By Jason Bonderoff
Sarah Felder was sitting on the floor, spooning dirt from a big bag into a little pot, performing surgery on a shriveled avocado plant.
The young actress, who plays Siobhan on RYAN'S HOPE, looked sadly at the limp leaves and winced. “My roommate just moved out and left me this thing,” she sighed. “I’m trying to bring it back from the dead.” But she seemed doubtful of her own nursing powers - like somebody with a cranky baby who didn’t know the first thing about diapering it.
And rescuing avocados is only one of her problems as a New York bachelor girl. Sarah ticks off her list of woes: she’s fought with her landlord and gone on a rent strike; she’s missed auditions, sitting in stalled subway trains and she doesn’t have much of a social life because the man she loves lives in Minnesota.
How did that happen? Well, one summer - needing a break from New York - Sarah went back to her hometown of St. Paul and took a job as a cocktail waitress. While working in a local restaurant there, she met her boyfriend. The magic was instant, but so were the complications, because when fall came, Sarah had to return to New York to finish her acting studies at the Juilliard School of Music. It’s been a long-distance romance ever since.
“He’s an architectural student,” Sarah reveals, “and our careers make a relationship very difficult. In fact, that’s why we haven’t gotten married. I mean, I’m on a soap here, and he is in school there. I’d never ask him to give school up and he’d never ask me to stop working because he knows, if he did, he’d have to give me up, too.”
A firm believer in women’s rights, Sarah bridles at the idea of a wife sacrificing all her dreams for her husband. “There was this great line in the movie The Turning Point,” she says excitedly. “Shirley MacLaine and her husband are sitting in the kitchen. She tells him she wants to go to New York after 20 years of being a Midwestern housewife. He says to her, “Well, go, then.” That blows her mind. “What are you doing, trying to get rid of me?" she accuses “No, he says, “I’m trying to hold on to you.”
“I loved that line so much, I felt like my breath stopped. I just grabbed the arms of my movie seat and clutched tight. I thought, “Oh God, that’s such a loving thing for him to do - why can’t more men be like that?”’
Sarah herself grew up in a home where independence was fostered, but in a very traditional setting. Her dad is a vascular surgeon; her mom she described as “the ultimate homemaker” who devoted herself to rearing four children. Sarah is the youngest of the brood. Her oldest sister, Nancy, married with two children, is now doing graduate work at Smith College. Her brother, Davitt, is a doctor, “but makes most of his money stamp collecting,” she jokes. Another sister, Alison, is a nurse.
Born on October 9th, Sarah’s blood lines read like a tourist map of Europe with her Welsh, German, Rumanian, Scandinavian and Polish ancestry. “I think I get my build from the Swedes," she laughs, “my freckles from the Welsh and my name from the Rumanians.”
But where she gets her rebellious spirit, God only knows. She’s been scraping with the Establishment since childhood, much like her TV character, Siobhan, who’s the black sheep of the Ryan clan. In fact, Sarah thinks the producers of RYAN'S HOPE sensed the impishness in her own personality, which is why she won the role so easily.
“I’ve always had this instinct to buck authority,” she exclaims. “I don’t mean to cause trouble, but when you truly feel you’re being personally violated, you just have to stand up for your beliefs.”
“I went to a high school that was very traditional, and a lot of the rules just seemed foolish to me. For instance, in order to graduate, you had to do a special senior project. Well, my friend and I decided to do something really theatrical. We painted a huge mural -- 30 feet long and 7 feet high--on a newsprint roll. It was supposed to be an advertisement for a theater. We painted all these great fantasy characters on it -- Prince Charming and cartoon versions of the Addams family. We put a lot of handwork and creativity into it, but the teachers weren’t very impressed because they couldn’t relate to something truly original. “They wanted to flunk us! They thought we were just goofing off."
So, up went that angry fist in the air -- which Sarah calls her personal trademark. She marched straight to the principal’s office and managed to leave high school with her diploma, after all. Next came three years at Bennington College, doing loads of campus musicals and comedies. Then on to New York to study at Juilliard, where a good buddy was Tricia Pursley Hawkins, who now plays Devon Shepherd on All My Children.
Most of Sarah’s other friends, though, are scattered across the country pursuing non-acting careers and she corresponds with them regularly - that is when she’s not running in Central Park or watching TV in her four-flight walk-up apartment.
Despite her bluff, hearty nature, she admits she doesn’t socialize much. “It’s hard being a single woman in New York,” Sarah laments, “and right now I’m so busy working that any kind of personal life has to take a back seat to my career.”
Would she and her Minnesota beau ever consider marriage? “I don’t know.” she says. “You see so many marriages and relationships falling apart nowadays.” Yet, despite her liberated attitude, she sometimes has doubts about the road she’s taken as a woman. “My intellectual training was very liberal, but my emotional training was something else again. So much of me was brought up with the old-fashioned domestic role - find that man who’s right, marry him, keep his house, give him pleasure. So now I have my career - but I’m basically alone. And I’m trying not to think of myself as less than a whole woman, if you can deal with that.”
A slight frown passes over her face, then disappears. Sarah jumps out of her chair to go back and finish repotting that avocado plant. Suddenly, she looks confident and full of spirit again - presto, Siobhan in the flesh! And, like Siobhan, you can bet she’ll make that darn avocado bloom even if she has to yell herself green in the face!