by Randy Gambill, Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Television / Eric Leibowitz
Damages is the tantalizingly brilliant legal thriller starring Glenn Close and Rose Byrne. Created, executive produced, and co-written by an amazing trio consisting of brothers Todd A. Kessler and Glenn Kessler along with Daniel Zelman, each season of the show weaves a cunningly intricate season-long legal case around a cat and mouse mentorship between veteran actress Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, the most feared high-stakes litigator in New York and newcomer Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, her initially naïve yet surprisingly resourceful protégé.
In its first season, in addition to garnering high ratings, the show was universally acclaimed for its richly complex writing, innovative narrative techniques, stylish production values and most importantly, the brilliance of its acting ensemble. Both Glenn Close and Zeljko Ivanek (who played Close’s legal nemesis Ray Fiske in the first season and may return this season) won Emmys for their dazzling performances, with Ted Danson earning an Emmy nomination for his zestfully unbridled take on Arthur Frobisher, the billionaire target of the first season’s legal maneuverings. An accomplished supporting cast of newcomers, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Timothy Olyphant, enter the fray this season. Luckily for everyone involved (who are sick of the brutal weather), the first scene on tap for this new location is in the lobby of the Soho condo posing as the interior of Ellen Parson’s fancy new hotel digs. It’s a relatively simple scene featuring Byrne and the sister of her dead ex-fiancé, Katie Connor (series regular Anastasia Griffith) walking and talking into Ellen’s hotel lobby, with a tense phone interruption from a new character, Wes Krulik (Timothy Olyphant). Olyphant’s part of the conversation is provided by an off-camera script supervisor. The scene is simple, and the director, who in this case happens to be co-creator/exec producer Todd A. Kessler, puts the girls through a few simple takes before he is satisfied. The show is known for the brilliant histrionics of its illustrious and distinguished cast, but it is the reactive acting performed by Griffith, and particularly in this scene, by Byrne, that is the foundation of the show’s intricate drama. Rose Byrne’s masterful reactions to the maelstrom of machinations swirling around her provide the emotional core of the series. Glenn Kessler, who has shown up on-set to perform in the next scene in his recurring role as FBI agent L.J. Werner, chimes in on the subject of Miss Byrne: “It’s a very difficult part because it requires a lot of things that aren’t necessarily obvious to begin with. There is a vulnerability and a kind of naïveté where the series starts with Rose, and she has to make a pretty huge transformation over the course of the first season and then become a viable adversary for Patty (Glenn Close) moving forward into this season. We needed someone who could portray that kind of naïveté and idealism. She’s entered the workplace to do a great job with a woman that she finds to be heroic. But for awhile the character was behind the eight ball. Patty was manipulating her and the audience knew it (and she didn’t know it), and I think that frustrated a lot of people because they wanted more from her. But slowly there’s a turn in the first season and all the sudden Rose’s character gets in front of the audience and she dupes them the same way Patty had duped her. Rose Byrne has an incredible ability to observe as an actress. Her silences are powerful and strong. You believe she can go up against Patty.” Todd chimes in on Rose’s reactive acting: “Rose is involved in a very complicated tapestry because people are lying to each other. Someone blogged on a website, ‘I don’t understand the first season. I don’t understand. Everyone is lying to each other on this show. I don’t know anyone that lies to me in my life.’ Right. (Laughs) That’s what you think. Rose’s character’s mind is always trying to think a few steps ahead and trying to read tales. Rose’s ability to communicate non-verbally is pretty spectacular. She has a great teacher in Glenn Close.” Close, whose riveting portrayal of Patty Hewes is the centerpiece of the show, is not on-set today because she is 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles receiving a much deserved Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although not present on set, Glenn Close is never far from the thoughts of the people who create Damages. In fact as Kessler relays to me, she was virtually involved in the project from the very beginning. “When we pitched the idea of the show, at the very first meeting we spoke for an hour to FX head John Landgraf, and after the pitch he says, ‘You know this is terrific, we would like to move forward with this as a script, and have you ever thought about Glenn Close?’ So the very first meeting, the very first time we ever talked to anybody about the show her name came up. FX wanted to be in business with her again after she had done a run on The Shield. They loved her and had a terrific experience with her, so we flew to New York and had a three hour meeting with Glenn Close before the script even existed. And then we wrote the script and gave it to her. And that was it. So I would say she was really onboard since the first day that the network heard about it. She was a perfect fit.” Having a star of Glenn Close’s caliber is also a prime way to attract the talent of other marquee names such as Ted Danson, and he agrees: “Absolutely. The fact that Glenn was attached to it made me want to meet these three guys. Glenn Close being involved appealed to me because she has a great track record for picking material.” Nightfall is rapidly approaching right outside the hotel on Greenwich Street as a clandestine meeting in a car between Ellen Parsons and Kessler’s FBI agent. Rose Byrne and Glenn Kessler expertly perform the scene. The actors and crew are troupers as daylight fades and the temperature drops rapidly. They manage to zip through the scene expertly with few takes; they’re old pros at this kind of scene since conversations in parked cars are such a staple in the Damages milieu. Byrne, who as one of the show’s two leads, bears the weight of appearing in almost every scene today. She comes in from the cold to discuss, among other things, her character’s relationship with the mercurial Patty Hewes. She is actually Australian, and maintains her flawless American accent during our interview, “I keep my accent on when I’m on-set.” At the start of our interview, Byrne can barely conceal her enthusiasm over director Danny Boyle’s wins for Slumdog Millionaire at the previous night’s Golden Globes. she acted in two of director’s productions. Byrne has had key supporting parts in studio features like Marie Antoinette and Troy, but the lead opposite Glenn Close in a hit TV show was a big break for her. I compliment Rose on the brilliance of her one-on-ones with the masterful Glenn Close and she responds, “Glenn is amazing. The network did tests with viewers about what they liked best about the first season. The number one thing was the relationship between Patty and Ellen, their dynamic. What’s going to happen? They are really committed to exploring that relationship.” Todd A. Kessler reaffirms how important their relationship is to the show: “Glenn Close and Rose Byrne bring so much to the show. Their friendship off the set has emerged and in a way their mentor/protégé relationship is mirrored in reality, because of who Glenn is and her stature and who Rose is, and her incredible coming-into-her-own as an actor on this series. So that dynamic of mentor and protégé is something that is at work not only in the show, but with the characters off the set.” The underlying psychological minefield Byrne engages in every time she shares a scene with the formidable Close is a key component of what makes the storytelling so thrilling. Watching Close’s cat toy with Byrne’s mouse provides the viewer with a fascinating study of the dynamics of power in the workplace and keeps the viewer on edge and hoping Byrne escapes with her life and learns the rules of duplicity. There is so much dishonesty going on at any given time between Patty and Ellen that I ask Byrne if she ever has to mentally take note of what levels of deceit are going on in any given scene? “It’s a complicated relationship that they have. There are a lot of layers which I have to remind myself of - I have a checklist. What’s the given circumstances? What are my given circumstances?” Anastasia Griffith, who has had her share of intense tête-à-têtes with Patty Hewes and Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), agrees. “A lot of what is going on is under the surface. You’ve got to let the audience see the journey without words. Everyone has ulterior motives and secrets. We often have conversations before the scene going, ‘Okay so I know this piece of information. You don’t know this piece of information?’ There’s a lot of piecing together of what’s happened up to this point.” Bryne elaborates on the dynamics of her scenes with the legendary Close. “A lot of my stuff with Glenn is in the office. And it can be very exposition-y. That is difficult, and within those parameters you have to make it more than that. Glenn obviously has that quality. You don’t know what she’s doing. You don’t know if she’s genuinely looking out for this young girl or if she’s going to turn around and feed her to the wolves. Glenn has such power – who she is, and her performance, and what she brings to it with her history in film.” Todd agrees that the scenes between Patty and her employee Ellen constitute the heart or heartlessness of the show, for himself, his brother and Zelman. “In terms of writing, a lot of that is the most personal stuff for us – the dynamics and interactions that we had with our bosses. The universality of the show is that everyone has had a boss. Not everyone has been a boss BUT everyone has had a boss, starting in high school working at fast food restaurants.” Kessler continues: “We wanted to explore the step into the professional world. So the character of Ellen Parsons graduates from law school and steps into the professional world, where she thinks if she’s a good lawyer, stays late and does her work – that will be the path to success. Whereas, in our experience that’s maybe 40% of it. Learning how to be ruthless and working for bosses who are egomaniacal, powerful people is a bigger percentage. So for us it was mostly based in the entertainment industry – coming into our own as professionals, but really in any industry there is paranoia and people who are ambitious. How do you deal with that and who can you trust? Often times the person who extends their hand in friendship the first day at work is the person you realize will be the first one to stab you in the back.” Byrne chimes in with her own take on the perils of navigating a high-powered career. “It’s like any prestigious job that we get in our lives. You reach a point where you think, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. I’m working for this person, or for this actor, or this magazine.’ It’s that feeling. You wanna do the best job you can and try to navigate that corporate world. I’ve spoken to a lot of female friends of mine who are in a similar situation. It’s fascinating. A lot of the guys’ experiences working for people, they drew on that.” The crew moves outagain on the now dark street to shoot another car scene, this one involving the mysterious and murderous character known as “The Bearded Man” played by the Kesslers’ buddy David Costable. The character’s ever-present cigarette brings to mind The X-Files’ “Smoking Man”, and I wonder if this character will achieve a similar cult status. There is much hush-hushedness surrounding this scene and there is a strict “No Press” policy. As I am happily exiled back into the warmth of the condo lobby, I have a chance to talk to production designer Edward Pisoni, the man responsible for designing the posh interiors and tony world of Patty Hewes & Associates. I ask him if there will be any design changes this season. “Visually we are headed in the same direction. I tend to minimalize everything. We picked up on a plot point that Patty doesn’t like personal effects in the office. We try to keep things clean and slick throughout. Once in awhile there is a basement location or a set like Uncle Pete’s home where we can get a little fussy.” I spot lovely cast member Anastasia Griffith whose work is done for the day. Griffith turned in a memorable performance in the first season as the prospective sister-in-law to Ellen Parsons and the key witness to the Frobisher case is British. Like Bryne, she sports a flawless American accent in character. “This is really my first job in the States. My character has had quite a journey. I loved the script when I auditioned; originally I was only supposed to be in three episodes. They see how successful a character is and write around that. This year I got signed on as a series regular.” I ask Griffith what we can expect from her character this year: “The death of her brother has profoundly affected her. She takes a lot of that on. She is involved in a very different capacity this season. She is a supporting mechanism for Ellen.” When I compliment Griffith’s performance in her first on-screen encounter with Ted Danson from last season, she gushes, “That scene is my favorite scene that I did. I love that scene with him. There’s two things about that scene: The day that we shot that was the first time I’d met him and I’ve had a crush on Sam Malone since I was about 10-years-old. He is genuinely one of the nicest and most supportive men around, such a decent man that it felt really easy to go there with him.” Danson, Sam Malone himself, was cast against type as criminal billionaire Arthur Frobisher and responded with a career-changing performance brimming with joie de vivre. Ted describes his take on the character. “What I enjoyed about him and what made him kind of funny to me is that he is a narcissist who was way over his head. He lived in ‘Arthur World’ and yet he didn’t realize he was really living in ‘Glenn Close World.’ From beginning to end he was outmatched. And to me that’s kind of funny, which made him an interesting character to play.” I ask Danson if Frobisher, who had a pretty rough first season, will rise phoenix-like from the ashes. “I think, without giving anything away, he definitely feels as though he’s been given a second chance and in his convoluted way wants to take advantage of that. But once again, just because a narcissist finds religion doesn’t mean he’s no longer a narcissist.” Ted then chortles, “I love that this season Arthur has become a crier. Tears flow easily for him now.” Danson is unabashedly enthusiastic about his involvement with Damages and especially its talented creators. “It all begins and ends with the writing. These guys are so talented and so quirky that its just fun to show up knowing you are in these amazing hands.” The company has moved inside the lobby again and is now filming a short scene with Byrne walking back into her hotel lobby and meeting up with Timothy Olyphant’s character – a pseudo love interest Ellen meets in grief counseling. But to quote Glenn Close’s character, “Trust no one.” Olyphant is an established feature actor and is representative of the caliber of talent this show is able to attract. The show is cast-centric, a real character-driven show in a field of procedurals. It is also a show that is so heightened it could easily veer into melodrama without actors who possess the right amount of gravitas, something that Glenn Kessler is very aware of. “The actors have a lot to do with the tone. Because the words on the page could be played a lot of different ways. We’ve been very lucky to have Glenn Close and Rose Byrne and Ted Danson. And this year we have William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. And it’s a fine line. We understand it’s a heightened world. It’s a legal show that never goes into the courtroom. The first season is about the behind-the-scenes power maneuvering, power brokering, and manipulation; there’s a lot of treachery. There’s very little authenticity in terms of procedure in the courtroom. We wanted to bring a legal thriller element to television. And in order to do that we have to boost certain elements, kind of bring the audience along for the ride. Its entertainment first and foremost and it’s rooted in our actors’ ability to ride the line.” Todd A. Kessler also realizes the risk they have taken in their unorthodox approach to the legal genre.