By Michael Ausiello
ABC Soaps in Depth
October 5, 1999
The reviews are in, and they're unanimous - Sarah Brown is the best thing to happen to soaps since the invention of television.
Those still hanging onto the age-old belief that all men are created equal probably haven't tuned into GENERAL HOSPITAL lately. If they had, about three times a week, they would have seen living proof that when God created man, he must have been playing favorites. How else to explain the natural phenomenon that is Sarah Brown.
A marvel of talent guts and intensity, Brown, in her three short years portraying wanton wrecking ball Carly Benson, has turned in one mesmerizing performance after another. With the remarkable mood-swinging capabilities of a Bette Davis, the deep, sultry voice of a Kathleen Turner, and a knack for playing hunger that rivals Joan Crawford's, Brown not only dominates her scenes, but steals them right from under even the soap's most seasoned performers. Whether playing angry, happy, or hurt, Brown brings to Carly such a depth and complexity that the pure genius of it makes critics (not to mention her colleagues) giggle like children seeing snow for the first time. In fact, the actress has become such an attraction among her co-stars that when they're not showering her with honors- among them two back-to-back Daytime Emmys- they're lining up around the block to work opposite her.
All the more mind-boggling is the fact that the individual possessing such super-human powers is a mere 24 years old. It's enough to make an atheist believe in the existence of a supreme being. Even Brown admits that she can't take credit for what comes naturally to her. "It's something higher than me that's doing it," offers the actress, relaxing in her GH dressing room while waiting to be called to the set. "It's all God."
How it All Began
Truth be told, Brown has had plenty of real-life experience being emotionally all over the map. Born on a hippie commune in Eureka, Calif., to writer Pamela Brown and graphic designer David Brown, the self-professed tomboy describes her early years as anything but stable. "It was not a fairy tale, let's put it that way;" sighs the performer, who has three brothers and one sister. "I never lived in the same place for a very long period of time. And I have had a long, long, long history of drug and alcohol abuse in my family. So, I grew up very; very quickly. And I learned to depend on myself, support myself, rely on myself and at the same time, I was given the freedom to pursue my dreams."
And Brown, whose parents eventually divorced, knew early on - while playing orphan Pepper in a sixth grade production of Annie - that it was her dream to be a performer. Her mother later would enroll her in the prestigious Los Angeles High School For The Performing Arts, where she endured Greek-tragedy boot camp. "They were giving me a classical training background, which now I'm thankful for, but I wanted to expand out into film and television," she says. "I wanted to leave but my mother wouldn't let me. She made me tough it out."
Upon Brown's graduation, her acting career began gathering steam, with bit parts in the films Reality Bites (from which her scenes were excised) and Blue Chips, and a starring role in the syndicated action series VR TROOPERS. Then, in March 1996, Brown, 21 at the time, auditioned for the role of Bobbie Spencer's long-lost daughter, Carly, on GH. Casting director Mark Teschner, who saw hundreds of actresses for the plum part, recalls that the relative newcomer made an indelible first impression. "She had a presence and a complexity that was perfect for the role of Carlv," he says.
There was just one problem. When it came time for the finalists to meet with executive producer Wendy Riche, Brown was out of town filming a movie. "But I felt so strongly about her that when she returned, I brought her in for a private callback with Wendy, which is very unusual," Teschner says. "If somebody misses the producer's sessions, they miss the producer's sessions. But I remember saying to Wendy, 'I have one person that you've got come down to my office and see because I think she's very special.' Wendy agreed and we tested her and she blew us away."
But even Teschner could not have anticipated the talent that he was about to unleash on the world. From the moment Brown first appeared on-screen, jaws dropped and people talked. You could almost hear a collective "Wow!" emanating from living rooms across the country. "Within 22 seconds of her first appearing on-camera, I thought, "Hey, this girl has something," recalls noted soap columnist Alan Carter. "She has whatever that thing is that makes you want to watch her and tune in tomorrow." Adds TV Guide's Michael Logan, who called her one of the great finds of '96: "She was amazingly riveting from the get-go- one of the rare young ones who hits the ground running."
Taking it on the Chin
It didn't take GH long to recognize that it had a Carl Lewis in its midst. Before you could say Erica Kane, Carly became the show's preeminent story catalyst. "When I'm writing for Carly, it's very easy because she generates ideas," notes headwriter Bob Guza. "I think of any situation for Carly, and Sarah is able to pull it off."
Considering Carly's list of high crimes and misdemeanors, that's no simple task. In addition to stealing her mother's husband, the tortured soul drugged recovering alcoholic AJ. Quartermaine into thinking he had fallen off the wagon, lied about her son's true paternity, and, in a shocking act of vengeance, shot ex-lover Tony Jones in the middle of a crowded courtroom. But through it all, Carly remained a sympathetic figure, a miraculous achievement for any actress, let alone one of Brown's youth. "Sarah in years is really very young, but she has great depth of character," points out her on-screen mom, Jacklyn Zeman (Bobbie). "She has a lot of substance to her, and that comes through in Carly."
