Burn Notice's John C. McGinley on Playing Michael's Mentor: You Can’t Tell If He's a Good Guy
John C. McGinley
When John C. McGinley was first offered a recurring role as a CIA training officer on Burn Notice, it wasn't too far from how a CIA agent might receive a mission.
"I was coming home on a Monday night. It was about 7 o'clock. The phone rang and my agent said, 'You need to get home and read this script. If you like it, there's an offer for you to go do five episodes of Burn Notice,'" McGinley tells TVGuide.com. "'The only catch is you have to leave tomorrow morning.'"
Suffice it to say, the Scrubs alum was on a plane to Miami the next morning. "It just fell in my lap. It was one of those great gigs that come along every once in a while."
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The gig — playing Michael's former CIA training officer Tom Card — kicks off Thursday (9/8c on USA) when Michael (Jeffrey Donovan) turns to his former mentor for help in breaking his lady love Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) out of the slammer. "He comes to me and says, 'I need a favor,'" McGinley says. "My character pounces on an opportunity to use him in a black-op."
Although Michael was burned by the CIA — and has only recently started working on getting back into the agency's good graces — Tom is happy to help out his former student and to use him for his own CIA missions. "Michael is Tom's proudest pupil," McGinley says. "It turns out that Tom tried to help Michael when he did get burned. Tom flew halfway around the world to mitigate any peripheral dangers that were lurking out there for Michael."
Burn Notice creator and executive producer Matt Nix knew McGinley was the perfect man to play this important father-like figure in Michael's life. "We were over the moon to get him," Nix says. "One of the big things about Michael is that he's got this sort of snarky manner, and as a human being, he's isolated and prickly in some ways. So the great thing about John C. McGinley is that he is Michael squared. He's super prickly but at the same time, you see that he gave Michael this quality of being able to simultaneously take things very seriously and not seriously at all. To joke around in intense situations, but also remain entirely committed to success and willing to put himself in danger."
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McGinley appreciated the compliment. "The most flattering thing was that they wanted me to bring John C. McGinley instincts and flavor to this. That's a really empowering thing for somebody to say to you," he says. "If you tell any actor that, they're going to run through a wall for you."
So far, McGinley hasn't been called on to run through any walls or perform any other big action stunts for Burn Notice. ("I think Tom's function will be to set the table and then let the heroes do that stuff," he says.) However, he'll interrogate an imprisoned Fiona in an upcoming episode, just one of his many interactions with the other members of Michael's crew. "Tom is somebody who played a role in Fiona and Michael's earliest relationship and he has a particular relationship with Madeline," Nix says.
Additionally, McGinley teases some fun scenes between Tom and Sam (Bruce Campbell). "I think Sam's just a bit of a ball of yarn that maybe the cat likes to bat around a little bit — never taking him too seriously since Tom knows some of things he's done in the past," McGinley says. "Bruce, of course, is one of my favorite actors ever. It's so great when you meet these guys, and they're even better than their body of work."
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But the best part of McGinley's Burn Notice gig has been the ambiguity surrounding his character. "You can't really put your finger on what direction he's going in. You can't tell if he's a good guy," he says. "He seemed damaged. I always want characters to be damaged because writers can write eccentrics best if there's some inherent damage to the character. Otherwise it's a little bland."
Whether Tom turns out to be good or evil, McGinley is willing to follow it through. When asked whether he would come back to the show beyond his initial arc, he quickly states, "I would do it in a second."
Burn Notice airs Thursdays at 9/8c on USA.
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