“It rides a thin line. We want it to be entertaining, full of extreme actions. There has been so much great work in the legal genre, in films and television, almost always centered around the great closing argument and the impassioned plea to the jury. All things you can quote lines from, ‘You can’t handle the truth’ or ‘This whole courtroom’s out of order.’ The courtroom is a heightened reality unto itself. Our first season we had half of one scene in a courtroom. We are not relying on the heightened reality of those grand courtroom scenes. We’ve hopefully gotten the entertainment out of exploring what happens in these characters’ lives outside the courtroom. All the things you never see on law shows like people meeting in dog parks as in the first season when Glenn Close’s character meets with Zeljko Ivanek’s character Ray Fiske. And a lot of their dealings happen there on the streets. The streets of New York City are a great equalizer. You can be in a dog park with Patty Hewes and a homeless guy and everything in between. And the actions that happen there are extreme but they’re really no more extreme than if we were going into courtrooms and living in that heightened world. We hope that it’s entertaining.” If you examine the credits of Damages you might notice that the Kesslers along with Zelman (who is not on set today) wear a lot of creative hats and there are not the usual platoon of producers clogging up the credits. Glenn Kessler describes their creative process, “Everything goes through the filter of the three of us. So we all write, we all produce, we all edit. I’m acting. Todd actually acted in the first season. He was Glenn Close’s doorman, her creepy doorman. Todd directed the finale last year and he’s directing the finale this year. And we have a great team of writers, and Mark A. Baker, who is our line producer, does a spectacular job of being on the ground and making sure everything functions smoothly. But it’s the three of us that head it up and we have a terrific team working with us.” Despite all the exciting and sometimes sensational trappings, the core of the show is the relationship between Close’s Patty Hewes and Byrne’s Ellen Parsons and it is unique examination of a power relationship amongst women, something you don’t always see on television. This was Todd A. Kessler’s intention from the beginning. “Obviously, we’re three men creating a show, but we felt like there had never been a look at women in power. There are characters like Tony Soprano, and I had written and produced The Sopranos for a couple of seasons, but there aren’t women in the mafia in the same way. Vic Mackey on The Shield, there aren’t women like that necessarily in police departments that are as aggressive and can be physically as imposing. Where would a woman be able to obtain as much power?” As another simple scene flawlessly performed by Rose Byrne and Timothy Olyphant is completed, I ponder how Rose Byrne handles holding half of this show on her delicate shoulders. Ellen Parsons had quite a journey in the first season, going from naïve young recruit to embittered victim in a short span of time. I ask Rose about what we can expect of Ellen’s journey this season. “A very interesting one. She’s out for blood. She’s out for revenge. I think that’s what is keeping her going. She’s burying her grief and her trauma and she’s just going for Patty. That’s her main focus and the FBI is just a means to get her. But it gets complicated and the FBI is not what it seems. And she realizes she has to take matters into her own hands yet again. But it also sheds light on Patty and what she does in a way that she really didn’t realize before and she learns from that. She’s gone through the biggest changes of her life. She started working at this job that completely changed everything and she kind of sold her soul to this woman to try to do the right thing. In the meantime she lost her fiancée. It’s kind of Shakespearean. Now she’s in the depths of despair and going for blood, going for revenge. So Season Two of Damages is beginning to come into focus as the shooting comes to a close, but what of the already guaranteed Season Three? No worries. Todd A. Kessler, like his fictional creation Patty Hewes, has figured out all the angles. “The show itself from season to season is about the relationship between this mentor and protégé, between Patty and Ellen. So the first season we looked at it as Ellen’s birth into the professional world. She took her knocks. In the second season it’s almost like her adolescence and so she’s revolting against the authority and she’s working as an informant for the feds to bring down the parental figure. And in the third season it’s going to be more of an adult relationship. So it’s the progression that each season will be a look at one’s journey through the professional world.” As I leave the set of Damages passing under the chic “Sullivan Grand Hotel” awning put up by Edward Pisoni’s crew, my mind drifts to Patty Hewes’ mantra, “Trust no one.” In the case of the cast and crew of Damages ability to deliver a show full of intelligence, intrigue, and smashing entertainment value, “Trust everyone.”