"I kept seeing this woman following me around. And I kept telling everybody that the daughter we had adopted was being followed by this lady. But nobody would believe me. Alice didn't believe me, and my husband Mickey wouldn't believe me.
"So I started drinking, thinking that I was losing my mind. But of course, I was right. It turned out the woman was my daughter's natural mother, who'd come back to find her, and now that I was a drunk and Mickey was crazy, she was able to take the child away from us."
Typically, if you overheard this sad story, your reaction would be one of shock and sympathy for this poor woman. But before you shed any tears, you should know, this tragic turn of events won her an Emmy.
If you haven't already guessed, you've entered the world of soaps--or "daytime dramas," as the producers prefer to call them. And the key word in this world is indeed drama. The bigger the tragedy, the higher the ratings--this is the credo of shows such as One Life to Live, The Bold and The Beautiful, The Young and The Restless, and, of course, Days of Our Lives (affectionately referred to simply as Days by its faithful fans).
As any daytime drama enthusiast can tell you, these sultry serials are filled with meaningful pauses and teary speeches delivered by earnest actors with sculpted bodies and character names like Jax Jacks and Drusilla Winters. They're set in towns like Salem, Port Charles, and Sunset Beach, where brain tumors and broken marriages are daily occurrences.
And Days is no exception. In fact, Suzanne Rogers, quoted above relating the events of her character Maggie Horton's life, admitted that her alter ego's trials and tribulations are mild compared to the woes daily inflicted on other characters on the show. If you've followed Days over the past few years, you've seen strapping young men turned into savage beasts by "jungle madness," evil temptresses kidnapping nuns, and beautiful, ambitious doctors possessed by devils.
Back Stage West spent a day at Days, observing its outrageous world, looking into the acting opportunities available in soaps on the West Coast, and getting some advice on how to break into the industry, where to train in the meantime, and what to look forward to if, by some luck, you're called up to the plate.
Into the Atmosphere
First of all, when considering a career as a soap actor, reality must be faced. There are currently 11 English-language soap operas filming in the United States. Each soap typically employs about 24 full-time cast members. That's not a lot when you think of all the actors who'd like a chance to frolic around the bedroom with Hope Williams or match wits with the menacing Stephano DiMera.
In fact, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists reports that fewer than 400 union members are working on soaps under contract. But don't open a vein (in dramatic soap opera style) until you consider the hundreds of actors hired as extras, under-fives, and day players every week in shows shooting in New York and Los Angeles.
BSW caught up with two extras, Tom Lasley and Daniel Delaney, during their hour-long break at NBC Studios, where Days is filmed. The lunch hour is basically the only time in the busy day of a soap actor when they're available to chat. As exhausting as it may be, the brutal soap schedule is a matter of pride for most daytime drama performers. Because soaps film an entire hour or half-hour show (depending on the format) every day, actors may arrive at 7 a.m. and, if they are heavily featured that day, may not get out until 7 p.m. Of course, an extra's schedule is not quite so demanding, for the simple reason that there are not 20 to 40 pages of lines for them to remember.
Coincidentally, when we interrupted Lasley and Delaney, they were going over the shooting schedule to figure out when they might be going home that evening.
"You just never know until you get here," said Lasley. "It could be anywhere from two to 10 hours." Both extras were appearing as mourners at the funeral of one of the soap's lead characters, Kristen Drake. Most soaps, including Days, no longer refer to extras as extras, preferring to call them atmosphere--though, really, this appellation doesn't seem any more flattering.
Under AFTRA guidelines, atmosphere players or Extras are paid $128 a day minimum for a one-hour show and $99 a day for a half-hour show. Atmosphere players, not surprisingly, have no lines. If, however, an extra has five or fewer lines, then they're called an Under-five and earn $280 a day minimum for an hour-long and $228 for a half-hour show. Extras may be upgraded to under-fives if, 1) A principal player addresses them individually, 2) They are alone in a scene; or 3) They speak as part of a group.
While this money is nothing compared to the salaries of the principals, it helps pay the bills for a working actor. Said Delaney, "This little bit of extra money can pay for my acting classes between auditioning for speaking roles. It also helps pay the rent during the downtime when you're waiting for your agent to call."
