In Australia for the next few months playing celebrity lawyer Billy Flynn in the Chicago, alongside Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Alinta Chidzey, Donovan is anxious; he’s coming into an already established show (Tom Burlinson plays Flynn in Brisbane and Sydney), which is “quite a challenge”. “And this is a well-oiled machine,” he says.
It’s the first time he’s performed in a musical here and it’s a role his father, actor Terence, played in the ’80s. “It’s got a lot of history for me,” he says.
The Donovan dynasty now spans three generations – Donovan’s 19-year-old daughter Jemma was recently cast in Neighbours playing a distant member of the same family from which Scott Robinson hailed (albeit one with a British accent). Donovan didn’t try to dissuade her from the profession, as Terence did with a young Jason.
“But I was around ’70s actors who spent their Sundays at barbecues, getting pissed, talking about how depressed they were about the lack of work,” he reflects.
We meet at Fatto, near the Arts Centre, where we decide on pasta. We both want the spaghettini with spanner crab but for the sake of our photos, I opt for the rigatoni with pork ragu.
We share a salumi plate and Donovan forgoes a wine. “Do most people have a drink? It’d be nice to,” he says. “But I’d better keep focused.”
He loves a meal out, but confesses he’s not much of a cook; working a lot of weekends makes it tricky. “But we do love our Sunday roasts.”
Unless you’re a die-hard fan, you’d be forgiven for thinking Donovan, whose role in Neighbours shot him to fame and into massively successful (if short-lived) pop stardom (his debut album Ten Good Reasons was the highest-selling in the UK in 1989), had dropped off the entertainment radar.
But he’s still very much A Thing in Britain. As well as starring in numerous musicals – from his break-out turn in Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat to Rocky Horror, The Sound of Music, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and more – he’s appeared in a few (less successful) movies and pops up regularly on reality TV programs, such as I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! and Strictly Come Dancing.
Aside from that period after 1992 when he sued hip London magazine The Face for suggesting he was gay and his career nosedived for a while, he’s been a celebrity mainstay.
Chatty, warm and still exuding the kind of puppy-dog charm that endeared him to 20 million British Neighbours viewers, Donovan is well aware of this.
“A lot of people say ‘what have you been up to, where have you been?’ because unlike a film career that goes globally … I’m not as visible,” he says. “But I’ve probably done more than some people doing movies. Would I have liked more of the music/songwriting/film career? Absolutely. But I’m not someone who looks in the mirror and goes, ‘oh my god, you’ve missed out’.”
Nobody at Fatto seems to notice him, but at home he’s tabloid fair-game. In October he made the papers (even the Guardian) after noticing a fire in his street at 4am and dashing out – in his underwear – with a fire extinguisher (cue multiple Neighbours-related headlines).
The shot of him in his pants, he reveals, was taken by his wife; she posted it on Twitter when the London Fire Brigade tweeted about it.
“I never set out to have publicity with that one,” he says. “I just did what anyone else would’ve done. But let it be a lesson to anyone who doesn’t wear underwear to bed.”
Then there was the story of him helping a woman who had collapsed in the street. “That was a paparazzi guy,” says Donovan. “Again, nothing heroic about it but because it’s me it becomes a story. But you know, I’ve had some negative press so I’ll take the positive. F–king thank you, very nice!”
Earlier in the year he got some of that aforementioned bad press. He says he was “vilified” for saying that if his kids were going to take drugs, he’d prefer them to come home and do it under his supervision.
Really, that was never going to go untouched given Donovan’s much-publicised cocaine addiction, which he himself detailed in his 2007 memoir Between The Lines: My Story Uncut. (As he once described it, he “went out in 1994 and came back in 2001”.)
I just did what anyone else would’ve done. But let it be a lesson to anyone who doesn’t wear underwear to bed.
Still he seems taken aback by the ensuing coverage and morning TV-host outrage.
“But it was completely misinterpreted as ‘Jason Donovan encourages his kids to take drugs!’ Which is absolutely, completely wrong,” he says.
This is the sort of wholesome candour Donovan exhibited even at his worst addiction lows; rather than blaming the stresses of fame or other excuses from the badl- behaved celebrity handbook, he’s always said that his addiction grew out of being young, rich and famous.
“Definitely – I liked it! I feel that it’s better to be open and transparent about it,” he says. “What I find difficult, though, is with all of those things they begin to ‘define’ your CV.”
And this piece will only add to the Google results. “Yeah – look, I get it,” he says.
Perhaps it’s just in Australia but it’s not his ’90s coke binge that comes to mind foremost for me – it’s more Neighbours mullet, non-threatening pop music and Joseph. Possibly, I suggest, because of this frankness.
“My dad always used to say I was too honest,” he says, “But my opinion is you can never be too honest.”
Plus he can take the piss out of himself. Having turned 50 last year, Donovan is at an age where he can ‘own’ it. This year he played 125 dates around Britain with a one-man show, Jason Donovan’s Amazing Midlife Crisis, which he describes as “a bit like therapy”.
He didn’t want a 50th birthday party – and he was at Kylie Minogue’s 50th where “almost everyone I’d known from the past was there”.
Instead he developed the show about his career “ups and downs”.
He tells anecdotes – meeting George Michael in a locker room; his son’s teacher taking his son aside when he wore double denim to tell him “your dad pioneered that look’; having his Madame Tussauds’ waxwork “melted down and used for a member of Boyzone” – and plays old videos, sings a couple of hits. One review mentioned he even donned a mullet wig but he’s quick to tell me, “that was only for one show”.
The crowd, presumably, was comprised of middle-aged women? “Not really,” he says, before conceding, “OK, sure, a lot of it was that.”
The show was playful about many aspects of his 30-year career but he’s not quite ready to make light of some of the seedier recollections, such as passing out on Jack Nicholson at a party. “I don’t think people in Birmingham could quite relate to that scenario,” he says. “I think you have to be careful and not be too … self-indulgent.”Q
He did, though, talk about his “troughs”. “And about fame as a currency – and about how we measure success,” he says.
And how does Donovan measure success?
“I feel comfortable because I’ve… ticked a lot of boxes that people probably would have wanted to tick. I’ve got a wonderful wife and family, a great career, I travel, I’m doing a bit of producing. You know, my daughter’s working, my son’s at university… I can’t complain,” he says.
“And I’ve got a body of work that speaks for itself – and I’m still f–king doing it, mate.”
Chicago is at the Arts Centre until February 21. artscentremelbourne.com.au
Fatto Bar and Cantina, 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne. (03) 8698 8800
Seven days, Midday to 10.30pm.
Kylie Northover is Spectrum Deputy Editor at The Age