Damages, as Patty Hewes, 2007-present
I’m now three years in and it’s been a great ride. I think this year is even better than last. Patty is just a very fun character to play because she never shows her cards. She really does not have that much of an emotional vocabulary, but there are moments they’ve given me—which, in any medium, are like gold—where you’re alone with your audience and in a moment when you’re vulnerable. For Patty Hewes, it’s a matter of survival. She never would have gotten where she is in law, which for so many years has been a male-run profession, without being able to play the game as well as she does. It’s for survival, No. 1, then it becomes something that you get addicted to.
The World According to Garp, as Jenny Fields, 1982
That will always be special to me, because it was my first movie. I went up to [director] George Roy Hill in the very beginning, we were rehearsing, and I said, “I hear that a lot of actors can’t make the transition from theater to film,’” and he said, “Yeah. That’s right.” I said, “I hope you will take care of me,” and he basically did. He taught me. He cared enough to point out two little mannerisms I had that I was not always aware of. It’s always different on a movie. I only used to project from the stage, and you have to find where to put your energy. At times I thought I was going to blow out the cameras. On Garp, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It was a great, scary, experience. For Jenny Fields, I used my grandmother, Elizabeth Moore, the way I did my mouth. She had false teeth that moved, and a way that she clenched her jaw, I did that. Also her ability to totally focus on someone and make them feel like the only person in the room was something I always used for Jenny.
The Big Chill, as Sarah Cooper, 1983
That was my second movie, and I actually didn’t want to play the part of Sarah. I thought she was kind of the daughter of Jenny Fields from Garp, someone that took care of everybody. I thought the other parts were more interesting. But that changed as we got into rehearsal. We rehearsed, a very rare occasion for film, for a whole month at the Warner Bros. studios. It was a huge luxury. I learned a lot about the process of acting in film from The Big Chill. There’s a scene where I’m telling JoBeth [Williams] about my affair with the character that Kevin Costner played. It was in that scene that I realized that silence can be, and thought—real thought—very powerful, especially in a close-up.
Fatal Attraction, as Alex Forrest, 1987
Fatal Attraction was really the first part that took me away from the Jenny Fields, Sarah Coopers—good, nurturing women roles. I did more preparation for that film than I’ve ever done, talking to psychiatrists about why people would behave that way. Since then, I’ve been contacted by professors who teach psychiatry, saying this is textbook behavior for a borderline personality. But I wasn’t playing that. The psychiatrists I talked to thought her behavior was more that of someone who had been incested pre-memory, like when she was four. There was that weird stuff about her and her father… I ended up really loving that character and having huge empathy for her. She was not someone who was evil, she was someone who was desperately in need of help. That whole journey, the more I loved her, the realer she got, and the more outraged people were by what she did. I was shocked when that movie came out, that the feminists all thought she was terrible. I guess it’s because they looked at it as trashing single, working women. But you don’t play a generality like that, you play a specific person.
101 Dalmatians, as Cruella de Vil, 1996
I was doing Sunset Boulevard when they offered 101 Dalmatians to me. My first reaction was: She’s not witty enough. She should be a combination of Noel Coward and the Marquis de Sade. She’s the devil. So John Hughes went back to the original, animated film, and used a lot of those lines, because she was really mean in that. The meaner she is, the funnier she is. You know, she’s a witch! If you’re a witch, you have to be bad. You can’t be a half-ass witch! The challenge of that film was wearing those clothes. I had a very tight corset and very high heels. In the scene in the beginning, where I walk down the runway into the work room, the shoes I had been wearing, I had been wearing all day. The heels were literally nails. And my feet! I mean, we all go through some shoe trauma because of the heels we’re teetering around on, but you usually don’t have to wear them for the amount of time you have to wear them during a movie. By the time I got down that runway, I thought my feet were bloodied. Another funny thing was in that first entrance, when I drive up in the car, I had that nice, long, fur stole, with that train that weighed a ton. And I could not get out of that car unassisted. So what happened in that shot was, my on-set dresser, Jim, is squished in the back of that little car, feeding my train out of the door as I’m walking up the sidewalk.
Something About Amelia, as Gail Bennett, 1984
When I was offered that, I thought “Eww, eww! Who wants to do a movie about incest?” I couldn’t even say the word. But I read the script, it was brilliant. It was really, really good. And so I had no alternative but to do it. Then I heard they were afraid because they knew me as Jenny Fields, and they thought I’d be too old for Ted Danson. Then when I arrived, they thought, “Maybe she’s too young.” From that film I learned that unspeakable words like “incest” or “schizophrenia” or, like, “vagina,” can become speakable if they’re repeated enough. They lose their power over people, they lose their ability to engender fear.
The Natural, as Iris Gaines, 1984
When The Natural came up, I was actually supposed to be doing a Merchant Ivory film. I was all set to star in it, and then I was told that Robert Redford wanted me in The Natural. My agent tried to figure out how to do both, but I ended up getting fired from the Merchant Ivory film because I got all nervous. So it was kind of bittersweet for me… The famous scene, I think the reason I got nominated for an Academy Award, was when I was in the stands near the end. When I stand up, when he’s at bat, the sun is setting, and it’s going through that wonderful hat I had on. It’s a shot that’s been analyzed by a lot of critics. Caleb Deschanel, the director of photography, worked with the costume designer, and I think he designed a special lens, just so [Iris] had this kind of angelic persona, this special light. That, for me, in that film, was kind of the most magical moment, and it was also the most technically interesting, just how they pulled that off.
