by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN Contributing Writer
Sharon Gless has had an enduring love affair with the LGBT community. Her Emmy-winning performance as hardened Det. Sgt. Christine Cagney over six seasons of Cagney & Lacey made her a Lesbian hero long before people admitted such things out loud, while her 78-episode arc as Queer-friendly mom Debbie Novotny in Showtime's version of Queer as Folk drew her both acclaim and a larger fan base. Throw in an Emmy-nominated guest stint on Nip/Tuck and her current gig as the quick-witted mom of an ex-spy on USA Network's Burn Notice, and the 66-year-old actress' popularity is as strong as ever.
In Seattle for the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival's closing-night presentation of her new film Hannah Free, Gless sat down with me to discuss the picture, her career and anything else that came to mind. Scheduled for only 10 minutes, our conversation transformed into an hour-long chat. The uninhibited actress touched upon topics as far-ranging as the current state of television, her status as an LGBT icon, and her thoughts on both Washington State's Referendum 71 and California's Proposition 8. Here are some of the highlights:
Sara Michelle Fetters: Hannah Free is a movie about a lifetime love affair between a free spirit, Hannah, and a happy homebody, Rachel. At its heart, it is about how people find home - not in a place, but in another person. Would you agree with that?
Sharon Gless: Yes, I would. Rachel is home for Hannah. She is it. Hannah has wanderlust; she always has the need to keep moving, yet she always comes back to Rachel, always returns to her. Rachel is her home, not the house, not Michigan, but Rachel. Hannah is always returning to her, the two of them only feeling whole when they are both together.
Fetters: Do you find that doing films like this one and taking on characters like Hannah, figures who are so consumed by their feelings for those around them - in this case Rachel - ends up bringing you closer to your own family?
Gless: That's a good question, and while you'd think otherwise, the answer is actually no. I am very close to my family and they always tend to be on my mind, but I was not thinking of them when I played this role. Everything I do probably has little pieces of me in it, but I'm really not like Hannah at all.
This is one person she has been in love with all her life, and that's different than family - that one human being you love with all your heart, the one you hope you go first before them so you don't have to live on without them. [Hannah's] feeling for Rachel is that one love, and often times people get two or three, whether it be a new boyfriend or girlfriend, or be it the love for their children.
For Hannah, though, Rachel is the one, the only one, and it's the only love she [keeps] returning to. While I could understand and relate to that, I've been blessed in my life with my own family, so while I loved playing this character, I can't say that doing so brought me any closer to them. I'm already close to my family, playing Hannah enriched my life but it didn't necessarily change it or my relationship with those close to me.
Fetters: Still, this film obviously means a lot to you. Not only are you the star, you are also one of the producers and I imagine the success it has met with on the festival circuit has been extremely gratifying.
Gless: It has been. The film has played all over the world at Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals and the response has been just wonderful. It makes me so glad to see it doing well and I just hope more people get the opportunity to see it.
As for being a producer, the first time I saw the completed [film] was in San Francisco, and that's when I saw I had a producer's credit. I didn't produce one frame of this! The producer, Tracy Baim, when I confronted her with that fact, claimed that because I didn't accept a paycheck in lieu of salary the [production company] made her give me the title. So, I cannot take credit for producing this movie. Tracy Baim produced every frame of it, and she's the one that deserves the accolades.
Fetters: When you play someone like Hannah, when you portray a character right at the edge of their own mortality, does it force you to look back on your own life and career? Does it force you to put things into a perspective you might otherwise not have done?
Gless: It does. I do think about things like that. I find myself looking back a lot lately as I've been doing lots of interviews for Burn Notice, for [Hannah Free], and for a play I'm about to start in San Francisco. It's forced me to sort of look back. I mean, I started doing this - acting - over 40 years ago and they still let me do it when most of my colleagues aren't working. But then, that's Hollywood. Age is not the rage for women. But, for my part, I'm going to keep doing this as long as they'll let me, and right now it looks like they're going to keep letting me for quite some time.
Fetters: I'm glad you brought that up because, let's face it, actors of your age do not get the opportunity to work in Hollywood and yet you keep getting these terrific parts. From Queer as Folk to Nip/Tuck to Burn Notice to Hannah Free you keep working.
Gless: I do, and it's great. I've been very lucky to have worked with so many talented writers, and I think they're the main reason behind my longevity. Like with Nip/Tuck, [series creator] Ryan Murphy wrote that role for me and he said that it was the sickest arc he'd ever written, and that's pretty sick for Ryan Murphy, and I was just thrilled to be able to play that part for him. It was so much fun.
Fetters: But that's sort of my point. You've worked with some amazing writers over your career. The things the minds behind Cagney & Lacey gave you to do arguably changed the face of network television. There had never been a mother like Debbie Novotny before Queer as Folk, while the stuff you've been asked to do on Burn Notice is positively inspired.
