Q&A with Maurice Benard
Maurice Benard, Part 1 (by Michael Logan of TV Guide)
ML: We can't say we didn't see it coming, but the news of Maurice Benard's imminent departure from General Hospital has been one hell of a gut punch. We took this acclaimed actor to lunch to get the lowdown.
ML: Your decision to leave has long been rumored. When did you officially decide to do this and why?
MB: First of all, this started out as a one-year job that turned into four. I never imagined it would be like this. I thought I'd go do GH and prove to myself that I'd improved as an actor, and it turned into four wonderful years of doing what I love to do. This has been the best acting experience -- and the best four years -- of my life, but my gut's telling me it's time to see what else I can do. Now my head also talks to my gut and it says, "C'mon, jerk, you've got a good job, you're making good money!" But I've got to go out and see what happens. But I love this role, man. Yes, the last seven months have seen a change in the writing. But for the first three or so years, the storylines I had were a godsend. My decision-making probably started about five months ago. You know, the usual "Should I? Shouldn't I?" But once I make a decision, it's made. I'm scared, but I'm more excited to see what's going to happen.
ML: But writer problems can turn out to be a temporary thing -- and they have in this case now that [head writer Richard] Culliton is history. You could have waited it out. It's like being saddled with a bad costar. You don't quit, you just hang in and hope the situation will change.
MB: The decision to leave has less to do with my storylines than with my need to go do what I gotta go do. The writing is not the main reason I'm leaving, but it makes it easier. I need to go. My agents and managers are saying it,too. If the writing now was like it was a year or two ago, it would have been harder for me to go, but I still would have gone. In fact, when I signed my last contract, I told [executive producer] Wendy Riche, "This probably will be my last year."
ML: Yet the Riche regime has continued to put out the word that something might be worked out -- the same goes for Vanessa Marcil's departure. Were there big negotiations actually going on or was this a ruse to keep the fans from panicking or -- worse yet -- revolting and tuning out early?
MB: I made it clear to Wendy that I was going, so there was no question about it.
ML: No offers of more bucks, more perks, more outs?
MB: There haven't been any talks about anything -- there was no "We'll give you this, we'll give you that" -- but I do believe it's because I made it clear I'm leaving. But, hey, man, if somebody had come to me with a great contract, I'm not stupid enough to not look at it, to not talk about it.
ML: So why do you think they didn't offer you two the world? You and Vanessa are the big deal of the '90s. Or is that too dangerous? Would a cushier deal for Maurice -- especially with lots of outs to go do other work -- just come back to bite 'em in the butt? Other actors would expect the same.
MB: I guess they could have said, "Look, we'll give you the freedom to leave the show for other jobs whenever you want," but I don't think there's any such kind of contract. And even if there is, you can't write around that sort of deal.
ML: Genie's comings and goings would tax even the greatest writer.
MB: Right, and I don't want to be in a position where I must ask people to kill themselves to work with me, to deal with my needs.
ML: What can you say about how your storyline will wrap up? Sonny is involved in too many lives for there not to be a gaping hole in the canvas when he departs.
MB: I don't yet know how they'll write me out. I just want it to be a nice exit, as opposed to something unrealistic. I just hope it's decent -- I mean, under the circumstances, they can say, "To hell with you, we're gonna downplay this." I hope that doesn't happen, but we'll have to see.
ML: How would you feel if they killed Sonny?
MB: I'd be pissed off. But, knowing me, that would probably make me want to go out and get something else even more. That would give me some drive! But it wouldn't be fair if they did that.
ML: Fair to...?
MB: Fair to me, fair to the fans. But if they did it, I'd have to live with it and that's fine.
ML: The fans -- especially the S&Believers -- are not going to recover from your departure.
MB: The fans are what it's all about. For me, one of the saddest things about leaving GH is not having the contact with them anymore. They're very important to me. I'll miss that a lot.
ML: Any guilt associated with this decision?
