‘General Hospital’ Emmy Winner Maura West on Ava’s Life of Crime and Those Wild Priest Fantasies

General Hospital - Maura West, James Patrick Stuart
© Howard Wise/jpistudios.com
Maura West and James Patrick Stuart

Maura West can do more in one scene with one eye—literally—than most actors can in a lifetime. This always superb, three-time Emmy winner plays General Hospital mob doll Ava Jerome who, due to severe facial burns from a fire she started, has been hiding out in a Phantom of the Opera mask. Ava’s best friend these days is a bottomless martini. Her only source of hope: sexual fantasies about Griffin Munro (Matt Cohen), the town priest. We took West out to lunch—lucky us, she hates phone interviews!—and had her break it all down.

What was your first reaction when you found out Ava’s face would be burned to a crisp?

I was concerned. When my boss, Frank [Valentini], told me what was happening he did it in an almost apologetic way and that made me think maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. I was, like, “Aw, s–t!” But I really trust Frank. And when [the story] started playing out, I was thinking, “Wow, this isn’t so bad…” In fact, I kind of liked it. And now I love it! But I was definitely worried at first. I worried that it was soapy.

Yeah, the best kind of soapy! It’s been fascinating to watch this badass woman—who always looks like a billion bucks—go to pieces when her face is destroyed.

It’s smart that they injured Ava in this way and had her lying in the hospital all bandaged up like a Q-tip because she’s a very visual person, what with the clothes and the look and the hair and the fact that she works in a visual business—an art gallery. I don’t place value on looks. I never have. I’m not a vain actor. So, whenever Ava struts around town and makes her big entrances, that is sooo not me! I’ve always made ugly faces. I’m not afraid of the ugliness in myself—internal and external—so this has been a very interesting thing to play. But I don’t think Ava ever thought of herself as beautiful.

Well, she’s sure freaking out now. Maybe she didn’t know what she had until she lost it?

Yeah, just like me when I look at photos of myself in a two-piece swimsuit when I was 20. Oh, my God! I so hated how I looked back then that I didn’t want to go out on the beach. Now I look at those photos and think, “Jeez, lady, what was your problem? You looked pretty damn good back then. You should have lived it up when you had the chance!” [Laughs]

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Let’s talk Griffin. To be fair, he’s technically on sabbatical from the priesthood and is now a doctor, but he doesn’t mess around with women. So this is very Thorn Birds! What the hell is Ava thinking with these sex fantasies—that she really stands a chance with the man?

She’s an extreme woman, and I love that about her. She is always challenging taboos, whether it’s having an affair with Morgan, who was way, way, way too young, or having sex with Sonny in the Quartermaine crypt and getting pregnant, or having an inconceivably erotic crush on this priest guy. She really pushes the audience.

Might her lusty thoughts lead to an actual romance?

I don’t know where or how far the writers will take Griff and Ava but I’m all for it! Ava’s never had much attention or love in her life, and now she’s really feeling ugly and worthless. She’s a recluse looking at the world with 20 percent of her face and drinking herself to death in her beautiful penthouse. Man, can that girl throw ’em back! It’s so sad. But then, suddenly, here’s Griff being so nice to her, so compassionate. And she’s lonely.

She could have had Scotty in her life but she kicked him to the curb.

Ava was still in the hospital and being extremely dramatic when that happened. It was like she was playing a break-up scene and she and Scotty weren’t even a couple. “Don’t speak! Just go away! Don’t look at me!” It was hilarious. But I think it made sense because we do stupid things when we’re depressed. We isolate. We send away the people we need most.

And now, besides Griffin, she has no one else in her life—no real friends to speak of.

Well, there’s Kiki.

That’s her daughter. Plus, Ava stole Kiki’s husband!

True. Ava is not honest with Kiki. Ever. But I think they love each other in a mother-daughter way—at least I try to layer that in. I do think Julian is Ava’s friend.

He’s her brother! Relatives don’t count. What’s really going on with those two, anyway?

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The fans on Twitter have remarked that there’s an inappropriate chemistry between Ava and Julian.

Are you layering that in too?

[Laughs] Well, of course I am—with ketchup and mayonnaise!

Ava is already the town pariah. If she hits the sack with the priest, wouldn’t that make her even more hated in Port Charles?

Oh, probably. I can just see it. People would be crying, “You’ve ruined my relationship with God!” But it’s really not that bad. The good news is that Griffin has already had one relationship with a woman a long time ago, so it’s not like Ava is deflowering him. I was raised Catholic so I’ve known a few priests in my time. I have never flirted with one—or anything more!—but I can assure you they are flesh-and-blood people. I also know a nun who left the church to go lead a fuller life. My point is, if Ava and Griffin were to have sex, I don’t think it would be all that unusual.

So it sounds like you really want this to happen.

Every successful character has someone who holds up a mirror to show the audience what that character is really thinking, and for Ava that someone right now is Griffin. It would be like the angel and the devil coming together, though Ava is not a devil to me.

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Well, she ain’t no angel. Do you wish Ava hadn’t killed Connie? It’s the one completely unforgivable thing she’s done—not counting that switch she made in Morgan’s meds which we’ll get to in a second. The writers are always reminding us of that murder.

I know! Why do you think they do that?

Beats me. At least half the people in Port Charles have killed somebody—or several somebodies—but only Ava gets called on the carpet for it.

That’s always been a concern of mine. Even when we were shooting Connie’s murder I was, like, “Aw, jeez, this is going to be a lot for my character—and the audience—to get past!” And that was so early in my run. But I am always 100 percent on Ava’s side. I can always find a way to justify what she does. In Ava’s mind, Connie’s death wasn’t cold-blooded murder. It was a mob hit, really. Connie was about to discover Ava’s brother’s true identity. She was gonna tell the world that Julian was Julian! So, in that moment, Ava was in a panic. “What do I do here? I have to shut this person up!” It was a necessary decision…in the moment.

