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Sharon Gless on Hannah Free, Q&A
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2009-09-16

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When actress Sharon Gless and I first talked in November of 2008 she had just finished a long day shooting her first movie in years.

Taking a break from her nearly constant TV work — she was at that time finishing up her character arc on "Nip/Tuck," contemplating a second season on "Burn Notice," reminiscing about her beloved Debbie Novotny character on "Queer As Folk" ( which put Showtime on the map ) and her breakout role in "Cagney & Lacey" — Gless was nothing if not a whirlwind of energy. The long days shoot hadn't dimmed her enthusiasm for her first starring film role — playing the feisty lesbian in the film adaptation of Claudia Allen's acclaimed stage play Hannah Free ( which was executive produced by Windy City Media publisher Tracy Baim ) — or her desire to talk about it.

Now, almost a year after our initial conversation, the work completed, Hannah Free has triumphed as it has played the film festival circuit ( it was honored with the closing night of the Frameline festival where it was introduced by Rosie O'Donnell ) . Now "Hannah" is ready for her Chicago debut, September 25-October 1 at the Gene Siskel Film Center ( 164 N. State St. ) . Gless, along with Allen, Baim, director Wendy Jo Carlton ( interviewed in next week's WCT ) and cast and crew members, will attend a gala presentation of the film at 7pm on Saturday, Sept. 26 to be followed by a gala at the Renaissance Hotel. Complete information at www.hannahfree.com

Excerpts from our conversation:

WINDY CITY TIMES ( WCT ) : I don't know much about Hannah Free other than it's based on Claudia Allen's 1991 stage play and that it's about a lesbian couple. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?

SHARON GLESS ( SG ) : That's it! ( laughs )

WCT: Their life together?

SHARON GLESS: Yes, it's about their life together…and apart. They've fallen in love when they were very, very young — as children. In fact, we're portrayed by three different generations. Rachel, the one who is the object of Hannah's affections, is not out. In fact, she wishes that there were no Hannah. It's not a life that she wanted but she couldn't help it. She loved her. But Hannah pursues her through all her life; loves her; they love each other. And they do have sex eventually. Rachel is stuck in her world and her town and cannot be out and she marries — she says to get away from her father — has children and does the right things, you know? Whereas Hannah is much more comfortable in her own body — she knows who she is, she doesn't make any bones about it. So Rachel marries and Hannah leaves town but in Rachel's defense, Hannah would have left town anyway. Hannah travels all over the world; she's very independent, randy, has other women in other towns.

WCT: A free spirit.

SHARON GLESS: Yes. But she always returns for Rachel. The thrust of the story takes place in a nursing home where they're now in their late 70s, 80s. Hannah's still very strong willed; has to rule from a bed in a nursing home. In the same nursing home is Rachel who had a stroke and has been in a coma for nine months or so. The conflict in the present day story is that Hannah is trying to get to the wing of this nursing home in another building where Rachel is dying and her daughter will not allow Hannah inside the room.

WCT: Ooh.

SHARON GLESS: And Hannah helped raise this kid but she will not sit for disturbing her mother. Rachel's in a coma. Hannah is very frightened that Rachel will die alone and all Hannah asks is to say goodbye.

WCT: It's like one of those petty things that great tragedies hinge on — like the lead character in A Trip to Bountiful just wanting to go home one last time before she dies and the daughter-in-law blocking her. It sounds tremendously moving.

SHARON GLESS: Yes — but there's always humor going on within this sadness. She has that gift — Claudia does — to just take pathos and all of a sudden you're laughing within the most tragic situations. It's a great story. It's funny, it's sad. You see the children adorable in overalls saying, "Kiss me, okay now it's your turn to kiss me" — you know, like children do?

WCT: What a great part for you.

SHARON GLESS: Ooh — it's a wonderful part.

WCT: Now, am I right — this is your feature film debut?

SHARON GLESS: Well, it isn't actually. I did one when I was a contract player at Universal. All of us were stewardesses in Airport '75. We didn't have any dialogue but we were paid anyway.

WCT: ( imitating Karen Black ) "I can't fly the plane!"

