By Damon L. Jacobs
Ilene Kristen is an actress famed for a having both enormous acting talent and an idiosyncratic sense of humor which helps her to steal every scene she’s in. But behind the wisecracks is a wise soul with unique understanding of human psychology. She’s used that understanding to create two iconic daytime characters: Delia on Ryan’s Hope and Roxy on One Life to Live. When we spoke at length recently, she described how she reached inside herself to create both Delia and Roxy.
Here Ilene talks about how she made Delia so startlingly real over her many years on Ryan’s Hope, during the show’s 1975-1989 run. In Part 2 tomorrow, she’ll talk about how she made OLTL’s Roxy so entertaining and compassionate.
Part 1: Ryan’s Hope‘s Delia
D: So let’s begin talking about Delia on Ryan’s Hope. The fans who read “Soap Shrink” regularly know the subject of Borderline Personality Disorder comes up frequently. It is a personality disorder, typified by someone who makes frantic efforts to avoid abandonment.
I: That’s Delia in a nutshell.
D: The only thing is BPD didn’t start getting listed as diagnosis until 1980, well after your first run as Delia from 1975-1978. How did you know so much about Delia and these symptoms?
I: Well, second to being an actress I would have been a therapist. I wanted her to be real, so I observed those who were very needy. (RH‘s co-creator, co-headwriter) Claire Labine also wrote a great character description about her mother selling subway tokens, her father being a drunk, only getting love from her brother. You then see how that manifests in the decisions she would make. She had no occupation, she just lived in the shadow of the Ryans. So she was completely dependent, first on her brother, then to her two Ryan husbands. (Delia was married to both brothers, Frank and Patrick Ryan).
D: How were you able to find the essence of Delia?
I: I am very in touch with my emotions, and with other people’s emotions. I can get any piece of information out of anyone in this room in ten minutes. People spill their guts to me all the time, that helps. I really observe, I’m a peeping tom in a way. I studied acting, but I also studied people on the bus.
D: She would often use her body to get what she wanted from the Ryan men.
I: That part I understand. Women do that sometimes … it’s sad to say but true. Delia did it to manipulate. But she did love deeply.
D: What was it like for you to play that?
I: Tough. I thought I was a comedian. I got to put in a lot of humor in it eventually, but those first few years it was hard. She had this weird Deliaspeak. She was a child woman.
D: Did that remind you of anyone you knew?
I: It reminded me a lot of a woman named Cynthia. I didn’t know her that well, but I knew her husband. She was a little desperate.
D: What happened to Cynthia?
I: She eventually overdosed.
D: Were there aspects of Delia in you?
I: I would not consider behaving like that. As a kid I was riddled with perfection issues. My competition was going on within me.
D: Was your family more like the supportive Ryans or the absent Reids?
I: Like the Ryans. I came up in a middle class family. My father owned a beauty parlor. They were great, I didn’t have to do anything to get attention.
D: You seemed to have such empathy for Delia.
I: I had feelings of guilt that I grew up with such a wealth of parental love. That’s why I went to work at a homeless shelter and helped kids.
D: Much of that understanding had to do with your understanding. I don’t think we saw that level of understanding with other actresses in that role.
I: No, that character never worked with someone else playing her. I gave her a real quality. Except in the first week we were on. The director kept yelling, “Do it bigger!” After two weeks I went to the creative consultant and told him I’m just doing this my own way.
D: Did you ever get a script you just hated?
I: One time a scene was written for Delia in her bedroom on her heart-shaped bed. It was written that she would have a doll, and then she would start ripping the doll’s head off. I complained, I said, “Is (writer) Mary Munisteri’s psychiatrist out of town?” Even for Delia it was ugly. So they eventually changed it for me.
D: But Delia wasn’t cruel or malicious.
I: No. But she could do things that were counterproductive. She could go to any extreme to get what she wanted.
D: You seemed so real in that role. Did anyone ever confuse you with the character?
I: Oh yes. I was volunteering at the VA hospital at the time, in the mental ward. I had to get out of that job because they were too confused.
D: When SoapNet began rerunning Ryan’s Hope in 2000, what was the response?
I: Fantastic. A good friend saw that and said, “You have to be on TV again soon. Good work like that has to be rewarded.”
Tuesday: One Life to Live‘s Roxy
Damon L. Jacobs is a family and relationship therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of the newly published book, Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve. For more information, go to www.shouldless.com.