We had the honor of attending the Burn Notice press junket in Miami last month, where we were able to interview the cast and crew from the series, including the beautiful and talented Sharon Gless. Here’s what she had to say:
When I first saw Burn Notice, one of the things that kept me watching was you.
Gless: Well, that’s nice. Thank you! Thank you very much. Well, I hope I’m one of the reasons they watch, but Jeffrey is carrying it, you know? And brilliantly.
So what’s it like to be a TV icon?
Sharon Gless: Oh my goodness! Am I?
Gless: Well… I’ll tell you, I don’t know if I’m an icon, but I’ve really been… working more than most my age. And I come from gratitude every day – it makes me cry – I come from gratitude every single day. Because I have so many friends, you know, my age, who I was in the industry with, who aren’t working any more. And it feels like a really swell thing that I get to keep working.
Do you fellow cast members look up to you and come to you for career advice?
Gless: [Laughs] Um, well, I don’t know if they look up to me, but Jeffrey when we first started just wanted to know, ‘How did you do it?’ Just the stamina that it takes to be, as he is, in every single scene, which Tyne and I were in Cagney and Lacey. It was devised that way on purpose. There was never a scene we weren’t in. But that’s how this show’s been devised. I think this year they’re giving him a little break, because you can’t kill the golden goose. But normally he’s in every single scene. So last year, sort of the only advise he would ask me was, ‘How did you do it?’ I said, ‘You have to get an assistant. You just have to be able to give stuff to other people and just focus on your work.’ He’s so amazing. Have you met him?
Gless: You’re in for such a treat.
I recently spoke with Kim Cattrall, who told me that you and her…
Gless: … We were under contract together! I just saw Sex and the City. I said to my friend, ‘I know her.’
She remembered you well.
Gless: Oh, I remember her very, very well. One of her first parts…
And Jamie Lee Curtis too.
Gless: And Jamie Lee Curtis, right. Jamie Lee… When Kim and I were there, she and I were doing television. Usually contract players only do television. Jamie Lee never did television. She just immediately went into features. But that’s sort of rare. But what’s interesting about Kim is that the first time I met Kim I was doing this series called Switch… Did I just kick you?
Gless: Want me to? [Laughs] Um, I was doing a series called Switch with Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert and Kim came and played a Salvation Army girl. She was a beautiful brunette. I mean sort of – I know this sounds weird – but when I looked at her, I thought, ‘You know, she could play the Virgin Mary.’ I swear to god! And you know what’s happened to Kim Cattrall! That’s what a good actress she is. She was wonderful and sweet and just heartbreaking as this Salvation Army lady, so that’s what a good actress she is.
When you first read the part in Burn Notice, did you quickly respond to it and know it was something you wanted to do?
Gless: I read it, I was just sitting alone, and I laughed out loud. There was nobody around, and I thought… That’s sort of a key to me that… I loved the voice over stuff. It just made me laugh, and I thought, ‘This is so interesting. Everything he’s saying has nothing to do with what he’s really doing on film.’ And the fact that I got to play… They described the character as a chain-smoking hypochondriac. My husband said, ‘How happy are you they’re paying you to smoke?’ So I thought, ‘This sounds fun! I’d like to do it!’ It was like two days work – it was one day’s work and then they decided to separate it into two days and I thought, ‘Well, it sounds really, really fun.’ And it was in Miami and I just happen to live in Miami! But I was in Los Angeles when they sent it to me. I never know anymore when you read scripts or you do things, what the audience is going to want. Television’s very different now. And lucky me, it became a hit.
Have you reached a point where you’ve read so many things that you’re not paralyzed to make a choice?
Gless: Oh, you flatter me! You mean so many offers? [Everyone laughs] No, no. But the things that I’ve been sent to do or asked if I’d be interested in doing just end up being hits! [Laughs] Yeah! I just think, I don’t know if it’s luck or just instinct… But please, I don’t want you to think that people send me thousands of scripts and I can’t decide which. I’ve just been very fortunate that I think the ones that are sent to me, I think the people knew that I was right for that and I think if you get all the characters… have you met any of our cast yet?
Everyone but Jeffrey.
Gless: Well, it’s a brilliant piece of casting. Everybody’s just fabulous in the roles. So I guess the credibility goes to the producers and the network – whoever took you, you know? And there’s a chemistry between the actors that’s really, really important.
