If you were a fan of Douglas Marland's AS THE WORLD TURNS in the late 1980s, you were probably mesmerized by the layered and sultry performances of Melanie Smith. Her Emily Stewart seduced teenaged Paul, was impregnated by James Stenbeck, married Holden and had relationships with Brock and Craig and others. Smith played the dynamic Emily with an edge but also a remarkable vulnerability that made viewers root for her no matter what she did. She went on to star in a number of primetime series (THE DIVISION, MELROSE PLACE, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE) and films (End Game, Bodily Sanctions, 21). One of her most memorable roles was Jerry's girlfriend, Rachel, in SEINFELD. Rachel saw George's "shrinkage" and the rest is history!
In a fabulous bit of casting news, WE LOVE SOAPS TV can exclusively report that Smith is returning to soaps in the role of Claire Ryan on GOTHAM. Claire is the older sister of Martha Byrne's Catherine.
The actress recently spoke to We Love Soaps about her soap days, her other roles, her current endeavors and much more in this revealing interview.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You grew up in Pennsylvania. Did you always want to be an actress?
Melanie Smith: I never wanted to be an actress.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: So how did your role as Emily Stewart come about on AS THE WORLD TURNS?
Melanie Smith: If I remember correctly, they were auditioning me for something else. The assistant casting director at the time was reading with me. As I was leaving the office, he came running down the hall after me and said, "Will you come back and read for the role of Emily?" And I said, "Sure." I went back and read, and then I went back again and read again. Then I had a meeting with the producers and got the role.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: This was your first national television role?
Melanie Smith: Yes. Like I said, I didn't aspire to be an actress so I didn't audition for much of anything. This was one of my first auditions.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You were on AS THE WORLD TURNS during a real golden period for the show with Doug Marland as head writer. During your run Emily was pregnant by James, married Holden, took Paul's virginity and much more. Do you have a favorite storyline from your run on the show?
Melanie Smith: The storyline with James and Paul was the most dramatic by far. And I loved working with Scotty Bryce. I think the whole Emily/James/Lily/Paul/Barbara story... [laughs] was high drama and a lot of fun. I held a gun on James. There was always a gun, always sex, always a slap, someone always got slapped.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You were older than baby-faced Andy Kavovit who played Paul. And in 2009 Emily and Paul are together again. What was that storyline like for you with Emily sleeping with younger Paul and then later he was crushing on her?
Melanie Smith: He was supposed to be like sixteen or seventeen and I was in my twenties.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: So many ATWT fans still remember your run on the show fondly. You've played many other parts since you left but do you ever get recognized by people who saw you as Emily?
Melanie Smith: All the time!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You worked with many veteran stars of the show including the fabulous Marie Masters, who played Susan.
Melanie Smith: I love Marie. That was another of my favorite storylines working with Marie. Emily was pregnant and all the stuff between her and her mom. We had so much fun together.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Since you left the role, Emily has been all over the map and in and out of craziness. What was your take on the character?
Melanie Smith: I actually saw Emily as kind. She was kind but she had no idea how to express that and was never shown how to express it.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: I believe fans loved your portrayal of the character because you played a vulnerability that not every actress can play with such a strong role.
Melanie Smith: When I would hear from fans they would say what Emily had done wrong but I never got any hate mail. I only got love mail. I was [playing] a villainess who was always doing something wrong but I was nominated as Outstanding Heroine [in the 1991 Soap Opera Digest Awards].
I never believe that anyone gets up in the morning being awful or mean. How I felt about Emily was that she was such a little girl and she was trying so hard to be a grown up and trying to get love. I loved the character of Emily. She was one of the favorite character I ever played.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Have you kept in touch with any of your AS THE WORLD TURNS co-stars over the years?
Melanie Smith: Yes. I kept in touch with Mary Ellen Stewart, who played Frannie. And I kept in touch with Maggie Reed [who played Shannon, and is also starring in GOTHAM]. Every now and then I'll run into some folks from WORLD TURNS.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You mentioned that you didn't set out to be an actress. What was your career goal when you first started out? What did you want to be?
