By Damon L. Jacobs
When I interviewed Melissa Claire Egan (Annie Novak Lavery on All My Children) on SoapNet’s “Rock the Soap Cruise,” all I kept thinking was, “courage.” This young woman has the courage to reach inside herself and expose the deepest parts of her soul every day in front of her audience and in front of her peers. She was even brave enough to stand up to the Soap Shrink and my issues with the portrayal of the psychiatric profession on her show! Please read on to learn how she brings curiosity, depth, and humor to the role we’ve all come to love.
D: It is such an honor to speak to you! A few months back, I wrote a column about Annie and what she has been going through over this past year. As a performer, what is it like for you to portray someone who is severely mentally ill?
M: It’s been humbling, it’s been exciting, it’s been challenging. As an actor it’s your ideal. It’s your dream to be able play something that is difficult or out there. Luckily the writers did a good job. They didn’t just suddenly make Annie go crazy. The way they did it they showed her loss — Ryan leaving her, Ryan falling in love with his ex-wife, Annie miscarrying. They showed her transition into this craziness, which was helpful for me. She slowly got worse and worse. She felt threatened by Greenlee and she felt many things until it
“I’ve learned to believe in myself as an actor. For any soap it’s such a hard job. My boyfriend will come home and say, ‘We did six pages today,’ and I’ll say, ‘WE DID FORTY!’ With soaps it’s really easy to be bad, but really hard to be good.”
came into full chaos where she’s stabbing people and showing up delusional and thinking a party is her wedding day. It’s been great to read a script and say, “How am I going to do this?” When I read that script with the wedding day dress I said, “Oh no — this can either be ridiculous and laughable or you can watch and say ‘Shoot, she’s messed up, I feel bad for her.’” A lot of the fan response has been them saying “She’s scary and I feel bad for her,” and that was what I wanted.
D: To stab Erica Kane and still have the fans on your side is pretty monumental.
M: I know! It’s been great, but luckily they wrote it so you saw the transition. You saw she’s lost, she’s hurt, she’s grabbing at anything she has left and this is where it ends up. She was so so confused, and it became this delusional state of her thinking it’s her and Ryan’s wedding. So it became sad, not laughable.
D: As a therapist who has worked with severely mentally ill clients similar to Annie, I have been so impressed with your interpretation of this character. I have to wonder …
M: … Do I have it? (laughs)
D: Well, I’ve wondered how you’ve known to make Annie so reality based. Everything down to her staccato speech inflections has been very accurate to me. How did you know to do that?
M: A lot of it was in the writing. I have to give them some credit. A lot of it was two words, period. Two words, period. So sticking to the writing was important because they had done their research. And then if you look at the texts, from what I studied, that does seem to be how somebody would communicate. Because your mind is not functioning fluidly, your thoughts are more spastic, and it comes out staccato. If you’re having a psychotic breakdown you don’t think fluidly. You don’t. Everything is kind of crazy and amped.
D: What kind of research did you do?
M: I certainly looked online and read. And I’ve known some people in the past that have had some issues and I know what they were like, their highs and lows. So you can learn stuff from books or online about what causes these things and about what people do and how they speak and how they feel. So you throw all that into a blender and there’s your end result. And you try to perform it the best you can and hope that you’re not letting down anybody. A lot of people have these issues, and you don’t want to exploit them. I felt this even when Annie had the miscarriage. I’ve never been pregnant, I’ve never had a miscarriage, so I was really careful in those scenes not to exploit those that have been through it. You don’t want it come across so people who have a miscarriage say, “That’s not it.” You never want to do that.
D: When you started on the show, did you have any idea that this was where Annie was going?
M: Not at all. When I started I did not know what I was doing. I was so green, I didn’t know what was going on. I was just so excited to have a job, I was excited to be working with people like David Canary and Susan Lucci and Michael Knight. I felt like, “I am not worthy.” So no, I didn’t know. She started off as Ryan’s love interest, that’s all I knew. But that’s the best part about daytime — you don’t know what turns your character is going to take. I was really grateful that Chuck Pratt and the writers took this turn for her and trusted me enough to be able to pull it off.
D: When Annie started going down the path she’s on now, did they spring that on you or was it discussed with you first?
M: They discussed it first. You get a story meeting with Julie Curruthers every once in a while. So you sit down so you’ll know what’s going on the next few months. She told me about it (Annie’s insanity) and then I started looking into it myself just to make sure I was portraying it correctly. So I read about it and tried to make it as genuine as I could. And, it’s on television five days a week. So some of it might have to be a little outlandish. Some of it may not be true to the specifics. Like there wouldn’t be a doctor who has a connection and a vendetta against you. I know that wouldn’t really happen.
D: Tell me what it was like for you to do the bloody wedding dress scene.
M: It was exciting, and it was also very challenging. I wondered to myself if I could really pull this off. You don’t know as an actor if you’ve never done it. You want to be able to give these scenes everything. Those scenes with the wedding dress were super important to me. They were so hard because I was working in front of all of my castmates who I admire so much. You’re in front of David (Canary), you’re in front of Vincent (Irrizary), in front of this icon Debbie (Morgan), and Darnell (Williams) and you just want to be good. You want your friends to think you’re good and that you’re worthy. I was nervous about that, and I was also nervous about the text. I thought, “I have to make sure this isn’t funny. I have to make sure people are shocked and saddened.” You’re also being put in a wedding dress with lipstick smeared all over you … it could become a joke. That was my concern. But then we got there and the cast was super supportive. Beth Ehlers, Ricky Paul Goldin, everyone was there, and they were being super quiet because they knew it was hard for me. All those factors made it so scary, but exciting, and I was really happy with the way it came out. Cameron (Mathison) would say, “Just stay with me.” He kept his eyes with me, he was so good and so helpful. He would say, “You’re doing great, you’re doing great.”
