When you look up the word "class" in the soap opera encyclopedia, chances are you will find Anna Stuart's picture. This veteran has spent nearly 40 years blazing trails on daytime as confident, sexy, and sassy women. She is currently starring in indie soap GOTHAM. But little is known about her off screen struggles, hopes, and disappointments. Please read this rare interview to learn more about this fascinating and inspiring talent, and her life lessons learned along the way. In Part One, Ms. Stuart recalls anecdotes from her early years on soaps, her reluctance to do daytime, and pressures of temporarily replacing Maeve Kinkead on GUIDING LIGHT.
We Love Soaps: It is so wonderful to speak with you! You played Toni on THE DOCTORS from 1971-1977. How did that come about?
Anna Stuart: I got the initial audition, which I did not want to do, because there was no way I was going to do a soap opera. I figured I would get the audition out of the way, but then I got a call back. The day of the callback I happened to be shooting a commercial. It was one of those horrible February rainy slushy days. The commercial was downtown. I got out too late to make the audition. But my agent called them, they were running behind. I ran out in the cold to make it, and then got the next callback. By that time I was green with illness. I had gotten sick from going out in this weather, I had 103 fever. I was a mess. That’s why I wasn’t nervous, I was so sick I just wanted to get it over with. I later found out that P&G had wanted to cast somebody else, but Norman Hall [Director on THE DOCTORS] wanted me for the part.
We Love Soaps: But you had decided you did not want to do soaps?
Anna Stuart: I wanted to do theater and films. Things were different with actors then. You actually went to acting school, you studied playwrights, you didn’t just have a pretty face and get put on camera. Soaps just didn’t interest me. So when I got THE DOCTORS, I didn’t really want it. They talked me into it. And then I got snared into working consistently, while doing theater on the side.
We Love Soaps: What was it like to work on THE DOCTORS at that time?
Anna Stuart: It was my first show. I had such a great time. It wasn’t live, but it was close. You did not stop. They didn’t do takes. They had an announcer, they taped from beginning to end. If you had to stop it was like threat of death. If you didn’t get it right then you’d better make it up.
We Love Soaps: Did you ever have to do that?
Anna Stuart: Well we had cue cards. But I really didn’t like them. They were distracting for me. But we had two guys, one on either side of the camera. They would have these big cardboard things with the lines written on them. Their finger would wag as they would go down the thing, so in the corner of your eye you could see the line they were pointing to. Elizabeth Hubbard had her whole acting style around the cue cards. She would sort of shake her head and look over in one direction. She made it so that it was very much a part of the scene and it didn’t look like she was looking over.
There were so many wonderful stories, they are endless. David O’ Brien [Steve Aldrich], who was one of the leading doctors on the show, was very dependent on the cue cards. Somehow they got the wrong scene. So he’s looking over at the cue cards and they are not in his lines. He simply turned around and looked in the other direction with his back to the camera. It was very cute.
When I left THE DOCTORS I said, “That’s it, I don’t want to do any more soaps.” And then the phone started ringing, “Would you come out to California and do GENERAL HOSPITAL?” I said, “No! Go away!” They bugged me for two months. My agent came to me. I said, “Okay I’ll do it for a year, just one year or not at all.” So I moved to California. I played Gina [from 1977-1978].
We Love Soaps: What was Gina like?
Anna Stuart: Gina Dante was a gynecologist. Toni was a lab assistant. Both characters were young, intelligent, strong but vulnerable women with a sense of integrity. That was the basis for both of those characters. In fact, the same writers wrote both of those characters.
We Love Soaps: Is that why you ultimately agreed to join GENERAL HOSPITAL.
Anna Stuart: No. It was because I was badgered to death. And I had just split with my husband. So I thought a year in California would be okay and I could get my foot in the door out there. Armand Assante came onto the show and played my husband. We became great buddies.
We Love Soaps: After a year on GENERAL HOSPITAL, what happened?
Anna Stuart: I got ill, actually. Without going into gory detail, it was something I needed to deal with. I stayed in California because the doctors were there. I stayed there and ended up not working for three years. It wasn’t cancerous or life threatening, just something I had to deal with. At the end of that period of time when I finally got myself back together, I got a call from New York [in 1981]. They called and said, “Will you please come and replace Maeve Kinkead [Vanessa Chamberlain] on GUIDING LIGHT? She’s going on pregnancy leave for six months.” I said, “Okay!”
We Love Soaps: Did you know Maeve at that time?
Anna Stuart: No. I just saddled up, came to New York, and did GUIDING LIGHT.
We Love Soaps: What was that like for you to walk into a roll that you knew was someone else’s and was going to be short term?
Anna Stuart: Absolutely terrifying. I remember one day in particular I had tremendous scenes. The character was integral to the whole show. It was a great character. I remember having all these very emotional scenes with my father played by Bill Roerick. I didn’t really know her, she wasn’t inside of me yet, I didn’t know who she was. I did a couple of scenes, came back to my dressing room, and had on this beautiful white pant suit with a white fox-throw. I sat there, looked at myself in the mirror, and I freaked. I just dissolved into tears. Sobbing, make-up running, dripping down onto this beautiful fox-throw, saying, “I don’t know who she is, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I fully expected them to knock on the door and fire me. And i had to get myself back together and go onto the studio floor and do these scenes. I was in a panic for a couple of weeks.
We Love Soaps: Why so much pressure for a role that was temporary?
Anna Stuart: When an actor, or at least certain actors, do not know who their complex characters are, and that actor cares about their work and cares about being truthful in the part, they want to do it justice. It’s not just about saying words and putting facial expressions with the words. That’s my bar, that’s my criteria for Anna. Not too long after I had a scene with another one of the bitchy characters. There was something in that scene that made me snap and say, “Ah! That’s who she is!” From that point on I had something to grab on. From then on I felt really good and was able to go forward.
We Love Soaps: Did anyone there try to help you find the character?
Anna Stuart: I’m sure there was, but I really can’t comment on that. Daytime is a very difficult place to find help. It’s so hurry up...hurry up. It’s not like you can have a meeting with your director and your producer and sit there in between the scenes. I may have had a little bit of help but not anywhere near what I needed. But I was fortunate enough to find what I needed to go forward.
We Love Soaps: Did Maeve Kinkead ever acknowledge your hard work?
Anna Stuart: I don’t have a memory of that. I just know that Maeve is a lovely, lovely woman. She must have thanked me for keeping her character warm. But I don’t recall having a sit down about it.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please press here for Part Two of our interview in which Anna Stuart discusses her personal background, and how she has broken out of traditional societal roles to become the actress and human she is today.
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 is re-imagining a world without "shoulds" at www.shouldless.com.