Glenne Headly’s Alison Crowe Played Offense to Give a Better Defense
The actor who plays the cool and collected Alison Crowe to John Turturro’s less-than-together John Stone speaks frankly about imbuing her character with equal amounts steel and femininity, the poker game of plea bargains and the lack of justice in the criminal justice system.
HBO: What’s your read on Alison Crowe as a lawyer?
Glenne Headly: In a nutshell, I would describe her as a very intelligent lawyer who really plans out her assessment of a situation and her means of attack. And I think she does it in a very unusual way. She uses her femininity to disarm. If I had tried to play this in a much tougher, more obvious way, I don’t think she would have gotten so far. And I think she’s able to distance herself from emotion really well.
It was a puzzle to try to figure out how to portray Alison. I was so drawn to the story, and, God, I felt so bad for Naz’s character. I couldn’t put the scripts down when I first got them. But when I went back to the character to try to understand her, I realized this was going to be a difficult role, because Alison presents herself in ways that are not reflective of what she’s really thinking.
HBO: Would you call her motives pure?
Glenne Headly: It would be really hard to give a definition of the word “pure.” It was slippery to me. It’s not that I don’t think she’s sympathetic to Naz. I think she took the case on charitably, but she had no intention of really going to trial. You know, the show used to be called “Criminal Justice,” and I think that helped me a lot in understanding what the whole story was about. I myself might think that’s awful that someone wouldn’t represent a person, but I think Alison is detached from the emotions of the situation and lives by facts.
HBO: Does Alison think Naz is guilty?
Glenne Headly: Whether she thinks he’s guilty or not, she makes an assumption that the jury might think he’s guilty, and therefore he could spend his life in prison. That’s the irony. It doesn’t really matter what he tells her about what he did. She’s not even interested — Naz just seems too guilty.
HBO: Can you describe Alison’s feelings toward John Stone?
Glenne Headly: She feels superior to him, because not only is he a mess physically, he’s a mess in terms of his intellectual presentation. She thinks John is at the low end of the lawyer pool. I think Alison feels like he’s a foot soldier, or he’s like the water boy.
HBO: How important to Alison is the question, “What happened?”
Glenne Headly: I think for her it’s, “How do I get my client through this as quickly as possible?” And I think she just wanted it to be over that day when she said they would accept a 15-year sentence.
HBO: Can you talk about Alison’s decision to bring Chandra along to make her bid for Naz’s case?
Glenne Headly: That was a calculation. She made the assumption that bringing in someone whose parents may have been from somewhere in the vicinity of Naz’s parents would be helpful. It sounds awful, but she made a guess about what would appeal to them.
HBO: How did you want to play that scene where Alison and Helen broker Naz’s plea?
Glenne Headly: It’s like a poker game. You don’t want to show your hand. I was thinking to myself that Helen wasn’t going to intimidate me; I was going to get my way or leave. So it’s fun to play, because I took the offense in my head, Helen had to defend herself.
HBO: Reading the scripts and watching the episodes, how do you think the criminal justice system is represented in the series?
Glenne Headly: I think that it’s pointing out something that the average person doesn’t really understand. The fact is over 90 percent of cases are plea bargains. It’s very disheartening. I hope people think about the way trials go today, with the justice system overwhelmed by cases. We are not living up to Thomas Jefferson’s idea of what a trial by jury means. All of these people are stuck on Rikers. I don’t know how we fix this, but it just seems like it really needs help.
From creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, ‘The Night Of’ is an eight-part limited series that delves into the intricate story of a fictitious murder case in New York City.