Jeffrey Donovan was born in Amesbury, Massachusetts, son to single mother Nancy Matthews. Nancy raised him and two of his brothers, while having trouble financially supporting herself and her family. They were reportedly living on welfare, had trouble paying electric bills, and often moved to a new residence. Donovan estimated that they moved 10 times during his childhood. He and his brothers were taught to live frugally.
A female teacher called Patricia Hoyt served as Donovan's mentor and helped him establish a drama club. With her help, Donovan received a private scholarship that allowed him to continue his studies. Donovan started his college years in Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. He later transferred to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from where he eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in drama. He continued his studies at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, from where he graduated with a Master of Fine Arts.
During his college years, Donovan took an interest in martial arts. He initially took lessons in Shotokan karate, where he eventually earned a black belt. He later also took lessons in aikido and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Donovan had his first film and television roles in 1995, but he mostly played minor parts. His first major role on television was main character David Creegan in the crime drama series Touching Evil (2004). The premise of the series was that Keegan is an FBI investigator who was stripped of his impulse control and sense of shame following a near-fatal injury. He was willing to do anything to stop ruthless criminals, including performing vigilante-style crimes of his own. The series only lasted a single season of 12 episodes.
Donovan gained another lead role in the action series Burn Notice (2007), where he played main character Michael Westen. The premise of the series was that Westen used to be a professional intelligence agent until he was inexplicably blacklisted, stripped of his money and contacts, and forced to remain in his hometown of Miami, Florida until further notice. The series had him working as an unlicensed private investigator, while covertly investigating who orchestrated his downfall. The series lasted for 111 episodes, and also included a spin-off film called Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe (2011). Donovan directed the film, but was not among its main cast.
Donovan had a recurring role as mobster Dodd Gerhardt in the second season of anthology series Fargo (2014). The season is set in 1979, Midwestern United States. The premise of the season is that the Gerhardt family is the most powerful crime syndicate in Fargo, North Dakota, but is facing internal competition for the leadership position and external threats. Dodd is one of the characters vying for leadership.
Donovan continues his career as lead character Charlie Haverford in the series Shut Eye (2016). The premise is that Haverford is a professional con artist, posing as a fortune teller and psychic. But he starts experiencing genuine visions, and his life is changing.More