Rule No. 1: You better be tough
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.
Ted Danson is back as Arthur Frobisher, the chief executive whom Patty defeated last season, while Timothy Olyphant (“Deadwood”) has joined the show as Wes Krulik, a mysterious figure who starts up a passionate affair with Ellen after bonding with her in grief counseling. Marcia Gay Harden portrays Claire Maddox, the in-house counsel of a powerful coal company that Patty takes on.
Harden said Close lobbied her to take the role, in which she goes up against Patty’s tough-as-nails litigator.
“She knew she wanted a woman she could go head to head with, but how that plays on camera and how that plays in the writing is something that both of us are trying to be really keen about keeping honest,” Harden said. “Everybody loves the banter, the tit for tat, the catfight. But it’s a cliche as well.”
On a recent afternoon, they filmed their first scene together, an encounter Close jokingly dubbed beforehand “the battle of the Manolos.” Outfitted in sleek suits and high heels, the women eyed each other across Patty’s richly appointed office. Dispensing with chitchat, Claire relayed that her boss had authorized her to make a settlement offer.
“Whatever settlement figured he’s authorized -- tell him to triple it,” Patty responded with calm iciness. “And we’ll start boring ourselves from there.”
After the scene wrapped, Harden let loose a peal of throaty laughter.
“Ladies and gentleman,” she declared, gesturing to Close, “Patty Hewes, with my jugular in her hands!”
Patty may be haunted with guilt about the measures she took to win the Frobisher case, but there are no signs that she has relinquished her competitive drive.
“Her primary need may be to win,” Zelman said. “One of the things she’s doing this season is grasping at the extremes she had to go to in the previous season, and one of the central questions of this season is, how far will she go?”
This time, her adversary is the energy industry, a story line inspired in part by environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whom Close introduced to the show’s producers.
“There’s a passion in him for what he’s pursuing that was thrilling to us to hear about,” said Glen Kessler. “As he fleshed out some of these stories and the players involved, it was the kind of thing where we were like, well, that’s kind of ripe for our show.”
After personalizing the drama of accounting fraud in Season 1, Todd Kessler added, “we’re trying to do the same thing with what’s going on behind the scenes with the power brokering.”
Just how the writers tie together Ellen’s quest for revenge with Patty’s pursuit of the energy lobby’s influence on government remains to be seen. Byrne called this season’s plot “pretty much as murky, if not more so,” as last year’s.
“There’s so much story that to me, I’m like, how . . . are they going to wrap this all up?” she said.
The writers themselves aren’t quite sure. They have a general idea of how they’d like the season to conclude but leave open the possibility of changing their minds at the last minute, an approach they say gives the series an improvisational quality.
“The show becomes almost a collage,” Zelman said. “It very much feels sometimes like we’re throwing things up on the wall and saying, ‘Oh, wait a minute, that goes there.’ ”
The actors have gotten used to flying blind, even though it means they regularly receive scripts the morning they’re set to shoot a scene.
“It’s one of the great pleasures, acting in this, because you really don’t know and sort of take it scene by scene,” said Tate Donovan, who plays Tom Shayes, Patty’s right-hand man at the firm, as he crammed to learn lines in his dressing room. “You could end up being a murderer or a savior. You have no idea. And what it does to all of us is that there’s no room for judgment -- we just do. It’s an exercise in being present.”