Our casting director has a memory like a steel trap," said actor Patrika Darbo of Days of Our Lives. "She does her homework. She sees as much theatre as possible. And if she saw you 10 years ago in something and thought you were wonderful and something's coming up, she will find you at home if she has to."
That's exactly what casting director Fran Bascom did when she first hired Darbo and actor Kevin Spirtas to come on Days of Our Lives in the roles of scheming socialites Nancy and Dr. Craig Wesley back in 1998. It took Darbo by surprise.
Said Darbo, "When Fran asked if I would be interested in doing a soap, I was under the impression that I was going to come on and say, 'Doctor, here's your chart,' or 'Doctor, you need Line Two,' or 'Here's your beer, sir. Do you want any peanuts?' I am not your typical soap actress. I am a size 20 in a size 2 world."
When Bascom first brought them on, it was to finish up a storyline.
"Kevin and I weren't coming on as regular regulars," said Darbo, "but the fans fell in love with us. That's why we're still here. There are cases where you bring a character on and the audience falls in love with them and you can't back away from them because that's the reason people are tuning in. But the audience can fall out of love with you, too."
In the case of Spirtas, Bascom had been familiar with his work for some 10 years. "She called me up one day at home," said Spirtas. "I didn't have an agent. It was for a two-day thing. Eight months later I got a phone call saying, 'We want to bring you on again for that role you did.' I went onto the set, there was something they liked, and they found a way to write me in. They made an offer for a three-year role."
Years later, the couple is still on the show, careening from adventure to adventure, stirring up trouble in the town of Salem
"We're not really evil," explained Darbo about her character. "We're just manipulative. One minute we're on the road together, we're in bed together, we're jumping out of a window running from the police, we're landing in a dumpster with garbage being dumped all over us. We've had some fun.
"Before, I was always the ditzy neighbor next door or the beat-up housewife," continued Darbo. "Now suddenly I'm climbing into hot tubs and having Mr. Hunk all over me and he's naked. Surprise, surprise! There are some perks. When you're in bed and you're supposed to have things pulled down, believe me, they're pulled down. You get very close to your co-stars. It's a whole new world."
Aside from the fun of bizarre and prurient storylines, working in daytime also offers actors a surprisingly serious education. "Other than theatre, soaps are the best training ground because they really teach you," said Darbo. "You've got to get up, learn your lines, get in there, and do them. You need to know how to read well, and you need to be disciplined. People sometimes say the actors are not that good on daytime. I would say, sure, sometimes the actors are hired primarily because of how they look. But at the same time they always improve because they are constantly working. They have so much to do."
Climbing Into the Tub
Soaps are indeed one of the fastest-moving mediums in which an actor can work. Primetime actors may have 26 weeks on and 26 weeks off, but daytime actors work day in, day out, depicting the everyday life of their characters. Days can start at 6 a.m. and finish in a few hours or they can finish at 2 a.m. Actors have between three days to a week with the script.
"It's not impossible," said Spirtas. "It's just that sometimes we have a lot of information to digest, to turn around in less than a 24- or 12-hour period and go back to the set, after you've already done anywhere from 20 to 40 pages, and spit it out, make it look natural, make it look real, give it some individual signature style—and at the same time you've got to hit your marks, do what the director has requested. Then the producer comes in and says, 'Let's take it in this other direction.' But it becomes a muscle that you exercise over and over again, and that muscle gets stronger."
"When you shoot a movie," said Darbo, "you have three months to shoot the same amount that I shoot in a day. An episodic television show takes 15 days to shoot what I shoot in a day. I did Gilmore Girls last week, and it took 12 hours to shoot two small scenes. In that amount of time, I've shot an entire script."
While the pace of the shooting schedule is unbelievably fast, as anyone who's ever watched a soap opera knows, the pace of the acting is slow as molasses, with cameras lingering on close-ups for what can seem like eternity. For Darbo, who was trained in theatre, this is one aspect of soap acting that still throws her off.
Said Darbo, "In the soaps it's very much like, 'I said to Bill [long pause]… No. [long pause].' And then the camera stays on your face forever. I'm going, Why are they still looking at me? Is it my line or someone else's? Our executive producer, you look at him and bless his heart, he's aged tremendously, and I know I've given him most of the gray hairs on his head because he's always going, 'Patrika, keep your eyes up at the end.' And I'm busy looking at the ground going, 'Please let this be over soon.' If I've said something really dramatic, I want to leave, I don't want to stand there and have this emotional look on my face. I think I'm getting better, though."
Because of the three-camera setup, blocking can also run contrary to natural instincts. Said Darbo, "I used to ask myself things like, Why have I got my back to him when I'm saying I love him? Well, because they're doing this two-shot over-the-shoulder thing so they can see my face and then his face over my shoulder as well. Or another time, I had a director say to me, 'Patrika, I need you to get closer to Kevin,' 'Patrika, I need you to get closer to Kevin.' On the third take, 'Patrika, I need you to get closer to Kevin.' Finally I said, 'You know what? You're going to have to drill a hole in his back for my left breast before I can get any closer to him.' There's just some weird stuff you have to adjust to."
