Interview Date: 09/20/2010
Run Date: 09/22/2010
Soap opera devotees may know actress Carolyn Hennesy best for playing Diane Miller, her long-running role on the even longer-running daytime drama, “General Hospital.” Those who spend more of their viewing hours in prime time, however, are more likely to recognize her as Barb from “Cougar Town,” the saucy redhead who has a tendency to pop up, deliver a deliciously naughty one-liner with perfect comedic timing, then disappear ‘til the next episode, at which point the cycle begins anew.Bullz-Eye had the chance to chat with Hennesy about her work on “Cougar Town,” including her disappointment that the show has stepped away from its more cougar-esque aspects (now that Jules and Grayson are an item, Barb’s the only cougar who’s currently on the prowl) and her thoughts on exploring Barb’s back story, then touched on her daytime gig, her new soap-themed book, and her ongoing series of “Pandora” novels.
Carolyn Hennesy: Hello, Will! Good morning!
Bullz-Eye: Hello, Carolyn, and good morning to you, too. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
CH: You, too!
BE: Well, first of all, let me say that I’ve been a fan of “Cougar Town” from the beginning. I live in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, and (series creator) Bill Lawrence went to The College of William & Mary, so he and I talk with some regularity.
CH: Well, you know, Bill Lawrence is actually related to Sarah Lawrence…you know, the Sarah Lawrence, of the college…so I actually thought he’d gone there. I would have. (Laughs) But William and Mary, you say…? I didn’t know that. Well, he’s a very Ivy League man. Really, he has a brain the size of Texas.
BE: Or certainly Virginia, anyway.
CH: There you go!
BE: Well, I know he’s a fan of your work. The first time I talked to him about “Cougar Town,” he called you out specifically, describing you as “fantastically funny,” talking about how you pop in, get one of the biggest laughs in the episode, and pop out again.
CH: Well, yes. I’d like to do more popping. (Laughs) But that’s just me. I’ll take any pop I can, even it’s only one or two times an episode, because they simply know how to write comedy gold for Barb. The whole show is fabulously written. It’s very subtle, very nuanced…and then there’s Barb. And I think…I really think the writers probably have a tremendous amount of fun with Barb, because Barb gets to say the things that would get anybody else on the show committed. Or arrested! But with her, here’s the open gate. Here’s a little bit of liberty calling.
BE: Plus, you have the advantage now of being pretty much the only true cougar on the show.
CH: Well, I’ll take it! (Laughs) If it keeps me employed, I’ll take it! Absolutely! I don’t know, I have mixed feelings about that. It’s kind of a shame, because I think Courtney’s adventures in Cougar Land could’ve been just hilarious. But, you know, they chose en masse to go a different way, and it’s a real pretty couple, Jules and Grayson. They’re a gorgeous couple, so who doesn’t want to look at that? But I personally would’ve loved for Barb to have been Courtney’s wicked but delightful and evil guide through the world of Cougar-dom. But we’ll see. Listen, it may come back around again. I would like to see them explore Barb’s back story a little bit more.
BE: I was actually going to ask you if there’d been any talk of that.
CH: Not that I’ve heard. I’m not in on those discussions, though. I get the scripts, I look at my very, very funny lines, and then I say them. (Laughs) And then I go home! But I’ll go into the writer’s room. I’ll make suggestions. I’ll say, “Hey, put Barb up on a trapeze! Put Barb at a cougar convention!” Or whatever. I haven’t done that yet, but I may actually do that this year. I may take my life into my hands and walk into the writer’s room and say, “More Barb!” (Laughs) Or not.
BE: Do you have visions of what Barb’s past consists of? Have you written it out in your head?
CH: Well, we know that she’s a grandmother. We do know that. I see anything from being very repressed – I mean, impossibly Amish – to the other end of the spectrum, where she was raised by circus folk, or she was raised like Mama Rose raised Gypsy Rose Lee, a no-holds-barred situation. Maybe she was raised in a swamp. Or the back woods. Maybe it was a very hippie-esque existence, with a lot of free love. And then she decided that she had a mind for math, went to Bryn-Mawr. Barb’s world is literally all up for grabs. But I love the fact that she has grandkids, and I think it would be hilarious to see not just Barb’s kids but Barb dealing with the grandkids, maybe explaining the sex toys lying around her den to her grandkids that have made a surprise visit.