Well, chemistry is something you know a lot about, because you and Tyne had the most amazing chemistry. You were the best Cagney of all the Cagneys. Did you know right away that it just worked between the two of you?
Gless: Did you know that I was offered that role twice and turned it down? So actors are not always the best judges of material. It’s true! And Tyne was so generous. And I can say that about Jeffrey and Gabrielle and Bruce, because I think it matters. You don’t do this alone. You just don’t. She was very, very generous in accepting me. Obviously, she loved Meg and she had to swallow that and watch her friend be fired and then bring in the blond. It was difficult for me, because I knew what she was going through and she was wonderful. To answer your question about the chemistry, I don’t believe that actors can take credit for chemistry. I never have believed that. The person who thinks to put you together; who sees that… Tyne and I may have just adored each other, but on film we could have sucked. It may not have worked. And so I had no idea. I don’t know anything about that.
Since you don’t believe in chemistry, how did you and Jeffrey develop your relationship? Did you guys hang out off set or…
Gless: No! No. He really doesn’t have time. We do now. I mean, I took him and Gabrielle – Bruce couldn’t come – but I took them on a boat the other weekend for Stone Crabs. We do really respect and like each other very, very much, but no… I met him, ‘Hi, nice to meet you! Wow, you really bit off a lot, didn’t you?’ He said, ‘Yeah, be careful what you ask for.’ That was our conversation. We got in a car and did our first scene together. So I think you have to be prepared as an actor; know what you’re going to do; be flexible enough that the director can manipulate it and manipulate you if he wants; and I just lucked out. I hope Jeffrey feels he lucked out. He’s just a wonderful actor and it just worked. That was my very first scene, was riding around in this car. I don’t know if you saw it in the pilot, but it’s like a chase scene and I’m having to throw dialogue in where… You have to be very loosey goosey on this show. You have to be very… I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Jeffrey, because Jeffrey and I work differently. Jeffrey’s very spontaneous. Just, ‘Anything happens, man!’ Just, ‘Let’s just see what happens!’ And I’m going, ‘Well… Don’t you want to run the lines?’ He said, ‘No. You know them, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I know ’em. Let’s just do it.’ And it’s working! He keeps me on my toes.
What did they tell you about the character of Madeline, besides being a chain-smoking hypochondriac?
Gless: Well, Madeline’s gone through some transitions – some changes from the pilot. I talked to Matt Nix about it. I wanted to wear a wig, because I said, if she’s a hypochondriac, she’s obviously needy and I read the script and she hasn’t seen her son in ten years. I wanted to make her also someone who wanted to look younger than she was. I didn’t want to play down the age. I wanted to play a woman that age trying to look younger. So I talked them into letting me wear a wig. [Laughs]. Anyway, the wig is no longer with us! But anyway, they did let me wear it in the pilot and then the network… He talked to me about how she was needy. He wrote it that way. She wanted his attention. And then the network saw it and they said, ‘We really like it. We like what she’s doing, but we want more of who she is.’ And so then it was discussed that – and happily – that she’s very, very smart. She has a lot of moxie. And that’s where he gets his stuff, is really from her. As screwed up as she is and she’s got her own thing going and manipulative – they didn’t take that away. Very manipulative. But you have to be smart to be that manipulative. She can get him. I love it when they write the directorial suggestions in the script – you guys don’t see it unless they show you the scripts, but it’ll end the scene with Jeffrey and it’ll say, ‘She leaves the room and he’s still there, wondering why she’s the only person who can get to him.’ So it gives me courage to match it, but obviously in a more devious way.
Are you the type of actress who needs to know everything about your character before you can play them?
Gless: Well, I do like to have a back story. I make it up myself if it’s not given to me. I just think up what she went through to get to where she is in that scene; I mean her whole life and what she’s experience. For Madeline, I think Madeline was really smart. I think she went to college. That’s where she met her husband. I think she had fabulous dreams about his success and what was going to happen with them. And he ended up being a disappointment and a ne’er-do-well. It’s suggested that he was abusive. This is written in, and it’s not a lovely note but it’s a very interesting note – that there was some abuse with the children and how much she defended them is questionable. And how much abuse she took. It’s just every once in awhile just mentioned…
But she also strikes me as, in her own way, very, very proud of Michael.
