General Hospital’s Michael Easton on His Six Port Charles Roles and the Challenge of Acting With a Lizard
Michael Easton of General Hospital
You can kill him, but you can’t stop him. Soap superstar Michael Easton suddenly found himself without a gig last year when his General Hospital character, Dr. Silas Clay, was stabbed in the back—literally—by his psycho ex-mother-in-law. But now Easton has returned to Port Charles as Dr. Hamilton Finn, an emotionally distraught, self-medicating widower who suffers from a deadly tropical disease. Did we also mention he’s a laugh riot?
You’ve built a career playing strong, silent, stoic types. Who knew there was a goofball comic in you just dying to get out?
After the Silas experience, I thought GH was the last show you’d ever see me on. [Laughs] Well, that and The Bachelor. I don’t fret when I’m out of work. I’m very happy being a hands-on dad. We built a lot of sandcastles at the beach and did a lot of day tripping. I was really involved at the school. I got a lot of writing done. It was pretty wonderful. But [head writers] Jean Passanante and Shelly Altman came up with a character—a drug addict with OCD—who was eccentric, charming, vulnerable, awkward. He doesn’t really have a filter or care what you might think of him. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I didn’t want Silas to be how I was remembered at GH. But I’d be fine if Finn is the way I go out. Happy, in fact.
Were you nervous about the response to this new guy?
There was definitely that moment where I was thinking, “My God, this might not go over too well! It’s a little out there. It’s not exactly in my strike zone.” Although I do have that quirky sensibility in me. You saw it a bit when I did [the Fox series] VR.5. I also worked for a while on Ally McBeal. In fact, in trying to find an interesting way to play Finn I’d often think, “What if David Kelley had written this character?” But it certainly wasn’t going to come out when I played John McBain [on One Life to Live and later on GH]. There was no room for that. When you’re a cop, your world is all about lives on the line, and heartache and tragedy. McBain was never going to be the funny guy, the soap guy, the guy who answers the door wearing nothing but a towel.
Why did you get the boot as Silas Clay?
I truly don’t know. I’m not involved in what goes on behind the scenes. I’ve never had a meeting with [executive producer] Frank Valentini. And I never had a meeting with [former head writer] Ron Carlivati.
That’s hard to believe, because you’ve been in some pretty cockamamie situations at GH. There’s never been a problem that required a powwow?
The only character I ever had a problem with was Silas, and that became more of a policy thing about not being able to adjust the script. It was, literally, “Here are the lines. Here are the stage directions for the scene. Do it exactly this way.” It was too specific and very limiting, and I think it showed. Maybe it wasn’t limiting for the other actors, but I didn’t feel my performance was inspired. It wasn’t free and in the moment, the way it feels now. It’s not the way I grew up in the business, not the way I learned the craft. But that was the umbrella I worked under and it’s pretty clear I didn’t do too well with Silas. I don’t ask to be told in advance what’s going on with the story, but after a while I realized that Silas was in a box. He was merely reacting to other people doing stuff around him. I felt my exit was coming and one day it came.
Sounds like you took it shockingly well.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had eight or nine shows cancelled on me, not to mention all the pilots that were not picked up. So I try to keep that perspective. I wasn’t planning on extending my deal at GH because I wasn’t really working very much. But one day they said, “Hey, we’ve got a great storyline coming up.” I just didn’t realize it would involve me being dead. [Laughs] And now I’ve made a note of that. Next time someone tells me there’s a great story coming up I will remember to ask: “Will this great story involve me ending up with a knife in my back?”
You not taking meetings with Frank is so interesting. A lot of your costars would freak if they didn’t have a relationship with the boss. Why isn’t it important to you?
I’m about the work and what happens on screen. The stuff that goes on behind doors has no interest to me. Give me good material and I will do a good job, but if it takes more than that to survive—if I have to finesse squeaky wheels—I am fine moving on to something else. I don’t need hand-holding. But I do understand actors wanting that kind of relationship with the producer because they have a lot invested. It may actually be a very valuable and reassuring and smart thing to do. I’m just not comfortable operating that way.
You’ve had nice success as a graphic novelist. You’ve been writing and directing some incredible short films and winning awards for that. Is this a prelude to not acting at all?
Perhaps. It’s not that I don’t care about acting anymore. When I do it, I care very much. But I don’t need to do it. When GH called this last time I waited six weeks before I got back to them. That wasn’t me being a jerk. It was me trying to wrap my head around the idea of continuing on the show. It just seemed so strange. The predictability in soaps can be a bit tiring. We always seem to know what’s coming. I know it’s hard because the shows are hanging on by a thread these days, you know? But they respond to that by doing the same safe thing. If anything, this is the time when we should be more adventurous with our storytelling. So I have to give Jean and Shelly a lot of credit, not only for being brave in creating Finn but for following through on their plan to do something really different with him. I like their commitment.
Altogether you’ve played six characters in Port Charles. Or, more accurately, four characters, one of them with three personalities.
It’s very flattering doing all these parts. [Laughs] And to think that my high school guidance counselor told me I’d never amount to anything! I should track her down.