BE: Clearly, there’s a storyline to be had with some random female character turning up on the show, and we later find out that she’s actually Barb’s daughter.
CH: Yes, exactly. And Barb hasn’t seen her for so long that she’s forgotten that the handsome man on this young girl’s arm is actually her son-in-law, and Barb is trying to make a play. (Laughs)
BE: So, basically, we’ve already written an episode for Bill.
CH: (Laughs) We have! And they trot out a little boy, and Barb says, “I’m sorry, but he’s just too young.” And she says, “This is your grandson, Barb.” “Oh! Oh, my!” (Laughs) See, this is the joy, the fun, the wonder, the great gift of being an actor, something which you simply cannot do anywhere else without being looked at and then locked up!
BE: So how did you find your way into the “Cougar Town” mix in the first place?
CH: It was literally one audition. And that sort of thing never really happens, especially not when they have plans for a character the way they ostensibly had plans for Barb. Barb was going to be heavy in the pilot and then a possible guest star. But with this show, with this pedigree and this cast, I was expecting to have to go in, maybe have to test, certainly a callback, and to have them try to determine exactly what the best fit was. But I walked into the production offices and there were about 12 other girls, and I thought, “Oh, okay, all right: a nice afternoon sitting and chatting with some friends, I’ll go in and say the lines, and maybe I’ll get it and maybe I won’t.” And I walked in, did what I needed to do, and I think it was only maybe a day later that they called and said, “You’re it!” It was a gift. You never get away with something like that without even so much as a callback. They almost always want to see you again. But Bill Lawrence…I guess he’s been doing this long enough that he knows what he wants when he sees it.
BE: So, now, who in the cast have you not gotten to interact with?
CH: I’ve had very little with Ian Gomez. Very, very little with Bobby (Brian Van Holt). I think that’s it. And I rarely get to work with the guest stars. I didn’t get to work with Beverly D’Angelo. I met Lisa Kudrow – she and I knew each other from The Groundlings – and she was in the same scene as I was, although we weren’t in it together. But as far as the regular players, I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with Ian or Bobby. I’d like to work with Busy Philips a little bit more. I’d like to interact with all of them. Christa is so freaking dry and so freaking funny that it makes your head spin. All of them are, really. I still think Barb should just take Travis down. (Laughs) I really think that should happen.
BE: I would think you would have many lessons to impart upon Busy.
CH: (Laughs) Well, I don’t know about that! Laurie could probably teach Barb how to be a little bit more street, how to really dig her nails in and fight with her claws bared. But Barb could probably teach Laurie a little of the finesse, a few more witticisms, a few more bon mots, a few more sneaky, shady ways. Laurie is very out there. Barb is also very out there, but she knows when to take it down to a different level. (Laughs)
BE: So given that you’re not in the show a great deal per episode, were you immediately aware of the shift in the tone of the series, as far as the direction they were heading?
CH: I was, because I would get the scripts and read them, so I kind of knew what was going on. And we’d have the table reads, of course. With the Cul de Sac Crew, I think they call them, when Jules started making eyes at Grayson, I thought, “Well, I hope I’m still on this show…” (Laughs) Because I figured that was the end of Barb imparting any great cougar lessons unto Courtney’s character. But, hey, listen, Barb could go open a school for cougars. Barb could go open a nightclub. Heck, Barb could go to work for Jules! Barb gets fired from her own realty office for some sort of sexual misconduct and has to go work for Jules. Watching Jules make Barb try to tow the line…I think that could be very funny!
BE: So if you were in the real world, do you think you’d be more successful as a realtor or as an attorney, since that’s what you play on “General Hospital”?