Gless: I have always believed that I am only a good actress when I've got quality material to work with. I am not a writer. I don't have the ability to create or fashion those words together like people like Ryan Murphy or [Hannah Free] playwright Claudia Allen does.
In the case of Cagney & Lacey, Barney Rosenzweig was right at the top of the mountain. He wasn't going to settle for anything less than [perfection] for that show. He demanded it and pushed us all extremely hard. But I've always believed, and I am not just saying this, [actors] are nothing without the words. Without words actors have nothing to do, and on Cagney & Lacey we had some of the very best words I've ever had the privilege to recite. I have the greatest respect for writers.
Fetters: Are you surprised that the role of Christine Cagney has endured as long as it has?
Gless: The show was cancelled twice. Tyne [Daly] did six episodes with Meg Foster as Cagney and it was canceled after four of them aired. Then it was brought back and I was cast in the part and did 22 episodes with her and it was canceled again. Then, after Barney Rosenzweig started this letter-writing thing to save the show, CBS ultimately brought it back again and we lasted for another five seasons and four television movies. It was just incredible and I don't think there has ever been another case like it on network television.
I think what made [the show] popular is that we discussed feelings. It was the first show where the leads were emotionally vulnerable. Viewers felt what they were going through. They reacted like real cops do when they see horror. Mary Beth had a family she was trying to balance. Cagney - who I personally think was the best female character ever written for television - was a raging alcoholic and was a very flawed character. It was those complications that made them real, and I think that's what affected viewers so deeply. They could relate to them, and even though they were cops and were doing this crazy job, they were still human beings with this intense friendship people could relate to.
Fetters: What was it about the show that brought it such a large Lesbian and Gay fan base?
Gless: I think they were very strong women, and while they were both individuals and had their own personalities, they were both working in a field dominated by men. Lesbians were drawn specifically to Cagney according to the majority of the mail. The [Gay] men were drawn to Tyne, while the women were all drawn to me.
I'm forever grateful for that because whenever I give speeches or do things for LGBT causes I always have to say thank you because the Gay and Lesbian audience kept me alive. I've had droughts in my career, but when I got Queer as Folk it was the Lesbian and Gay audience that brought me back. They had never forgotten me from Cagney & Lacey and suddenly they were embracing me even more. Personally, I feel like I owe a major part of my career to the [LGBT] community. Without them, it is highly possible I might not be working today.
Fetters: And now you're in Hannah Free actually playing a Lesbian character - your first, even though you've long been considered an LGBT icon.
Gless: People keep saying I'm an icon. I'm still not so sure. I've always believed an icon had to be a much older person, that they had to have done something monumental with their life to achieve such a status. Of course, now that I'm 66, maybe I'll have to start rethinking those sentiments. Seriously, though, thank you for saying that. It was a joy to play Hannah. She's such a remarkable character and her relationship with Rachel is so strong. Gay, straight or whatever, love is love, and to play a character so deeply in love with another is a joy.
Fetters: I think about Hannah Free and about how its core plot thread revolves around one woman, Hannah, desperately wanting to be at the deathbed of her partner, Rachel, only to have the latter's biological family, as well as the retirement facility both are living in, keep them apart and how it relates to Referendum 71 here in Washington. Why is something like this an issue? What is so wrong about same-sex loved ones having them same inalienable rights as their straight counterparts?
Gless: There is nothing wrong with it. Nothing at all. Claudia Allen wrote that play 10 years ago. It is set years before that. What it is talking about, however, is so heartbreakingly current. These two women spent 60 years together. Why shouldn't Hannah be able to be in the same room as Rachel? Who says she does not have the right to make decisions on her part?
Fetters: If you could talk to people considering voting against something like Referendum 71 or those that voted for Proposition 8 in your home state of California what would you tell them?
Gless: I don't know. I'm not good at one-liners. I'm an actor, that's what I have writers for.
Seriously, though, I can tell you how I feel. I'm a fifth-generation Californian and this is the first time I feel ashamed to be from my home state. I don't understand how people could vote for something like [Proposition 8] and I would hope the people of Washington do not make a similar mistake. I love that I'm from California. I love being a Californian. To now feel shame for both of those things is something I hope no one in Washington will ever have to experience.
Debbie Novotny had a great quote. She said, "Genitalia is just God's way of accessorizing." I love that quote and I don't understand why the people who fight [Referendum 71 and Proposition 8] don't get that and I can't help but wonder what their interest is. How does it hurt them? How does it affect their lives? To my mind, this shows a bigotry with absolutely no sense behind it. None. It's not their life. People should be allowed to love who they love. Who cares what [gender] they are? I just don't understand it. It horrifies me that people are this stupid. Love is love, and the rest shouldn't matter.
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