MB: No. Well, a little bit of guilt. [GH producers] Wendy Riche and Shelley Curtis, at the beginning of my contract, kept me from quitting acting. [Note: Benard, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, took himself off the prescription drug lithium -- thinking it was hampering his craft -- shortly before joining GH]. Two weeks into the show, I tried to quit. I couldn't act. I couldn't remember a damn line; not a f---ing line! But Shelley and Wendy, who could easily have replaced me, were like my mothers. They held my hand and got me through it. They were instrumental in my not leaving the business. So, in that regard, I feel a little guilty -- like a kid who's about to leave home.
ML: But all kids must leave home sooner or later.
MB: Yeah, ain't that the truth. But it doesn't mean you can't come home again.
ML: Some stars spoil the audience. They stay on their soaps forever -- Stuart Damon, Leslie Charleson, Jackie Zeman, Brad Maule -- and because of that I think we react unfairly, like spoiled brats, when others decide to leave. Some feel it's a little cheeky of you to come, do four years, and then take off. Maybe if people came and went with more regularity, we'd accept it more easily. But this is really going to hurt.
MB: But it's just another part of the business. Luke and Laura have become so monumental -- and the fans are looking for another Luke and Laura. They want monumental long-term couples, I guess, but sometimes it just doesn't work out. Sometimes you've got to [acknowledge] that a couple can't be there forever. But who knows? You might see Sonny and Brenda when they're 50. Well, maybe Sonny -- but Brenda's gonna be working! Brennda's gonna be a big star!
ML: What is the Sonny and Brenda appeal as you see it?
MB: Everyone likes to watch a car wreck. I mean, you've got two very dysfunctional people who deep down, in a way, are like Lucy and Desi. They truly, deeply love each other but can't be with each other -- but you still want to watch them try. That's the appeal. They're always fighting with each other. He's never hit her, but they're always yelling. And that gets your attention as it does in real life. If that couple right there [he points to a nearby table] are just quietly having a meal, we don't notice 'em. But if they started having a fight, we'd all be gawkin'.
ML: I've always been encouraged by the fans who have proclaimed you two a supercouple, because you are both excellent actors with deep, dark, complicated characters -- and that's not usually the case with supercouples. More often than not, they're of the Days of Our Lives variety -- gorgeous but boasting no noticeable soul or substance.
MB: But you can't let yourself become aware of the "supercouple" thing because that'll really mess with your head. It took me a while to even realize Sonny and Brenda were popular. Obviously I know that now, because everybody's saying it in letters and what have you -- but you gotta keep yourself in the moment-to-moment work. But you're right -- there's a lot of darkness in this couple, and that's fun. I like darkness. I like danger. Give me darkness and danger and pain and I'm a happy man.
ML: They so easily could have gotten into a domestic-violence story with you two.
MB: I agree.
ML: The perfect point was where Brenda agreed to be wired in order to bust Sonny -- when he found the bugging device he was one microsecond from slugging her. His hot temper, his underworld ties -- these are elements that could spell batterer. It's a real hot-button issue in this country these days. Did they ever consider it?
MB: I think so. That's what I heard. Something stopped them. Something scared them. But I wanted to go for it. I'm assuming they thought Sonny wouldn't be sympathetic after that -- but, man, that is the challenge forr me! I played those [bugging] scenes to the hilt; I wanted to go for that kind of anger and really wanted to hit her -- in reality, it would have happened. We could have gone all the way with it, and then showed how Sonny felt afterwards, man.
ML: Right, they could have turned it into a real healing thing. They could have sent him into therapy and made him deal with it. But as enlightening as that would be to the audience, it's a big soap-opera taboo: These shows won't tackle domestic violence with a character we know and love. If there is an abuse storyline, the perpetrator is always someone we've never seen before and is usually played with the subtlety of Snidely Whiplash. There's never any therapy or rehabilitation. He's killed off and the story becomes a whodunit.
MB: I could have done it. I know I could have, no question about it. It would have been hard, I know that, especially with Brenda being such a sweetheart of America. But it's about the afterwards; it's about finding out why he abuses women. See, I always wanted to do a therapy story.
ML: You are too prized as a leading man, as a heartthrob, to risk alienating the audience with a physical abuse plot -- at least that seems to be the thinking.
MB: But that wouldn't happen if it were written well. Claire Labine could have done it. She would have kicked some ass!
