The Quiet Man
Playing the part of "Celebrity" is a Tough Role for All My Children's Maurice Benard.
May 30, 1989
Dressed casually in a green jersey turtleneck, khaki pants and Nike sneakers, Maurice Benard doesn't attract attention, which is fine. He really doesn't want to. At Manhattan's Ginger Man restaurant, he sits in the only seat at the table that doesn't face other patrons, opposite his girlfriend/manager, his publicist and this interviewer. Unlike Nico Kelly, whom Maurice says "wants his name up in lights," Benard prefers anonymity.
He's oddly shy for a public figure, blushing when his girlfriend praises his rapport with children, not revealing much about himself and becoming embarrassed when approached by fans. He and his girlfriend exchange a wearisome look when the topic of fans is introduced; it's obviously an exhausting subject. "It's tough and I'm kind of a quiet person," Benard explains. "I'm nice, but I get embarrassed and I don't know what to say. I know for her it's not easy. Even for me, it's not the greatest thing, but it's part of my job." Luckily, he adds, they don't go out much, so he's not really aware of the popularity. "I go to work and I go home and that's about it," he says.
Home is a house in Jersey City ("Manhattan is too expensive, there's too many people and it's too dirty"), which he shares with his girlfriend of three years, Paula Smith, and a cat and two dogs named Charlie, Nico and Mitzi. "Julie just didn't sound right," he explains before you can even ask.
In terms of acting, his own name didn't sound right, either. Mauricio Morales evolved into Maurice Benard about three years ago. "Business people are prejudiced, you know. And if you're called Mauricio Morales, they have tunnel vision and typecast you," he explains. So he ditched his Spanish (he's Nicaraguan on his father's side; Salvadoran on his mother's) accent on the advice of a voice coach and changed his name to Benard, which comes from his grandmother's maiden name, figuring it could be taken as Spanish, Italian or French. The new name is as ambiguous as the Italian/Irish name of his streetwise All My Children character, Nico Kelly. But that's not all the two have in common.
"Nico is a lot like when I was eighteen years old," Benard notes, referring to Kelly's quick temper and desire to live eon the edge. "In high school I was always fighting, was a tough kid, because I gained respect that way. Nico's very insecure; that's the bottom line. That's why he was so against Julie going to Washington. He feels that she'll become something and he'll just stay the same. He's very insecure and the more I play that, the more interesting he is to watch. It's funny because I just realized that a month ago." As for Nico's macho image, Benard thinks that's fine as long as there's more underneath. "See, he's macho, but he's sensitive and he's even cried once now so there's a lot of colors. He's probably crying with Julie gone, but he doesn't let anybody see him cry. That's the great thing about it, he does it all on his own."
With difficulty, Benard admits that he's the same way. "We're a lot alike, but I'm not a jerk like he is." Still, both are men of few words and Maurice is not without this own insecurities. Though he's in the public eye nearly every day, Benard is admittedly uncomfortable in crowds. "I'm good at one-on-one. You put me in a crowd, I just...I don't know. I'm not into partying and when I'm around crowds, I just clam up." He cites the recent Soap Opera Awards Show as an example, conceding that his shyness could be misconstrued as a nose-in-the-air attitude. On the other hand, he felt the West Coast actors looked down on their New York counterparts. "The only person who said 'hi' to me was John Loprieno [OLTL's Cord] and he works across the street."
On a level everybody can relate to, Benard wants to know what others think of him. "So give me more rumors. I want to hear the rumors," he requests during a relaxed moment. No problem:
He's difficult "What a trip," he responds. "People that don't know me think I'm difficult."
He's anti-publicity and tells other actors not to get wrapped up in it. "I told Lonnie [Quinn, who plays AMC's Will] not to take his shirt off for every interview," he jokes, then seriously: "It depends on what it is. I'm not into the quantity, it's the quality. I like to talk about [the dangers of] drugs,"--two cousins recently died from causes related to substance abuse-- "I like to talk about kids. If you want to talk about acting, I can talk to you about acting for an hour. But a lot of times, people approach me and they don't want to talk about that, they want to talk about other things or they want gossip and it's not who I am. If you interview me, you're gonna get me." Still, Benard shies away from anything intensely personal and admits that Quinn's recent tribute to his brother in Soap Opera Digest was a lot to reveal about oneself.