SHARON GLESS: ( laughing ) At least I was in first class! I didn't get to talk but at least I was in first class. Then I did a movie with Michael Douglas in The Star Chamber and I played his wife. It was one of his least successful films but anyway, I did do it. And with this — and it is Screen Actor's Guild — I could become a member of the Motion Picture Academy because it's my third one. ( laughs hard )

WCT: The perks! That's delightful. Then you can get—

SHARON GLESS: —all those movie screeners! My husband's a member and gets them but I want my own. He never lets me show them to anybody.

WCT: How did the material come to you? Did they send it to your agent?

SHARON GLESS: No, she just called me. I was here ( in Chicago ) to get an award from DePaul University — they honored me this year, their theatre section — and I called Claudia and said, "I'm in town, come and have dinner with me" and she mentioned it then and then she called me and said, "I'm serious. We're really going to make this into a film" so we had to make the time work out and everything so here I am.

WCT: Your "Burn Notice" character is another great, complicated character like Colleen Rose who you played on "Nip/Tuck."

SHARON GLESS: Colleen Rose!

WCT: I love Ryan Murphy ( creator/writer of "Nip/Tuck" ) — he's so twisted.

SHARON GLESS: He did tailor it for me. He says it's the sickest he's ever done ( laughs ) . Have you seen it?

WCT: Oh yes.

SHARON GLESS: ( Does Colleen ) "It's the best bear I ever made."

WCT: Now of course, we have to talk about Debbie Novotny, your wonderful character from "Queer As Folk."

SHARON GLESS: I was here, you know, when I got that script. It was sneaked to me. I was doing Claudia's play "Cahoots" and I asked for the finest drama coach in the city of Chicago to help me do Eleanor of Aquitaine for "A Lion in Winter" later — I was going to go on and do that after "Cahoots." So they called Peter Forester who was fabulous. At night he was a drama coach and during the day he was an actor's agent and he had a copy of this script called "Queer As Folk" and he sneaked it to me. I read it and I called Showtime and I said, "Is this role cast?" and they said, "Nothing's cast yet" and I said, "I want it." And because of him I did "Queer As Folk" for five years and it changed my life. It changed my life, my career, everything.

WCT: Can you imagine how Debbie Novotny would be with this Proposition 8 bullshit? She'd be on the front lines.

SHARON GLESS: Oh yeah. We did an episode about my son getting married. They bicycle to Toronto from Pittsburgh and while they're up there Michael and Ben — I think that was the name of the character Bobby Gant played — get married and when they come back through they can't get in the country and Debbie was engaged to be married and I had that wonderful speech where I said, "I will not walk down the aisle until my son is also allowed to walk down the aisle."

WCT: Seems like we've come a long way but…

SHARON GLESS: …but we haven't. Well, we have our first Afro-American president but we're still the most homophobic country in the world. It'll change. It can't stay. It's unconstitutional.

WCT: When you took the part of Debbie, even as late as 2000, I remember it was a little controversial. I remember how down and dirty it was and some of the coverage had the tone of, "Sharon Gless is on this really out there show" and I'm guessing you got a little bit of flak for that; did you?

SHARON GLESS: Nobody ever gave me any trouble. I signed on because I love trouble — I wanted trouble ( laughs ) . I couldn't wait for the night we premiered because I figured the Religious Right would go bonkers and unfortunately we premiered while the Republicans were literally stealing the presidency in Florida. It was that night — you remember when they were fixing the machines. I mean they rigged it. Let's face it, Gore was president. So the Religious Right was busy trying to get their idiot in so nobody noticed. We just sort of slipped in and we missed all the trouble I thought we'd get ( laughs ) .

WCT: It's so great to see you go from a part like Debbie Novotny to "Nip/Tuck" to "Burn Notice" and now Hannah. They all seem to be very complicated women — where do you draw from as an actor? Do you have a process? How do you get to that emotional place?

SHARON GLESS: I don't know how I do it. I don't know how I'm going to do it ( Hannah's last scene ) . I'm afraid of that scene. I haven't thought about it yet. I'll probably play a tune in my head — something that we danced to when we were young in our living room because we couldn't do it in public or she wouldn't do it in public.

WCT: I know that Jessica Lange uses different smells to help her. In "Streetcar" she had a perfumed hanky that would take her to an emotional place.

SHARON GLESS: Oh wow. No, no, I have no method. I'm not like that. I just believe I'm that person with all my heart and for a space of time I'm…Hannah and I have to love this person enough to do it. Emotional recall doesn't always work. You know, you think about your grandmother dying — some days it makes you cry, some days it doesn't. You can't depend on it so I just really believe that I'm Hannah and I believe I love this woman. I'm taking the woman out who's playing the coma Hannah for dinner Saturday night. We're going to have a date.

WCT: ( laughs ) That's so great.

SHARON GLESS: I know. I just thought we should get to know one another. I have some kissing scenes with her next week in the barn.

WCT: Wonderful. I love that. I want to come back for the kissing scenes.

SHARON GLESS: Well, it's not all that. It's the 30 year-olds who get nude and get it on. Who wants to see this compared to that ( laughs ) ? But still, I'm going to kiss her on the mouth.

WCT: Good for you.

SHARON GLESS: Oh yeah! I'm Hannah Free.

WCT: Now, unfortunately the lesbian themed films haven't had as much success in recent years as the gay ones. The Advocate did a piece recently about how hard it is to get the lesbian ladies to go out and see these movies.

SHARON GLESS: It shouldn't be made just for the gays and the lesbians. It should be made, like Brokeback Mountain, for everybody. But now I'm contradicting myself because "Queer As Folk" was made just for the gay audience. Made by gay producers, made for the gay audience, they didn't try to pull any punches; they didn't try to please everybody. But everybody started watching. 50% more audience signed on than they planned and there were a lot of straight women because they wanted to watch these guys get it on — hello! And they'd watch with their boyfriends and the girls would get hot looking at the guys do it and the boyfriends would get laid that night. It all worked out very nicely ( laughs hard ) . Why are you surprised? There's not a straight man in the world — whether they admit it or not — who wouldn't love to watch two women going at it. It's every man's fantasy so why shouldn't the women enjoy watching the guys?

WCT: We haven't even touched on your first and perhaps most memorable television success, "Cagney & Lacy." Are you in touch with Tyne Daly your co-star?

SHARON GLESS: Yes, we're very close friends. Her mom had a great expression — "Sweat is a great cement" and we sweated together for six years, Tyne Daly and I did against all odds, against the world sometimes. By the time we were over we'd been thrown off the air three times, some of our shows were banned by certain affiliates — too controversial. But while we were on the air no other actress ever won the Emmy.

WCT: That's quite a tribute right there.

SHARON GLESS: Yes it is. Tyne won the first three, I won the next two and we thought we'd tie but it went back to her.

WCT: So where does this spicy maverick streak come from?

SHARON GLESS: You mean in me?

WCT: Yes — because it's all through your career and your parts.

SHARON GLESS: I don't know. I think I just came in this way. If you asked for a description of what I was like as a little girl, I was a good little girl — sweet and well behaved. My parents were very strict but I think there always was, I don't know, I guess, that thing in me.

WCT: You're like a real life Hannah Free.

SHARON GLESS: Yeah!

WCT: Straight version.

SHARON GLESS: ( laughs ) Yeah! No, I don't know if I'm as brave as Hannah. Hannah was very brave, the things she did. I wasn't as brave as Hannah though I do consider myself brave every time I go in front of the camera. I think that's an act of courage. Especially because I had very little training. I go in there by the seat of my pants. I keep wondering when they're going to find out I don't know what I'm doing. I swear to God ( laughs ) .

WCT: My acting friends tell me that the most intense movies often have the liveliest sets — to relieve the tension — have you found that to be true?

SHARON GLESS: Well I like quiet around me when I'm working but once those intense scenes are over, yes — let's party — I'm so glad that's over ( laughs ) . But, overall, I'm just very grateful that they're still letting me do it. Most actresses my age aren't working. All the big motion picture stars my age can't get arrested — except Meryl Streep — and they're all flying to a meeting that they wouldn't have touched because television is now where it's at. Now of course, television is turning its back on its Emmy winning actresses and taking in movie stars. But listen, they're wonderful and they're writing some nice things for women again now. So that's why I come from gratitude every day because so far they still let me in.

WCT: I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that it's great to have you "in."

SHARON GLESS: ( laughs ) Thank you so much for that. I'm loving this movie and this part. It's a real labor of love. This is Mickey and Judy in the barn doing a show. I don't know what's going to happen with it but I feel it's going to be seen. I certainly hope so because it's worthy — really worthy and maybe this will be the one that isn't shown at just gay and lesbian film festivals.


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