For the last ten years, popular actress Crystal Chappell has amassed a loyal fan following in her Emmy-winning role as the feisty anti-heroine Olivia Spencer on the daytime drama, Guiding Light. Earlier this year, her popularity shot to new heights as Olivia became one half of the same-sex soap couple that fans have referred to as "Otalia," the portmanteau name for the characters of Olivia and Natalia (played by actress Jessica Leccia).
However, earlier this year, CBS announced that it would be canceling Guiding Light due to low ratings, ending this long-running drama after 72 years on the air in both radio and television. A few months after the April 1 announcement by CBS, Ms. Chappell released word that she would be moving to the west coast to reprise her first breakout role, that of Carly Manning (aka Katerina von Leuschner) on the serial Days of Our Lives, beginning in early October.
2009 has definitely been a year of changes and transitions for Ms. Chappell: an old job ending, a new job beginning, a new home, and a new venture. In addition to returning to Days of Our Lives, Crystal has teamed up with her friends/production partners to create Venice: The Series, a new online serial drama that is currently in its formative stages, but which has already attracted mainstream notice and press ranging from The New York Times to, well, us.
Last week, we spoke with Crystal Chappell about all of the above and more. In this first chapter of our special serialized interview, we discuss her time on Guiding Light and her role as the multi-faceted Olivia Spencer. In future installments of this interview series, we'll talk about her feelings about being back on Days of Our Lives and working once again with her real-life husband, Michael Sabatino. We'll also go in-depth to bring you all the scoop on her upcoming buzzworthy project, Venice: The Series.
Our thanks to Crystal Chappell for speaking with us and to Cathie and the gang over at ccandfriends.com, and Crystal's publicist, Leslie Penny, for making this all happen.
US Townhall: As an actress, what types of roles do you find yourself attracted to? By the same token, what types of roles or stories do you NOT like to play?
CRYSTAL CHAPPELL: I try to find characters that challenge me -- that force me to go to unfamiliar places. Playing characters that are safe are not very interesting to me.
USTH: Which actors and directors in primetime or film are on your wish list to work with in the future? Put it out there in the Universe, and it may just come to pass.
CC: I love Deniro and Streep, and I would love to work with Martin Scorcese.
USTH: Describe the audition process for Olivia on Guiding Light (GL). What were you told about the role, and how long was the role supposed to last? Which actors did you read with?
CC: I auditioned for [Guiding Light Executive Producer] Paul Rauch and [Procter & Gamble Executive in Charge of Production] Mary Alice ("Mickey") Dwyer-Dobbin and never read with any actors. The role was supposed to be for 3 months and the character was supposed to be killed off. Fortunately for me, she lived.
USTH: Your role on GL has been the longest-running character of your career thus far. However, was there any story you wished they had given Olivia that you did not get to play?
CC: I always wanted to play the alcoholism storyline and the split personality -- the classic soap stories.
USTH: Which actors or actresses on GL did you NOT really get to play opposite with extensively that you wished you could have?
CC: Oh let me see, didn’t I get to work with everybody? I feel like I worked with everybody, but it would be nice to have worked more with Jordan Clarke ["Billy Lewis"] and Orlagh Cassidy ["Doris Wolfe"].
USTH: Olivia has had a, shall we say, busy social life. In fact, there was a time when it seemed as though she treated the Springfield phone book as her personal “to do” list. Speaking as Crystal now, who would you say was the best kisser of all your different leading men: Robert Newman, Ron Raines, Grant Aleksander, Daniel Cosgrove, Justin Deas, Frank Dicopoulos, Bradley Cole, or Ricky Paull Goldin?
CC: Oh God, is it that many men? Well, look, each one has his own style and unique technique. I can’t say a bad word about any of those lips.
USTH: Regarding your storyline with the Jeffrey O’Neill character: some fans to this day feel that Jeffrey raped Olivia as a teenager. What is your take on the situation? Did you feel that it was properly addressed in-script in terms of making the audience understand that it was not rape? Or do you yourself feel that it WAS rape and that the writers never satisfactorily resolved Olivia’s anger toward Jeffrey?
CC: I think it is an unresolved story. I see both perspectives. I was always told that it was a rape, and then they quickly went back to tone it down. It is one of those “we will know" situations.
USTH: Do the writers or producers pitch a story to you before it’s written into the scripts? If so, when was the Otalia story originally pitched to you? How far in advance did you know about it before there was any evidence of it on screen?
CC: No, producers don’t usually pitch to the actors, but the Otalia story was because Ellen wanted to make sure that Jess and I were comfortable. I knew about it for maybe 9 months before it was visible on camera.
USTH: When the Otalia story was pitched to you (or when you first read it in the script), what was your initial reaction? Did you take to it right away?