Melanie Smith: You know, that's a really good question. [Laughs] I'm still trying to figure that out! I had gone to school for public relations and psychology and I wanted to be a fashion designer or interior decorator. I actually really loved the human experience so I love being with people and working with people. That's kind of more like what I'm doing today. I think I was just out in the world discovering. I worked in advertising. I worked in a bunch of different areas to try to figure out what I wanted to do. That's a really long answer to a short question. [Laughs] I didn't know!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You left the soap in 1990 and returned a couple of times briefly. You moved out to Los Angeles after AS THE WORLD TURNS and started doing some primetime work and films. You were pursuing acting full-time at that point?
Melanie Smith: I was pursuing acting. I was also a songwriter/jingle writer. I wrote some very successful jingles. I was also a [home] designer and contractor. Obviously I acted full-time and did a lot of series work out there.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Are there any jingles we might know?
Melanie Smith: There was a huge Sprint campaign that starred Candice Bergen - the "Be There Now" campaign. I co-wrote that. And I wrote for Mattel and different companies. It was really fun.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Speaking of fun, I can't talk to you without mentioning your appearances on SEINFELD as Jerry's girlfriend, Rachel. I actually just re-watched the "shrinkage" episode this morning. What was that set like?
Melanie Smith: That set was different than any set you'll ever be on. They were all so professional and generous and funny and brilliant. Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld] and all of them are so funny and bright and friendly, and hanging out with them was a blast. I had a great time on that show. [The "shrinkage" episode] was named the funniest television moment in history by AOL. I get asked about that everywhere.
I own a yoga studio now. It's a very large wellness center and two nights before the opening I was sitting there pondering about being in an area of the world nobody knew me. I had moved here [to New Hope, PA] a short time before I opened my studio. I was wondering how I would get the word out about this big opening I was having on Saturday. Then I got a call from Oprah's producers saying that they were doing a reunion show with SEINFELD and the "shrinkage" show was their favorite. They wanted to know if they could feature it and I said, "Of course." The networks got wind of it and did a 10 minute piece on the opening of my studio and 500 people showed up!
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Later you appeared on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Was that because you had appeared on SEINFELD and knew Larry?
Melanie Smith: Yes. That was offered to me because I worked with him on SEINFELD.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melanie Smith is the only actress to portray an ex-girlfriend of both Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. You'll also remember her as the girlfriend Jerry made out with during Schindler's List.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You did some films, had roles on DEEP SPACE NINE and THE DIVISION and other shows. You said before you loved the role of Emily, but what would you say is your favorite role of all you have played?
Melanie Smith: I honestly would say Emily or Tora Ziyal on DEEP SPACE. Tora Ziyal was really the ambassador of peace. And she was so gentle and so kind. Because you weren't in human form really, and were like this creature that was a mix of stuff from outer space, you were given a lot of free reign to be more ethereal. I really loved that role. They all had an edge to them.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Do you think you get typecast as "the woman with an edge"?
Melanie Smith: I might have thought that if it wasn't for Tora Ziyal or a film I did or the role I had on THE DIVISION. In those roles I was really nurturing and kind and loving. But most of my roles were the tough ingénue who was smart, the sexier roles.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: In the early '90s after you moved to Los Angeles you discovered yoga. It became a huge part of your life. How did that come about?
Melanie Smith: One of my friends at the time, Lysette Anthony, who was in the Woody Allen film Husbands and Wives, had called me and said, "Yoga with Bikram?" And I said, "What's that?" And she said, "It's yoga, and they heat the room to 110 degrees." I said, "No, I'm good." She said, "No, we're all going. The whole gang." I said, "No, I'm fine." Then she said, "After, we're all going to meet for margaritas," and I said, "Okay, what time?" [Laughs]
So we met at Bikram's and I took a class, and I've done yoga probably every day for the rest of my life since then. So I changed and studied with so many of the masters and I've been practicing for many years.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You now own your own yoga studio, Yogaphoria, which is a fabulous name. How has yoga impacted your life?
