New York — WHEN Glenn Close started production this spring on "Damages," the new FX legal thriller in which she plays a wily, high-priced litigator, the veteran performer felt an unfamiliar bout of anxiety.
"I found it very, very difficult, because there was no end," Close said of diving into the television series. "In theater or movies, there's a beginning, a middle and an end. And you own your character; you do your research, within the universe of that. Well, you can't do that with something like this, and it's really giving up something that in the beginning was making me feel very insecure."
For help, Close turned to acting coach Harold Guskin, an instructor she's consulted throughout her career, who advised her to think of the series as "kind of like life: you just live the moment, and you're up for whatever the writers give you." "In a way, it was very freeing," said the 60-year-old actress with a relieved smile during a break between scenes at a Brooklyn soundstage on a recent afternoon.
Close may now be more relaxed about the show, which premieres July 24, but FX executives are still contending with their own pre-launch nerves as they wait to discover whether "Damages" will deliver the network a long-overdue water cooler hit.
The stakes are high: The basic cable network, known for its array of idiosyncratic dramas, has yet to match the success it found with "Nip/Tuck," which averaged 3.88 million viewers last season and beat out its cable rivals in the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic. The war drama "Over There" and the Andre Braugher crime series "Thief" were both canceled after one season. The network's newest offerings -- "Dirt" and "The Riches" -- have been renewed, although neither was a breakout hit in its freshman year. And next year, "The Shield," FX's first signature show, is concluding its run.
FX feels growing pains
PERSUADING viewers to regard FX as more than a purveyor of provocative niche programming is key to the future of the network, a lucrative piece of the News Corp. empire. Although FX generates substantial revenue for its corporate parent -- with a projected cash flow this year of $322 million, up 7% from 2006, according to Kagan Research -- it's still trying to shed its reputation as the poor man's HBO.
"I will admit that this is a work in process, this expansion and definition of our brand," said John Landgraf, president of FX Networks. "We're trying as a channel to reach maturity."
Landing Close as the lead of "Damages" will help speed that process, executives hope. "It's really important to have people like Glenn who can lead a broader audience to FX," Landgraf said. "We are 'The Shield,' and I'm proud that we are, but we're more than 'The Shield.' Every form of genre and character is being explored."
"Damages" is the first television series she has signed on to do for more than one season and represents a substantial commitment by Close, whose work in films such as "Fatal Attraction" and "Dangerous Liaisons" garnered her five Oscar nominations in six years.
As Patty Hewes, the controlling attorney at the heart of the program, Close plays a woman whose ruthless maneuvering keeps everyone around her guessing, even as she struggles with her own vulnerabilities. The character echoes the kind of fierce, conniving women that helped define her career early on.
"Ultimately, the chance to play a character like this at my age, a woman in power, is kind of rare," she said as she perched on a rolling chair on the set of her corporate office, legs crossed under her gray pencil skirt, appearing surprisingly delicate and soft-spoken. "I'm always kind of seduced by new experiences and decided to jump in."
Close brings with her a cinematic heft in keeping with the ambition of the series. In crafting the serialized legal thriller, the writer-producer trio that created the show -- brothers Todd A. Kessler and Glenn Kessler and their longtime friend Daniel Zelman -- said they drew inspiration from film directors like Stanley Kubrick, Michael Mann and Roman Polanski as they sought to explore the cost of power.
"It's really much closer to a film than television," said Todd Kessler, whose credits include "The Sopranos." "We're very interested in exploring the intricacies and nuances of character. You're not entirely sure who's good and bad."
The characters are awash in gray tones, their motives elusive -- particularly Hewes, who employs underhanded tactics in the name of justice. FX was "very encouraging of certain ambiguities that, in our experience, network television doesn't necessarily allow for in the storytelling," Zelman said. "They never started from a place of asking the question 'Is she sympathetic?' "
Perhaps that's because "Damages" fits in neatly with FX's efforts to create a brand of provocative anti-heroes. "We don't do genre in the way other networks do genre," Landgraf said.