1997 Flashback: Nancy Lee Grahn Talks 'Santa Barbara', 'Melrose Place', and Getting a Contract on 'General Hospital'

Nancy Lee Grahn
Nancy Lee Grahn debuted in the role of Alexis Davis on General Hospital in 1996. In April 1997, Michael Logan spoke to the popular actress about the chances of General Hospital putting her on contract, and her then role of Denise on Melrose Place. You can read the complete interview below.

Michael Logan: So is it true General Hospital has finally offered you a contract?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Yes, we've been trying to work it out for a month now.

Michael Logan: So, like, what's the holdup?
Nancy Lee Grahn: These things take a long time. Plus, I've been distracted, what with Melrose, and I also have a bit of a love life now -- no, don't put that in.... Oh, never mind, I don't care. And I've been going out of town a lot. And there's a lot going on with GH, too, what with the launching of Port Charles. Contracts are a process. They always are.

Michael Logan: How can the writers be planning something for you if they don't know for certain that they have you?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Because we all know we're going to work this out, that's why. If I have anything to do with this -- and I do -- we will work this out.

Michael Logan: So does this mean they do have major plans for you?
Nancy Lee Grahn: I'm assuming so.

Michael Logan: You mean, you haven't asked?
Nancy Lee Grahn: No, I haven't. So far, faith has worked very well for me. I just believe that everything is going to be good. Things have always worked that way.

Michael Logan: Don't you think it's kind of weird that the public knows all about your noncontract situation? It's been written up in all the magazines. The fans are clamoring for you to get one -- in fact, they're writing to [executive producer] Wendy Riche demanding it. I constantly get asked about it online. This stuff never used to see print in the old days.
Nancy Lee Grahn: I find it so completely, totally odd. I feel two ways about it: On one hand, I feel that my privacy is being a little violated, but on the other hand I think, "Isn't it great to have all these agents out there?" And, quite frankly, they were more useful than my real agent.

Michael Logan: Do you think all this interest and concern had an influence on Wendy finally offering you one?
Nancy Lee Grahn: I believe that Wendy's objective is to please the fans. I truly believe that. But I also believe Wendy doesn't do something unless Wendy really wants to do it. So, yes and no.

Michael Logan: So now that you've shot all eight of your Melrose episodes, sum up the experience.
Nancy Lee Grahn: Well, I finally got the knack of working in film on the very last day I shot.

Michael Logan: But you've done tons of guest shots!
Nancy Lee Grahn: But you have to do them with consistency or you don't ever get comfortable. It's like that on a daytime soap, too: It took me six months to get comfortable on Santa Barbara -- and daytime is so much easier because it's in a controlled environment. Filmed shows like Melrose are totally different. You're trying to get into an emotional place, and they have to cut because there was a plane, they cut again because there's a helicopter, they cut again because a car drove by, we cut again because the camera missed the shot. It's all so technical.

Michael Logan: And you get such little screen time in return for all that. I mean, you've had like 2.5 scenes an episode! You actors have it so much better on daytime.
Nancy Lee Grahn: All along I've said that! Nobody's part on Melrose is that big. Doug Savant has very little to do and he's a regular, you know? It's a very big ensemble.

Michael Logan:Then why an eight-week run? Why not condense your scenes into a shorter, punchier story arc like they do on N.Y.P.D. Blue? Or will the answer to that be obvious as the episodes play out?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Yes, that will make sense. It all turns into a court battle. But I thought there would be more. It was a big deal to get the part. They saw a lot of people.

Michael Logan: Like who?
Nancy Lee Grahn: When I walked in for my audition I saw Elle MacPherson. I don't know who else.

Michael Logan: Do you know for a fact that you won't be back next season?
Nancy Lee Grahn: No, I don't know that. I was contracted for eight shows, which will take me through the season finale -- but they didn't kill me off. As Aaron Spelling has said, "If you haven't blown up on one of my shows, there's a chance you can come back." I think he said that in People.