Gless: Yeah. Oh, I think she loves both her boys. Loves them very, very much and she knows she screwed up, but she did the best she could and yeah, she thought she may have lost one, but she really hasn’t. Michael loves her. You know he loves her – you can see it, even when he plays with her. It’s frustrating, but it’s his mom. And the other one… It’s her baby. But, he’s a bit of a disappointment. [Laughs]. But there’s love in this family. They’re just very dysfunctional. Very, very dysfunctional. And that’s what makes it interesting. This isn’t Father Knows Best.
The end of last season kind of had the spy world come into Madeline’s life more when she was in danger and Bruce had the scene with you when you were holding the gun.
Gless: [Laughs] I know! I loved that.
Was that fun for you to do and would you like to see a little more of her not going out on missions, but getting a bit more involved?
Gless: That’s interesting you should ask. I don’t know. I don’t want to kill anything that I don’t know about, but I don’t think it’s the kind of show where she goes on missions with him. It’s a very real… It’s a fun show, but there’s a reality to it, you know? But when I heard that there was the rifle in the scene, I called up the prop department and I said, “Do you have the rifle I’m going to be using in the scene?’ They said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Will you let me know when you get it, because I want to come in and I want you to teach me. I want to be able to use that thing!’ That she knows how to handle an uzi or a rifle or whatever… it’s a little part of her past that you don’t know about. Maybe the husband would go hunting or something, but she knows how to use a rifle. And I wanted just that moment that I thought would say volumes, that she could look at it [Mimes handling the gun]. I was tossing it back and forth with the prop people and then threw it to him. I practiced for about an hour and it was only one moment of film, but I’m so glad that you mentioned that, because I thought it said volumes about her.
It did hint at more. Not that she was a spy or anything, but that maybe she could handle herself.
Gless: What came out of that scene – because I never get to work with the other actors; very seldom. I got to do a scene with Bruce there and I thought, ‘Well, she’s often being babysat with, to protect her, because of all that’s going on.’ So obviously, he sends Bruce over. No one’s admitting she’s being protected, but she knows what’s going on. And I said to Matt, ‘Could he just come and babysit with me one day and the two of us just get ripped? Just ripped! And we discuss nothing that has to do with the show; the case. Just talk about life.’ ‘Here, have another one!’ And just, out of nowhere, just to add to another little dimension. And they loved it, so we’re looking forward to seeing it someday. And last week I got to do a wonderful scene with Gabrielle. I had a very brief scene when she first comes to meet me with him at the house, but we had a one on one scene where… Well, I’m not telling you the story… But I want them together and they’re not and it’s a very, very… Matt Nix, or forgive me, whichever writer wrote that particular scene… It’s a wonderful scene of two women. I felt like I was doing a Cagney and Lacey. It was that kind of caliber of writing of two totally different generations and me wanting her to be with him. She’s wonderful in it.
So now that they’re trying to give Jeffrey a break, are you liking it more, because your character is focused on more and you’re getting a chance to work more with other people?
Gless: Well, I love to work. I don’t care what they hand me. I’ll come in and I love to do it. And I love working with the other actors. But Jeffrey and I have a thing going now. We’re good at it! I’m feeling more comfortable this year than last year. Obviously the more you work, the better at it you get. But most of my scenes are always with Jeffrey. And I guess you can’t… Can we tell about… therapy? Anyway, they’re doing some fun, interesting stuff with the two of us this year. Obviously the show is not about Madeline.
But there are people tuning in because they love Sharon Gless.
Gless: That’s really nice of you. Thank you.
This season they’re trying to focus on the other characters more and you have something with Bruce, right?
Gless: Well, I know there’s going to be the one scene where he has to come and protect me or something and I think his character drinks beer as I remember. So I think there might be a lot of beer in that scene. I don’t know how often they’ll do it. It would be a funny running gag. But again, they have to keep it real and what the story is really about. I’m not putting myself down. I really believe Madeline is an integral part of this boy’s life – I call him a boy, because he’s my son – but she’s one of the reasons he is the way he is. So their scenes are interesting, but again, it’s a small section of who he is.
Have you had a favorite storyline?
Gless: Uh, yes, but… [Everyone laughs as she looks over at the publicist] Yes, in this season. You’ll see. I think it’s going to be a thread that’s going to be running through. They’re not doing it just once. [To publicist] You know what I’m referring to? [He nods] You can tell that they’ll be other attempts.
So does it turn out you burned Michael?
Gless: [Laughs] No. There’s one scene I can’t refer to right now, but he… It’s my idea. Something I want him to do and it’s my idea, and he does it and it backfires on me. So I think it’s going to be a running thread.