Dangerous Liaisons, as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, 1988
She’s one of the great characters, like Elizabeth I—a woman of great mental ability, brilliant, kind of caught between being a woman in her particular era but she refuses to be treated like one. And she meets her match, her great love and great hate of her life, really, in the character played by [John] Malkovich. One of the scenes that I’m very proud of is the one where he asks her how she invented herself. We’re on that sofa, and he’s asking me how I became who I am. I had to be sent home when we first shot that because I was so exhausted. My daughter was only eight weeks old, and I’d go home from the set to be with my baby. I just came to the point where my brain was not working. So the scene you see is the second attempt. The reason my breasts are so big is because I’d just weaned my child! That’s another wicked corset movie.
Reversal of Fortune, as Sunny von Bülow, 1990
Sometimes there’s one scene that makes you say yes to a project. In Reversal of Fortune it’s when she’s at the dining room table, smoking a cigarette, wearing really dark glasses, and eating an ice cream sundae. She was a diabetic, so she was in some ways committing suicide in front of everyone. She was eating a dish of ice cream that she should not have had. But just that image, I thought, was really powerful. I found that project, that film, actually, very difficult, because I thought Sunny von Bülow was not written with as much empathy as she deserved. I was dying to talk to people who knew her, but they were intensely protective of her, so I never was able to talk to people about who this woman really was. I think in many ways she was a woman who was caught in a life she was never really suited for. I heard she walked like a ballerina, that she was very shy. But none of that was really brought up in the script. It was one of the most brilliant scripts, but I think it was written much more from a man’s point of view, from Alan Dershowitz’s point of view, than from Sunny’s.
Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, as Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, 1995
That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, because Margarethe Cammermeyer was around during the shoot. She was an exacting soldier, very strict about uniform, and how you salute—everything. It was tragic that she was the one kicked out of the Army eventually, because she was homosexual. But the thing that stayed with me—I’ve known many, many gay people, and they’re some of my best friends. We all went through the AIDS scourge, I’ve lost many friends, and I’ve always been highly sympathetic to the plights of gays, what they’ve had to deal with. But the scene at the end, although I was very open-minded and supportive, when Judy Davis and I had to kiss at the end, I really felt that for 30 seconds, maybe a minute, what it really, really felt like to be attracted to my own gender. It was kind of revelatory for me, a real frisson moment. I’ll never forget it.
Jagged Edge, as Teddy Barnes, 1985
Ann Roth, who’s designed costumes for me my whole career, did those fantastic suits. Later, when I saw L.A. Law, I thought it was funny because I’d remembered hearing that no one thought anybody wanted to see anything where the star was a woman lawyer. Before Jagged Edge there had been nothing [major] starring a woman as a lawyer, also one who dressed really well. L.A. Law was really influenced by the look of my character, or so I’ve always thought. I had a lot of fun with Jeff Bridges. There’s a scene where Jeff and I are riding, and we’re both good riders, but they put me on a race horse with a mouth like iron, and it was very hard to stop. They wanted us to canter, which for a race horse, is like waving a red flag in front of its face. But you can’t act like you’re pulling your horse up all the time, so I just let him go. They had four men and a couple horses around the corner we disappeared out of, and I ordered them to help me stop the horse. That was a little scary.
The Lion in Winter, as Eleanor of Aquitaine, 2003
I love history, I read everything I can get my hands on. Eleanor of Aquitaine is almost on par with—she was cut out of the same cloth as—Elizabeth I. An extraordinary woman out of history, incredibly strong. There are some scenes in that that I’m as proud of as anything I’ve ever done. One of them is when she’s in prison and [King Henry II, played by Patrick Stewart] offers her her freedom…But he gives her this ultimatum that she finds totally corrupt and unacceptable. It’s a very, very cruel move on his part, but Andrei Konchalovsky, the director, he was really wonderful at calibrating that scene, because she starts out one way and then totally turns, when she realizes how clever he’s being. And that turn was something that was thrilling to find. It’s a powerful woman trying to be manipulated by a man and just turning around and saying, “NO. Fuck you!”
The Shield, as Captain Monica Rawling, 2005
The last thing I was thinking I would ever do was go into a TV series. I’d never seen The Shield when I had a meeting with the show’s creators and the head of FX, and I was seduced by their passion. I looked at what they’d shot and I thought, “This is really good.” And then I made one stipulation that the character didn’t end up being corrupt. Because I had met with a wonderful woman, Theresa Shortell, the only commanding officer of the whole 76th Precinct, and she became a model for that character. I asked Theresa, “What is the hardest thing about your job?” She said, “Being a woman and not letting it matter.” I didn’t really understand what that meant until I walked onto the set of The Shield, which was testosterone-laden, and you feel very aware of your femaleness amongst all these very strong and masculine guys, and you become self-conscious in your effort to command them. I knew exactly what Theresa was talking about. The writers are very smart, because it wasn’t until the third episode that I actually took command. So as I was acting and getting used to the idea, the character was doing the same thing.
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