Editor’s note: Cady McClain is an Emmy Award-winning actress and is best known for her roles on the soap operas “All My Children” and “As the World Turns.” She has also been featured in film, nighttime TV, and theater. She is currently working on a soap opera comic book, "Whispering Hearts."
When I think back on the years I spent working on soaps, the one word I think of is pressure.
Maybe it sounds ridiculous, but one of the main sources of pressure is the pressure to look good. Soaps are about beautiful people in extreme circumstances. If your eyes are swollen from allergies or if you have a big zit that day, you can bet you’re going to have at least one breakdown about it. I remember standing in the ladies room, looking in the mirror at myself, and saying, “Get a grip!” And my concern was not unreasonable: The first thing a producer will tell you (as they gently suggest you drop five pounds) is, “Honey, it’s a visual medium.”
The other source of pressure comes from the extremely short amount of time you have to memorize lines. While some actors have an uncanny ability for this, others (like myself) do not. Those of us without sponges for brains have to sit in our dressing rooms for hours going over and over the same lines, gripping our scripts as we walk on set only to drop them at the absolutely last minute.
Then there is the work itself. Acting on a soap opera is not for the faint of heart. Believe it or not, years of worrying about your face and body while tearing your hair out about your imaginary dead baby can take a toll on a person. I remember Kelly Ripa standing in the makeup room and telling me, “Not everyone can do this job!” And she was right. It takes a particular strength to act traumatic situations day after day.
Sometimes that strength can fail you and when you are pushed to your limit, you can break in funny ways. It’s a big part of being a soap opera actress -- surviving the job. While some actors (like Kelly) will mercilessly tell jokes right up until the countdown, others have illicit affairs, while still others may fall down the rabbit hole of drugs or alcohol. Hey, it’s not like we’re born nuts. Day after day of living out traumatic situations can stress out even the most balanced, most “normal” of actors.
That’s why it is like a kick in the stomach when people deride soaps and say, “Oh, I don’t watch soap operas,” as if they were some piece of old gum stuck on their shoe. There is some amazing acting work being done on these shows, and if people really knew how hard it was and how much the actors are up against, they might hold them in much higher esteem.
IMHO, soap opera actors are not respected enough because (in general) we do not respect the middle class in our country enough. We have a “thing” about being middle class, like it’s just not “cool” enough or something. Soap operas at their core are about normal, middle class people striving to have a better life. What they learn along the way is that their hometown is really where they want to be, and their family is whom they really want to be with.
I love this aspect of soaps. This is what made me get up at the ungodly hour of five o’clock in the morning, what made me feel like I was doing something important as an actor. The idea that who we are as people -- our normal lives, our basic concerns -- matters. That our simple needs, our basic values are in fact rich and deep and beautiful. Family matters. Love matters. Home matters.
An outsider might think that being on a soap opera is all about deciding what lip gloss to wear and getting to take home great shoes, but it isn’t. Sure, there are those little materialistic perks, and yes the paycheck can be quite lovely, but those reasons aren’t why I stayed year after year. I stayed on soaps because no one else in the entertainment industry did a better job of telling the story of what it means to be a normal American.
The Daytime Emmys are special to daytime actors because they recognize how amazing it is that moments of incredible depth and beauty can happen onscreen -- and it’s onscreen where the magic really happens. Although soaps are a combined effort of cast, crew, production and writing, it all comes together in that moment after they call “Action” and before they call “Cut.” That’s what is great about being a soap opera actor -- to be able to take all that combined effort and in a tense, focused moment, offer up something real and beautiful and truthful. That is not easy, and it sure as heck isn’t about lip gloss.