It all started with the GH spinoff Port Charles, where you were a Catholic priest, Michael Morley, and his twin Caleb, a vampire. We later found out Michael was Caleb’s alternate identity. Then, after Caleb supposedly died, he was seen as yet another personality, rocker Stephen Clay. As nutty as all that sounds, it was creepy and atmospheric and it all worked spectacularly well.
Talk about throwing caution to the wind! We were flying under the radar and taking great chances. Everybody fully committed to that vampire story—Thorsten Kaye, Lynn Herring, Kelly Monaco, Brian Presley, the writers, the producers, the set designers, everybody. I originally came on for only 12 weeks, and even that looked iffy at the time because there were lots of cancellation rumors—so many rumors that they gave me a pay-or-play deal. But the show ran for two more years.
Then GH chose to screw with the lore by having you pop up as Stephen Clay during your John McBain run. What was the point of that?
I’m really not sure. Suddenly the reverse was true. Caleb was Stephen’s alternate personality so there was no more vampire, just a crazy person who wanted to be a rock star and who thought he was a vampire but really had no special powers. And then he got killed, though there was a twist at the end where you saw him lying at the morgue, and a morgue worker walked off with the Caleb ring.
I don’t know. That maybe Caleb is still out there? When fans bring up that [GH rewrite] to me I always say Caleb still exists, maybe not in the realm of GH but in the realm of Port Charles. [Laughs] It makes us all feel better.
Then, to make things even screwier during the Prospect Park debacle, you were no longer allowed to play McBain so you were suddenly Stephen’s brother, Silas Clay. But how could Silas be a brother to someone who—given the morgue worker twist—might not exist?
That was all a bit lazy, but I don’t think anyone was to blame. That whole Prospect Park thing was difficult and it was a lot to ask of any writer to make it work. Three actors were suddenly recast as new people and only Roger Howarth survived it.
What ever happened with the Prospect Park lawsuit? There’s been radio silence.
I have no idea. No one has ever told me there was a resolution or that McBain was free to come back. The last thing I heard the lawsuits were still going, yet ABC bought a pilot from the Prospect Park guys. It’s all very strange.
Does any part of you wish you were still playing McBain?
I’m really happy with this guy I’m playing now, so I guess all this led to a good thing in a really odd way. But, you know, I never wanted to play McBain on GH. When they asked me to go over there, I wanted to create a new character but they were trying to lure OLTL viewers. They said, “No. You have to be McBain.” And that proved to be a problem right out of the gate, because there was no way McBain would leave his wife and son in Llanview and be a cop in Port Charles.
You were asked to appear on the OLTL internet reboot but turned it down. How come?
At first I thought, “Great, the GH audience will get to see McBain’s life in Llanview that he’s always talking about.” Then I found out that neither show was coordinating story with the other side, so that none of the writing was going to correspond. At that point I said, “This makes no sense. You can’t have the same character playing parallel lives.” It got too complicated.
Let’s get back to Hammy Finn. You know that’s what some of the fans call him, right?
[Laughs] Well, I’m not taking that to my high school guidance counselor!
Are you thinking of him in the longterm? Does this character have legs?
Hard to say. My deal takes me through next February. Right now I’m just laying it all out there as best I can.
You and Rebecca Budig are sparking pretty magnificently these days. Are we heading toward a big Finn-Hayden romance?
There’s definitely something there, but we’ll take our time and see. The writers still have to resolve the Hayden-Nikolas situation. Now that Tyler Christopher’s not coming back that story is on hold until they figure out what to do. And Finn is still very much hung up on his wife, Reiko, and is wracked with guilt that his obsessiveness with finding a cure to his disease led to her death. So who knows? Another great thing about this go-round is that Jean and Shelly told me up front, “We have no idea who we’ll put you with romantically.” That hit me in the right place. I don’t like it when producers or writers say, “We are teaming you with so-and-so, and you two will be the next supercouple.” They don’t get to decide that. They don’t even get a say. The audience decides. But, yeah, so far it seems to be working well with Rebecca Budig, who is so wonderful. She has so much nuance, so many layers to her work.
Please tell us Reiko won’t come back from the dead just as Finn and Hayden are saying, “I do.” Lord knows, GH loves milking that cobwebby cliché.
God, I would hope not. That back-from-the-dead thing doesn’t work out so well anymore. But I do think it would be great to see his wife so that the audience could have a really strong reference point, but I’d rather we told that story in flashbacks—something soaps don’t seem all that interested in doing.
Let’s talk about your other love interest. Finn is so mentally messed up he’s accompanied by a service lizard. Why a lizard? Was it just to be quirky or is there something deeper there?
Lizards live through a lot. They are great survivors in difficult conditions and were here on Earth long before we humans were. On a subconscious level, that would appeal to Finn, who has lost a wife and other people close to him and is now dealing with death himself. He has to have something that’s not going to die on him.
Granted, this probably isn’t your first cold-blooded costar, but what’s it like acting with a reptile?
It’s fine. It’s fun. When he shows up, that is. Half the time, I’m acting opposite an empty tank because the lizard is booked on another job. Seriously, that thing works more than any actor I know. My first day back was definitely odd. They said, “Here are your monologues. You talk and we’ll cut to the lizard to get his reactions.” [Laughs] I thought maybe they put me with a lizard because nobody else wanted to work with me.