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Devil's Advocate: Chatting with Glenn Close of FX's "Damages"

If there's one actor in whose presence I feel completely unworthy, it's got to be the grande dame of film and stage, Glenn Close, who currently appears on screen each Tuesday night as ruthless litigator Patty Hewes on FX's addictively serpentine legal series Damages.

If Patty Hewes reminds you of another Close character, it's no coincidence: "Patty of all the characters I’ve played is probably the most like the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons," said Close, "in that she is playing a man’s game in a man’s world. And she ultimately gets censured for it."

Lest you think that, because of her character's prominence in the story, Close was any more aware of the labrinythine twists and turns of Damages' plot, think again. "In the beginning before the schedule got kind of more crazy, we would have table reads with every script in the beginning of the week or try to do it at least a day before we started that next episode," said Close. "People would laugh out loud or gasp or say, 'Oh no,' because all of us were finding out at the same time what was happening. It was fun."

But let's chat with the Oscar-nominated Close for a few minutes about why she returned to television (and specifically FX) with Damages, the push and pull of creating a backstory for an enigmatic lynchpin of a character, and whether she views the devilishly ruthless Patty Hewes as evil.

Q: You had a very critically acclaimed turn with 13 episodes on The Shield [back in 2005]; what lured you back to TV, given your success as a feature and stage actor?

Close: Well, when I finished The Shield, I loved working on FX a lot. I really had a lot of respect for Peter Liguori, who was the head of FX at the time and John Landgraf, who is the head right now. I like the way they take risks and they give really gifted writers a lot of creative leeway. So I kind of casually said to John, “If you ever can think of anything in New York, just let me know.” And, lo and behold, I guess it was about a year later, I was told that these three guys wanted to pitch me an idea. It would be shot in New York, which was imperative for me, because I can’t go to California, because of my family.

So we sat down and talked about it and I said, “It sounds really intriguing; I’ll wait to read the pilot.” I read the pilot and I said, “Wow, this is really good.” So on the strength of that one script and the fact that I’d be working in my backyard close to my family, I said, “I think this has become a no-brainer.” I was teamed up with FX again and a really incredible cast and crew and writers.

Q: The writers have parceled out pieces of Patty’s backstory over the last few weeks. I’m wondering how much information you were given ahead of time about Patty’s character, how much you created in your own mind for her, and how that shaped your portrayal of this character?

Close: That for me was the trickiest exercise of all, because this is the first time I’ve played a character that didn’t have a beginning, middle and end. And when I have a character, I know where they start and where they end. Then you go nuts creating a backstory, because it’s all potentially there. And even if the audience doesn’t have an idea of all your secrets, you’re allowed to have secrets. And I think it always informs behavior in a very crucial way. So it was very disconcerting for me in the beginning to not know a lot about Patty.

I had gone with the writers to meet Mary Jo White and her partner. Mary Jo was an iconic lawyer who was the DA [in NYC] and we got a lot of information out of her. I knew that I wanted to be a woman who was at the top of her game, who was highly intelligent and highly capable, really formidable, because you have to be if you’re the head of a firm. To get where she is in this profession, you have to be a thousand times better than any guy that you’re going to be standing next to. So that was important to me.

But as far as her back story, I had to kind of give it up, because I asked them if I could formulate my own backstory and they kind of said not to, because they want to keep their options open. I might know a little bit more than you now, but not much. And I kind of think it’s one of the thrilling aspects. It has become the thrilling aspect of this collaboration, because you actually feel like you’re living a novel, you’re living something out. Like life, we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. But I think as I get to know more and more about her, I will be able to deepen her [and] my portrayal of her.

Q: Speaking of that, it’s been presented that she is essentially a morally ambiguous character. I’m wondering how you approach that as an actor. Do you feel that she is the hero in her own story? Is she evil or is she just willing to win no matter what the moral cost?

Close: I have the belief that [with] truly evil people, it’s a genetic evil. I only have the experience of exploring the landscape of some of the characters I’ve played that people have labeled as evil; I don’t think they’re evil. I think Cruella [De Ville, from 101 Dalmatians] is evil, because she’s the devil. But all the other characters, I was able to find a common humanity with them somewhere, knowing where they’re most fragile, where they’re most vulnerable, knowing some of the things that happened to them that might have formed this kind of behavior. Because as an actor, I really feel you cannot judge a character. You have to totally commit to that character. And for me to totally commit to the character, I have to find those places where I understand the sequence of behavior.

So I do not think Patty [thinks] she’s even a hero in her own mind. I think she’s very vulnerable, as far as her son is concerned. I think she realizes that she truly is not a great mother. I think she has regrets. I don’t think she’s a settled soul, and I don’t know if she ever would be a settled soul. I think she’s very conflicted, and I really like that about her.

Damages wraps its first season next Tuesday at 10 pm on FX. Catch a marathon of the first twelve episodes of Damages this Saturday from 8 am to 8 pm on FX.

Comments

Great interview! I love that she compares Patty Hewes to the Marquise de Merteiuil. They are (scarily) very similar women!

I hope that Glenn Close continues to do television... whether Damages has a second season or not. She's (obviously) great in films but television really allows her to develop a character over time and truly showcase her talent. It's been so much fun watching her in Damages!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the great interview, Jace! Was it scary talking to Patty Hewes?

I can't believe Damages is ending!!! I really hope it comes back for a second season.
Anonymous said…
Great interview!

Love the Marquis comparison. Makes me want to watch the movie again.
Anonymous said…
I am in awe that you got to interview Glenn Close who is in my opinion one of the best actresses alive today. So cool!!! I am green with envy but feel lucky to get this little peak into her thoughts!

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