Madeleine Stowe plays a superbitch in the latest US guilty pleasure to hit our screens, but don't be fooled, says Declan Cashin
Madeleine Stowe fixes me with a look that could turn a man to stone. She locks eyes with me, and continues staring with an impassive gaze until I look away uncomfortably.
"Is this who you're telling me you are? Is this what you're about?" she asks me with a unimpressed tone in her voice.
There's another moment of chilly silence before Stowe breaks into laughter.
The actress has been trying to teach me the secret of the killer 'bitch stare' that she has perfected on her new TV series Revenge, a campy, glossy, addictive guilty-pleasure drama that starts tonight on Irish television.
"The director of the early episodes would say to me, 'Just don't move your forehead'," Stowe says. "Now, of course everyone will say, 'You're shot up on Botox, and that's why you don't move!'
"But I wanted that very still, immobile look. It became a big part of the character."
Revenge has been one of the biggest hits in the US over the past year, its positive buzz no doubt helped by its timely central theme of the poor and the downtrodden turning the tables on the rich and reckless.
It stars Emily VanCamp as Emily Thorne, the newest arrival in the Hamptons.
Emily appears to be a friendly girl-next-door type, but in fact has a dark family history.
It turns out that 17 years ago her father was framed for a crime he didn't commit by friends and neighbours he trusted, and was sentenced to life in prison, where he died.
Now Emily has returned under an assumed identity with one goal: vengeance against the community she holds responsible, especially the Grayson family, which is headed by superbitch and local society queen matriarch Victoria (played by Stowe).
The show is loosely based on the classic adventure story The Count of Monte Cristo, but probably has more in common with Dallas and particularly Desperate Housewives.
"I remember thinking that this show was going to speak to people," Stowe says when we meet in a London hotel.
"It's fun, but people seem to have hooked into it because so much has happened with the economy. There was a great deal of rage in America towards the '1pc' [the top earners in the country].
"With Revenge, people can have their cake and eat it too. They can watch this fantasy lifestyle, and also these people doing terrible things and getting their comeuppance."
In truth, Stowe couldn't be more unlike Victoria. The actress says that she's so shy that around 10 years ago she basically withdrew from her Hollywood career that, at its peak in the 1990s, saw her star in hit movies like Twelve Monkeys and The Last of the Mohicans.
"I went to live on my ranch in Texas with my husband [actor Brian Benben] and daughter [15-year-old May]," she says. "It was an active decision to disappear, because it's the kind of mother I am. I'm not hiding behind my daughter, but I can only do one thing at once."
Stowe concedes that getting older played a part in her semi-retirement. "Let's be frank: I'm 53 years old, soon to be 54," she says.
"When you hit your 40s it becomes different. It's far more challenging to find work as an actress; I didn't fight it. I always had too much pride to put myself through that."
Despite, or perhaps because of her anxieties about ageing, Stowe looks fantastic. She's wearing a fitted red dress with white cardigan, her long, dark hair recently blow-dried, with a subtle layer of make-up on a sallow-skinned face.
So does playing such a glamazon clothes-horse like Victoria make Stowe more self-conscious about her looks?
"I'm most comfortable wearing baggy shirts, jeans and cowboy boots," Stowe replies.
"Now I have to be a little more careful when I go out. It's a weird world. I grew up where there wasn't the internet, and where people weren't scrutinising you.
"I don't Tweet; I'm not on Facebook. I'm bewildered by it. Pop culture is strange. I'm here because of it, but I don't know what to make of it. I guess I'm just old-fashioned."
Revenge continues on RTÉ Two at 10.15pm next Tuesday and can be watched on the RTE iplayer.