Lasley concurred: "I have my degree in acting, which is kind of sad, considering I am here talking about being an extra. But it's a way to make some money. And, for instance, the stuff we're shooting today will be used in two episodes, so we'll be paid for two episodes, and that's pretty good money, considering."
More importantly, both actors looked at their time as extras as an opportunity to learn. "It's a good way to introduce yourself into the business," said Delaney. "It's a way to educate yourself as to what's expected of an actor on a set. It's very difficult to get that first job where you have lines, but it's easier to get a job as an extra, where you can see what will be needed of you later."
Lasley agreed, and advised fellow actors to pay attention if they get extra work, adding, "I know it's obvious, but be responsible and bring the wardrobe that they request."
Which brings up an issue: Extras are usually expected to provide their own costumes. Therefore, as Delaney recommended, "It's good to have a lot of things in your closet. Because if you don't have something you're comfortable in that's right for what they need, they might stick you in whatever they've got. And it's always good to look your best."
Days Add Up to a Life
A character with more than five lines is called a Day Player. If a day player appears in more than one episode, then she is a recurring day player. The AFTRA minimum for these performers is $643 a day for an hour-long and $482 for a half-hour soap. Luckily for us, Ralph Manza was appearing that day on Days as Father Lewis, a role he would play for three days consecutively.
At 76, Manza is a true veteran of soaps. He began his soap career in the pilot of General Hospital, the first daytime drama to be filmed in Los Angeles. Manza played Mike Costello, an Italian restaurant owner and father of Angie Costello, one of the show's original leads. He performed in about 340 episodes in the early years of the program. But most people today would more immediately recognize the actor for his part as the old fisherman who catches more than he bargained for in the recent Godzilla trailer.
Manza got his current priestly role, he explained, because the show's casting director, Fran Bascom, remembered him from another show she cast, a short-lived sitcom by Terrence McNally called Mama Malone, in which he also played a priest. Manza explained that when you do good work and remember to keep in touch with those casting directors you've worked with in the past ("Every Christmas I remember Fran with a little card"), it inevitably leads to more work.
Having also worked on sitcoms and feature films, Manza has found that soap work can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.
"Even in a show like ER, they get to film each episode in seven or eight days," Manza observed. "You have time to figure out all the emotional work of the character with the director. But here, you've got one day. There's not much chance of communion between director and actor. You run through a dry block and boom! It goes on tape."
Moreover, as the extras we spoke to also mentioned, the work for a day player is never steady. "Sometimes I go months and months with no jobs. Other times, I've got two jobs in one week. It's feast or famine," said Manza.
Still, Manza feels that soap work, if you can get it, is also tremendously rewarding for actors, young and old.
"For a young actor, soap operas are an excellent training ground, because you have to maintain discipline, you have to keep up on your lines. And for me--not exactly young--I'm financially secure thanks to my union pensions. My mortgage is paid. I'm still married to the first girl I fell in love with. And I still get to do what I love, which is perform, without being locked into a daily regimen."
It's Lovely at the Top
At the top of the pyramid of soap jobs is, of course, the Contract Player. One of these lucky individuals is Suzanne Rogers, who has starred as Maggie Horton on Days of Our Lives for more than 24 years. Like Manza, Rogers feels that it's the pace of soaps that really sets it apart from other work on TV or film. However, she admitted that she was more prepared than most actors for the rigorous schedule on Days, considering her previous employment.
"I started as a dancer for Radio City Music Hall. That was my first job," said Rogers. "And the pace of a dancing life is hard. It's a hard, grueling life and you don't get paid very well."
Of course, for soap work at this level, you do get paid very well. Working on a soap may not be as easy as it seems, however. Soap actors must have the ability to make choices for their characters very quickly, often with very little help from a director. For this reason, Rogers believes the only training which assists hopefuls may be found in theatre.
"You have to study. Do as much theatre as you can," she advised. "And the best kind of theatre to do is repertory. In fact, soaps are a kind of repertory for some young actors who are lucky enough to land a role."
