person. I always had a problem with working evenings. I always liked the idea of getting up early and I like to work long hours."

The first, 22-part series of MDA will have him clocking in until October. He'd been offered a stint on The Bill, but coming back to Melbourne seemed a good move: one of his earliest roles was in the ABC production of I Can Jump Puddles in 1981. So there's a logic about returning to the place and the medium where it all began.

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, after she had Jemma, they drifted back together.

For the only child of a broken marriage, fatherhood was a turning point. "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.

"Then 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 Ange 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."

But he says that he doesn't look back with regret. "I don't think I'm living each day as if it were my last any more. 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."

Despite his years of exposure to the media, some of it scathing, Donovan remains disarmingly open. The only subject that's off-limits is that of his estranged mother, former ABC TV newsreader Sue McIntosh. People who worked with him back in the Neighbours days of the late '80s reckon he's still the sweet-natured and unaffected person he was then.

Certainly, his candour has worked to his disadvantage. While more cautious personalities have minders to check them quietly into clinics and issue press releases about fatigue, Donovan was more up-front. "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 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, he'll return to London. It might come as a surprise to those who think of him as that pretty-boy pop singer who went off the rails that 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 in Notting Hill to a mews house before the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant movie made it a fashionable address and sent the prices soaring, and he bought a beachfront apartment in Bondi before the boom and before Jamie Packer moved in down 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 has 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 premieres on Tuesday at 9.30pm on the ABC.


1985-1989 Neighbours. The wedding of Donovan's Scott to Kylie Minogue's Charlene becomes the highest-rated episode of a soap on Australian TV.

1988-1993: Releases single Especially for You with Kylie Minogue and follows up with four top-10 solo hits in the UK. Sells 13 million records worldwide.

1990: Awarded Best Male Solo Singer and Worst Male Solo Singer at the Smash Hits Awards.

1991-1993: Stars in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, becoming the highest earner in the history of London's West End.

1992: Sues The Face magazine and wins his libel case but waives damages of $A450,000.

1986-1995: Miniseries phase: Golden Pennies, The Heroes, Shadows of the Heart; The Last Bullet.

1998-2000 The Rocky Horror Show, tour of provincial England.

2002: Sings two tracks on the British dance act Cass and Slide's album.

2002: Horseplay: Melbourne-made movie shot late last year, starring Marcus Graham and Bill Hunter.

By Debi Enker
Picture: Julian Kingma
July 18, 2002
The Age