Sharon Gless interview

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Posted: Thu Oct 27 2011

The star of 'Cagney & Lacey' is in a new play about sixtysomething sex. Actress and lesbian icon Sharon Gless talks sex and sexuality.

The night before I interview Sharon Gless, I watch her strip to her underwear, touch herself in intimate places and fake an orgasm or two. Gless is starring in 'A Round-Heeled Woman', the true story of Jane Juska, who at the age of 66 placed an ad in the New York Review of Books saying that before she turned 67, 'I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like.' It's a taboo subject, and an exposing role for an actress. Does it ever feel daunting?

Gless nods. 'It does. It's an emotional piece. But I've done it a few times now. And I find the audience very receptive here. People laugh. Some people cry. Sometimes there'll be people waiting in the lobby after the show, wanting to talk. Usually it's women. But sometimes it's men. One night I had a gay guy who was so moved by the show, he waited to tell me “I've been alone too long”.'

Juska published a book about her experiences, which Gless optioned and developed for the stage. Obviously it struck a chord with her. So if she wasn't married and famous, would she ever consider doing what Juska did? She laughs. 'I don't think so! I don't have Jane's courage. And I don't have Jane's libido! Who does?'

Of course this isn't the first time Gless has portrayed a strong female character. Most people remember her for the 1980s detective series 'Cagney & Lacey', which was groundbreaking in many ways, not least because her character, Christine Cagney, was both a tough female detective and an alcoholic - long before Helen Mirren's Jane Tennyson.

'At the time, all we had was “Charlie's Angels”,' says Gless. 'It wasn't very realistic. And we'd had “Police Woman” with Angie Dickenson, which was more realistic, but she had to wear high heels and run. Still, you have to start somewhere, so it started with Angie. But our show did change the history of television for women. It was very realistic. I hate to use the term “role models”, because that was never our intention. If anyone had asked Tyne Daly and me if we wanted to be role models for the '80s we would have run screaming into the night! You can't play role models. You can only play characters. And these were very strong characters.'

Role model or not, playing Cagney earned Gless a strong lesbian following. One woman I know even refers to herself as a 'Glessbian'. Gless laughs. 'Thank you! Thank you very much! Thank God for the lesbian audience! Y'know, when we were doing “Cagney & Lacey”, I never got any letters from men. Tyne got the letters from men. I got the women. Everyone thought I was gay. Every interviewer I was ever interviewed by assumed I was gay. I'd say to them, “Y'know, I'm not. I'm festive.” But it was never offensive to me. I thought it was cool. And then I did “Queer as Folk”. I tell you, the lesbian and gay audience has kept my career going.'

The American version of 'Queer as Folk' ran for five years, with Gless playing the supportive but sometimes overbearing mother of a gay man. She describes it as 'an education. On “Cagey & Lacey”, I learned a lot about the women's movement. And on “Queer as Folk”, I learned about the gay movement. I became very close to the material, and very close to those boys. Before “Queer as Folk”, gays on TV were mainly there to be laughed at. And then along came this show that took them seriously. I think that show saved a lot of lives. The letters we'd get! The saddest letter I ever got was from this young boy who said, “I wanted to end my life because I felt so alone. And now because of “Queer as Folk”, I know I'm not alone. I know there are others like me, and I'm not ashamed.” Way back when I was at school, I had a teacher who said to me: “If there's one white crow, there are others.” And that's what that show was.'

In 2009, Gless finally played a lesbian in 'Hannah Free', a film based on the true story of a woman separated from her partner and children after collapsing on a cruise in Miami. Gless was friends with one of the women. 'They rushed the sick woman to hospital, and they would not let my friend into that room to see her. The woman was dying, and she died alone, with her partner and her children on the other side of the door.' The film was a huge hit at gay film festivals, partly because portrayals of older lesbians are so rare and partly because, hey, this is Sharon Gless we're talking about!

Gless is vocal in her support of gay causes. So what does she think of Obama, and his lack of leadership over gay marriage in America? Doesn't it seem ironic that here in the UK we have a right-wing prime minister who has recently come out in support of gay marriage while in America they have a democrat in the White House who is still 'undecided' about the gay marriage 'issue'?

Gless sighs. 'A lot of people feel let down by Obama. I certainly do, and I voted for him. Before that, I campaigned for Hillary. We shot “Queer as Folk” in Toronto, but the story was set in Pittsburg. So I went down to Pittsburg and I went to all the gay bars and I told anyone who'd listen, “I'm not sure about Obama. I'm not sure if he'll help the gays. I know Hillary will.”

'I don't mean to bash Obama. I think he has a good heart. After “Hannah Free” he flew down to Florida and he passed a law that would prevent that sort of thing from ever happening again. But on gay marriage, I'm not so sure. He doesn't seem like a fighter to me. Sometimes you need someone who's going to stand up and say “Go fuck yourself”.'

‘A Round-Heeled Woman' is at Riverside Studios until Nov 20. www.riversidestudios.co.uk

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