General Hospital’s Grande Dames on Sexism, Ageism, Plastic Surgery, and Sex in the Dressing Room!

Jim Warren

They never met an ass they couldn’t kick. ABC’s General Hospital is exploding these days with tough, vibrant, go-for-broke female stars who are, as they say, of a certain age. We corralled five of these wonder women—all of them moms, all of them Emmy winners—for a wild lunch at a Los Angeles restaurant safely away from the studio. It turns out Jane Elliot (Tracy), Nancy Lee Grahn (Alexis), Finola Hughes (Anna), Maura West (Ava), and Michelle Stafford (Nina) have more in common than just kids and gold statuettes. Each has the gift of survival.

Not that long ago, women in their forties and beyond were rarely, barely seen on the show. What changed?

Hughes: We now have an evolved executive producer, Frank Valentini. I started out my soap career on GH, then left for several years, and when I wanted to return, they didn’t want me. I couldn’t get my ass back on the show until Frank took over.
Grahn: For years, Jane and I were the only older women on contract, and they weren’t working us. It’s a fact that the previous regime at ABC Daytime [headed by Brian Frons, who exited in 2012] was repelled by age, and there was a very strict policy that only the young GH characters should be focused on, that only the young actors should be used for publicity. And the ratings went down.
Stafford: I hate that women should have to talk about age. To me, it’s a nonissue.

But it is an issue. Rare is the actress who can stay busy into her forties, fifties, and beyond—daytime, primetime, anytime—which makes what’s happening at GH something close to a miracle.

Grahn: Things didn’t change on our show until Vicki Dummer took over [at ABC Daytime]. She and Frank and our head writer, Ron Carlivati, are age-blind. And now the ratings are up.
Hughes: They find older, powerful women sexy instead of something to fear. When women are in charge at the network, it doesn’t become a question.
Elliot: I’m not so sure about that. Over the years, we’ve had several women running ABC Daytime and executive producing GH, and they were quite male-centric. They were very busy sucking up to the guys on the show and would dismiss the rest of us.
West: Now we have Nancy playing a high-powered lawyer and Finola is the Port Charles police chief.
Hughes: Uh, excuse me…that’s police commissioner. [Note: This interview took place before Anna was ousted from the PCPD.]
West: And I’m a frickin’ mobster!
Stafford: We all play cool dames who have to fight for their lives in some way. Our female audience doesn’t want to see women being victims. They don’t want to watch women fall apart. You can only feed people that crap for so long. It’s such a tough world right now. We want to watch survivors.

What about the cosmetic demands of soap divadom? Do you feel pressured to stay looking fantastic, especially in this unforgiving era of HD?

Hughes: That’s why we have Ryan Paevey [Nathan] always getting naked—to take the heat off us.
Grahn: When I’m doing a bedroom scene, I’m constantly going, “Don’t shoot my fat arms! Get that camera away from my ass!” I hate the fact that we focus so much on looks, yet I’m the first one to get a spray tan. But this obsession is all over primetime, too. Even the f—ing girl zombies on The Walking Dead are 36-24-36.
Elliot: There are actors on our show—beautiful young women—who have already started with the plastic surgery. They’re trying to hold on to what they had. I don’t know that the audience is expecting that of us. We expect it of ourselves. We’re the ones looking in the mirror going, “Oh, my God, I can’t stand my neck! Oh, my God, my eyes!”
Grahn: True. No one is saying that to us at the show. In fact, Frank has done the opposite. He said to me, “Do not even touch your face.” I’ve had a little plastic surgery here and there over the years—and I’m not talking about all the times I’ve had my foot surgically removed from my mouth—but I prefer to be open about it, because I think it’s dishonest otherwise.
Stafford: Nobody notices the good work. They only notice the bad work. Jeez, if this was an interview with a bunch of men, would the subject of plastic surgery even be brought up?
West: Yeah, would you be discussing penile implants?
Hughes: Would five French women be sitting around talking about this? Hell, no.

OK, then let’s talk about another harsh reality—social media. Four out of five of you really work it, while Jane would rather lie down on the 405 Freeway than put out a tweet.

Elliot: I think it’s narcissistic and voyeuristic.
Hughes: It doesn’t have to be. It can be an important marketing tool. It’s great for publicizing GH.
Stafford: It’s mandatory in today’s world.
Elliot: But it takes hold of you. I watch people on our show who get lost in it. They have to check in with Twitter all day long to see what’s being said about them. It takes them out of the moment of truly living life. Instead, they’re living their lives in a cell phone.
Grahn: It has its advantages, but sometimes you say things you shouldn’t. I’ve learned the hard way. When you have martinis, you should not tweet.
West: I’m with Jane. I was spending too much time on Twitter, so I have pulled way back. Now when I go home, I shut off the phone. I want to live my life as it’s happening, with the people 
I love. I have five children who need my attention.
Grahn: It’s so bad at my house that my daughter will tweet from the other room to say, “Mommy, I’m so hungry! Can you feed me?”
Hughes: I love the “block” button. Love, love, love it. Nancy’s Twitter fans went after me when Anna went after Alexis. I was like, “Seriously, people?”
West: There should be cast solidarity when it comes to blocking people. If some fan calls you an “ugly, fat f—” and all of us got together as a team and blocked them, this would stop.
Stafford: We do have the power to stop meanness from occurring. I have been attacked for being an “old cow” by fans who prefer a certain actor, and that actor had the power to say, “Stop it” but chose not to and that only inflamed it. Some actors are literally like, “If people say Michelle Stafford overacts, that’ll mean the fans will love me more!” What kind of thinking is that? For you to feel good, someone else has to fail?

