A lot was up in the air for Rose Byrne’s character, Ellen Parsons, as the first season of Damages came to a close. Her fiance had been murdered, and she had agreed to work with the FBI to help take down her boss, Patti Hewes (Glenn Close), the high-powered attorney she believed tried to have her killed.
But TV being the competitive arena it is, there was no guarantee viewers would ever get to see what happened next. While Damages was critically lauded — earning Emmy Awards for Close and Zelijko Ivanek, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for Byrne — ratings were a concern. FX decided to bring the show back, however, and the second season is in full swing with a story about a man from Patti’s past, played by William Hurt, whose domestic violence case is linked with a massive conspiracy involving the health industry. Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) also joins the cast as Byrne’s mysterious new love interest.
Byrne — who has a healthy movie career after turns in Troy, Wicker Park, 28 Weeks Later and the upcoming Knowing — talked to us about Ellen’s growth this season and the trick. Damages airs Wednesdays on FX.
So, judging from the first few episodes of Season 2, it doesn’t look like there’s any letup. Tell me a little about the arc your character, Ellen, takes this season compared with last season.
She went through so much in that first season. She was very, very naive and idealistic when we met her and she suffered a huge tragedy, so she’s kind of suffering post-traumatic stress and grieving and I think really she sort of becomes a bit of a warrior and she’s just surviving, battling away and not stopping for anything and she’s not showing any of her vulnerability. I think the only thing that’s keeping her going is revenge. So it’s kind of Shakespearean in that way. I think she’s so focused on taking Patti down that that’s sort of all that’s keeping her going. She doesn’t give an inch, she doesn’t trust anyone and is completely suspicious.
She’s become an informant for the FBI, in fact. One of the agents is played by Glenn Kessler, one of the creators of the show. Is that weird to act with your boss?
It’s a little bit weird. It took me awhile. Luckily, it’s him and Mario Van Peebles as the other FBI guy, so that broke it up a little bit. [Glenn] kind of plays it a little — I don’t know — the character’s a little questionable, too, but we had fun. We’ve had some fun scenes.
The way the show is structured, with the flashbacks, is that helpful as an actor in that you know where you’re going, so you can maybe inform the character’s action a little better?
It can, actually. It can really inform certain things because you know where you’re ending up. To be honest, they’re still really deciding exactly where it’s ending, so a lot of the time you’re in the dark with what you’re doing, so it can be a bit confusing as well. They do their best to tell us ahead of time. The way they think it works best is [to] see what’s working, what isn’t, what people want to see. I think they’re kind of in the process of having to see everything to know what they want to focus on. In the end, they might switch things around from episode to episode, so you’re really trusting the [creators], Todd [Kessler] and Glenn and Daniel [Zelman], with everything.
Is the constant intensity of the show difficult to maintain as an actor?
It can be quite draining, especially this season. But I’ve enjoyed it more. I’ve had a lot more fun things to do; the stakes are high. The first season I think I was still figuring out who the character was. It was more trial and error. This season I feel much more rewarded with what I’ve been asked to do as an actor. I feel like my performance wasn’t that great really until the last few episodes. I think they were still figuring out how I work. This season has been easier, in a way. More draining, but more fun.
Damages was a much-admired show last season, as evidenced by the awards it received, but viewership was a concern, and there was uncertainty whether it would be picked up for Season 2. When you knew you were being picked up, did that embolden everybody a little bit?
It was great. It’s a real testament to FX that they’ve decided to give the show another go and to build things. TV is very competitive, and it’s really hard to get an audience overnight. You’ve really got to build it up over time, and that’s what FX has decided to do. We’re really lucky in that sense. On this show and other shows it was critical that we have time. That was paramount in getting us to the next stage.
The audience may be smaller than some shows, but the fans are pretty devoted. Do you get a sense of what hardcore Damages fans are like?
The [creators] are pretty involved with all that stuff, like getting feedback from blogs and whatnot. I think they really respond to all that. But it sort of freaks me out a bit when I read too many things, you know what I mean? I get so self-conscious. In New York last year I used to get people coming up occasionally and talking to me about the show. I’d say “Thank you,” and [they’d say] “Oh my God, you’re British.” (Byrne is actually Australian.) That’s always very nice. I love it. But you never know with TV. It can be a very isolating experience in that sense, especially on a show like this, which is a cable drama, and it’s not like a network thing. It’s a much smaller audience, whereas with a film you get more of a response.
What’s different on the set this season from last?
We feel a lot more at ease with other, and I’m less intimidated in communicating what I think and asking questions. There’s a shorthand and it’s better, definitely, much more communicative. I’ve enjoyed it much more for that reason, too.
Do you keep the American accent when you’re not shooting?
Well, I kind of go back and forth. I used to do sort of a Method thing of keeping it all the time. But I’m pretty good at it now, I reckon, so I let it go in between. Kind of when I’m on set, I’ll talk like that all the time, but when I’m off I go back to my actual provincial tone.
You and your British costar Anastasia Griffith are both speaking in American accents to each other on the show. Is that strange at all?
We’re kind of used to it now. She does the same thing, she’ll jump out [of the American accent] as well. She does a really good one, because she’s got a strong British accent. It’s often harder for British actors to do an American accent, whereas Australian actors, we grow up with so much American TV , much more than in England, it’s a very normal sound for us.