So, do you sit there and go, ‘I have a son who’s a spy. Maybe he can come and take care of this little problem for me.’
Gless: [Laughs] Maybe! I don’t know, I have to wait and see. The very first… not the pilot, but then the first episode, I did get him involved with someone. A friend of mine. The neighbor across the street. And I’m trying to get Tyne Daly in here. Matt says that he’d like to have her on the show.
That would be fantastic. That would be so cool.
Gless: Yeah. I want her to come and play my sister. Tyne is very funny and I said, ‘She can play my sister.’ Tyne smokes camels unfiltered, so… ‘The two of us could be doing this scene where we’re coming into the house and Michael comes in and he hates smoking. Hates it. And it would be very funny, because you can’t see anything in the house because it’s the two of us in there [mimes smoking].’ And I said, ‘Tyne, just come and play his aunt. My sister’s come to town.’ I said, ‘If you really want to get complicated, you could come to stay, and now he’s brought someone to put in my house.’ You know, he hides people in my house occasionally. So where do we put Aunt… Myrtle? That was a fun one last year. Anyway, Tyne said, ‘I’d love it. I’ll do it, but I want to play her mute.’ Only Tyne Daly! And believe me, she’ll steal the show. And Matt said, ‘Nope, I don’t think so!’ Well, he wants to use her but…
Not as a mute.
Gless: Not as a mute, yeah.
How amazing is it that she can sing on Broadway when she smokes that much?
Gless: She stops. She has great, great, great strength. This isn’t going to be part of your story, that Tyne Daly smokes… But if you’re asking, she has great will. When she got pregnant, she stopped smoking. She just stops. She stops.
Do you guys do a lot of dress rehearsals, or…
Gless: No. Again, remember, Jeffrey Donovan is in every scene, so you get him just before your scene starts. This year, he seems to be… I see him sitting in his chair more, and if I’m sitting next to him, we’ll ruin them. He’s a little more available this year. If you’ve seen it, he’s carrying just an enormous, enormous load. And he does most of his own stunts! It’s pretty awesome what he’s doing. So yeah, any extra time I get with him to run a line or something, is great for us.
Do you enjoy being able to play character roles? You were an ingenue – a pretty, young thing. And now you’re wonderful in character roles.
Gless: Thank you. Well, that’s how old I am! Yeah, I love playing them. You can still always be a leading lady and play character parts. I don’t mean to call myself a leading lady, but I’ve been very fortunate and usually in shows that I’m [the lead] in, but yeah, it’s only since I’ve gotten older that I’m in what people call character roles. Whereas someone like Tyne Daly, who’s brilliant, is always a character actress. That was always sort of painful for me, that they’d say, ‘Well, you’re the leading lady type and she’s the character actress,’ because I’d always think, ‘Well what? Do you think I can’t act?’ They’re sort of buzz words. But I love doing character roles, really. I love to work. I’m very, very fortunate. I didn’t start – I didn’t become an actress – until I was 27. I started very late, but I just fell in love with it and I’m happiest when I’m doing it. As long as they keep letting me do it…
Would you like to get a long term love interest on Burn Notice?
Gless: Well, I’m hoping they’ll bring back the man that… There was an episode last year where he brings a friend to hide him out at the house and she sleeps with him. ‘Mom!’ [Laughs]. I love this character! And I understand that he may be returning. Virgil – his name was Virgil.
Madeline needs to have some love too.
Gless: That’s right. But his friends? But I liked that. Where else can you really get to know the person except through Michael. I like that Madeline’s that… You know, she’s a mother, but she’s sexy.
The other son is coming back too?
Gless: Oh, he is back, yes. Yeah. Seth – Nate is his character’s name. He’s a wonderful actor. Very different from Michael. Well, Michael… I mean, in character, Seth and Nate are more intense than Jeffrey is as Michael. Michael’s more laid back; has more humor. Seth, or Nate, the character he’s playing, is the polar opposite. Very intense kid. Very handsome.
He’s always in trouble.
Gless: I know. [in character] It’s not his fault! [everyone laughs] He only got that way after Michael left!
Is Madeline considering doing family counseling with her children?
Gless: [Laughs] It’s… Stay tuned.
How much like Madeline are you?