ML: Sonny has had so many dark dealings -- what with the Mob, and that whole drug storyline with Karen -- yet you became a heartthrob despite it. What does that say about the psyche of the female soap viewer? Does it bother you on any level?
MB: The character of Sonny, although he's dysfunctional, although he's got a whole lot of anger, is really just a little boy inside. It's a facade of toughness. You want to take care of him. That, I think, is the attraction. Does it bother me? It'd be better for me to say, "Yeah," but you know what? When you play a character, you want people to like him no matter what. I like that I've become popular as Sonny. Maybe I question it a little bit. Yeah, sometimes I do. I mean, this guy's a real f---up. But I try so hard to work that little boy all the time. If I didn't, it'd be really weird because there'd be no reason to like this kind of character. There'd be no justification.
Part 2 TV Guide & Maurice Benard
Date: June 1997
Read it and weep: Maurice Benard, who plays Sonny Corinthos on General Hospital, will leave the show this summer in search of greener pastures.
ML:Your work with Vanessa Marcil has been incomparable. Talk to me about the first time you guys clicked.
MB: She has worked so hard in this part. Obviously, she's got charisma and the looks and the body -- but what she's done as an actress in the last two years is amazing. In the beginning, it was really shaky, but something clicked one day when we were doing a bunch of breakup scenes, a day of real intense stuff, and she just nailed it, man! Scene after scene. Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! I said to her the next day, "I should get on my knees for what you did yesterday -- whatever you did, that's how to act."
ML: It's wild how some actors can suddenly shift into a whole new place --where suddenly they get what acting really is, and they realize what they thought acting was really wasn't. You can see it with Susan Lucci -- she's operating on a whole new wavelength since her drug storyline.
MB: Hey, it took me 10 years -- how old am I? -- yeah, 10 years for that to click. I'd studied, I'd done All My Children, I'd done the Desi movie [Note: Benard played Desi Arnaz in the made-for-TV movie Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter], but I didn't get it until I finally got it. Ten years!
ML: Was there a particular moment of epiphany?
MB: It started with this coach I studied with. He would call me "arrogantly ignorant." I had this problem in class where I couldn't say, "Hey, I don't understand what you're talking about" because I was embarrassed. But he was finally able to teach me about the "beats" of a scene. Some actors learn thats--- in a year -- it took me eight years. But when it really clicked was when I started working on GH. You know, before that I'd been out of work for two years, a job here, a job there, but I didn't yet know if I could act. And I began to feel I could when I got to GH and started doing these long Sonny monologues -- I used to have this fear of monologues like you wouldn't believe, like, I'd look at a page of monologue and be so scared I couldn't breathe. Now I say, "Gimme a four-page speech, man, I'm ready!" When I started watching myself on GH, I said, "Wow, it's f---ing clicking, man!" But it didn't truly click until the Stones---. That's when I knew I could be deep and real. That's when I finally said to myself, "I think I finally know what I'm doing here!" I could finally be loose. You know, Tony Geary's been doing this for a long time; he's always been loose. I've always been deep but I couldn't be loose. Now, even with the material the way it is, I can be light in a scene instead of always being so serious. I can joke and stuff. 'Cause I gotta tell you, it took me a long time to be able to laugh in a scene. It took me forever, because I don't have that kind of thing in life. I mean, I do if I'm comfortable with you and we're just hanging out and screwing around, but when I would act I would get too serious. Now I'm starting to laugh. The acting is fun, it's flowin', it's great!
ML: You have brought a style of acting -- a real epic, movie-star charisma -- to daytime. You could have done De Niro's roles in The Godfather, Part II or Taxi Driver -- easily.
MB: It's weird that you say that, because my goal from the beginning was to be able to do that kind of acting. Of course, what actor doesn't say that, right? I've always wanted to do it, but I didn't know if GH would let me try.
ML: You have a movielike timing, a tempo all your own.
ML: You have a movielike timing, a tempo all your own.