Once More With Feeling
For Spirtas, the main challenge has been keeping the material fresh. As Spirtas explained, the way soaps are written, there is a lot of recapping of story in each scene so that the audience remembers where the story came from, which can mean a lot of repeated lines.
"You may have to say the same thing 25,000 ways in one scene, but ya gotta say it," said Spirtas. "That's the way the show is designed. Some actors have a difficult time with that. They say, 'I just said this in the prior scene!' Or 'I just said this yesterday!' Or 'I wouldn't ever say this! How can you have me repeat this?' But soaps are a very different animal. What I do is, I walk through the door of the set and I remind myself that I'm on this particular planet and this is the way the planet operates. This is the world of soap opera, and for me it's the world of Salem."
Days has some eight different dialogue writers working on the show at any give time. They rotate, and Darbo explained that there is sometimes the challenge of adapting to each writer's voice. Eventually, however, the writers often adapt to the actors, adding the actor's individual quirks and mannerisms into the script to make the character a more natural fit.
While the dialogue may become comfortable over time, the storylines often come as a surprise. They are often kept hidden even from the actors, who may suddenly discover, just as their character discovers, that they have been keeping a big secret they never knew they had.
"We still don't know who the father of one of the kids on the show is," said Spirtas. "It could be any of us. So how do you play it? I could be the father of this character. We don't know these things, and then all of a sudden it comes up and you sort of have to go back and justify in your head, 'Now, let's see… when I was saying those words before, how did such and such happen… did it make sense?' Well, of course it always makes sense—even when it doesn't—because you are in the world of the soap. You know, I'm the chief of staff of a hospital but I perform surgery on everything. That's just… interesting."
For contract players the pay range is more than enough to live on, ranging widely from $750 a week to $3,000 per taped episode (contracts usually guarantee at least one episode a week). Yet the pay is substantially lower than nighttime. "I made more than four times the top dollar amount as a regular on a sitcom," said Darbo.
Contracts usually range from two to four years, and the details are ironed out between agent and producer. While some contracts permit actors to take a leave to go do feature work, or work on another show, other contracts do not.
"For the duration of the contract," said Darbo, "they own you. They could say, 'You know, we've decided not to use your character anymore.' They could decide they are going to get rid of my character but bring her back and she's going to be thin."
The contract's minimum guarantees that actors are paid at least their per-show minimum per week. And there are other perks: You could be asked to go open a Sears store in the heartland, for example, and receive $3,500 in cash and first-class airfare to sign pictures all day long.
For most soap actors, however, it's doing what they love that keeps them going.
"I want to be an actor and I'm being an actor and that's important," said Darbo. "I work with a great bunch of people. I get to be creative. It's tough because when you're doing television or film, you don't get to hear that applause. But there is such a strong fan base for every soap that the e-mail and the mail you get is the applause. And those daytime fans, they have such a loud clap that you can't believe it."
Contract roles on soaps come up only a few times a year, Bascom explained, but there is a daily need for actors to fill smaller roles. Day players can sometimes work up to two weeks on the show. Even under-fives—actors who have fewer than 50 words—can work multiple days.
"We use people over and over again," said Bascom, though she did mention that she waits at least three months before re-using an actor who was seen on-camera.
Actors auditioning for contract parts have to pass not only Bascom's test but need the producers' seal of approval as well. "For the other parts," said Bascom, "normally we cast people we've met or people we've seen in the theatre. We don't have to take them into the producers. I go to a lot of theatre, and I've hired a lot of actors from the theatre."
Her advice to actors? "Do it all. Do theatre and workshops and be seen that way. Being young and attractive certainly has its points. But I think soaps are becoming more diverse. I think the writers are more open to hiring different types—except for most of the contract roles. The good-looking ones and the handsome ones are simply the ones people like to look at."
Yet Bascom insists she never casts from photos alone—not even for the under-five parts. Said Bascom, "Under-fives are the most difficult parts, in my opinion, because that actor really has to deliver, and if that actor is bad it can be very glaring."
Again, the situation of actors being hired on in a small role and then moving on to become a series regular does happen. Bascom explained that this can happen from fan feedback alone, but it is also often the case that the producers and writers see an actor they are inspired to write for.
For actors who want to learn about soap acting, the best thing is to jump in and witness it firsthand. "If you've never been on a soap set," said Darbo, "find out who casts the extras and go and be on a soap for the day. Watch where the cameras are going and what's going on. When there's a five-minute break, talk to some people from the crew or the stage manager. Ask them questions. Either they'll tell you to buzz off or they'll help you, and a lot of times they'll help you. There are people who have got their noses so far up their own butts that they're not going to help you.
"But I believe what goes around comes around. If I'm there and you want to ask me a question, come ask me!" BSW