Imagine you're a government spy, suddenly expelled from the organization you've risked your life to protect. You're left with no money, no home and no one to trust...except your chain-smoking, hypochondriac mother, who wishes you'd write home more often. Cagney & Lacey alum Sharon Gless brings Burn Notice's overbearing mother, Madeline Westen, to life.
Screening Room:You get to live and work in Miami at the same time. Must make for a nice commute!
Fresh off a legal victory to keep one of cable's hottest shows based in Miami, Sharon chats about her role and opens up on life in Hollywood.
Sharon Gless: It's the first time I've ever worked at home since I've been married. I did Queer As Folk for five years in Toronto, and I do theater in London and another series in L.A. since I've been married. When I got this, my husband says: "I don't know if our marriage is going to survive. You're living at home?"
SR: Anything about the new season you can share with us?
SG: For my character—the mother from hell—I go undercover. It's hard for me to fit in [TV son] Michael's journey because it's always a treacherous one. His journey is sort of constant, but my journey as a mother has changed a little because they're letting me in there more. And he hides a lot of his clients at my house.
SR: Speaking of mothers, you've played unforgettable ones in Queer As Folk and now Burn Notice. I'd read once that you said you never really wanted to play a mom. So what attracted you to these roles?
SG: When I was younger, I kept seeing the roles that older actresses were given, which was always "the mother of." I just didn't want to do it. It didn't look fun; it looked boring. But then I got the script for Queer As Folk and I called up Showtime and I said, "I want that role." And I went after it, and they gave it to me. That mother was outrageous.
The reason I took the mother for Burn Notice is the character description was just, "A chain-smoking hypochondriac." I said, "I can do that!" If they present her as having a personality of her own, then she's more than just the "mother of."
SR: Your character and Michael have a wonderful onscreen dynamic. How did you make that work?
SG: I don't know, Jeffrey Donovan and I just show up every day when we have scenes together and we just do it. It fit the first time we tried it. There's a back history we both know about that's been written into the show—the abuse in the household from the father. That's always underneath everything, so we're given sort of a loaded situation, he and I. And she's difficult and he's also trying to hide who he is, so we have all kinds of stuff going on when we're playing the dialogue.
She's also not stupid. In the pilot, she wasn't as well-defined. But once they started shooting series scenes, the producer gave me one note. He said, "Sharon, he gets his smarts from her." I said, "Okay, I understand." So even though she's sometimes seen in maybe a victim situation with him, that he's not forthcoming, she knows him. Until recently, the character Fiona is now reaching him. But so far, over these last two years, she's the only one who's been able to get to him. She's the only one who can hit him in the heart because of his background as a child and also the line of work he's in. Michael Westen is very hard to reach.
SR: When you play strong characters like Madeline, do you see a part of yourself in them?
SG: Well, I'm capable of being hurt, and [Michael] hurts Madeline. Also, my husband says, "They're paying you to smoke." You can always tell an actor who doesn't smoke. Doing cigarette scenes and it just doesn't look good. I like using a cigarette because you can use it like people use their glasses or people use a prop. And it drives Jeffrey Donovan crazy. He hates cigarettes, and he hates smoke. He says, "Sharon, do you have to rehearse with it?" But this season, I'm trying to be a good guy. I don't light it until the cameras roll. He's a good guy, he works really, really hard.
SR: You're known for interesting female roles—Cagney, Debbie, Madeline. Are there any women who inspired you?
SG: My mother and my grandmother. Two totally different personalities. My mother was very, very loving, so I used that when I played [Queer As Folk]. NOTE: I would put the whole name of the show in brackets. We shouldn't leave as just "when I played Queer". I just remember how it felt. When anyone walks into a room, no one lit up like my mom, so I brought that piece of her when I played Debbie.
Burn Notice is more of my grandmother. My grandmother was tougher and sort of let us know that she knew what was going on. No matter what it was, she knew what was going on. I think Madeline's a little warmer than my British grandmother. She was not as open; she just wasn't raised that way. She was very, very smart and nothing escaped her.
They're both powerful women in their own ways. I was lucky to have both of them—I was lucky to have both those parts too!
SR: You've been in and around show business for about 40 years. How has the business changed over the years?
SG: It's very, very different from when I first started. I started as a Universal contract player—I'm the last contract player in the history of Hollywood. I wasn't the last one to get one—I was the last one to leave the lot. I lasted 10 years, then I left and went into Cagney & Lacey.
There's a kindness that I don't see as much anymore, but I think television has changed so much. There was the wonderful, wonderful early years of television when everything was live, and I'm old enough to remember it. Then I go through eras when I think of the Lucille Balls and the Mary Tyler Moores, who certainly set the tone for women in television. The first time a drama was ever done with two women was Cagney & Lacey, and we were spoiled by one of the finest producers in the business.
Women's roles have, I think, improved. Now, I notice women are getting starring roles again, like The Closer and Glenn Close in Damages, but it seems like men are still carrying the shows in ensemble pieces.
What's interesting about older women, my age, motion picture stars my age, most of them can't get jobs now—except for Meryl Streep. What's happened is the wonderful actresses in the motion picture field who would never touch a thing called television are now flying to it.
SR: What projects do you have coming up?
SG: I have a movie coming out. It won't be in theaters, but it will be on DVD. A friend of mine is a famous lesbian playwright in Chicago, Claudia Allen. She's written like 23 plays, many of them award-winning. And one of her award-winning plays was put on film. So last November, I shot her feature. It's called Hannah Free . I play an old lesbian in a wheelchair. It's a wonderful show.
The largest and most famous gay and lesbian film festival in the world is Frameline in San Francisco. They saw just the promo for it and said, "Do you want to open or close the festival?" I'm going to go, and they'll do the world premiere there. … It's also been accepted in the Los Angeles festival and the Philadelphia one so far.
Sharon shares the best advice she's ever received and more.
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 14, 2014
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