Two-time Emmy winner Tom Pelphrey made an immediate splash on the daytime landscape when he debuted as Jonathan Randall on GUIDING LIGHT in 2004. Since leaving his full-time soap gig, Pelphrey has guest-starred on primetime shows, moved to Los Angeles and formed his own theater company with friends. He is now back on the east coast, returning to GL this summer, and starring in Joseph Gallo's "My Italy Story" at Mile Square Theatre starting on Wednesday, June 17. He recently spoke with We Love Soaps about his life as an actor, his time on GUIDING LIGHT and the new one-man play.
WE LOVE SOAPS: Tell me a little about your background. You grew up in Howell Township, New Jersey. When did you get the acting bug?
TOM PELPHREY: The first time I remember wanting to act was in middle school. I'm glad I waited because I got to high school and started there. My high school teacher was fantastic and I'm grateful that was my first experience with it. I think if your first experience with something is a negative one, and less than serious, that can get you into some bad habits from the start. I got lucky to have such a great teacher, not just with the acting, but how to be. In high school, if you missed three rehearsals, you weren't in the show. He didn't care who it was and he stood by it. If you weren't rehearsing, he didn't make you, but you got the idea that meant your job was to stay after school anyway to help build the sets. I'm glad that's how I started and that's how I approach things now.
WE LOVE SOAPS: At what point did you decide this was actually going to be your career?
TOM PELPHREY: In high school. By junior year of high school, I knew this was what I wanted to do. And by senior year, I was applying for colleges, which meant going to schools to audition.
WE LOVE SOAPS: How did your parents feel about your pursuing acting as a career?
TOM PELPHREY: I was a bit surprised, not that they were supportive, but they didn't question it. I asked my dad years later, and he paid my tuition to go to school [at Rutgers], how did he get behind the idea of paying for me to a degree in acting. And he said, 'You knew what you wanted to do since you were 15 years old and you never wavered, and you always took it seriously. I didn't know what I wanted to do until I was closer to 25.' He said it was the fact that I was so serious and knew what I wanted to do from a young age that made him want to support that.
WE LOVE SOAPS: You were a big theater guy at Rutgers. Would you say that theater is your first love?
TOM PELPHREY: Absolutely. I love doing theater. I love a nice, long rehearsal process. I love what you can bring to the table. Sometimes on TV, everything is so fast, and it's less of a collaboration at times it feels like. In theater, you have weeks together, and everybody is giving input, and you can explore things.
WE LOVE SOAPS: You were cast on GUIDING LIGHT right out of Rutgers, right?
TOM PELPHREY: Yes. I screen tested three weeks after I graduated and found out I had the job. I didn't end up starting until the end of August though.
WE LOVE SOAPS: Soaps cast young actors all the time, but very few of their characters take off with a bullet like Jonathan Randall on GUIDING LIGHT. You were an immediate hit with critics and developed a huge fan base. What was it like to come on the show and have such instant popularity so early in your career?
TOM PELPHREY: It was great. Where I was at, I was just so happy to have a job right out of school. I think I got lucky as far as the character itself. The writing and everything about what I got to do with him was great right off the bat. A lot of young guys on soaps are going to be...
WE LOVE SOAPS: Taking their shirt off...
TOM PELPHREY: Taking their shirt off, and they're in love with a girl, but it doesn't work out, and they're sweet and charming. I got to come in and right off the bat play a character I could really sink my teeth into. And then all of a sudden you have to put you head down and work for a while, and you look up, and the fans were responding. It was a bit surprising, since when I first started he was a bit of a monster.
WE LOVE SOAPS: Why do you think GL fans embraced Jonathan so much?
TOM PELPHREY: I think you got to see a little bit of where he was coming from. Obviously he wasn't Satan. He was this guy who had been mistreated and neglected and you got to see a glimpse of that. You can have one of the worst villains, but if you give the audience something they can relate to, and make him human, fans will react. One of the best characters ever is Hannibal Lecter, and he's a serial killer.
WE LOVE SOAPS: How much of Jonathan's anger was on the page, and how much did you contribute?
TOM PELPHREY: I remember when I did the screen test and Kim Zimmer (Reva) told me later that she told people she didn't care who they picked as long as they didn't pick me. It was too cold and hard for her. For me, I guess the anger I brought to it was just me trying to consider what this guy had been through. He was left as a young child by his parents, and abused, and knew the whole time his family was well-off and happy and living a good life, and the fact that had gone on for years and years, and I was just trying to honor where he came from. Regardless of what he was doing, I was trying to give the audience something to hang on to. He might be having sex with his cousin right now, but in my mind, it was always 'why?'. I guess the anger was me trying to honor that and give him the fuel.
WE LOVE SOAPS: What have you learned over the past five years since you got out of Rutgers and first started on GUIDING LIGHT?
TOM PELPHREY: You realize how important it is to really be in touch with yourself. In the final analysis, there's no answers and there's nobody sitting there judging what is good and isn't good about your work. You have all these ideas and all these people you look up to when you are younger. As you get older, you realize you are not any of those people and never will be, and it's more interesting if I'm just me. I have to figure out how to bring myself to what I'm working on, and that's what I can do that nobody else can do.
It's important to keep checking in with yourself. The more you learn, the more you realize you have to learn. I'm grateful for all the ups and downs because I feel like I'm further along than I was, which I guess is all you can hope for.
WE LOVE SOAPS: You are starring in Mile Square Theatre’s upcoming production of "My Italy Story" starting June 17. Tell me about this show.
TOM PELPHREY: It was written by Joseph Gallo, and it's based on his true story. The main character is Thomas DeGato, and we meet him, and his family, which has been kind of divided since he was a boy. There are parts of the family that doesn't talk to each other. As we get into the play, one of his cousins pleads with him to get the family back together. All these strange things happen to Thomas that push him toward going back to Italy, the village where his grandfather was from. Along the way, we get in a lot of interesting situations and meet a lot of different characters.
WE LOVE SOAPS: This show is a one-act, full length mono-drama, so you are playing all the characters?
TOM PELPHREY: There are between 18 to 24 different people and voices that I reference or play along the way as I tell the story. It's cool. I've never done a one-man show before and unlike anything I've ever done.
WE LOVE SOAPS: That was my next question. Have you done anything like this before?
TOM PELPHREY: No, and to be perfectly honest, when they called me to see if I would do it, and I read the script, I was nervous in a way I hadn't been nervous in a long time. That was part of the reason I said, yes. If I'm honest, part of me was scared to do this, so I was like, 'Let's do it. Let's try to conquer this fear.'
WE LOVE SOAPS: So you were handpicked for this role?
TOM PELPHREY: Chris O'Connor, the artistic director of Mile Square Theatre, called and told me about the play. I had read the play three years ago when I was doing a show at Penguin Rep. I read it again and loved it, so I said yes. Chris was a graduate directing student at Rutgers when I was an undergrad. He directed me in a show my senior year, which was probably my favorite play I ever did at Rutgers. And I had gone to his directing classes. We worked together quite a bit and he knew my work.
WE LOVE SOAPS: What has it been like to work with the director Matt Lawler?
TOM PELPHREY: He is heaven. He's fantastic. Since it's a one-man show, the rehearsals are me in a room with the stage manager, but primarily the director. It was important to have someone I get along with, and he works with me in a great way. We basically speak the same language and he is very laid back, and very supportive. I'd definitely love to work with him again.
WE LOVE SOAPS: Have you met him the author of the play, Joseph Gallo?
TOM PELPHREY: I actually met him briefly three years ago when I was doing "The Subject Was Roses" at Penguin Rep. And I met him again before we started this production. He lives in Hoboken so I met with Gallo, Matt Lawler and we all got to know each other. He came into rehearsal last week and saw a stumble-through of the show, and I was a little nervous with it being his play and his story, but he was nothing but supportive and excited about the direction we took it. That took a big weight off my shoulders.
WE LOVE SOAPS: I read that Gallo played Thomas in the "My Italy Story" premiere production in 1993.