CC: I was thrilled because it was something new, different and exciting for me as an actress.
USTH: Did you feel that the Otalia story made sense to you within the context of your understanding of who Olivia was?
CC: Yes the story made sense to me. Olivia has always been looking for love. She just happened to find it with a woman.
USTH: What was your internal process or justification to get from point A to point B to point C in terms of going from practically hating this woman to liking her to falling in love with a woman?
CC: It is a gradual thing over a decade. It’s all about the writing.
USTH: Before you read the scenes on the page, did you ever worry that it might not work in terms of making it believable that Olivia could fall in love with a woman – especially a woman that she hated?
CC: Well, no. I mean first of all, great soap love stories usually start with the 2 people hating each other, but no there was never an issue for me that Olivia would or could fall in love with a woman.
Above: The Olivia-Natalia confession scene at Gus's gravesite, April 2009. Clip from the YouTube page of emalinourie. Material © Procter & Gamble / TeleNext, 2009
USTH: We all know that Olivia and Natalia are the endgame on GL, but are there any other relationships – either romantic, friendship, or rivalry – that Olivia has had that you felt were unfinished? If so, which characters would you have liked to see Olivia explore more story with?
CC: Oh if anything, I would have like to have seen the Jeffrey storyline clarified.
USTH: The Otalia story on Guiding Light was very popular, but they didn’t show much physical affection between the two. What were you told behind the scenes regarding what would and what would not be shown? Also, where along the production line did this decision come from? Ellen Wheeler? P&G? CBS?
CC: I was told there would be a physical relationship and I asked and was told yes. This was in January 08, and I don’t know where the decision came from.
USTH: After GL ended and you were told that Olivia and Natalia would not be moving to As the World Turns, did it become a certainty that you wanted to move out to LA or was there interest in your staying in NYC to seek out other acting opportunities there?
CC: Well no, I have real estate out in California and so it only made sense to move out west and in terms in work, there is more out here. It’s a no-brainer.
USTH: If GL were picked up as a cable series, would you have gone along or were you going to leave GL at the end of the CBS run no matter what?
CC: No, there were a few of us like Grant [Aleksander, "Phillip Spaulding"], Tina [Sloan, "Lillian Raines"] and others that talked about working for very little so we could take GL to the Internet. But it was a no-go. Of course a lot of us would have stayed on and worked for a lot less to make it happen.
USTH: Your return to Days of Our Lives was announced months before GL’s end date. Were you ever specifically told that GL would not be picked up by another network? If so, when? If not, did you seek out another gig because you didn’t feel that GL had a real shot at getting picked up?
CC: Initially, I thought that GL had a home. I heard all the rumors like everyone else. But then, sometime in May, we were told that there was a less than 1% chance that it would go someplace else. So then I started looking for another job.
USTH: Regarding Guiding Light in general, what are your thoughts as to why the show was canceled? Why do you think the audience left?
CC: Well, obviously the show was canceled because production companies are looking for less expensive shows. I don’t know why the audience left daytime.
USTH: In general, what are your thoughts about the long-term viability of daytime dramas? Many pundits feel that within ten years, there will be no soaps on network television at all. Do you agree with this? What can be done to reverse the flagging fortunes of the network soap opera?
CC: Good question. I think that it’s possible to have soap operas around for a long time if they majorly cut their costs. It comes down to money and we have to figure out a way to tell story for a let less money.
USTH: Regarding the Daytime Emmy’s tribute to Guiding Light, you and the rest of the cast looked great, and I’m sure you all appreciated the standing ovation from your peers, but did the home audience get to see the entire tribute as originally planned or was it cut for time?
CC: It was cut for time. It was originally four-and-a-half minutes and it ended up being cut to one-and-a-half minutes.
USTH: What did you feel about the seemingly short shrift given to the show at the Emmys? Sesame Street had a longer tribute.
CC: I believe that Sesame Street deserved the time they got and that we deserved more time.
USTH: On GL, who would you say were your closest friends off-set were?
CC: Honestly, they all are. I am not exaggerating. I get along with each and every one of them and I will be a part of their lives whether they like it or not.
USTH: Do you have any interesting or amusing anecdotes to share regarding your time on GL either with the actors or just getting the show done in general?
CC: You know, we all wished we could have a camera behind the scenes, because that’s where the funniest things happened. We all agreed that you had to have a really quick, sharp sense of humor to work there.
USTH: Looking back on your ten-year stint on the show in summary, what thoughts and emotions come to mind as the final episodes of this long-running series begin to air?
CC: I am sad but grateful that I got to be a part of it for as long as I did.
Remember to keep checking back regularly for the next installments of this interview series with Crystal Chappell. You can read what others thought about this interview or post your own comment at our messageboard.