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Doyenne of dragon ladies delivers again

New York — New York -- Patty Hewes frightens Glenn Close. No wonder: Hewes is an ice-eyed trial lawyer and serpentine liar who disdains white-collar violence in favor of open sadism. She never settles for $100 million, in other words, when she can put everyone through hell for a nickel more.

But Close is Patty Hewes, the central character in Damages, a cloak-and-dagger legal thriller that begins Tuesday on FX.

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In 40 years in theater and movies, Close has appeared as Norma Desmond, Cruella de Vil and Alex Forrest, the Medusa-haired bunny boiler of Fatal Attraction.

She should be accustomed to fierce characters. They're the roles she's always offered; they're the roles she's always played. ("Maybe it's my Yankee jawline," she said.)

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But each formidable role occasions a new round of anxieties. Is she too mild to play such characters? Or are these dragons whom she has become?

In her Upper West Side living room on a recent afternoon, she seemed eager, above all, to prove that she's not being typecast. She presents herself as Patty Hewes' opposite: Dressed in layers of sand-colored linens, her bare feet tucked up under her on a cream-colored sofa, Close is breathy, wistful, even kittenish.

Getting past shyness

"I was -- what's the word for it? -- insecure," she said, sounding somewhat practiced, as she explained her decision to take the lead in Damages. "I felt shy around Patty Hewes, just as I've felt intimidated by some of the other characters I've played."

She cited Eleanor of Aquitaine from Showtime's Lion in Winter, the rigid Jenny Fields in The World According to Garp and -- "God knows," she said -- the gloriously treacherous Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons.

"If I were in the room with these women, I'd be totally intimidated, because they're smarter than me. So I have to get over my initial shyness, and work up my courage."

The role has also forced Close, who turned 60 in March, to confront the exigencies of her career. While she has been working steadily in television and movies, she hasn't had a memorable film role since 102 Dalmatians in 2000.

Appearing on a season of The Shield for FX in 2005 may have been an experiment, but it did win her an Emmy nomination. So with a six-year commitment to Damages, she's betting her legacy.

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In casting her lot with Damages, Close has traded the artistic discovery of theater and the forgiving, ego-friendly and finite process of big-budget movies for a job that has more in common with a medical residency.

Though she's pleased to be working in New York, where she lives, Close regards the long hours and rigors of television with a kind of wonder. Why is she doing this now, when she could be taking it easy?

Lead actors in complex, long-running serials often say they feel more like characters in novels than autonomous artists. To a greater or lesser extent, they must disappear down the rabbit hole of someone else's imagination, like Neo in The Matrix.

Close, though, is braced, and even a little giddy at the thought of what she's getting into. "In plays and movies, I'm used to a beginning, middle and end. Here, I don't know where the character is going, and I don't totally know her back story. I have to trust the show's creators, and I do."

Accidental radiance

She certainly looks beautiful in the first two episodes. "Beauty on screen is all good wigs and lighting," Close said. It's hard to believe her.

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As she ruminated on her career and Patty Hewes, the pale summer sunlight came haphazardly through the windows, which give out onto Central Park. Her bed-head hairstyle is her own.

She has the accidental radiance of someone like Jane Goodall or Christiane Amanpour: someone not in the appearance business, someone impatient with facials and daylong triple-process sessions at the salon.

"People have these perceptions of you until you somehow are lucky enough to break them," she said. "You know, people come up to me all the time -- I'm amazed that they think it's a compliment -- and they say, 'You look so much better in life than you do in your movies.'"

The remark puzzles her. "I don't know why people think that, except maybe because I play these kinds of disturbing characters. Don't you think that's a strange thing to say?"

Yes, but it's also strange that Close, who appears at pains to underscore her inadequacies to a journalist, so rarely displays them as an actress. Hollywood likes its leading ladies to bleed and sob, and when did Glenn Close last expire on a deathbed, a la Vanessa Redgrave, or wail a la Meryl Streep?

Has she ever played an ingenue?

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"Ah, no," she said, betraying only a touch of brittleness. "I never played Juliet. I missed that." But if anything will reveal an actor's fragility, it is the rigors of serial drama.

Close, but no Streep

"We're playing off the audience's expectations," said Todd A. Kessler, one of the show's creators and executive producers. "You think you know who Glenn Close is. You think she's invulnerable. But she's not. And you'll see that."

As for Patty Hewes, "she doesn't want her colleagues and opponents to see her vulnerability, so only the audience gets to see it," he said.

In the middle of musing, Close remembered something funny and darted from the room to fetch a newspaper clipping about Evening, a current film in which she appears with Meryl Streep. She is indifferent to the notice, which is lukewarm, but the caption on the photograph makes her hoot with laughter. Streep is misidentified as Close. A blog on the Internet -- glencloseismeryl streep.blogspot.com -- tracks the similarities between the actresses. This comparison has dogged Close throughout her career.

The resemblance is hard to miss. Both are blond, fair, graceful, sophisticated -- and then, in some willed transmogrification, they can become flat-out ugly. Each had this talent even when she was young. Bland pleasantness in both faces can be suffused or even undone by powerful emotion. Close, who has won an Emmy and three Tony Awards, has been nominated for five Oscars, but won none. Streep, by contrast, has two Academy Awards, and has in a quarter-century turned her name into a byword for "great actor," a kind of American Olivier.

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This exasperating turn of events for Close -- fated to have a double, only to see her crowned princess of your art -- might make the runner-up seem pitiful, or it might make her sympathetic. Close has chosen to joke, "I've often been mistaken for Meryl Streep, but never on Oscar night."



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