There is not enough that can be stated about the vast talents, spirit, and beauty of Colleen Zenk. For 32 years, this compelling and resilient actress has come into our living rooms as Barbara Ryan on AS THE WORLD TURNS. Her indelible role sadly ends this week on CBS. But as we will soon learn, Zenk has only just begun setting the "World" outside Oakdale on fire. Please join me for this candid and inspiring interview with this the Emmy-nominated performer.
We Love Soaps: What a profound pleasure to speak with you! I have no problem beginning our discussion, completely on the record, by saying your are one of the most profound and underrated actresses on daytime. For 32 years you kept Barbara Ryan alive, vital, fresh. You have demonstrated the ability to portray her as a heroine, yet convincing as a villain. You can do heartbreakingly tragic stories so convincingly, and then you can also play high camp that is so captivating and fun. You toggle the line between comedy and drama in ways that appear effortless. You have chemistry with every man they have paired you with, and pretty much all the women around you as well. Yet the show has often marketed other actresses as leads, and you have not always been given the accolades you deserve.
Colleen Zenk: I think as an actor you don’t do this for accolades. You do what you do for the love of what you do, and I have been so fortunate to be given this delicious character whom I have portrayed for 32 years and to be given a lot of wonderful writing to go along with that character. I can’t take full credit. I have been given wonderful material that has been pretty outrageous, and wonderful material that has been heart wrenching. I’m so fortunate to have played all of it. I don’t know too many actors in this form that have gotten to play the range I have played. That has been so much of the joy.
We Love Soaps: I was watching some of your early scenes from September, 1978 on You Tube. What were the early reactions you received from fans? Were they supportive of you?
Colleen Zenk: Mom was. And my grandparents were. My mother’s father never owned a television until I joined the show in 1978. Those were the people I heard from. Back then there was no internet, there was no way of getting any information from anyone until the fan mail started pouring in, which it did. I received a nice response from the beginning. I think that’s because I very quickly settled into such an easy rapport with Don [Hastings] and Kathy [Hays], and Helen [Wagner], and then eventually, after awhile with Eileen [Fulton].
We Love Soaps: How did this nice girl from Illinois end up in New York?
Colleen Zenk: I started working professionally as a kid. I did everything from commercials, to print work. I used to say Kellogg’s put me through college because I did so many commercials for Kellogg’s. I did everything from the first Frosted Pop-Tarts commercials to the Mini Wheat commercials. But I was also in a children’s tiny tot dance troop called, “The Tot and Teen Entertainers.” From age seven or eight on I was performing. I learned how to be on stage from those early experiences. I had to have knee surgery back in high school, and had exploratory knee surgery back before it was easy to do. I had to switch gears and major in theater at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I only lasted two years and moved back to Chicago. I was out on a tour of "Can Can," and on the tail end of that decided to move to New York. I came here, auditioned for Summer Stock, won the lead in “Where’s Charlie” opposite Ken Berry who was on F TROOP. I landed an agent on the heels of that. So I started working immediately. I was in town for a couple of weeks when I had my first screen test for GUIDING LIGHT. I got very lucky.
We Love Soaps: What was the role on GUIDING LIGHT?
Colleen Zenk: One of the Bauers. I can’t remember now. I tested for everything, for SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, for EDGE OF NIGHT. I used to say that Barbara Ryan was my thirteenth screen test. That’s probably an exaggeration, but I probably had close to ten before I could figure out what to do and how to make it work. I was a performer, not an actor. I didn’t really have the right abilities for the genre. So when I tested [on ATWT] I originally tested for the role of a hooker, a short-term role. It was a seduction scene. Clearly they decided I wasn’t seductive enough, but there was something they liked about me. They told my agent they wanted to put me under contract. They didn’t know what they were going to do with me yet. They hired me without knowing what they were going to do with me, and it took a couple of weeks to figure it out. I actually started 32 years ago today, the day after Labor Day.
We Love Soaps: What drove you to want to perform at such a young age?