CH: Oh, man… (Laughs) I’d probably be more passionate as an attorney, but I’d be more successful as a realtor. I see things, I look around at upcoming court cases in the headlines, and I go, “Well, that’s just stupid! They should’ve lynched them! That’s ridiculous? What do you mean they’re just going to get probation?” I would be very, very passionate and very hard-nosed, and…there would be a lot of death. (Laughs) People would not get away with anything. See, this is where I should be a judge. People would not get away with one-tenth of the crap that they get away with now. As a lawyer, I’d be very passionate, but I’m sure I’d be very frustrated.
BE: Well, since I’ve brought up “General Hospital,” let me go ahead and ask you about your work on the show. First of all, you’ve recently had the chance to work with Adrienne Barbeau.
CH: I know! I mean, “Maude,” “Swamp Thing”…I was just, like, “Yay!” First of all, I think Adrienne Barbeau still has the most beautiful smile of anyone I’ve ever seen on the planet. She lights up. And her skin is the color of a cocoa bean. She’s just all over this gorgeous, gorgeous tan. And she smiles, and it literally blinds you. But she’s lovely. She’s really getting into the way that soaps work, in that it’s huge amounts of dialogue in a very short period, and I think she’s having a really great time. I know I’m having a blast working with her.
BE: How is it having all of these “names” pop up on “General Hospital” in recent…well, I was going to say “months,” but it’s actually been ongoing for a few years now. You had Rick Springfield make his return to the show, you had James Franco not long ago…
CH: We also had Bruce Davison – no slouch is he – and, of course, we have Adrienne. I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s really just another validation that soaps are not the red-headed stepchild coming through the back door of the studio. We are very viable, we are a lot of fun, and we’re probably the toughest job in the entertainment industry. Probably. And people are starting to understand that and recognize that and respect that. So you get these movie stars, you get TV stars coming on, and it’s, like, “See? See?” They might come on a little cocky, but they quickly realize that it’s not so easy. And they walk away and they disseminate the information that soaps are a force to be reckoned with, even though we’re losing so many of them. Like “As the World Turns.” I think last week was its last week, wasn’t it?
BE: I believe it was, yes.
CH: So we’re losing some of them, yes, but we’re still demonstrating that you have to be at the top of your game to do them. It’s an art form, doing a soap opera. And there’s also not a lot of work out there. (Laughs) But look at Orson Welles. “We will sell no wine before its time.” Well, there you go, Orson, it wasn’t so hard to do a commercial, was it? And it’s not so hard for actors to do soap operas, if they just take a shot at it.
BE: Are you proud of what you yourself have accomplished on “General Hospital” to date?
CH: Absolutely. No question about it. (Casting director) Mark Teschner called me up three and a half years ago and said, “I have two days of work for you on ‘General Hospital.’ Are you interested?” I said, “Oh, sure!” He said, “Great! You’re going to be playing Sonny’s lawyer.” And I said, “Who’s Sonny?” And there was a long, long pause where he picked himself up off the floor, then he said, “You don’t know who Sonny Corinthos is?” And I said, “I’m sorry!” But I really was living in a cave. I didn’t know, because when “General Hospital” was on, I’d been out looking for work, and when I got home, I was too tired even to TiVo anything, so I had not seen the show for years. I hadn’t realized, of course, that I’d be dealing with one of the hottest…if not the hottest…actors on daytime. That was supposed to be two days. Now it’s three and a half years and a Daytime Emmy nomination later, and I’m still, like, “Really? Really?” I’m over the moon with what I’ve accomplished, with what they’ve let me do, with how they’ve let me throw in a line here or there, throw in a funny movement here or there, take Diane and really explore her comedic side, including some of the slapstick…because, you know, there have been some serious pratfalls! (Laughs) They have really enabled me to do what I do, and that includes the other actors, like Steve (Burton), Maurice (Benard), Derk (Cheetwood), Bradford Anderson…it’s just so much fun. And, again, it’s very much like it is with Courtney, Christa, and Busy: if they didn’t want me to steal a scene, I wouldn’t. They are in absolute control. They have the power to say, “Uh-uh, no, not gonna happen.” But it’s two men, each one of them so incredibly smart, saying, “Is this going to make this scene better? You know what? I’ve got 5,000 hours of airtime, so let me be generous with this actor and let her have this.” Even then, they’re asking, “What’s for the good of the show?” But generosity just sort of flows out of them.
BE: One of my friends wanted me to ask you if you’d talked to Bradford about your upcoming Spinelli book and if he’d contributed in any way.
CH: He did not contribute, except, you know, that I stood next to him. (Laughs) He does what he does better than anybody else, and that all of that was grist for the mill. It was going straight into my brain. But, no, I did not consult with him. I kept running into the makeup room, and anyone I’d see who was a serious regular, like Jane Elliot or Tony Geary or Jason Thompson, I’d be, like, “Oh, I just wrote a story about you!” Bradford has not seen it. I think he’s excited to see it. I hope he is, because it’s probably the funniest thing I’ve ever written in my life…and, yet, it’s one of the most poignant things that’s been written in that vein, a fictionalized account of a soap opera. But, no, he hasn’t seen it yet. It just went to copy editing, and now we’re doing the final bits and pieces. After that, I may let him look at it. I hope he will be incredibly pleased. The people who have read it…and you can count them with the fingers on one hand…who are very close to me and who also know the soap world backwards and forwards, I had to go to them to ask, “Do I have this chronology right? Do I have all the facts right going all the way back?” Because there are soap fans out there who know the history of everyone in Port Charles all the way back to when the show premiered. So I needed to make sure that I had all of the names right, all of the explosions right, all of the operations right, all of the car crashes, all of the family trees, and so on and so forth. So I did go to a few people and say, “Read this over. Do I have it all right?” And they have universally come back and said, “It’s one of the best things ever written about a soap opera. Brace yourself, Carolyn!” (Laughs)
BE: Have you been similarly enjoying the reception of your “Pandora” series of books?
CH: Oh, gosh, yes. Pandy’s a fire that I don’t think is going to go out for a long, long time, and everyone who picks up a book just puts another coal on that fire, and it grows and grows and grows. I have people on Twitter and Facebook…I’m fortunate to have a large number of followers on Twitter, which is just fantastic, and they keep spreading the word and spreading the word. I’m thrilled. Every morning, I’ll wake up and somebody, sometimes several people, have Tweeted me to say, “I’m just starting my first ‘Pandora’ book,” or, “I’ve just bought ‘Pandora’ books for the school library where I teach,” or, “I can’t wait for Book 5!” I don’t know which is more gratifying: the acting work or the reception for the books. I don’t know. I’m just living in a really blessed time.
BE: Well, to bring it back to “Cougar Town,” I’m sorry, did you say that you did or didn’t get to work with Jennifer Aniston in the season premiere?
CH: (Sighs) No. I didn’t. I’m in the same show, but, no, I never worked with her.
BE: Is it disappointing that you don’t get to interact with these guest stars?
CH: Oh, sure, of course! I mean, these are titans of comedy…or maybe titanesses? (Laughs) Sure, Jennifer Aniston is one of the great powerhouses of the comedy world. But then I realize, “Oh, wait, every time I’m on with Courtney Cox, I’m on with one of the great powerhouses of comedy.” Let’s not be greedy, right?
BE: I’ll start wrapping up with this one: what’s your favorite project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
CH: Oooooooh! It would either have to be “Strip Mall” or “Jenny,” which was Jenny McCarthy’s NBC series…where, yes, I played another lawyer. (Laughs) So, yes, probably it would be one of those two shows. They were both way too much fun. “Strip Mall” was…oh, mercy, that was just hilarious.
BE: I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that it gets a proper DVD release one of these days.
CH: Thank you! That show was a riot. Carolyn Cantwell…oh, my. (Laughs) But I think “Cougar Town” is going to have a long, long life, so I think the love is building for that show, and quickly. I’ve had so many people say to me, “I can’t wait ‘til Wednesday!”
BE: I myself am psyched.
CH: (Laughs) Me, too!
BE: Well, Carolyn, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.CH: My pleasure, indeed. Let’s do it again soon!