So then you’re okay with that black mark against her?

[Long pause] I really don’t know. I don’t ever want to play the good girl. Does Ava really need to be redeemed for that murder or for anything else? Does being redeemed mean she can’t have sex with Griffin? I want her to be able to do that! Anyway, I don’t think she’s done that many heinous things. “Villain” is too strong a word for her. She’s the antagonist. [Laughs] She’s just naughty. Besides, this is General Hospital. It’s not like when I was on As the World Turns where, if you killed somebody, it mattered.

You seriously have no trouble justifying every single one of Ava’s dirty deeds?

Oh, sometimes with her I’m hanging onto nothing more than one skinny little thread of justification—but I hang onto it for dear life hoping it doesn’t break! And Ava did not kill Morgan. Everyone says she did but look at the facts. She. Did. Not. Do. It.

But she did switch his bipolar meds for placebos, which is pretty damn low. You at least gotta admit that…right?

Ava does take a lot of blame for that around town. But think about all the other people who have switched pills on GH. Remember when Sabrina switched pills in order to kill Ava’s unborn baby? And Sabrina was considered the show’s good girl! Angelic! [Laughs] Gimme a break!

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Why does Ava still have her hair? Wouldn’t it have burned off in the fire?

Yeah, probably. [Laughs] Oh, just go with it! The idea was that the fire went up the whole side of her body, which is why she doesn’t wear skirts anymore. She’s all about the caftans now. But I wasn’t going to shave my head. I mean, I would have shaved my head if they’d ask me to do it, but I don’t really think it was necessary. [Laughs] So just accept it! Isn’t it enough that Ava’s hair looks crappy? Because when that happens you know she’s suffering! Wouldn’t you just love to go visit her? I would!

Ava has never been married—that we know of, anyway—which is pretty damn rare for a soap superdiva. What’s up with that?

She doesn’t seem to be the type to wed, does she? We don’t even know who raised her. She was given up for adoption by Delia, and there’s nothing but empty history for her between the age of three days and eighteen years when she found her family. I’d love to know more about that time period. [Laughs] It’s a wonder she hasn’t married Sonny! I thought something really adorable might have happened there, when he made Ava move in with him when she was pregnant with Avery. It’s a very intimate, bonding thing to share a child. Somehow those two may find each other yet.

That sure would burn Carly’s ass.

[Laughs] Oh, she’ll be fine! She’s got plenty of options.

You have this amazing, old-timey Hollywood movie star vibe. If you’d been around in the 1940s you would have given Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck a real run for their money. Where does that come from?

I have no idea, but that’s the nicest compliment anyone has ever given me. [Laughs] So write that in the story! I’m not consciously going for any old Hollywood thing—though when I was growing up I was deeply influenced by Katharine Hepburn. I just try to play the part as best I can and sometimes I don’t even know how to do that. There are times I’m so thrown by a scene that I have to turn to my husband [former As the World Turns star Scott DeFreitas] and my kids. I come from a house of actors. I’m, like, “Help me out here, people! I don’t know what to do!”

Are there ever times you think you’ve failed in an episode?

Always. Even on days when I leave work and think, “Okay, that wasn’t half bad,” two days later I’m going, “Oh, s–t! I wish I’d played that line with Sam this way! Damn!” But that’s true of all actors, I think. And, in soaps, there’s always another day. I’ll do better tomorrow! I’m always telling myself that.

What did you really think of Denise DeMuccio?

I loved Denise. Look, I know that character got a bad rap but I am not embarrassed or ashamed of any of it. I can call up any single one of those episodes and be proud of it. I especially loved the scenes when she was in jail—the scenes with Sonny trying to figure out if Denise was really Denise or Ava pulling a con.

You are especially good behind bars.

[Laughs] I am very comfortable there. I’ve only been in a jailhouse once, but that’s a story for another time. I like being in jail. Jail’s good. But it’s a real bitch trying to work around those bars to make sure your face can be seen by the camera. But I can always find my light, boy! [Laughs] If I’ve learned anything in this business, it’s how to find my light!

Why did you refuse to submit yourself for an Emmy this year?

I looked through all my stuff and honestly didn’t see anything I’d give myself an Emmy for. If I don’t think I’m deserving, then how can I expect anyone else to give me their vote? It was not an easy decision but, once it was done, I felt great relief. It was the right call

Who at GH do you wish you could work with more?

Finola Hughes. I don’t know how in hell you’d ever get Anna and Ava together but I would love that so much. And more Kin Shriner. Always more Kin Shriner. There’s something so special about him. He brings out the best in people and is never there to undermine. I always want more with Roger Howarth. I wish we hadn’t lost Rebecca Budig. She’s so fantastic, so prepared and ready to work, so present. And Jane Elliot, of course.

Can you imagine ever retiring like Jane did?

No way! I would sit down with her and say, “Jane…are you sure about this? Really sure?” And she’d say, “I am done pretending.” Well, I can never imagine being done with that. I will always want to pretend. [Laughs] Unless I win the lottery and then you will never, ever hear from me again! Well, you might because you would be invited to my private island.

Don’t you wish you were in primetime? It’s not hard to imagine Maura West raising hell on some great cable drama.

Who doesn’t want to be on HBO? Sure, there’s a lot more prestige in primetime and cable and better money I guess, but I wouldn’t want to be there just for the sake of it. And I would not trade Ava for most of the female characters I see elsewhere. How do you top her? Who has it better than I do? My character can do anything, say anything, be anything. [Laughs] She can get away with murder. For an actress, that’s unbeatable. It does not get better than Ava Jerome.

General Hospital, Weekdays, ABC