While Carly eventually evolved into one of soaps' most complex anti-heroines, in the very beginning, she was all attitude and little soul- the result of a raging behind-the-scenes debate over what kind of character she was and should be. (see "Dear Sarah...," page 71, for one GH writer's take on the situation). Aside from being Bobbie's birth child, Carly had little direction. And, Brown explains, if the writers weren't going to define her, someone had to. "I literally spent so many hundreds of hours figuring Carly out in my head," she offers. "I spent my weekends writing her back story."
GH eventually got a handle on the hellraiser, but Brown never has let down her guard. "If you're not going to protect your character, nobody is," she insists. "Our writers have changed so often that if I'm not looking, Carly could easily become a very wishy-washy character and she's just not. She's too important to me- and I think, to the viewers and to ABC- to make her wishy-washy and lose the stuff that everybody loves.
"The only reason that people grabbed onto Carly with all her faults and flaws is that she had some sort of integrity and trueness to who she was. She would, at the end of the day, always resort back to Carly, acting out of fear, fighting dirty. I would go to war to keep that set that way."
In Defense of Carly
In fact, Brown recently began gathering her artillery when Carly married A.J. Quartermaine and moved in with Port Charles' most dysfunctional clan. "When I was informed of the story, I knew that we were going to have to set down some basic guidelines," she says. "When I was first thrown in there, I felt that there were a lot of changes to my character that were not organic. She suddenly was omitting her behavior and changing the way that she spoke and all these kinds of things that just didn't ring true with me. So that's where I think we were on a different page, and we've tried to find a happy medium."
But such battles do take an emotional toll on Brown- a fact that has not gone unnoticed by her costars. "I think she's getting a taste of what it's like sitting around with the Quartermaines, and it's not a lot of fun sometimes," suggests Billy Warlock (A.J.). "The people and the repartée are a blast, but when all you're doing is being a Quartermaine, you lose your identity, and that can be frustrating."
Ironically, it's Brown's vested interest in preserving Carly's integrity that has led to her being branded with the infamous "P" label. "I am definitely a perfectionist," she says. "Not in all aspects of my life, but as an actor and with my work, yes. I can be called difficult at times because of my creative intuition, which has always driven me as an actor. And in coming on this show, it was that creative intuition that helped me survive the first six months with all of the changes in writing and them not knowing exactly who Carly was."
The Family Gal
If Brown could survive her rough-and-tumble youth, then she surely can withstand the ups and downs at GH. "I look at life and think that every stone that you pick up along the way is a stone that you needed in order to build the mountain that one day you'll stand on top of. So everything that I've gone through has made me who I am."
With her professional life a rousing success, Brown is claiming victory on a personal level as well. For one thing, she never has been closer to her family- particularly her parents- than she is today. "The place that we're in right now in terms of our relationship is so much better than it has ever been in my life," she says. "They're both my best friends in the world, and I learn more from them than anybody that I have ever met."
It probably helps that Brown is now a parent herself. Last July, she gave birth to Jordan Alexandra Judith. "It's changed me enormously," she marvels. "It's really settled me down. It's made me look at my career in a different way in terms of what's best for my daughter as opposed to the one-track mind of me, myself, and I. It's made me consider things that [mothersl have been considering for years- whether we should work and be outside of the home, what's the best thing for her.
"At the end of the day, the example that I want to set for her is that any dream you want is attainable. Go and get it. Don't wait for anybody to give it to you. Work your butt off and you can have whatever you want."
What Will She Do For an Encore?
For her part, what Brown wants in terms of her career is to do quality work alongside quality talent. "I want to work with people who are teaching me and who I am growing as a result of being in their presence," she says, adding that she wants to pursue character-driven projects. "I think that inside I'm a character actress with a good enough face. I don't see myself as being drop-dead gorgeous- I'm definitely not the standard mold. I have a different look to me that's not classical beauty."
Classical or not, Brown, with a mere backward glance, easily could turn a gent to jelly. TV Guide's Logan believes that her unique look will prove to be an asset. "She may not be the most castable, but when she gets that role that will make it happen, she will be absolutely killer," he says. "There's a place for her that a lot of young actresses can't possibly fill."
Brown's ideal career path also has her taking a more active role behind the camera. And owing to her "Go get it" mantra, she has in the works a venture in which she would act as both director and producer: "They're little vignettes that will be played on the Internet," she says of her hush-hush project. "They're not about soaps, they're about romance."
Also on the horizon, Brown plans to complete her starring role in Cybersex and Pretzels, the Levy-produced independent film which last year was delayed when she became pregnant. "[And] I'd love to start doing some directing at GH if they'd be open to it," she says. "I have to expand. At a certain point, it's like, "Okay, what's the next challenge?"
That need to be challenged may be the chief sticking point when Brown's GH contract comes up for renewal in March. "After three years, I'm already getting the itch to do other things. The creativity in me doesn't want to play the same character for the rest of my life," she says. "It's too limiting. It's just my nature as an actor."
But not just any actor. "She is the best actress in daytime, hands down," clarifies Steve Burton (Jason). "There's no comparison."