MB: Well, The Powers That Be allow me to do that; they allow me those one-hour moments. In the beginning, I'd do a scene and really be feeling it. I'd be so pissed off at Brenda, and I'd turn my head away and hold the moment for a long time -- all the while silently saying to the director in the booth, "Don't f---ing cut, man! Don't cut! I'm in a moment!" [GH producer] Shelley Curtis told me that in the beginning, she'd be watching me from the booth and I'd take one of those moments, and the director would be going, "Cut! Cut! He forgot his line." And she'd have to say, "No, no, no, keep going, keep going." That kind of allowance is why I've been able to do what I do; I truly believe that. Once you f--- with an actor, then his mind starts thinking, "Oh, I can't take these moments." You're thinking about somebody in the booth, not what feels right for your scene. GH has let me do [he leans in very closely and speaks in a hushed voiced] very intimate, quiet scenes -- barely above a whisper. That, too, helps you make it real. That's real freedom. Because if they had come down on me early on about that, well, I'd be feeling very insecure. I'm kind of a little boy that way -- if you come and screw with me in the beginning, I'll be so scared that I might go off on you. When I started the show, I promised myself, "No matter what they say, I won't go off!" Because I hate getting that [directorial] note "more voice" -- meaning more volume. Don't ever give me that note, 'cause I'll kill ya. Because it's not natural, unless you tell me "more voice" because I'm supposed to be yelling at somebody. But they'll say it when you're just in a normal conversation. Before I agreed to GH, I told Wendy [Riche] and Shelley, "I'd love to do your show, but two things: Never tell me 'more voice' or 'hurry up' when I'm acting." They said, "Oh... uh...OK...." But my very first week, one of our directors -- Joe Behar, whom I now love -- stoppped everything and said to me over the intercom, "Uh... we can't hear you." [He cracks up.] I don't even want to get into what I said to him.
ML: Yikes. Why were you so touchy about this? Did this used to happen a lot on All My Children?
MB: I was, like, 25 when I was on AMC, and a lot of times they'd say, "More voice!" or "Why are you taking so long when you act?" They'd say that all the time -- and if you hear it enough times, you get real insecure about it. Even now it's weird. I hear that note and my insides will go into a knot. I want to beat somebody up. I understand sometimes it's needed, but when you're trying to be real and natural, you can't be talkin' loud!
ML: Was there a point on GH where you feel the directors and producers looked at you and said, "OK, this guy's a big f---ing deal. Let's get out of his way. Let's let him guide us"?
MB: Oh, yeah. In fact, The Powers That Be believed in me well before the fans did. You know, the fans didn't jump on the bandwagon until pretty much when I was with Brenda. In the beginning, I didn't get much fan mail. And I'd look at everybody else's stack of mail and think, "Damn! Why ain't I getting that much?! I think I'm popular. Hmm... maybe I'm not." But what's important is coming to the party and being real. When I work with Steve Burton, Ron Hale, Tony, Vanessa, even if the writing's not great, it's fun for me to just be truthful -- to just look 'em in the eye and find truth.
ML: Speaking of the truth, are you glad you gave that interview to Soap Opera Digest about being manic-depressive?
MB: Oh, yeah. I'm glad I did it, not for me, because I don't hide it from anybody. I'll talk to anybody about it. But I'm glad because of the letters I got from people who had the same or similar problems. It was very worthwhile.If people see an actor on a TV show that has the same problem they do, they can kind of feel there's hope. It's beautiful. I get so moved by some of the letters I get. I've had people tell me that I shouldn't talk about it because nobody will hire me. They'll think I'm gonna freak out on the set or something. But it's part of who I am. And I'm doing great with it. But I'm open; I like talking about anything. My only real regret about GH is that I wanted them to make Sonny manic-depressive, too. That would have been the greatest thing to me. I would love to have played that survival story. I could have brought a lot of truth to it.
ML: You don't think you'd be too close to the subject?
MB: I went home my first two weeks on GH thinking I was Sonny! [He laughs.] So that was not the time to do it. But now -- or a year or two ago -- it would have been great. I know that in my heart. But they want to see the romance, Michael. They want to see Brenda and Sonny get back together.
ML: And since you bring that up, what did you think about Sonny and Brenda making love underground in the cave-in? Did that ring true to you?
MB: I thought the scenes, the dialogue, were written wonderfully. But was it realistic? I don't know. If Sonny is claustrophobic and Brenda's on drug withdrawal, I would think the last thing they'd want to do is have sex.