Michael Logan: "Blown up"? How do you know that he wasn't referring to weight? You know, like the Hunter Tylo situation?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Very funny. All I know is that Denise leaves town. She doesn't die.

Michael Logan: Actresses seem to like themselves better on film. Do you find it more flattering than video?
Nancy Lee Grahn: No.

Michael Logan: I'm not surprised you think that. You look incredible on GH. Everybody does. To digress, I can't believe GH did not get an Emmy nomination for lighting.
Nancy Lee Grahn: Neither can I. They have the best lighting I've ever seen on a soap.

Michael Logan: So what's with the That Girl flip they gave you on Melrose?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Oh, you just sort of let them do what they're gonna do.

Michael Logan: Even when they want to make you look like Marlo Thomas?
Nancy Lee Grahn: I thought I looked more like Florence Henderson. But same era. By the last episode, I finally said, "Look, just blow it straight, will you?" And they did. I know what looks good on me, but I need to be more assertive.

Michael Logan: Doesn't that often get mistaken for bitchiness?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Yes, it does, but I don't really care -- it's my head up there on TV. The hairstylists on Melrose are really good, actually. I just don't know what that flippy s--- was. In film, especially when you're on location, there's usually so much going on, you have no idea what you look like. On video, there's always a monitor nearby. I can see what's going on.

Michael Logan: As many years as I've known you, I never remember to ask you this question: Did you secretly resent having to share your Emmy with Debbi Morgan? It was the only acting tie in Daytime Emmy history.
Nancy Lee Grahn: Not at all. She's fantastic. It was a very competitive year -- Jane Elliot, Arlene Sorkin, Robin Mattson, me and Debbi.

Michael Logan: By the way, why did you put yourself in the supporting category? You were not a supporting actress on SB. Did Marcy make you do it?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Why are Jackie Zeman and Vanessa Marcil in supporting this year? Because Genie Francis is the star of GH. On Santa Barbara, my feeling was that if my picture gets taken off the wall in order to put up a picture of Marcy [Walker] and A [Martinez] -- which is exactly what happened -- then they were the leads.

Michael Logan: Now this interview is gettin' good!
Nancy Lee Grahn: And I say what I say with great love for them. Lane and I were Beatrice and Benedict -- supporting characters! Those are always the most interesting parts anyway, even if they don't put our pictures on the wall.

Michael Logan:Speaking of Lane, it's no secret you two had your tiffs -- yet the on-camera chemistry was beyond compare. Talk to me about this. How can actors take backstage hell and turn it into onscreen heaven?
Nancy Lee Grahn: That didn't have a lot to do with Lane and me. Mason and Julia were so well developed and defined -- which had to do with everybody's contributions -- that the characters just functioned on their own. Lane and I knew how to act, so our differences didn't matter. The last eight months of Lane's run, he and I were not speaking. We would literally not speak to each other until we were on the set and they'd yell, "Five-four-three-two-one!" When he acted like a pissy little s--- (and you can write that because he did and [laughing] he'd probably say the same thing about me), I would use it because Mason, at times, was also a pissy little s---. You just find a way to use these things to your advantage.

Michael Logan:And Lane was doing the same?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Absolutely.

Michael Logan:OK, let's get to GH. Lots of flirty stuff happening with you and Wally Kurth -- is it safe to say they're going to put Alexis and Ned together?
Nancy Lee Grahn: I don't know. I also have pages and pages coming up with Tony Geary. When Patrick Mulcahey and Michelle Val Jean write those scenes they're just so much fun.

Michael Logan:Well, they're not gonna get into a romance with you and Tony. He's on the record as saying Luke can flirt, but he'll never have a romance with another woman. Even if they write it, he won't play it.
Nancy Lee Grahn: That's OK, too. Unconsummated sexual energy can be very interesting. There's so much more to play than romance when you have those negative and positive ions flinging back and forth. The thing I like about Luke and Alexis is that they are enemies, there's conflict already set up, they hate each other! That is always the best way to start a relationship. There is no drama without conflict.

Michael Logan: What about Wally?
Nancy Lee Grahn: I love Wally. I think he's adorable.