Colleen Zenk: I liked being funny. I liked making the audience smile. I liked showing off, obviously. I figured out early it was something I was pretty comfortable doing. I liked being in front of audience and I liked the attention. All those narcissistic things that happen to actors. I was kind of on the shy side, not the most gregarious one in a group. I was often the youngest one, and the shortest one. So I became the butt of the jokes if there was some comedy. I became the comic relief, not unlike Barbara has been the last few months. So I found early on how to find the humor. And that it was okay. It was okay for the audience to laugh at me, and laugh with me and have fun with it.
We Love Soaps: Roger Newcomb was telling me recently how much he loved the story between Barbara and Gunnar [Hugo Napier].
Colleen Zenk: It was a beautiful story. It was two star-crossed lovers who saw each other across a spanse of time, who then finally met face-to-face across the graveyard at the funeral of James Stenbeck’s father. Here Barbara had been envisioning this man from another century during all her hallucinations, this man who was going to save her from the evil overbearing husband, who was James. This man then showed up not only in her dreams, but in real life. And Gunnar was blonde, blonde, blonde. James at that point gas-lighted Barbara, had her drugged and locked away in a sanitarium. He was after the Stenbeck fortune, and the only way he could get his hands on it was to get his hands on Paul. And then Gunnar found Barbara. The only way he could communicate with her was through a hole in the stone wall. Eventually he was able to reach through and grab her. There’s a lot of Greek mythology in there, and Shakespeare. He finally rescued her, and then eventually James lured Barbara to Spain and lured her into the bullring. Gunnar saved her from the bull. And we had all kinds of car chases and fast action stuff between James and Gunnar. Then there was the dual to the death. Instead of Gunnar killing James, he made James sign the divorce papers and granting her custody of Paul. It was really, really great stuff.
We Love Soaps: What was it like to be out in Spain on location? Were you able to enjoy it?
Colleen Zenk: Yes, there was a lot of downtime., especially in Spain. At the same time they were shooting the Steve and Betsy (played by Frank Runyeon and Meg Ryan) story line which, of course, had Spain sitting in for Greece. Steve and Betsy didn’t go to Greece, they were in Spain! During that time I had downtime so I could explore. It was fabulous.
We Love Soaps: Was there any talk of having Hugo Napier coming back?
Colleen Zenk: Actually Chris [Goutman] and I spoke of that when Grayson came back. When Dusty came back to Oakdale, there was talk about bringing Gunnar back [ED. NOTE: Dusty is Gunnar's son]. Chris is the one who brought it up. He thought that was the time to resolve that story line. But it never got told, which I found sad. I was really excited that they were talking about bringing Gunnar back, and we could finally resolve the whole Stenbeck story with Dusty. So much of it had been left by the wayside.
We Love Soaps: Barbara’s relationship with James Stenbeck in the '80s is also beloved by fans. His “Hello Barbara” return-from-the dead was such a shock. That was before everyone came back from the dead, and before there were spoilers.
Colleen Zenk: It was a shock for everyone in the production as well. They kept it so quiet. They eliminated the name “James” from every single script. Nobody knew he was coming back except Doug Marland and Bob Calhoun, our executive producer at the time. I was told the day before. The crew didn’t know. Obviously wardrobe did because they had to put him in the monk’s robe. They snuck him into the building, they snuck him on set, and it wasn’t until “Hello Barbara” that anyone knew James and Anthony [Herrera] were back. It was cool, and it was the first back-from-the-dead story.
We Love Soaps: That would be so hard to do now. Do you think technology and internet have diminished the ability to share surprises?
Colleen Zenk: Oh absolutely. There are no surprises anymore. I don’t think there is anyway to really surprise an audience anymore. It got to the point where we had to make sure scripts were not being left around these last few years because word would get out. We were sure we had a mole in production somewhere over the last few years because story would get out. There is no way anymore. I mean, we know what kind of toothpaste people use in the morning, it’s ridiculous. I think it’s had to do with why shows aren’t tuned into anymore. It’s too easy to figure it out. On the other hand, if you are working, and you can’t watch your shows, there are a whole lot of ways to get to see it.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Two in which we discuss Barbara's transformation under Doug Marland, and what happened to her character after Marland's tragic death. Plus, what was her take on daytime's first gay male story in 1989? Find out in Part Two!
CBS's "World" stops turning this week, but yours doesn't have to! Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist specializing in Grief/Loss work and is now taking new clients in New York City. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve."