In Depth

Getting to the ‘Why’ of Behavior

Close Peers Deep Into ‘Damages’

In Glenn Close’s estimation, Cruella de Vil, the character she played in the 1996 hit Disney film “101 Dalmatians,” is the spiritual mother of Patty Hewes, the hard-charging, brilliant, manipulative litigator she plays on FX’s “Damages.”

Ms. Close’s film, stage and television career includes memorable roles in “The World According to Garp,” “The Big Chill,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Real Thing,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Fatal Attraction”—and now as Ms. Hewes, the take-no-prisoners head of the fictional law firm Hewes & Associates.

She won an Emmy Award in 1995 for the telefilm “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,” and was nominated in 2002 for her guest turn on “Will & Grace” and in 2005 as lead actress in a drama series for playing Capt. Monica Rawling on “The Shield.”
Ms. Close said she took the “Damages” role on the strength of the pilot, and discovered the facets of her character episode by episode as the scripts were handed in.

“I always am interested in the why of someone’s behavior, and how much energy is being expended on keeping it under control,” said Ms. Close. “I feel very strongly that she’s a good leader and she holds her cards very close to her chest. And she’s not an emotional creature. I think that can be a cliché when it comes to powerful women. So any wonderful hints about what makes her human, I think, are ultimately what’s most intriguing about this character. And she kind of got more and more humanized as the story got harsher and harsher.”

The dramatic storyline of “Damages” begins with a young man’s murder in an apartment bathtub and backtracks through time and then forward again throughout the season in an attempt to explain how it came to happen. That occurs against the backdrop of a high-stakes class-action employee lawsuit against an Enron-type company run by Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). One of the key characters is the young man’s girlfriend, Rose Byrne, played by Ellen Parsons. She is a young attorney who joins the Hewes law firm and is initially dazzled by Ms. Hewes’ attention.

“What attracted me to the character was that she was fabulously written with a lot of twists and turns, and she’s incredibly intelligent and an astute manipulator of human behavior,” Ms. Close said. “She’s neither black nor white. She’s sometimes good, she’s sometimes bad. And those are the characters that you can really kind of stretch and build up your creative muscle with.”

Much research went into her preparation for the role. Ms. Close met with Mary Jo White, a New York district attorney who twice prosecuted Osama bin Laden. According to Ms. Close, Ms. White told her, “I don’t think I’m ambitious. I’m highly competitive,” a philosophy Ms. Close incorporated into the fabric of Patty Hewes’ character.

The actress also met with Patricia Hines, a former top litigator who said she prepared for trials by personally reading more than 10,000 documents, and then presented her closing arguments extemporaneously.

“She also was very articulate about how problematic it is for a woman to convey power and yet not act like a man. You know, it’s not easy. You don’t just put on a suit and a certain color tie and walk out there,” said Ms. Close. “You have to decide how much jewelry you wear and not wear, how high your heels should be, the length your skirt should be, should you wear slacks or not wear slacks. It’s all part of it, because you don’t want to be too feminine, you don’t want to be too masculine.”

On the series, Ms. Hewes is married to her second husband and they have their hands full dealing with a troubled teenage son. Their interactions often show off what might be perceived as the character’s heartlessness, or what Ms. Close calls tough love.

“I think in some ways it’s a marriage of convenience, but it actually is working,” Ms. Close said. “And I think the husband has been a very big help with the son at times, and … she’s been a terrible mother. I think in many cases she hasn’t been there. And she knows that.

“I believe with the parent-child relationship that the burden of forgiveness is always with the child, that the parents will always mess up, and you kind of don’t have a right to ask for forgiveness—it has to be given to you. So I think it’s an unsettled relationship, and he has a lot of issues that are probably very valid.”

The actress sees deep-seated anger at the core of her character, but the real reasons for that anger are yet to be revealed in the backstory of Patty Hewes. “I feel like I’m the instrument of the writers,” said Ms. Close. “My job is to interpret and collaborate in whatever they come up with.”