Rogers admitted that, considering the outrageous plots that Days sometimes has her involved in, inevitably she's come across lines that she just couldn't believe she'd have to say.
"But I do them anyway, because my job is to make the lines live," Rogers explained. "Only once in a long while is there something way off, totally against your character's grain. Then I'll talk to the director and ask, 'Do the writers have something in mind that I don't know about?' And if there's no reason, we change it together."
Soap fans often have a hard time separating the actors from their characters. This was probably compounded in Rogers' case. In the 1980s, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular illness that made her speech slurred and affected her appearance and her ability to eat. After taking some time off, the actress was convinced by Days' producers to return to the show, which incorporated the illness into the storyline of Maggie's character.
Rogers is currently in complete remission and couldn't be healthier. She's grateful for the support that the show and its fans gave her during her battle with the illness, and can easily forgive people if they sometimes think Maggie and Suzanne are one and the same. "I answer to either name, Maggie or Suzanne. It doesn't matter anymore."
Rogers, like Manza, admitted that the greatest advantage of soap work is to be able to do what you love every day. Said Rogers, "To get up every morning and prepare for the day ahead--to drive through those studio gates and to think about what I'll get to do that day, who I'll get to work with, what the scenes will be about I just love it."
So if you're still convinced that you can handle the hours, if you have no problem learning 40 pages of dialogue every day, then the question becomes, How do I get my foot in the door?
We spoke to Fran Bascom, Days of Our Lives' casting director, in search of that answer. And we found that there are no big secrets when it comes to landing a role on a daytime drama.
"Of course acting ability comes first when I look at someone, but handsome and tall is definitely a bonus," said Bascom.
While Bascom is skeptical of classes that teach "soap opera-style acting," she does see the value of constantly studying your craft. "I don't think people should study soap acting, they should study acting. Doing theatre is terribly important, because it shows that you've worked on a stage in front of a live audience and you've had to deliver. And we do, in this office, go to a lot of theatre in this town, and we do discover people in the theatre."
At the same time, Bascom advised against inundating casting directors with photos and resumƒs every week.
"If people are appearing in a play, they can send a flyer or a postcard--a postcard is good. It's probably better than continually sending an updated photo and resumƒ."
Bascom also dispelled the common myth that doing a lot of extra work can eliminate an actor from future consideration for a principal role. "I think as an actor working as an extra, you get to observe and take in a lot of stuff," she said. "Doing extra work never hurts you. I wouldn't list it on my resumƒ, but at least you're learning."
When Sunset Beach and Port Charles debuted this year, it marked the first time that there were more soaps being filmed in Los Angeles than there were in New York (the ratio is now six to five). While certain critics have observed major differences between East Coast and West Coast soaps--West Coast soaps shoot on location more often, and their stars have a more generic, tanned model look--Bascom feels these differences are actually minimal.
While she wouldn't predict whether the trend of more soap work on the West Coast will continue in the future, she did comment on what she saw as the single advantage of working in West Coast daytime drama.
"Let's face it, soap actors also want to work in nighttime television, and there's more nighttime television here than there is in New York," she said. "These actors aren't just doing soaps, they're doing it all. So, for them, it's better to be out here."
Ultimately, the day at Days revealed all the positive aspects, as well as the excesses, that make soap acting what it is today. On the positive side, casting directors like Bascom are always casting, which means lots of work for lots of out-of-work actors. For a lucky few, a lead on a soap can mean financial security combined with artistic challenges, a rare find in any performing medium today.
On the other hand, success may mean you have to pretend you have "jungle madness" in front of millions of viewers. But Rogers would argue that these outrageous aspects of soap opera are simply a ploy that's necessary for the work to continue.
"It's a trick to get people to watch," she confessed. "As Hal Prince once said, 'They don't have to like the show. They can hate it, or love it, as long as they show up.' And I agree. I want a reaction. No grey for me--give me black and white any day. You have to give audiences what they want. It may be shocking. They may say, 'How can they do that?' But they keep turning that dial to see our show."
And unless ratings change drastically for soaps in the future, the fact of the matter for West Coast actors is that the black and white of daytime drama still holds the potential for a lot of green. BS