Michael Logan: But is he staying?
Nancy Lee Grahn: I don't know that he even knows.

Michael Logan: It's so easy to bitch and moan about the writing on GH lately, but I do feel sorry for anybody writing under circumstances where they don't know if they've got a star or not. So many actors on GH have kept things hanging. How the hell do you write for two different eventualities?
Nancy Lee Grahn: You just write it. Besides, Wally's contract isn't up until August. There's time to do something.

Michael Logan: Plus, they could always recast.
Nancy Lee Grahn: Oh, I don't know... people love Wally.

Michael Logan: Yeah, but he was himself a recast. Soaps can't keep crumbling under the weight of actor departures. Sometimes you have to keep the character going no matter what. Besides, if Ned goes, who else could they put you with romantically?
Nancy Lee Grahn: That's the problem. I don't know.

Michael Logan: How about the young ones -- A.J. or Jason? Or their daddy, Alan?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Hmmm....

Michael Logan: Does it interest or concern you that you're going to be given a teenage daughter on the show?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Yeah, it concerns me, quite frankly! [Laughing.] How can I possibly have a teenage daughter when I'm so young? No, really, I don't want to turn into a TV mom. I think being a mom in real life is great; being one on TV is problematic. I want to stay sassy and interesting.

Michael Logan: You've always appealed to a smart brand of soap fan, people who are desperate to see intelligent women on daytime. Why do you connect so strongly with the audience on this level?
Nancy Lee Grahn: They respond to me because I respond to that same kind of woman myself. When we watch TV, we want to see a representation of what we are, what we want to be. We want intelligent, successful, classy role models. When considering playing a character, I ask myself this question: If I had a daughter, would I want her to watch this character? Would she look at her and say, "She's cool"? And, most importantly, would she want to grow up and be like her? There are a lot of intelligent people watching daytime drama. The people that make the soaps talk down to the audience so much, they act as if they're just a bunch of yokels who have no life. Not only does it insult the people watching, it insults me because I used to be a big soap viewer. It insults my mother who still watches them. We are bright women. There are a lot of us out there who want someone onscreen they can relate to.

Michael Logan: Well, answer this: Why do we see so few examples of this kind of strong, smart woman on daytime, when the shows are run by women? There's a female president heading the daytime divisions at all three networks. The network programmers are virtually all women, as are at least half the executive producers and many of the head writers.
Nancy Lee Grahn: Well, aren't there a few bright women characters? You see so much more than I do.

Michael Logan:Well, yeah, but there are so many more who are victims and doormats. So many are women whose entire identity is wrapped up in the man they are obsessed with. Sure, there are exceptions: There's you, there's Hillary Smith as Nora -- the list is really pretty short. Just try finding one on Days of Our Lives or a Bill Bell show. That's why people respond to you the way they do -- because the kind of person you play is so damn rare.
Nancy Lee Grahn: Can I tell you something, though? That's a personal choice that the actor makes. I could easily be playing Alexis like a lackey, because that's sort of the way she was initially written. I could easily be letting Stefan lead her around by her nose. I have no interest in playing a woman without a backbone. I get bored. The audience gets bored. It serves no purpose.

Michael Logan: And the point would be?
Nancy Lee Grahn: Um... if there was a point....

Michael Logan: And the point would be?
Nancy Lee Grahn: I don't know. I can't offhand think of one. Maybe if the point was that there is no point to being a useless bimbo. Or that there are repercussions to being a useless bimbo.

Michael Logan: Would you play one if the paycheck was phenomenal?
Nancy Lee Grahn: No, even that would bug me. I don't want to play a part without consequence. Humor is also really important to me and you don't get to have any of that if you're not playing a smart role. I like language! I like to use big words that roll trippingly off the tongue! These dialogue writers on GH are bright people. And they prefer, I think, to write for someone who speaks more like they do. Maybe sometimes it doesn't seem this way, but there are still a lot of us working in daytime who resist stupidity with every fiber of our bodies.

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