Patty Hewes keeps the audience guessing, like everyone around her. The nation’s foremost high-stakes litigator, she plays mind games with consummate skill. She can be silky and seductive, cold and ruthless. She can sweet-talk or threaten with equal dispatch.
All this Patty demonstrates when “Damages,” a crafty legal thriller, premieres on FX at 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday.
Starring as Patty, Glenn Close makes a strong case for tuning in. But “Damages” has even more to recommend it: A mysterious murder; a highly sympathetic victim of a vicious assault.
There’s also Patty’s class-action lawsuit against billionaire Arthur Frobisher, who’s accused of selling off stock in his teetering company while his employees are left holding the bag.
Suffice it to say that in Frobisher (played by Ted Danson with steely bonhomie), Patty has a menacing opponent.
Caught in between: Patty’s hotshot protege, Ellen Parsons, whose career - and life - are put in jeopardy once she arrives at Hewes Associates.
Hired out of law school, Ellen (Rose Byrne) is in awe of her new boss. But nagging questions quickly arise. Ellen wonders what Patty is up to. And so, of course, do viewers.
Even the actress who plays Patty Hewes admits to difficulty figuring her out, early on.
“I was very intimidated by her,” says Close during an interview at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios not long ago.
What would be the next step? It’s a familiar process for Close, transforming a new character into one of her fearless portrayals.
“Usually when I get on the set, I’ve overcome -” she catches herself and substitutes a milder phrase: “I’ve worked through it.
“Until then, you feel that you’re just commenting on something with your performance, rather than fulfilling it. You have no idea who this person is you’re trying to play, so it all seems incredibly superficial - until you find that whatever-it-is that makes it real.
“I’ve gone periodically to a wonderful coach, Harold Guskin, over the years, with scenes,” she says. What happens there? “You just force stuff out of your mouth and start taking charge of the material.”
For “Damages,” Close tore into the scene where Patty confides to Ellen about her problematic son.
“Do yourself a favor, Ellen. Don’t have kids,” says Patty. “Kids are like clients: They want all of you, all the time.”
After a few more musings while she signs a stack of briefs, she lets loose with a chuckle. Then, wearing an enigmatic smile, she praises Ellen for not falling for things that aren’t true.
“That, to me, was the script’s most important scene in terms of what Patty does or does not reveal,” says Close. “What I really liked about it was that, by the end, you didn’t know if it was all (nonsense) or not. Was she putting Ellen on?
“So it was a tricky scene, and I had to just work through it, so I could keep people guessing whether Patty is really sincere, or just saying something for effect.”
Would knowing whether Patty means it or not affect how Close played the scene?
“Yes,” she replies, “and I think I do know that. But I’m not going to tell anybody.”
Close, 60, has had a distinguished career making characters real for films, the stage and television.
But her first stretch on a TV series was just two years ago as LAPD Capt. Monica Rawling, who commanded the corrupt Farmington precinct for the fourth season of “The Shield.”
It was a magnificent performance (helping the cop drama land a Peabody award). But Monica was a role with 13-episodes-and-out closure, as well as overarching clarity.
“I said to the writers, `I want her to be a good guy.’” Along with many other things, she was.
Then FX President John Landgraf asked Close if she wanted a series of her own. They agreed it would be in the legal arena.
“Our best shows attach themselves parasitically to a familiar genre,” says Landgraf, speaking from Los Angeles. “Then we bend it, even turn it on its head,” as with the network’s like-no-other doctor series, “Nip/Tuck,” and firehouse drama, “Rescue Me.”
Created by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, “Damages” is meant to co-exist as a thriller and a textured melodrama. “That’s TWO bull’s-eyes you have to hit,” says Landgraf, who cites another challenge of the series: the “larger-than-life but realistic” woman at its core.
Does Close feel she has a full grasp of that woman?
“Actually,” she replies, “I had a conversation this morning with Todd, telling him I’m really coming to the point where I need to know a little bit more about Patty’s background.”
Only a little bit?
“I’m not as hard on myself as I used to be,” says Close, relaxed in her dressing room. “I know now you have to be patient.”
On “Damages,” her patience is richly paying off.