D: You seem so sensitive about not exploiting those coping with mental illness. But after Annie’s downfall she was hospitalized, exploited, and abused by her deranged treating psychiatrist. As a professional therapist I am still so offended by this portrayal of the mental health system. What did you think of it?
M: See, I get that. But the whole thing is the suspension of disbelief. On daytime they need the drama. So the way they did that was to use the amazing Mackenzie Westmore, who is incredible. For dramatic effect, they used her as being bad. Meanwhile, she’s the therapist, so she’s making therapists look bad. But I think anyone in their right minds knows (A): Therapists would never do that, they’re only there to help you, and (B): So much of that was not realistic. They had inmates locking their doors from the inside and walking in and out of each other’s rooms. It certainly did not mean to exploit therapists. It’s like when you see a bad cop. On a TV show, bad cops are there to add to the drama. They needed someone else to be against Annie, another uphill battle for her. They weren’t trying to say that’s how the world of therapy works at all because everyone knows it doesn’t. If the character of Dr. Sinclair had come along and said, “O.K. Annie, now you’re going to get better,” and every day she got better, you’d be f’n bored. It’s like Dr. David [Hayward], he’s the head of the hospital! Are all doctors nasty people who poison people and drug people? No, that’s not what they’re trying to do.
D: At least it showed that Annie was not in any way faking her symptoms, and that she is quite a survivor.
M: The truth of the matter is, a lot of people thought I was going to be killed off and fired. They thought, “Well you’ve done so many bad things.” I talked to Chuck (Pratt) and he said, “The main term in soap operas is ‘redeemable.’ Are you redeemable?” Unfortunately, Richie wasn’t. But for Annie they asked, “How do we make her redeemable?” And that way was to show she is not the bad guy. I don’t think they were trying to exploit your field, I think they were saying, “Let’s have another villain try to push her down.” And so Annie was no longer the bad guy, she was the hero, even though she’s done really bad things. It’s certainly no disrespect toward you or therapists.
D: What would you like to see happen for Annie now?
M: Part of me wants to say that I would like for Annie to get better, which I do. But it’s also fun playing her bad. So I hope she gets better because I’m ready for her to be out of the loony bin. I’m ready to work with all my friends again … I’m ready to be out of sweat pants. I’m ready to wear some frickin’ heels and wear some frickin’ make-up! I’m sick of no eyeliner! I miss the group scenes, I miss going to the weddings. I don’t want her to not be ill anymore. I want them keep that edge, and not to know what to expect next. I want her to be good, but not too good.
D: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to Missy Egan starting on All My Children three years ago?
M: I’d say, “Work hard, stay true to yourself.” My thing now is that if you need a minute, take a minute. When I started, before an intense scene, I would just go for it because there was also this pressure. I’ve learned a lot from Alicia (Minshew), I think she is fantastic. I saw her say, “Give me a minute, can you give me a minute?” I’d watch her take a minute to herself, and I realized, “Oh, we can ask for a minute.” You learn from different actors and their process. So now, I can say to them, “This is an intense scene, I have to be a hot mess in about two seconds, can you give me a minute?” That was cool to learn that from a co-star. Take a minute, then your performances are better. I remember trying to rush through a scene and my performance felt stoic. Now I say, “NO, I need to be crazy, I need to be bawling, give me a minute!”
D: It sounds like you’ve learned to believe in yourself a lot more.
M: Yes! I’ve learned to believe in myself as an actor. For any soap it’s such a hard job. My boyfriend will come home and say, “We did six pages today,” and I’ll say, “WE DID FORTY!” With soaps it’s really easy to be bad, but really hard to be good. So that’s why I admire my co-stars and the actors I meet because I know how hard it is to be good. It’s a lot of work, and you only get one take, maybe two if there’s a technical problem.
D: One take? All that work for one take?
M: Yes. My wedding with Cameron took place on a ranch in Long Island. They had bought me this beautiful dress, beautiful Jimmy Choo heels. I’ll never forget, I had this three page monologue of, “I love you Ryan …” and it was one take. It had rained the night before, and it was muddy. So I’m standing there saying my vows, and all of a sudden I feel myself sinking. So I went on the balls of my heels, trying to say my vows. We did the whole thing, they said “Cut,” and I said, “What, that’s it?” This was my wedding, my three page monologue, and I was sinking! I asked them, “You didn’t see my on the balls of my feet, you didn’t see me shaking?” And they said, “No, it’s fine, move on.” You have to be on your game from go time. If you want it to be good, you’ve got to get it on your first take.
D: What would you like to say to the Thinking Fans out there, especially the ones who read and commented on my column about Annie a few months ago?
M: I want to thank all of them. It’s very humbling for me, and I hope I make you proud. And it means a lot to me because you’re the smart people who know. We act like we know, we can act like doctors and therapists, but you’re the real deal. The fact that you know what we’re doing and know the disorders means a lot. Thank you for your support, and I hope I’m not doing you wrong. We’re doing the best we can, and I hope it makes them happy.
Damon L. Jacobs is a family and relationship therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve. He blogs regularly at www.shouldless.com.