It’s hard to stand out in a cinematic universe populated by villains of all varieties. Big Ben Donovan, star lawyer to some of New York’s worst people, does not have that problem. Played masterfully with a cold, sacrosanct bravado by Danny Johnson, Ben Donovan is character fans LOVE to hate in his appearances in Luke Cage and Daredevil. Ironically, the man behind the MCU’s most corrupt lawyer, Danny Johnson, is a very swell guy. In the brief words we got to exchange online, Danny has been nothing but kind and warm. A self-professed fan of the site (a huge honor for us!), we got to ask Danny some questions we’ve been dying to know about the vile Ben Donovan.
Big Ben Donovan is a pretty deep cut character in the comics and a completely different one from the version we see in the Netflix shows. What was the process like getting to know the character? Were you given a crash course on the comics or were you told to do your own thing?
Big Ben is a super enjoyable character for me. The MCU version of Donovan is a reinvention of who we see in the comics. I was a little kid in the sixties and a big kid in the seventies, so I knew these characters from back in the day. In the comics, Donovan is a giant; 7 plus feet tall and 400 pounds. He’s also very strong with good but not great fighting skills. I’m a big guy but I knew I couldn’t pull that off. So I have tried to give him a large presence and personality. Luckily, both Daredevil and the now departed, Luke Cage are set in a more realistic, for today, world. We see his criminal proclivities but not his fisticuffs of the comics. I looked at Donovan again once I was cast on both shows and tried to create someone who was comfortable with criminals and killers his whole life and accepted it. He uses his skill, wit, and charm to stay as close to whoever has the seat of power. He’s transactional and loyal only to the money. The showrunners have largely let me create Big Ben from whole cloth.
What we love about Ben is how distinct he is from all the other slimy characters in these Netflix shows. Are there any particular film/TV performances or real-life characters you take inspiration from?
Donovan is not concerned with how he’s viewed. I have shaped a lot of him by looking at some black evangelical leaders here in the States. I won’t name names, but there are many of these type of “leaders” who give credence to and the patina of legitimacy to dishonorable people- politicians particularly. My sense is they do it for money, notoriety- to have some type of relevance. Some connection to power. And I think Donovan is all about that. He likes access to power.
Mariah and Fisk are two extremely different characters. Is there anything you change about the way you portray Donovan when he’s representing different clients?
They are quite different. But they are both evil as the day is long. I do approach those two characters a bit differently. To me, it was helpful to keep them in distinct worlds. Much like many black Americans, Big Ben does a little code-switching between Hells Kitchen and Harlem. Harlem is his turf- he’s known and comfortable. He’s freer to be himself and relaxed in his own skin. Even with the deadly Mariah, who he’s known since childhood. Fisk is scary dangerous. So when I deal with the Kingpin I’m more restrained and cautious. I only came to his defense since season 2. Donovan is a top defense lawyer and Fisk knows that. He’s always cool under the collar. And he’s always trying to encourage Fisk to stay focused on the goal. He projects a more calculated quality with Kingpin. Fisk needs him- his legal skill. Big Ben knows that but doesn’t fully trust Fisk or anyone for that matter. And, to be safe, Donovan also brought in an assistant this season, Mr. Lee. Just in case things went sideways and Fisk started looking to let off steam by killing an attorney.
What is it with Ben that makes him so drawn to such vile characters? Is he all about the money and power?
Yeah, Ben Donovan goes all the way with his clients. He’s not afraid to cross over into questionable criminal acts either. For me, he’s just as ruthless as his clients. That is something I came to from the comics. He does a lot of shady stuff that is outright criminal in the comics. Hopefully, there will be future seasons where we can explore that in the MCU. As for his motivations, I do think he’s enthralled with power, money, and the luxury lifestyle. He is always very sharp and cunning. He knows life isn’t fair. And he keeps his place as a needed councilor of whoever holds power whatever the cost so that won’t have to face life’s inequities.
What’s it like working for Marvel and sharing scenes with such powerhouse actors like Alfre Woodard, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Charlie Cox?
It’s been super working with Marvel on the shows. These actors bring the very best out of you. No matter the action that takes place, the shows are stories told well by dedicated artists. Those three are all quite different. Charlie is very precise in scenes and likes to work out the action in a technical manner. Vincent is a force of nature. He has a very clear idea of what he’s doing from the moment we get going. He’s a wonderfully gracious man. But when we work, it’s intense. Alfre, really knows what she’s doing. She’s generous with her scene partners yet totally engrossed in her own work. She is cool and collected. But all business when they call “action.” Working with each of them is totally different and yet I pick up tips and great working habits from them all. These are some of the very best actors we have in the business. I can’t thank Marvel and Netflix enough for adding me to the shows. I feel like I’m a better actor for having worked with each of them. Honestly, Daredevil and Luke Cage operate with a very tight group. And the scripts are excellent. The stakes are usually high and it’s never a problem “going there” with those folks. Same thing for all the actors on both shows.
You got to encounter the Man in Black himself this season in the scene where he assaults Ben Donovan in the parking lot. Any details you can share as to what it was like filming this scene?
You’re talking about episode 3, No Good Deed. That was one of my favorite moments of the season. It was awesome working that night. We shot that after the fight that takes place just after that moment in the episode. So I got to watch the Charlie and the stunt team put that all together. Just amazing. (I love all the stealth Matt uses). It was 5:00 in the morning when we got inside the car. There was a lot of details to work out in a tight space. And a cameraman in the car with us too. It was a lot to get the angles just right for the mirror reflections, but so worth it. A small side note, that was the night I got my first set chair, with my character’s name on the back. So I’ll always remember that night. I love how the scene came out.
One of the main themes this season is how public perception gets manipulated and corrupted by people in power through the media, as it does in real life. This is emblematic in Ben Donovan’s big moment in Fisk’s giant press conference. In your years playing such an amoral character, what is your biggest takeaway in triumphing over this kind of systemic corruption?
Yes, precisely. This season really asks the audience to look at our world today. To look at our fears and fight to overcome them. It’s impossible to not draw a comparison to our current condition where lies are the currency of the realm. I think the themes of the season are in the best tradition of the comics. The collapse of institutions, faith, corruption in the legal system, a free press that can push politicians to pursue justice. All of these bedrock ideas of America are challenged. I only wish we had a few real-life Men Without Fear. I love how the season finishes. It’s just the message we need today.
There’s a scene in Season 3 where Ben listens to an audiobook as Fisk parses through the psychiatric files of Dex. Knowing the kind of person he is and the backstory he has, what kind of books do you think Ben Donovan is interested in?
This season is motivated by fear on, Daredevil. Each character has some fear to overcome through their arc. What is Donovan listening to? Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. It’s a story from the start of the twentieth century. A poor young girl comes to the city, meets a rich man. She climbs to become a famous actress as his life of wealth and comfort crumbles. It’s a cautionary tale that drives Donovan to never loose wealth, power and his station in life. Failure and poverty haunt him and drive his ambition.
In all your MCU appearances, what was your favorite scene to film?
Wow, that is tough because I have so many that I love. On Luke Cage, I’ll say the scene in episode 210. When Big Ben restores Mariah’s money and she grabs hold of him to make sure he’s not stolen any of it. That scene was hilarious to shoot. (She grabbed a bean bag for the record…). That day with Alfre Woodard and Theo Rossi was really fun. We were all massively shocked that the show was canceled. It was a hit. We all thought we’d be going back to work in a few weeks, but, that’s showbiz.
On Daredevil, wow, again very tough. I’ll say episode 311 when Fisk emerges from the Presidential Hotel and returns to public life. It’s a joyous moment of achievement. Fisk is cleared and ready to run New York again. Introducing him to the press and telling them that he is “now a free man” is everything Big Ben has been working toward throughout the series. Vincent was magnificent that night and his performance is wonderful.
The whole team at Daredevil is very proud of season three. The response from the fans has been off the chain. I am thrilled to be on the show and part of the story. For me, it’s an exciting time. I have 3 film projects in the can for 2019 that I am totally hyped about. A new television project that I just started on. And of course, I’m hopeful that Donovan can return. We’ll have to see about next season, if we get another one, how Donovan will be involved if Fisk is in prison. He may have a new client, you never know.
Be sure to follow Danny Johnson in his social media accounts!