The veteran actress talks about her role on the show, the series' star Jeffrey Donovan and a possible Cagney and Lacey movie
Sharon Gless has been a TV icon for years, starting with roles in Marcus Welby, M.D. then as Christine Cagney in Cagney & Lacey all the way up to recent hits like Queer as Folk and a recent arc in Nip/Tuck. The actress also appears in the new hit USA Network series Burn Notice, as Madleline Westen, the mother of Jeffrey Donovan's Michael Westen character. The first season was just released on DVD on June 17, right before season two kicks off on July 10. I had the chance to speak with Sharon over the phone, and here's what she had to say about the series and more.
What first got you into this role and what intrigued you about the character, Madeline Westen?
Sharon Gless: The pilot script, when I read it, they said it was just one day's work and I was alone when I read it and I burst out laughing so that was my first clue. It was a format that had never been done on TV, that I could remember, with the CIA special ops having been burned. I thought it was fun and very very clever and Matt Nix, who wrote it, was his first time out and he hit paydirt. It appealed to me because I thought the mother was very funny. I swore I wouldn't play mothers, but they were very very interesting human beings. You never know if something is going to be a hit. If I had that ability, I'd be running a network (Laughs). I just thought it was very clever and very smart. The person who carries it is Jeffrey Donovan and he does a great job and we're given wonderful material.
So what sorts of things did you do to get into character when this went to series?
Sharon Gless: I did nothing. I showed up. It was supposed to be one day's work, which was spread out to two. He gave me a description of the character - she was a chain smoker, hypochondriac, highly manipulative so, in two scenes, I tried to get in as much as I could. I spoke to Matt Nix on the phone to get some instinct in what he wanted in the character and the one thing I did was I bought a wig (Laughs). She's a hypochondriac, she's obviously not very secure, she's looking for attention and she's a certain age. I said I don't want to downplay her age. I want to play her age, but I want to play the fact that she's trying to hide it, so I went and got this Barbie doll wig and they let me do it in the pilot. After the pilot was over, the network said, 'I think we'll lose the wig.' So that's really all I did, I went and got this girly wig. That would say volumes about her.
Jeffrey Donovan is just a pure natural for Michael Westen. What's he like to work with and was he cracking everyone up on the set between takes?
Sharon Gless: No, no. He's a wonderful actor and he's carrying the whole show. This year it's a little looser. Last year, the pressure was extraordinary on him, so there wasn't a lot of time to play around when you're in every single scene. He finishes one and goes right on to the next. It's a feat that he did accomplish beautifully, but this year it's a little looser, when you all of the sudden realize we might have a hit on our hands, you relax a little more. He's a wonderful actor and he has a personal sense of comedy, but no, he doesn't do stand-up comedy between scenes for the crew.
A lot of the USA shows seem to be a hybrid between a sitcom and drama, there's a pretty solid mix of humor and drama within the hour-long format. Does this feel more like a sitcom or more like a drama when you're filming it?
Sharon Gless: More like a drama. More like a drama with, I'd say, more human comedy. It's not like sitcom comedy at all. It is a drama but there are situations that are put in there that are sometimes amusing. Some of it is very tongue-in-cheek. His voiceover, his narration is very funny, even though he's in very serious situations, his narration is hysterical.
So your first season was a half-season and it seems like you've gotten a few more this season.
Sharon Gless: It's a very big order for a cable network. Last year we did, I think the pilot might have been two hours, and we did 11 of them - I think the pilot and then nine more. This year we got an order for 16 episodes, which is a big order for cable. Now, I don't know if they're going to split them up, but we're shooting 16 in a row.
I was on a conference call with Jeffrey Donovan and Bruce Campbell yesterday.
Sharon Gless: (Laughs)
Yeah, it was a riot, let me tell you.
