We Love Soaps: Watching you was so much fun as a viewer. We never knew what Jack was going to do in a given scene. He had so many quirks and ticks and twitches. I remember a restaurant scene in which a waiter started to hand him a napkin and Jack does a little jump and sits back down. How much thought and planning went into those little quirks?
Matthew Ashford: I think I learned to live in the moment. There is something called the Buddha of absolute freedom. You live in that moment, and in that moment you have absolute freedom. “Buddha” just means your potential, it doesn’t mean a fat guy with a bald head. You reach that life condition where you are free. You can get it, you can lose it. In that case it was a wonderful time of exploration.
You get on the set and you have what people call “extras” but they are actors. They wouldn’t give these actors anything to do. In one episode I told the guy playing our waiter that I was the richest guy in town. We go to pay the bill, and it looks like I’m going to give him a $10, but then a $5, then three $1s then two $1s, and he just sighed. We did this so quickly, he saw my thinking, and registered that I cheaped out on him. He had no lines, but the two of us carried out this entire dialogue, where he registered what a cheap asshole I was. We talked about this and did these things together, I couldn’t do them by myself. Also, I never walked by a pay phone I didn’t check. It’s all these extra little parts of the character. He had so much more going on than what they wrote.
And it was being present with the other actors. There were so many wonderful actors on that show that weren’t being given much story. Yet they were still wonderful and when you start playing opposite of them so many wonderful things can come out. Like with MacDonald Carey, they hadn’t given him anything in years. Frances Reid, John Clarke are such wonderful actors. Susan Seaforth Hayes is just amazing. There was this idea that they are old and nobody wants to see them. But these guys are gold. Whenever I could work with them I tried to bring that life to it, I tried to make that happen. When you had enough time to work on it, the lines would just come out of some amazing bit of business. Or you would be in the middle of an activity and the lines would organically come out of that by being in the moment.
We Love Soaps: I relate to that as a therapist, and even doing these interviews. If I consider where the moment “should” be going, I’m not there. If I stay in the moment, and stay present, so much more grows out of that.
Matthew Ashford: In Buddhism, a lot of people are trying to help other people. I heard someone say, “What is judgment other than expectation? It’s my expectation of the next moment or what you ‘should’ be doing.” If I learn to truly listen, then I have shut out my expectation, and judgment goes out the window. It’s hard, but it gives you a sense of play.
We Love Soaps: So we’re talking about judgment and expectations. Keeping that in mind, when I mention the name James E. Reilly, what comes to mind?
Matthew Ashford: What immediately comes to mind is Marlena floating over the bed. I think that everyone must have seen that. That explains to you the power of James Reilly. He created moments that people have never forgotten. They have liked them, the have not liked them, but they could never forget them.
Based on that, he built a nice career. He maintained that he had nothing personal against me. And I don’t think he did. I just don’t think I was the most exciting character for him. I think I just had a few too many colors on the page for him. Sometimes writers click with you, sometimes they don’t, just like directors, partners, spouses, anyone. If the writer is into you, your character is going to fly. If they’re not into you, he won’t. It may have been that Jim Reilly felt that Jack was already fleshed out and there was nothing more he could do with him. He liked to write for characters that were a blank page and do his own thing with him.
We Love Soaps: Yet there were so many veterans characters like Marlena, John, and Hope that were consistently being given new directions. He seemed to be opposed to your portrayal of Jack, given there was nothing he could do with you except having Jack die, of having him fear he was going to die.
Matthew Ashford: I believe that the producers like Ken Corday listened to fans and really wanted me there. Then the writer says, “Oh.” I’ve been with head writers who have said, “I just can’t get into this character. I don’t get them.” If you don’t get a character, they are not going to float. Writers are artists too. James Reilly was given his orders, “You will write for this character, we’ve negotiated, he is on this much.” He basically used his ingenuity to find a way to engineer Jack off the canvas. That is unfortunate. It’s just the way it is. I’ve been told on other shows, “The writers don’t get you.” I had a head writer, who is very well respected, come up to me and say, “You are not playing a bad guy,” and this guy is famous for his bad guys. I said to him, “I may be good but I’m not right.” He couldn’t deal with that, he couldn't’ deal with the complexity of that.
We Love Soaps: And you do bring that as an actor. You bring complexity, you bring nuance, you bring layers. James Reilly had many strengths, but he wrote for archetypes, not for characters. He wrote for actors that could play symbols, not textures.
Matthew Ashford: I would look for a way to play a scene that would turn it on its ear instead of playing it straight on. He found that when I was introduced to a scene I broke his wall of complexity, or lack thereof. There are different ways of playing a scene. You literally have to watch the show you are on and pick up the style before you go on. I was there before James Reilly, although he was a staff writer when Jack was created. But he came on as head writer with his own style and started creating the world of James Reilly on DAYS. These preexisting characters were a bit of a problem for him. So was I suddenly going to change? My character suddenly had to be dead, not dead, dead, not dead. Certainly when I was not dead I was going to be myself. But giving the man his due: he had his big vision, he was able to sell it, and people went with it. But in terms of me personally, if he had a chance of creating my character, he would have been far more behind it. It’s difficult when the character is not your creation.
We Love Soaps: So what was it like for you when Jack was recast?
Matthew Ashford: I know both those actors. They are both great guys. We have met at different auditions. Mark Valley has gone and done two different series. He has that chiseled cut face. He has gone on to have tremendous success. We’ve had a lot of laughs. Mark himself had to go to them and say, “Stop trying to write Matthew Ashford. I’m not Matt Ashford, let me be myself.”
We Love Soaps: But after you left Jack fit into that world. His demons, his layers, were all whitewashed.
Matthew Ashford: They wanted to do that because complexities cause a problem. I have been on other shows where I was struggling. I was in a scene with three people that was only written for two. There was no point-of-view for my character and I’ve been around long enough to know that. So I brought that up, pushed my point, and made it uncomfortable for the people producing and writing it. But it was true. Sometimes they just don’t want to know that. I’ve reached a point now where I’m trying to be part of the solution and as little as possible to be part of the problem. Part of it is making the transition from, “This is your show,” to knowing everything changes. This brings up right back to THE BAY where you are working right next to people who have had enormous careers doing all sorts of things, making scads of money, working for the same amount of money you are, doing this thing on the web.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Come back for the final part of our interview in which Ashford discusses why his role as Tom Hardy on GENERAL HOSPITAL fell flat, and shares his memories of playing serial killer Steven on ONE LIFE TO LIVE. Plus, with Melissa Reeves returning to DAYS, is Ashford far behind? Find out in Part Five!
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City at Mental Health Counseling & Marriage And Family Therapy Of New York. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve."