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Under Fire with James Depaiva, Part One

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with James DePaiva last weekend about his new play, "Under Fire," opening in New York on September 30th. During the course of the conversation, DePaiva shared his insights, reflections on the past, and hopes for the future. For those who don't remember (could anyone not remember?), James portrayed the wild and fiery cowboy-gone-conman-gone-domesticated-single-dad Max Holden on ONE LIFE TO LIVE (1987-1990, 1992-2003). If you are in the New York area in the next few weeks, please check out "Under Fire" at nymf.org.

We Love Soaps: Tell me about this new play.
James Depaiva: It’s a new musical. It’s part of the NYMF festival (New York Musical Festival). We have the director, lyricist, playwright that created "Romance, Romance" - Barry Harmon. And we have Grant Sturiale doing the music and it’s absolutely gorgeous music. It’s the first musical I’ve done in 30 years. It’s busting my hump. All this singing and dancing, I actually have to take care of myself. Not like in the soap days when I would just stay out all night. It’s based on the film Under Fire, which had Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy. You think, 'okay, it’s about a rebel overthrow and the journalists covering it in Nicaragua, how can you make that into a musical?' Actually I think it works better than the film does. I think it has more impact. It certainly has very enjoyable moments in it and lighter moments which make the tragedy of it much more stark. We’re about two weeks into rehearsal, and loving every minute of it.

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We Love Soaps: The premise is that an American journalist comes to a South American country and gets drawn into it's charm?
James Depaiva: Without giving anything away, there are two stories going on. One is the love triangle I’m involved in. I’m a senior correspondent, kind of like a Dan Rather or something like that, and I’m in a love with another journalist, a woman, who at one point was my student. And my best friend is another student, a younger man, and they’ve been developing feelings for each other. Meanwhile this woman and I have been breaking up quite a bit. I want to go to New York, she doesn’t want to leave the field, and we go back and forth. So you’ve got this love triangle that’s bouncing back and forth through this thing. And Scott Bryce's [ex-Craig on AS THE WORLD TURNS] wife is the other leg of our triangle. Jodi Stevens is a beautiful singer and it’s great to work with her. So I think Scott for allowing us to use his wife, and for me to lust after her and not get her. [laughs]

James Depaiva: At the same time you have the story of America’s involvement in a Central American country and whether we support the correct side, whether it be the government or the rebels, and our involvement, and the way journalists would cover it. And also the fact America only really cares about something if it happens to an American, which is what happens in this case, in a very drastic way.

We Love Soaps: And you are playing one of the journalists.
James Depaiva: I’m in the Gene Hackman role. I’ve reached the Gene Hackman stage of my life.

We Love Soaps: Well, Gene Hackman has worked in more in these last ten years than most of his career.
James Depaiva: No kidding. But I think he’s retired, so there might be an opening for me. [laughs]

We Love Soaps: How did you decide to do a musical?
James Depaiva: To be honest with you, when I left the soaps, at first I didn’t know if I wanted to act again. But I started working on my voice again with someone who is absolutely wonderful who helped me understand what was wrong with my vocal instrument. And I’ve been working on it on and off for the last five years, and pretty much gearing myself to do a musical. And it’s only ready if I’m diligent and don’t muck up my voice. So I’m happy to turn into a little bit of a monk, which I’m not used to anymore. But it’s worth it. And I haven’t danced for 30 years. I used to dance in shows and now I can’t remember how to move. My hips didn’t work anymore. But they do now, they’ve loosened up. I’m not just the white guy who dances like a stick.

We Love Soaps: You are working with a choreographer?
James Depaiva: We have a wonderful [choreographer], Jonathan Cerullo. We have very limited time to work on these things, and he’s getting as extravagant as he can.

We Love Soaps: To prepare for the dancing have you followed a certain kind of regimen or exercise?
James Depaiva: I lost four pounds just in the first week from the dancing. But once I got comfortable, unfortunately, the weight came back. No, I just practice and practice. A lot of it is a samba going into tango and it’s music I don’t naturally dance to and never learned how to dance. So I’ll go home, crank up the stereo, and play the same song over and over for two hours straight and move and try to get stupid. Until you get stupid your body doesn’t move around much. If you think about it, it doesn’t work. So you have to embarrass yourself and that’s helped a lot.

We Love Soaps: We Love Soaps: How is this character similar to Max Holden?
James Depaiva: I’d say both of them are risk takers, and very bold people. Certainly where Max was toward the end, he was safe and wanting to settle down. And that’s where this character, Alex Grazier, is. He’s wanting to settle down and not have such a danger, risky, outrageous life. But the woman he loves isn’t ready to give it up. He’s torn between those two worlds.

We Love Soaps: You mentioned not having a lot of rehearsal time for this musical.
James Depaiva: It’s three weeks for a new musical! We’re not talking about putting on something people know and love. They make changes, they go, 'well that doesn’t work.' Then you have scene transitions and the limitations of working within a musical theater festival situation. We have a four foot by five foot area where we can store props.

We Love Soaps: Sounds you like you have to be pretty flexible and patient.
James Depaiva: The hours are longer, and you only give six performances so the payoff isn’t as good as doing a long range thing. But you’re on the ground floor of something that’s new and exciting. It’s an absolute joy. I look forward to it, other than the fact I’ve had to cut back on my cocktails because it messes up my voice. That’s the hard part.

We Love Soaps: Do you feel like your work on soaps has prepared you for this kind of theater?
James Depaiva: Oh yes. All the actors just look and me and go, 'Of course you know your lines.' It’s funny in that way. Usually in theater you hold your book for quite awhile, you’re feeling your way through it and now I pick up my lines and I know them after reading them a couple of times. So now it’s getting past that, 'Okay, I’ve read my lines, I know them, that’s my performance. Now that I’ve done that I have to try to forget everything.'

We Love Soaps: Forget everything?
James Depaiva: Forget my preconceived notions of what the part is about and what the scene should be about. On a soap, you have to create the performance right there and do it right there and that is what is going on camera. Right or wrong, that’s what’s going on camera. Here you put it up there and that’s my performance for the next three weeks. But the way rehearsals are being run, there’s a lot of sitting around talking about who these people are, their relationships, how do their relationships affect each other in this coming scene? How have the dynamics changed? It feels so indulgent to me. Here I’m saying the same lines, but they have to be new and different every time I do them.

We Love Soaps: Is that a challenge for you?
James Depaiva: It’s a different kind of challenge. When your perform a soap, the performance never really gets into your blood. You may have an emotional scene that you have a connection to and walk out feeling exhausted and just completely overwhelmed, but at the same time it’s just one quick moment and you don’t have to do it again. You can use little acting tricks that throw you into these emotional whirlpools that work if you do it right then. But they don’t work if you’re doing it in a long run play or anything like that. Those kinds of tricks wear out. Your body responds to emotional impulses, and if you keep hitting it with the same impulse, it starts to deaden. I believe in a play you have to get yourself so you are in a prepared state and open state. So that when something happens within the context of the play, that’s what triggers you and affects you. You’re not creating something false outside, as I would on television.

Stay tuned for Part Two where DePaiva reflects on struggles with his ego, and the demise of Max Holden.

Damon L. Jacobs is a Marriage Family Therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." He blogs regularly at www.shouldless.com.

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