What does winning a Daytime Emmy actually mean? Salary raises, job security, fantastic perks?

Elliot: [Laughs] Are you kidding?
Grahn: We get none of that! Here’s the only real perk: When people write about you, it’s prefaced by “Emmy Award winner.” And that’s about it. Oh, and when you win it’s a really nice thing for your parents.
Hughes: It certainly doesn’t lead to any kind of job security. After I did All My Children, I did a fashion reality show [How Do I Look?] because I had to find another gig. “Okay, I just got fired…now what do I do?” You bob and weave. You don’t go home and lick your wounds. You never give up.
Grahn: Primetime and movie casting directors treat daytime soaps like the plague. I’m not looking for another job but, if I was, no one would give a damn. There is no “cool” factor to being on a soap. But, who cares? We’re having a blast!
Elliot: My Emmy was only good for one thing—revenge. [Former-GH executive producer] Gloria Monty refused to put me up for a nomination and I was so pissed I submitted myself as an act of defiance. And I won. That was 1981.
Hughes: Before my time.
Elliot: Gee, thanks for that.
Hughes: I’ve got plenty more where that came from, bitch. [Laughs]
Elliot: [Laughs] Thanks for that, too. Competing for awards drives me nuts.
West: Acting is the ultimate team sport—or at least it should be. There’s no time for one-upmanship, especially in daytime. The job’s just too damn hard.
Stafford: I worked on a show, that shall not be named, where one of the actors would always come to the set pissed off and fighting about every plot point.
Hughes: I hate that.
West: Right? I’m really irritated when every single [directorial] note given to an actor results in an argument. “Well, I was thinking that…” Nobody gives a crap what you think! We’re not telling your story. We’re telling the writers’ story!
Elliot: I call being on a soap “dive” acting, because you just have to dive right in. There is no time for rehearsal or discussion, no room for the process. When Donna Mills first started on GH, she stopped me in the hallway, put her hands around my throat and said, “You didn’t warn me!” I’ve known her for decades. I said, “Donna, we spoke the weekend before you reported for work. I did warn you.” She said, “But not enough!” And it’s true. If you’re not used to this, it can really scare the s–t out of you.
Hughes: We never get to sit around and talk like this on the set.
Elliot: And we never have lunch together. Maura won’t even answer when I knock on the door of her dressing room. She’s right across the hall from me. I know she’s in there! I just want to say “Hi.” I knock. I knock again. I knock again. Nothing.
West: I have social anxiety.
Elliot: You also live with six other people. I get that you need solace. But couldn’t we work out a secret knock—just for you and me?
West: [Taps on the table to the tune of “Shave and a Haircut. Two bits!”] How about that one?
Grahn: I f—ing dig talking to you dames. I can’t imagine wanting to be alone in my dressing room. That’s why I’m always in the makeup room…gossiping.
[There is the sound sirens outside the restaurant.]
Elliot: They’re coming for you, Nancy.

Has being a mom—and Nancy, Michelle, and Jane have all done it solo—saved your professional hides? Have you stuck with soaps rather than chance greener pastures?

Elliot: Absolutely. There are risks I wouldn’t take because I had kids to raise. And it’s a good thing.
Grahn: I’ve played it safe and stayed put for my kid. Did I miss out on some great opportunities? Sure, but trust me, a lot of actresses who were once big deals in primetime would now trade places with me in a heartbeat.
Stafford: I took a huge risk leaving a secure job on The Young and the Restless and many people were like, “But you have a kid! What are you doing?”
Hughes: I said that to you! I was afraid for Michelle, but her risk paid off. It would be lovely if we were all that fearless. You gave your daughter a really important life lesson: Be bold, take chances.
Stafford: Hmm…to tell you the truth, I don’t think she even f—ing noticed.
Elliot: Of course, Maura and Finola have managed to also negotiate a marriage [laughs]—something Nancy, Michelle, and 
I are incapable of doing.
Stafford: Hey! Hey! [laughs] Watch it, Jane!
West: Marriage is a different kind of hard work.
Stafford: At least you don’t have to troll the streets for sex like I have to.
West: How do you know that? [Laughs] This idea that life is suddenly easier once you’ve found a mate just isn’t true.
Grahn: I don’t think it’s easier. Just profoundly different in ways I can’t even imagine.
Stafford: Doing it alone can be easier. Every decision regarding my daughter begins and ends with me. I like that.
Grahn: But to have that safety net would be wonderful.
West: It is a safety net. Whatever is going on at work or in the rest of my world, I can fall into the arms of my husband [actor Scott DeFreitas] and be held and be told, “You’re loved. You’ll be okay.”
Stafford: That’s beautiful. Now I feel so sad and lonely.
Grahn: I fall into the arms of Jane.
Hughes: Maura, you met your husband on As the World Turns, right?
West: Our dressing rooms shared a wall. He used to do these sweet little knock-knocks whenever he arrived.
Grahn: When I was at Santa Barbara, [actor] Sam Behrens and I would have sex in my dressing room, then we’d go over to General Hospital and have it in his. What can I say? It was the ’80s.
West: Hey, I never said Scott and I had sex in the dressing room! It was just knocking. It wasn’t a booty-call knock!
Elliot: Back in the ’70s on GH—the truly raucous years—if you had sex in your dressing room, you got a star on your door. And we all kept track of each other. I don’t know why. The dressing rooms were underground, so it was called the Six Feet Under Club—the opposite of the Mile High Club.
West: Now that I’ve done!
Stafford: Hey, I have a question. Who’s making the most money at this table? [There is a deafening silence, then all five laugh at once.] Finally, a topic we broads won’t discuss!

General Hospital airs weekdays on ABC