'Law & Order': Jeffrey Donovan on Frank Cosgrove's Backstory and Dynamic Within the Unit (Exclusive)

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After over a decade off the air, Law & Order has made a welcome return with season 21 with Jeffrey Donovan among the new cast members -- Camryn Manheim, Hugh Dancy and Odelya Halevi -- to join the series as Det. Frank Cosgrove. As the NBC crime procedural returns after a brief hiatus with “Free Speech,” the former Burn Notice star opens up to ET about Cosgrove’s backstory, his dynamic within the unit and Dylan Baker’s return to the franchise. 

While joining the mothership series of creator Dick Wolf’s expansive TV universe was a no-brainer for the actor, it was a character that was going to have “difficult, complex relationships” with not only his partner but the cases covered on the series that drew Donovan in. “That was music to my ears because I love being able to have a dynamic relationship with my partner and with the story,” he says. 

And from the very first episode, audiences have seen that tension play out as Cosgrove tests the limits of his partnership with Det. Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson), who has a longer history within the homicide unit currently run by Lt. Kate Dixon (Manheim), and new members of the District Attorney’s office, ADAs Samantha Maroun (Halevi) and Nolan Price (Dancy), led by longtime DA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston). 

Described by Donovan as “not woke,” Cosgrove butts heads with Bernard over their approach to investigating a case in the premiere. And that was a purposeful choice, the actor says, “so that we can then start working on having that difficult conversation, which is, ‘I’m a white detective, you’re a Black detective and we’re going to solve these murders.’”

“Ultimately our bias towards each other is going to permeate our discussions,” he continues. “But hopefully audiences see in the relationship is that the most important thing is solving a murder every week.” 

Law & Order Season 21
NBC

Given Bernard’s past, with the character first being introduced as a member of the Internal Affairs bureau, Donovan hints that there will be conflicts that play out over time. “He was not working on the case where Cosgrove was under investigation for being inappropriate with a suspect, but I love that they put that in and didn’t dwell on it,” the actor says, explaining it’s a fun unresolved Easter egg for savvy fans to pick up on. “There’s going to be moments through the season where you’ll see that again.” 

Perhaps a more difficult relationship Cosgrove has to deal with is with Nolan and the DA’s office. “Because, in the end, Bernard and Cosgrove have the same shared goal to solve the case, find the killer and get them off the street,” Donovan says. 

When things are handed over to the prosecutor, however, that’s where things get tricky. And as audiences have already seen on the show, Cosgrove’s history causes the prosecutor to challenge his methods of discovery. For instance, when the detective lies to a suspect to get a confession from them, Price decides not to use it. “Obviously that created a huge ripple between the law and the order,” Donovan says. 

Law & Order Season 21
NBC

All this tension with Cosgrove may stem from the fact that he comes from a long line of law enforcement in his family. “He’s following in his father’s footsteps and in his grandfather’s footsteps and there's a lot of honor in being a cop,” Donovan says of Cosgrove’s family, which he describes as a very traditional Irish Catholic household living in the Bronx.

As a result, Cosgrove himself is a “tough, Irish cop” who is “struggling with the inescapable bias that you grow up in America with,” Donovan says of his character’s attempt to challenge his old way of dealing with things. 

Meanwhile, in episode five (“Free Speech”), Bernard and Cosgrove investigate the murder of a congressional candidate while Price and Maroun contend with an extremist plot hellbent on thwarting the candidate’s agenda by any means necessary. The episode, Donovan says, is about “a touchy subject. Not only about free speech but about what you can get away with now on air, what you can say on a news outlet or on talk shows.” 

“Without naming names, you see this talk show host saying anything he wants and then he gets brought up in an investigation,” the actor continues. The talk show is brought up because he’s accused of saying something that incited a crime. “And their defense is, ‘Well, no one takes what he says seriously.’ And that’s kind of dangerous.” 

Law & Order Season 21
NBC

Additionally, the episode sees Dylan Baker, the latest major alumni to reappear this season, reprising his role as defense attorney Sanford Rems. Not only that, but Baker also appeared on Burn Notice as a former spy and handler of Donovan’s character, Michael Westen. “It was pretty great to see him come back,” the actor says, teasing that “I think you’re going to see more and more people come back and guest star and visit down the road.”

Looking further ahead, Donovan is excited to continue to tell these stories on Law & Order, which, unlike Special Victims Unit and Organized Crime, is less focused on the characters’ personal lives. That said, the actor teases audiences will see that “trickle out a little bit, in smaller amounts than you would maybe see on SVU or Organized Crime.”  

“We’re playing the long game,” Donovan says. “I’m interested to see how the little, subtle things will come out for the character. For now, there really isn’t any skeleton in the closet for me to kind of chew on. But I know it’s gonna be told episode by episode over, hopefully, the next few years.”


Law & Order airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC, the same night as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Organized Crime

 

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