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Jimmy Smits on His Role of John Donovan on ’24: Legacy’
February 20, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Jimmy Smits (top) doesn’t see his presidential candidate character on Fox’s 24: Legacy reflecting any real-life political figures. He seems a little relieved by that.

“None of what’s happening on the show is intended to parallel that soap opera [in Washington],” Smits told TV writers Friday. “Our scripts were written months ago. But sometimes it happens. Life parallels art; art parallels life.”

He does think that his John Donovan on 24: Legacy, which airs Mondays at 8 p.m. ET, accurately captures a broader truth about political life.

“The role is realistic in the way a lot of people come to politics with very idealistic ideas of how you want to do good,” he says. “But in the process of being diplomatic, dealing with the whole political machine, you start having to be mindful of compromise. There’s the whole thing of negotiation.”

Not surprisingly, ideals and promises can be as much of a moving target on 24: Legacy as they are in the real world. Smits’s Donovan is formulating security policies, and making security promises, at the same time terrorists are actively planning a major attack.

You’d think he might have the inside track to intel on that situation since his wife, Rebecca Ingram (Miranda Otto, right, with Smits), has spent the last several years running the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) that is in charge of monitoring and ideally thwarting potential attacks.

As it happens, Rebecca is stepping down from that post to become a full-time supportive candidate’s wife.

But stepping down, too, is a relative thing, and several potentially deadly loose ends keep Rebecca’s hand in the game. Specifically, she’s still working with Eric Carter (Corey Hawkins), an ex-Ranger who, on her watch, led a raid that killed a major terrorist leader.

There’s now been a security breach that threatens Carter and the other Rangers, so Rebecca and Eric aren’t saying much to anyone. Including presidential candidate John Donovan.

Smits says that kind of secrecy, which Rebecca sees in this case as essential, has wider and richer implications for the show.

“What Miranda and I talk about all the time is exploring the whole thing about being a power couple,” says Smits. “The realm of this show is politics. But it’s really about how two people who are at the highest levels in any field navigate their work and make space for the other person. Rebecca is very successful, but now she’s taken a step back to let Donovan flourish.

“In both their jobs they also have to keep secrets, which will become a very important element as the show goes along.”

Smits says that in any case, he didn’t sign on to this latest incarnation of the 24 franchise to make political statements.

“It wasn’t the political nature of the role that attracted me,” he says. “It was more the genre of the show. It was something I hadn’t done much of.”

Smits has played politicians before, notably Matthew Santos (left) on The West Wing. Santos was shown being elected president at the end of that series, and Smits laughs when asked what Santos would think of real-life politics today.

“He’s be crawling up the wall,” Smits says.

Smits himself has also played a lawyer on L.A. Law, a detective on NYPD Blue, a peripheral gangster on Sons of Anarchy and an ADA on Dexter. Not to mention Senator Bail Organa in three Star Wars prequels.

“I get stopped on the street by people who remember things from all different decades,” says Smits. “On any given day, someone could say, ‘You’re in 24,’ someone could say I’m a lawyer, a kid could ask me if I’m really in Star Wars.

“I’m glad I’ve got that panoramic effect, and I’m glad I’ve done characters who are enigmatic. But people don’t really know my everyday life, which is much, much different than any character I play.”

John Donovan, he says, is developing.

“As you saw in the pilot,” he says, “the character started out fairly sketchy. So I’ve added a lot. I had to make internal adjustments” to help give him greater dimension.

While Donovan starts inside the well-mannered bubble in which serious politicians almost always prefer to operate, 24 has never shied away from visceral violence once its bad guys get rolling.

Smits acknowledges that history and while he refrains from giving out any spoilers, he says that as they’re filming the final scenes of the season, “I’ve been on a lot of anti-inflammatories.”

He adds that with the season almost wrapped, he’s been impressed with 24: Legacy, and the way its diversity spreads past a black central character and a Latino presidential candidate.

“I also love the fact that the women are pro-active and move the story forward,” he says.

With regard to Latinos in the broader television picture, an issue on which Smits has spoken out in the past, he says, “It’s a process. As the numbers are increasing, there’s a lot to learn from what the African-American community is experiencing now, a resurgence in terms of characters and stories.

“And it’s not just about being in front of the camera. When you get to a place where you’re also writing and producing, that furthers the possibility of those stories happening.”

As for broader lessons from 24, he suggests it would be nice if the show’s reflections on compromise and negotiation resonated somewhere.

“I wish that kernel of knowledge would be better understood in light of our present [real-life] situation,” he says. “You ultimately have to do things for the good of the country.”

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