ML: And let's not forget they were quickly running out of oxygen. And Harry's dead body was lying nearby.
MB: [Laughing] Right! I don't care how desperate a guy is -- he would not have sex under those circumstances.
ML: Why I'm coming to the defense of [former GH head writer] Mr. [Richard] Culliton, I do not know, but who among us can say what we'd do in such a situation? I mean, they did think they were going to die.
MB: You're right. And I've never been in that situation.
ML: But then neither, we can safely assume, has Mr. Culliton. So maybe it is pretty damn stupid.
MB: Hmm... I'm just thinking here. If my wife and I were going to die, would I want to have sex with her? Maybe. But on the other hand, that's not really going to help anything. I think I'd just lay there. But I guess if you're a Sonny and Brenda fan, you loved it. If you're a Jax and Brenda fan, you didn't. That's the bottom line. I'm just glad that at least the dialogue was good.
ML: How do you play something that makes no sense?
MB: An actor can justify almost anything. "I'm about to die, there ain't no air, there's a dead body, my girlfriend's having drug withdrawals, hey, let's have sex!" You just do it. But there are times when it's tough -- times when you're handed stuff that is just not happening. Most of the time I'll do anything. I'm cool that way. I like the challenge of trying to act whatever is written -- let's go for it! But an actor friend of mine said this to me once: "Don't ever let them f--- your character" -- so when I feel that's happening in a script, that's when I get upset. On GH, I'll read something in a script that Sonny absolutely would not say or do and I get pissed. I'll just fly off the handle. I hate to say, "Well, Sonny would never say such and such... " because that can be limiting. But sometimes it's true.
ML: And the audience will spot those inconsistencies, too. (Damn right!! :) Sorry that was from me!) Nobody's being fooled.
MB: But daytime is the greatest job. Why is it we can't get the respect? What does someone have to do? I've given up.
ML: I think you have to give up. I certainly have. Why waste time convincing the rest of the industry that daytime is worthy? You just have to take pride that you're part of an elite, very secret club. We know how cool soaps are, how phenomenal it is to get an hour of programming done every day, how great the acting and writing can be -- and to hell with the people who lauugh at it or don't get it. But at least more and more soap actors are being welcomed into prime time and movies. The stigma is nothing like it used to be.
MB: We soap people have got to talk about it. If I do well, I'll be the first to say that I learned what I learned from daytime -- that it was the best job of my life. We have to talk about it. The more people don't talk about it, the more people will turn up their noses. If I did in a movie what I did on daytime...
ML: You'd win an Oscar.
MB: Right on!
ML: You could play anything after playing a role like Sonny. When are you officially out, by the way?
MB: My contract runs out July 21, I think, but I have heard talk of August. Then I'm gonna go out and do what everybody else does -- audition my ass off. That's another thing that helped me make the decision to leave: I decided to go out and audition for pilots this last pilot season -- not so much to get a job but because I've always dreaded auditioning. I decided that if I went out and didn't do well, I would have stayed on GH. But I went out and got real close on many jobs. I felt good about auditioning. I don't love it now, but it wasn't the scary thing it has been in the past. So that was my little signal that said, "Go. Leave GH. You'll be OK." I didn't want to audition and truly hate it. Why do that to yourself? So that's changed for me, thank God.Or maybe not thank God. Part of me could have stayed on GH and been happy.
ML: Do many people you audition for know your work on the soap?
MB: Some do. It's kinda cool. More of the secretaries do.
ML: Hey, you'd be surprised how a secretary can get you in the right door at the right time.
MB: I'll say. I recently had a secretary bring me in for a Penny Marshall movie. But sometimes it works for you when they think you're an unknown.
ML: Either way, I think you've got it made. You're perfect for so much that's on prime-time TV -- ER, Homicide, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, that kind of thing. Steven Bochco is a fool if he doesn't cast you in something big.
MB: Well, thanks, but I do want to say that if things don't work out for me in the outside world, I would go back to GH -- provided they want me --faster than you can say "unemployment line." I would have no qualms, man, none at all.
ML: And if you were to return after a break -- like Tony and Genie did -- it would be with a whole different perspective.