He and Lauren Holly hate each other off screen. "God, I can't believe it," he says, shocked. "How could we hate each other?" He even expresses sadness that Julie and Nico have broken up. "It's kind of like the acting turns into the real-life situation. And it is sad, because you've been so close and working together for a year and a half now. The way they ended it was like crack!" he explains, slapping his hands loudly for emphasis.
Still, Maurice admits that the Julie/Nico story had finally tested the sleep reflexes of even the most alert viewer. "It got to be like any other marriage. My character changed and I tried to fight it, but it happened. I thin now they're starting to bring back the way Nico was when he first started, which was dangerous, very intense, because I think I lose that--I know I did." Benard is looking forward to his scenes with Rosa Langschwadt (Cecily), hoping that it will add some conflict to his role. "I love to play any type of change as opposed to being just lovey-dovey with Julie and kissing for," he hesitates, "the last century." As for the upcoming wedding, he only hopes that they don't make him wear the same tux he wears at his on-screen club, Nico's.
Benard wasn't always so sure about what he wanted and acting wasn't even in contention until he was twenty-two years old. "I barely graduated from high school--I cut class all the time--played hooky," he admits. "Then I went to college for a year and that was a joke. I just kind of hung out for three or four years working at a supermarket making about eleven bucks an hour as a cashier. It was pretty good money, but I knew I wanted to do something else, so I started acting. In the beginning, I was terrible, to put it bluntly. I was pretty bad. But then after six months, it started to click and then once I got into doing plays, I knew."
Before it all came together, before Benard completed four plays in San Francisco and got the AMC role, he did some modeling--something which, considering his intense good looks, comes as no shock. But for Maurice, all that glitters wasn't gold. "I hate to talk about it," he confesses, surprised and embarrassed that anybody knew about it. "I was very unsuccessful as a model because of my height. I'm 5'9" but I used to say I was 5'11" because otherwise I couldn't get any jobs. It was tough. Actually, modeling taught me to have drive because I needed drive [to withstand the rejection]." Maurice is surprised to hear that greeting cards he posed for nearly six years ago have just hit the stands. "See how they do that!? And I'm not getting any money. It comes back to haunt you," he laments. "It was a hard period in my life and that's why it's something I don't discuss. It was hard but it taught me a big lesson. It's artificial confidence. It's kind of like, 'Who's looking at me?' and, 'Do I look great?' Real confidence is being out in the street, you know, dealing with people and getting by--that's confidence. I don't know, taking pictures--it's a look. It's just a look."
Heading to New York--alone--to take the AMC role, Benard had the ultimate chance to exorcise the ghosts of those wandering years and gain "real" confidence. "I like to take a lot of chances and, as an actor, I take a lot of chances. It's that danger that I like, not knowing if I can do something and then doing it." That kind of uncertainty inevitably leads to nerves, but Benard uses these to his advantage. "I'm a wreck all the time," he reveals. "on the set of All My Children, you can ask anyone. I'm pacing up and down right before the scene. Now they're used to it, but in the beginning it was like, 'Is he all right?' That's just the way I am. I've learned how to use my nerves, just like energy."
Landing a national television role hasn't changed Maurice's life too much, he says. He's occasionally forced to travel incognito (a la baseball hat and glasses), but other than that, he's still taking acting classes, working on outside projects including a John Houseman Theater showcase with castmate Lonnie Quinn, and auditioning. As we go to press, he is waiting to hear about a film role as Meryl Streep's lover/butler in a comedy called She Devil, with Roseanne Barr. He's been called back once already; if he gets the part, he may have contract decisions to make in September. "But no matter what happens to me, I want my life to stay the same. I want to keep a down-to-earth attitude," Benard insists. "I also want to stay healthy and to keep doing quality work. That's it, I don't' care where I'm at, whether it's a soap, whether it's a film, whether it's a play, as long as it's quality work and I'm working with good people. That's the ultimate."