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Playing Patty Hewes on 'Damages' toughens Glenn Close

The star and the rest of the cast are often in the dark about the layered drama's twists and turns. 'It's certainly not for sissies,' Close says of working on the FX show.

January 04, 2009|Matea Gold

NEW YORK — Glenn Close wasn't too pleased to find out at the end of the first season of "Damages" that Patty Hewes, the scheming attorney she plays on the FX thriller, was the one responsible for the attempted killing of her protege Ellen Parsons.

"I was upset!" exclaimed Close, curled up on her dressing room couch at a Brooklyn sound stage. It was a drizzly winter afternoon, and the actress had just finished shooting a scene for the show's second season, which premieres Wednesday. "I didn't want her to be a psychopath. I think at the end she sincerely regrets what she did and is really relieved that it didn't happen."

At least that's her interpretation. The writers of "Damages," a layered, twisting drama about personal and professional power games, don't give a lot of clues about where they're headed, even to the cast. The actors are often in the dark about their characters' motivations or misdeeds, a dynamic that Close, who was accustomed to more defined film roles before taking this part, admits took some adjustment.

"It's certainly not for sissies," she said. But well worth it, she hastened to add, comparing the experience of acting in the show to "living a novel."

"The more the characters go through life, the baggage gets heavier and more interesting," Close said. "And to take a whole audience along with you on that ride is kind of thrilling."

The ride is set to get even more exhilarating in Season 2. Ellen (Rose Byrne), still shattered by the death of her fiance, returns to work with a new mission: to take Patty down. Having discovered that her boss was responsible for the attempted hit on her life, Ellen is now working as an FBI informant, assisting a criminal investigation of the firm.

"Last year was a little bit of a king and a pawn," said Glenn Kessler, who created the show with his brother Todd A. Kessler and their friend Daniel Zelman, and together serve as its executive producers. "Now it's very much two kings in play. That's been very fun, because you let both characters bring their full arsenal of abilities and manipulation."

If there's any theme this season, Todd Kessler added, "it's Ellen transformed."

Byrne relished the change, saying she struggled trying to portray Ellen's naivete in Season 1, when she was a first-year associate helping Patty with a massive class action suit that took a deadly turn.

"The audience knew more than her, and that was a hard position to be in," Byrne said. "Now she's on this path of revenge. She's a warrior. . . . For me, it was like, great!"

"Damages" went through its own crucible of sorts last year. Although the drama's intricate plotting attracted critical acclaim -- and garnered both Close and supporting actor Zeljko Ivanek Emmys -- its complex storytelling failed to attract a large audience. The first season drew an average of 2.5 million viewers for premiere viewings of each episode and a cumulative audience of 5.1 million a week. Those weren't the blockbuster ratings FX had envisioned when it snapped up "Damages," hoping it would succeed "The Shield" as the basic cable network's new tent-pole series.

John Landgraf, president of FX Networks, said he's optimistic that more viewers will tune in for Season 2 now that buzz for the program has grown. It also helps that Sony Pictures Television, the studio that co-produces "Damages," agreed to shoulder more financial risk when FX renewed the program for two more seasons.

"I don't have any fears about this show anymore," he said. "I'm very confident it will remain on our schedule for a long time to come."

Still, as they mapped out the second season, the producers had long discussions with Landgraf about whether the show's labyrinth narrative was an impediment at a time when serialized programs have struggled. To make "Damages" more accessible, early episodes were designed so that viewers could begin watching any time in the first several weeks and not feel lost. The story is still told in two time frames, skipping between the present and six months in the future, but a major case gets resolved midway through the season, offering "an important carrot for the audience," Landgraf said.

But other than that, "Damages" continues to embrace the dense storytelling for which it's become known.

"Our decision was we're not going to do violence to the show creatively," Landgraf said. "It is what it is, and we're going to stick to our guns."

The series' complexity has attracted a slew of top-shelf actors to the cast this season, including William Hurt, reuniting with Close for the first time since they costarred in the 1983 movie "The Big Chill." Hurt plays Daniel Purcell, a scientist who has a past with Patty and seeks her help when he gets entangled in a cover-up at his company.

"He steers the course of destiny-slash-fate over the second season," Todd Kessler said.

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