Sharon Gless: I know. They're very very funny guys. Bruce is hysterical. I don't usually get a chance to work with Bruce or Gabrielle (Anwar), but this year they're giving me stuff with them. I've already done scenes with them. They're giving Jeffrey a slight break, so they'll put me alone with Bruce, put me alone with Gabrielle.
Yeah. They said they were giving you a bigger involvement in the series this year. Can you talk about what we might be able to expect from you this year from your character?
Sharon Gless: Yeah. There's a storyline that's running through it. I'm not allowed to tell what it is, because for some reason they don't want to say specifically what it is. They're trying to have these two characters, Michael and Madeline, come to some resolve with their issues. They don't get along, I mean, she wants to, but he's cautious with her, because he knows her pretty well and she's highly manipulative. There are some episodes where they put us in a situation where we're trying to reach each other... but I can't tell you how we do it. I'm sorry. I don't know why, but what they're doing is, the scenes they've done so far, some are very funny and some are sad. People are trying to reach each other and both of them are strong and have their positions, sometimes it's funny, sometimes its tender.
They're starting to bring back a lot of these old shows from the 70s and 80s. Have you heard anything about Cagney & Lacey reunion or a movie?
Sharon Gless: We've already done four reunion movies, Cagney & Lacey did, and we called them the "Menopause Years" because we came back as older women. But there is some talk coming out of London where they want to do a feature. I got a call about it. I'm not sure who's wanting to do it, but there have been some inquiries to it. We were almost bigger in England than we ever were here. So yeah, there has been some talk of a feature, certainly not us playing the roles, with younger actresses playing the parts as a feature.
Sharon Gless: Yeah. That's all we know. We got a call, Barney (Rosenzweig) did, my husband who created it, about wanting to use it, but I don't know who's doing it.
Has there been any talk about a Queer as Folk reunion?
Sharon Gless: No, not yet, but I think it'd be a great idea. I don't know if enough time has gone by yet to do it. We only ended it two years ago.
Yeah. The show still has a pretty big fanbase though.
Sharon Gless: Yeah, I know it does. They still have conventions and things like that. In fact, I was just invited to one in Europe. They wanted to bring some of the cast in so, apparently it's still alive and well out there. We're just not shooting it. I think it would be a great idea to bring us back, I just think we need a little more time away from it.
Is there anything you can tell us about what we can expect from the Season 2 premiere in July?... That won't get you in trouble?
Sharon Gless: Yeah (Laughs). The situation is getting much more interesting between Jeffrey and those characters. They're dealing more intimately, more emotionally with what's going on between Michael and Madeline. I only know the changes that are going on with my character with them. It's just getting deeper, richer, fuller, better. It's much more relaxed this year. Last year was the first year and Jeffrey was carrying everything and this year, they're giving him a little more time off. He's not in every single scene. He's in almost every scene, but they're giving him a little more breathing time and they're developing the other characters also. They have to give him some kind of a little break. They can't kill the golden goose, you know (Laughs).
Finally, you've been involved in some wonderful TV programs in your career. Where do you think Burn Notice will stack up against everything you've done in your career?
Sharon Gless: If I knew that... I just can't predict the future. I think the phenomena of Burn Notice is worth mentioning because it became this wonderful little hit right out of the box. The demographics are from age 10 to age 80. I mean, it's extraordinary. I was on Rosie O'Donnell's cruise last year, I took like a week off from the show and I went on her cruise and a little boy came up to me and said, 'Are you on Burn Notice?' I said yes and he said, 'That is so cool!' Then I went into the casino and a woman in her 80s came up and said, 'I just love your show.' I just thought, 'Wow.' I don't know what it is about this show that attracts such a widespread audience, but whatever it is, it's Matt Nix's genius. I guess there's something out there for everyone (Laughs).
Well, that's about all I have for you today, Sharon. Thanks a lot for your time.
Sharon Gless: OK, thank you, Brian. Bye.
You can find Sharon and the rest of the Burn Notice crew on the DVD shelves now.