Gless: I’m really not Madeline. I’m not a manipulative person. I’m not too much like her. I think my humor is hers, but I’m not a manipulative person. But that’s the comedy, you know? I really think her manipulation can be dark, but it’s still funny. You know what she’s doing. What’s really fun is to play it absolutely, absolutely sincere, where the audience isn’t quite sure if you’re manipulating or not. And it may be through him that you see that she is. He’ll take it. Or sometimes it’s fun just to be playing with him and he’s being sincere and then at the end [makes a yanking noise/motion]. But that’s all the brilliance of Matt Nix, who gives you a character like that. But is she like me? I think when she loves him, the love I feel for him, I’m capable of. That’s who I am. I think there’s a piece of an actor or actress in everything that they play. There’s a piece of you in there.
Was it a tough transition for you to go from being the hot lead to being the mother?
Gless: The only change that it was for me was the amount of time. I was used to working in every single scene in Cagney & Lacey, in Rosie O’Neill and in shows before that where I was playing the lead. And it was an adjustment. I didn’t have to make it here, but on Queer as Folk, to sit and wait my turn was just horrible for me, because all I knew how to do was 24/7; just never stop. And I had to learn how to protect my energy, because I’m a pretty energetic person. I guess you can tell! And that was the only transition that was hard for me, was that the producer of Queer as Folk said, ‘Now Sharon, we really want you to play this part. I said, ‘I want to do it! I want it!’ I went after it. They said, ‘You’re not the star of it.’ I said, ‘I know that!’ And I was offended by what he said, but I think he knew my energy. You know, what are you going to do while you wait seven hours, and on that show sometimes you waited seven hours for your turn. I learned. I learned and that was the only adjustment.
How do you go from playing the nagging mother to playing the totally crazy person on Nip/Tuck. How do you do that? Is it difficult to switch between?
Gless: Thank you for commenting on that. I was very proud of that. Ryan Murphy, who created the show, said it’s the sickest arc he’s ever written. You just do it. You’re an actress and you set aside Madeline and then you go and… How I do it… How I do it when I… I always hire a dialogue coach on any project I’m on and I have them pound that dialogue into me. Pound it into me. Over and over and over for hours, I do it. And as I’m doing it, there’s nobody around, so I can start finding out about this person – just listen to myself say it or come up with ideas. When you do it like that, you can come up with independent business while you’re talking, that has nothing to do with your dialogue. That’s really fun. But especially in that show, it was very intense. I’ll tell you why I was proud of that particular show. She clearly was a villain, but I learned something. I don’t have a lot of training. There’s one man I trained with who died. But I steal from the best. I always have. I mean, when I was a kid I’d go to movies and watch actresses. But in this particular one, I read Judi Dench’s book, and she talks about playing villains. And she said nobody is born a villain. You don’t just play a villain. You can, but it’s kind of boring. She said that person became that way because of whatever they’ve gone through. Something happened to damage them. And so I think that’s why that character was so interesting, because there were times when… My husband came at it once and he didn’t like the show. He said, ‘That’s too sick. I can’t watch that show.’ He came out of one episode and he came into the kitchen and he said, ‘Okay, you just broke my heart.’ I said, ‘I did?!’ He said, ‘The thing with the bears.’ I don’t know if you saw it – where she’s caught. She’s caught selling these bears. She’s passing herself off as an agent. And I thought, ‘Yay! I love Judi Dench!’ And I think it’s that way with Madeline and Michael’s that way, and his character, Jeffrey is. There’s more than playing just one thing. Everybody comes in with a lot of shit. Somehow it comes out. So what was it like to do it? It was exciting. It was exciting to do it. They invited me back to open the season. But I can’t tell you what happens… It’s weird. If any of you’ve seen it, you saw how it ended. The wardrobe mistress, when I went in for my fittings, did not know the ending. We were sworn to secrecy by Ryan Murphy. And when you get the scripts, the fourth act is missing until the very end.
Do you think they’ll be a Cagney & Lacey movie?
Gless: You know, there’s been talk about it. That’s interesting you should ask about that. There’s some interest in England to do one. Not with us, certainly! But it’s probably timely. I don’t know… There’s talk about it and then it goes away.
It could be Cagney & Lacey: The Next Generation.
Gless: Yeah. Well, she had two boys and a girl, and I had a niece, Bridget, who was always in it. Bridget Cagney, who was in that show. I mean, if they were gonna call them Cagney & Lacey, it could be some relatives, you know? If anyone buys that… I don’t know!
Interview By: Emma Loggins