In 1971, Erika Slezak auditioned for the role of Nurse Mary Kennicott on All My Children. She didn't get the role. However, ABC liked the elegant young actress with the Royal Academy of Drama pedigree and Hollywood lineage. Instead of letting Ms. Slezak move on, she was offered the role of Victoria Lord on One Life to Live. Little did she -- or ABC -- know that it was a match made in heaven. It was the perfect marriage of actor and role, and it's a love affair that continues -- no, thrives -- to this day.
Plainly put, Erika Slezak is the preeminent actress of daytime, the Meryl Streep of soapdom. She is a consummate professional and a performer with the ability to reach out to viewers and bring them into her world. It's a gift that few have been able to match in this genre, and she owns a record-setting six Daytime Emmys in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in A Drama Series for her enduring excellence.
Knowing all this, and having been watching her year in and year out since I was a teenager, interviewing Erika Slezak was something special. I was excited to speak with her, energized by her thoughtful responses, and impressed because she lived up to every one of my expectations.
Here in Part One of the Soap Central exclusive interview with Erika Slezak, we talk about her upcoming appearance at the ABC-SOAPnet Super Soap Weekend. It's the last time fans will have a chance to experience the Super Soap Weekend. After this year, a new innovation called Soap Nation will be launched. So, if you have always wanted to get close to the ABC soap stars -- and have some fun at Disney World -- make your plans to come to the Super Soap Weekend, November 15th and 16th at Disney's Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. In Part Two, Erika shares stories about her father, her feelings about acting, and what she does for fun.
Soap Central: What made you decide to attend this year's Super Soap Weekend?
Erika Slezak: I have gone a few times. I was there for the 10th Super Soap Weekend. This will be my fourth time. I have never really been comfortable in large crowd situations, but I have found it such a warm and friendly atmosphere there. Everybody is so kind and happy and it's in warm weather, it's a really nice experience. So I agreed to go, and this will be the last one, which I'm surprised at, but I'm going again and I must say, I have enjoyed them enormously. The people that you meet are so remarkably kind and warm and they say such nice things. I'm just stunned that people would line up for hours just to shake my hand. I found that very humbling, and they're all delightful and the variety of people-you know, from kids to seniors in wheelchairs. I just think it's wonderful.
Soap Central: Do you agree that it's events like Super Soap that illustrate how generational soap viewing is, that it really goes through families?
Erika Slezak: Yes, it does. So many of them say they started watching with their grandmothers or their aunt or their mother or the housekeeper, but they stick with it then.
Soap Central: It seems that TV executives don't get that about soap fans, how loyal they are. They can say they haven't watched a show for two years, but they'll come back to it.
Erika Slezak: I think you're absolutely right, and I don't want to criticize the executives because I know where they're coming from. They're worried about money. But at the same time, they do not understand the value of keeping the characters, keeping the loyalty of the viewers. When they get rid of certain older characters, and I'm not talking about myself, I'm talking about on other shows where they have gotten rid of certain older characters…I'm shocked because these are the people audiences have watched for 30 or 40 years. They're going to be upset. But the executives have to make their decisions and they don't make them from an artistic point of view. They make them from a practical point of view.
Soap Central: It's all about ratings and demographics and all these media buzz words these days.
Erika Slezak: Yes, and they live and die on these focus groups. And, yes, you can get 25 people in a room to say, 'Yes, I hate this person and that person,' but I don't think that represents the entire viewing audience. It's very skewed because those are people, number one, who want to come and talk. They are willing to come and talk. And they are paid to come and talk. This is not an audience that is completely impartial.
Soap Central: Do you ever wish you could do something over or do something different as an actress, or are you pleased?
Erika Slezak: Oh no, every day I wish I could re-shoot all of that because I have a better idea. The biggest problem with daytime, and anybody who's ever been in daytime will tell you this, is the speed with which we work, especially now. There is no time for rehearsal so you really are flying by the seat of your pants all the time, and when they give you really good, gutsy material, wonderful stuff to play, that's when you say, "Gosh, I wish I had four weeks of rehearsal to work with the director." If you were on a film, they would work with you like that. If you were in a play, you'd be working on it forever. In daytime, we have no time. That's the shame of it. A couple of weeks ago, I had some fabulous material and I talked to the director at length about it, and I said, "I wish we had four weeks of rehearsal to do it justice because this is really good stuff," but this is what we do. That's why a lot of people simply can't do daytime. They can't believe how quickly we work and they can't do it.
Soap Central: Is that a reason why actors like you and Bob Woods know your characters and are self-directing better than someone who's coming in from the outside?
Erika Slezak: Oh, totally. We've been doing it for a very long time. We know these characters very well. When we say, "My character wouldn't do that," that's kind of extreme because they are fictional characters and they can do anything, but it does have to be within reason. The responses and the emotional responses, yes, that's totally within our control. They have to be because we know these people.
Soap Central: In 2007, you spoke out about then-head writer Dena Hegley…
Erika Slezak: I'm sorry about that. I said it in a confidential situation for my fan club. They have been there for me since my second year on the show, run by my fan club president, Walter Miller. We had always done a newsletter and it was printed and sent out. I don't go on the Internet. I pay my bill on a computer and that's about it. He told me that he was putting the newsletter on the Internet and I said, "Okay, fine." I think Dena is a very nice woman, and I admire her enormously for what she does. She's adopted two wonderful children, and she has two of her own. She's trying to do everything, and I just felt she was not doing the show a good service.
Soap Central: In what ways?
Erika Slezak: She had changed so much of it. She was bringing in characters that came out of nowhere and telling stories that had nothing to do with the history of the show. She was doing these kinds of disaster shows. We went from a train wreck to a fire to a plane crash, things that had nothing to do with what daytime is all about. It's about relationships. It's not about a crash. If you have a crash, there has to be long-reaching effects. You know, what happens because of the crash? You just don't move on to the next disaster.
Soap Central: Yes, I agree.
Erika Slezak: Well, I gave this interview to Walter and he printed it on the Internet. Well, I had no idea what was going to happen. Instead of 300 newsletters going out to 300 people, or however many people there are, now the whole world had access to it. I had no idea it was going to blow up like that. I am sorry because I would never have said some of those things in public had I known it was going to go out that far. In a sense, I'm not sorry. I'm sorry that I did it that way because I didn't want to hurt her, but I did say what I felt. It's not that I dislike her, but she was not telling stories the way she should about our show. I understand that when head writers come in they want to change things around, they want to make it their show, but you can't do that drastically. You can't dismiss 30-40 years of history. Dena tried to do that and it didn't work.
Soap Central: The fans embrace the history of the show…
Erika Slezak: That's why people watch. That's another thing. New head writers don't usually know the history of the show and they write things that make you go, "Hello?" I saw something in a script the other day that said Viki, Nora, and Clint are all drinking alcohol and Charlie is there and he can't. I thought, 'Don't you people watch this show?' Viki had a heart transplant and she cannot drink alcohol. It's not always their fault. They can't know everything. But that's why Ron Carlivati is so good. He's watched the show for something like 25 years and he is totally devoted to the history of the show, so he has tried to continue the history, and yet incorporate it and bring it up to date by using the characters that are existing and bring in slowly new characters.
Soap Central: What do the fans not know about Erika Slezak that they should know?
Erika Slezak: That I'm an incredibly normal person. I'm about as normal as anyone out there. I get up in the morning and I do the same things that everybody else does. I just have a job that's a little more high profile. That's all. And thank God for it. My husband keeps me very grounded. We're normal people.
CONTINUE TO PART TWOErika talks about her famous dad and her co-stars in Part Two of our interview.