Melanie Smith: It has given me a deeper understanding of who I am. And it gives me the ability to kind of take a spiritual inventory of where I am in my life. It gives me strength and awareness. I think what owning the studio has done for me is show me how to take yoga off the mat and really love a community and have a community bond. Yogaphoria just had their five year anniversary and you saw how hundreds of people had become so close to each other. Providing the walls for that community to meet is one of the greatest gifts I've ever had, aside from my son, of course. It really was something magical. Yoga is the way I live. It may not always be what I do, but it is definitely the way I live.
And it's not only yoga that I do. I'm also a grief recovery specialist, a life coach, and a nutritional and holistic coach. I'm board certified now. It's interesting how many clients walk in and work with me and say, "My God, you're the 'shrinkage' girl," or something like that. It's funny how far you can come. I always say working as an actor gave me an insight into the psychology of so many people, and it's really helped me in my private practice working with people.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Since you are from Pennsylvania, is that why you built your studio in New Hope?
Melanie Smith: Two of my best friends live in Bucks County and I had come here at times to visit. When I decided to leave L.A., because I didn't really like it there, I was either going to move to Napa or to Bucks County. At that time I was married, and my ex-husband and I had family in the area of Bucks, so we decided on Bucks.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: You recently received a phone call from Martha Byrne asking you to take a role on her new indie web soap, GOTHAM. What were you thinking when you got that call?
Melanie Smith: I was sitting on a set the day before with my girlfriend Mariska Hargitay and she kept saying to me, "Are you ever going to act again?" And I said, "You know, I just don't see myself going back, but if it fell on my doorstep I might think about it. But it's not really anything I see myself going after." She said, "Oh gosh, you had so much fun doing it, you should think about it." And I said, "Ah, but I love my life!" And then Martha called the next day! [Laughs]
It was so funny because I was finishing a meeting and the manager of my center walked up and said to me, "Martha Byrne." And I thought, "Wow, Martha Byrne, I haven't talk to her in a hundred years!" [Laughs] So I picked up the phone and she talked to me about the project and it was great to hear from her. I'm really, really proud and impressed for her and Lisa Brown for taking something like this on. Being an entrepreneur, I think it's really great.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What do you know about the role that you can tell us?
Melanie Smith: Well, all I really know is I'll be playing Martha's sister [Claire]. Her old sister. And I'm a very nurturing and kind person.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: In addition to Martha, Maggie Reed is also part of the GOTHAM cast. Are you excited to reunite with some of your former ATWT co-stars?
Melanie Smith: Oh my God, yeah. We had so much fun together! It's a medium that has such a special place in so many people's hearts. [AS THE WORLD TURNS] was my mother's favorite show when I was growing up. I kind of feel like the paradigm of soap operas and television and film is changing. The whole industry is changing dramatically. This may be the future of it all. For Martha and Lisa to spearhead this and get people together who really love working together is a good start. Everybody is so talented.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: If you could go back 22 years to when you first started as Emily Stewart on AS THE WORLD TURNS, what advice would you give yourself?
Melanie Smith: Don't cut your bangs so short! Hmm, that's a really good question. I don't know. Maybe "Do it the same way," because I did it well.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: That's a very positive answer.
Melanie Smith: I'm proud of what I did as Emily. For a novice, I think I stepped up to the plate. I really loved all the people that I got close to, and had a lot of fun.
WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Finally, how has your life been different than you imagined it would be?
Melanie Smith: [Laughs] My life is completely different than I imagined it would be. There's a wonderful saying, "Man Plans. God laughs." I don't know that I ever thought I would have the courage to live a life of just saying yes to whatever the universe provided to me. I'm very blessed, and I have an amazingly abundant life. But I never saw myself doing almost any of the things I have done. I guess the answer to that question is: I don't think I really had a plan!
It's hard to hold the vision of any thoughts I actually had back then. I've always just accepted that whatever came my way was part of my purpose. I never imagined I would have given birth to most amazing kid ever. He is my guru and the light of my life so that is really an amazing accomplishment. I never really knew where I was going to live or where I would end up and the story is not over yet. It's only partly written. I have no idea what's next.