TOM PELPHREY: We were talking about that and he was telling me that he starred in it, but the play really took off once he stepped out of it. At some point another actor took the role over, and once he could watch it objectively as a writer, he changed some things around and it really took off. I give him a lot of credit for being able to do that.
WE LOVE SOAPS: You are returning to GUIDING LIGHT this summer. Do you start taping after "My Italy Story" has finished its run?
TOM PELPHREY: I'm actually going back in the middle of it. I start taping again on June 22. There's only three days that overlap. There's going to be a lot of brain space occupied during those days. [Laughs]
WE LOVE SOAPS: The last three nights of "My Italy Story" you might be playing Jonathan scenes.
TOM PELPHREY: [Laughs] I may be playing Reva.
WE LOVE SOAPS: How do you feel about the end of GUIDING LIGHT and the show being cancelled by CBS?
TOM PELPHREY: It's sad. For me, on many levels, and obviously I know everyone that works there, it makes me sad to see my friends lose their jobs. On the bigger level, you'd like to think that certain things are above the cut, with GL being the longest running show. I talked to a lot of people over there when the announcement was made, and they kind of knew this was coming, but the day the news broke it was like a punch in a stomach.
WE LOVE SOAPS: Would you like to see Jonathan have a happy ending on the show? Or maybe something a little more tortured?
TOM PELPHREY: [Laughs] In my time back, I definitely want to burn something, axe someone, and get a little bit of that going again. But I've been with the character so long, I definitely want him to have a happy ending.
WE LOVE SOAPS: Whenever a young, dynamic male character has been cast on soaps over the past couple of years, your name has been mentioned at the top of the list of possibilities every single time. Have you actually been close to signing on for another soap role? GH is the show where your name tends to come up the most.
TOM PELPHREY: It's something that I'm not looking to do right now. There have been discussions in the past. The bottom line is that when I was working on GUIDING LIGHT I was very happy. I love it and I loved the people there, and loved being able to work every day. I was grateful to be able to make a living as an actor. I would never say a bad thing at all about working on a soap. But it's something right now I'm not exactly looking to do.
I'm back in New York now, and my friends and I from Rutgers formed a theater company in the city a little over a year ago, Apothecary Theatre Company, and we had our first production this past December. I want to be able to put more of my time and energy into that. It really excites me and we have some very talented people involved in that. That's where my focus is right now.
WE LOVE SOAPS: How long were you living out in L.A.?
TOM PELPHREY: I lived out there for about a year and a half, maybe closer to two years. The first few months were pretty rough, and I did not like it, but by the time I left, I did enjoy living there. I won't say I liked it more than New York, but it's a different rhythm and mindset, and if you are open to that, there's a lot of things to enjoy about California. The weather is always beautiful and there's so much to do outside. It's a different feel. It wasn't necessarily for me, but I found a little niche for myself by the time I left.
WE LOVE SOAPS: What are your long-term aspirations in the business? Do you want to do more films? Television? Obviously more theater.
TOM PELPHREY: I don't know. I'd like to try more films, as I haven't done much of that. For me, there are certain things that are in my control, like the theater company with my friends. The more effort we put in and the more time we put in and the more money we raise, the better it will be. That's the kind of thing I want to focus on because everything else I have no control over. I'll get a call and audition and get the job or I won't. All I can do is stay in shape and make sure I'm working enough or in class enough that I don't start to lose my edge. Just to be a working actor would be nice. To make a living do that is the goal.
"My Italy Story" will run June 17 through June 28, Wednesdays through Sundays at 8pm at Mile Square Theatre's new home, The Monroe Center for the Arts. This production brings together a creative team of seasoned Broadway and Film/Television artists that are strongly attached to Hoboken and this wonderful play.
Written by Hoboken playwright Joseph Gallo and nominated for the Gay Talese Literary Prize, NEW YORK TIMES critic Lawrence Van Gelder said of My Italy Story, "Anyone who has ever been part of a large family is bound to respond! Filled with humor and a gallery of vivid characters.
Visit www.milesquaretheatre.org for more information on "My Italy Story".