EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Catching Up With Ellen Wheeler As She Begins A New Project With Old Friends (Part 2 of 2)

Michael O'Leary, Yvonna Wright and Ellen Wheeler.
Photo Credit: Sue Coflin/Max Photos
We Love Soaps spoke with former GUIDING LIGHT executive producer Ellen Wheeler, who recently reunited with a group of alums from the show's cast and crew on a fall Sunday for a day of taping, talking and pizza. Dubbed "A New Project With Old Friends," it was a chance for much of the old gang to get back together, shoot some scenes and catch up.

Read Part 1 of our exclusive interview here, and read Part 2 below.

WE LOVE SOAPS: When I visited the studio and Peapack in the final year of GUIDING LIGHT, the set had an really nice indie vibe to it, something you don't see much with a broadcast TV show.
ELLEN WHEELER: We were saying something like, "I want this to keep going because I understand it's important. GUIDING LIGHT has been chronicling American life since before World War 2, and I want to continue to chronicle American life. I want to show the stories of the people in American back to them so they have a place to talk from." It's not unlike pitching in when some hard or tragic moment kicks in. In the beginning people might have been thinking to themselves, "Oh my God, I might lose my job," but near the end it wasn't about it.

It was more about what can I do to ensure the people around me don't lose their jobs? What can I do to ensure we are still delivering this for the fans? Once you've done that with a group of people, you love those people. Once you've sacrificed for your fans like that, you always want to be there to tell stories with them, and share stories with them.

The wonderful thing about being online is we have the ability to communicate with our fans, and have them talk about and participate in the show in a way we never did before. 10 years ago we couldn't connect to fans the way we do today. The idea of doing that is so exciting to this group of people. They're so excited about having the ability to tell stories and form a community with our fans that wasn't about just watching us every day, but them talking to us and sharing their stories too. How wonderful is that? How wonderful is everybody getting to talk to each other about what makes life work, what makes it hard, and what makes it worth it. This group of people has grasped that and that doesn't happen very often.

WE LOVE SOAPS: In our Today in Soap History column we just had Meta Bauer shooting her husband Ted 63 years ago. GUIDING LIGHT was on during such an amazing span of time.
ELLEN WHEELER: The first episodes on the radio were happening before World War 2.

Photo Credit: Sue Coflin/Max Photos
WE LOVE SOAPS: The show premiered around the time of FDR's second inauguration! By the '80s many of the daytime soaps started copying DALLAS and DYNASTY in the sense that more people became rich, and the towns seemed bigger than they were before. When GUIDING LIGHT started shooting scenes around Peapack I think it was more in line with the true origins of the show but it was also jarring for some fans who had gotten used to the idea of a bigger Springfield.
ELLEN WHEELER: I get that. We were making changes that were huge and we knew that at the time. When I was back with the cast on that Sunday, aside from talking about family and relationships, I think that's one of the things they talked about the most. They were willing to make that jump and change and they even said in the interviews I had with them that it was scary. I was asking them to do a lot.

It was scary but I don't know if it was any scarier than Irna [Phillips] saying they were going to do radio and television. We're talking about a show that has a history of jumping into the future prior to other people. There's something about the spirit that Irna invested into this show that still still resonated with the people that were making it in the 2000s. They wanted to take the whole feeling and spirit Irna created back in the '30s into wherever it went in the future. They're willing to take those kind of risks and jump off. They talked a lot about how we were pushing the envelope and ahead of our time. I'm not talking about whether what we did was right or wrong, I'm not trying to judge that. But it was ahead of where some other things were at the time.

WE LOVE SOAPS: You didn't have three or six months off either to work on a new production model. It seemed like you just had to make a very quick transition and some of the training and learning process we saw on the air.
ELLEN WHEELER: Yes, we were training on the air. What if we'd had some time not only for us to perfect our method but for the audience to have a break so they weren't watching it one way one day and the new way the next.

WE LOVE SOAPS: With daytime soaps the stories tend to ebb and flow and there are ups and down. By the end of 2008, the Otalia story was very compelling and then Grant Aleksander returned as Phillip. I think GUIDING LIGHT was in a bit of a story lull in February 2008 and some viewers blamed everything on the change in production model. It would have been nice if something like Phillip's return had happened around the same time as the changeover.
ELLEN WHEELER: The reality is other shows were shooting outside four of five times a week, and they hadn't been doing that before. A year later, many shows were.

Michael O'Leary, Yvonna Wright and Ellen Wheeler.
Photo Credit: Sue Coflin/Max Photos
WE LOVE SOAPS: THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL shoots outside regularly now. It has actually become jarring in some cases to see fake outdoor sets, like the park set they added on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS this year.
ELLEN WHEELER: We're also talking about a whole new generation of kids that have not grown up watching soap operas or I LOVE LUCY or three-camera sitcoms very much. If we want to reach out to them we have to find a middle ground and still tell stories that are rich and full that every generation wants to watch.

I don't want to judge right or wrong, I'm just saying things change, and change is scary and wonderful. The most innovative things happen when there's change, and usually when we're forced because most of us wouldn't want to change unless we were forced.

Whatever changes are going to come to serial storytelling are most exciting because we have the opportunity to make that storytelling participate with our fans in a way we never have had before.

WE LOVE SOAPS: There are so many serials airing in primetime now, like TRUE BLOOD and MAD MEN, and they've taken the best from daytime, which used to be a writer's medium but now it feels like writing by committee between the network, production company in some cases, and the writers. In primtime, even though they have to deal with the networks, it still feels like we're seeing a writer's vision. That's what I love about telling stories on the web. There are so many unique stories from great writers and they haven't been touched by networks or sponsors.
ELLEN WHEELER: That sounds exciting especially to a group of people that already have relationships and can work together practically without talking. When we shot that Sunday, we did interviews and little pieces of scenes, and I can tell you it was like that from both ends of things.

My production team is back and I hardly have to speak to them. They say, "You want A, B and C?" and I say, "Yes, that's what I want."

Or we step around to part of the park in Peapack and tell my cameraman, "I want you to get..." And they turn to me and one says, "I'll get the 2 shot here," and the other says, "I'll get the single and then we'll reverse." Then they apologize to me for taking my job and directing the scene. I told them this is how is should be. We all know so much what should happen in the next moment and are so attuned to each other. I don't even have to finish my sentence.  Because of what the scene is and who the actors are they can already guess what I'm going to say.

Working with the actors was just like that. I was explaining what the moments were and I hardly had to say a word. They had tears running down their faces as they delivered lines and we didn't even have long-term scripts to hand anyone. They just immediately had a connection with each other and to the material. Whether it's being funny with each other or playing something sad or romantic, it's completely full of depth and honesty in an instant. The skill and talent level that exists is unbelievable.

WE LOVE SOAPS: When it comes to chemistry between actors, is that something that just magically happens or can you build to something special over time? I thought you had amazing and different chemistry as an actress with Tom Eplin on ANOTHER WORLD and David Canary on ALL MY CHILDREN in the '80s.
ELLEN WHEELER: Most of those things are real. Jennifer Roszell came back and shot with us for this, and she had been with us in the past and had relationships with some people like Frank [Dicopoulos].  They had worked together for a lot of years and had a lot of chemistry. But I put her in a beautiful moment with Bonnie [Dennison], and they had never worked together. In fact, I think they were just introducing themselves to each other as I was explaining the scene to them. So both things can happens and that's the beautiful thing about soap operas.

Some of how we were shooting as we got toward the end of GUIDING LIGHT was because we had these relationships and this trust between actors and characters, and between the directors and the production team. You were sometimes seeing those moments as they unfolded for the first time. There is a certain amount of honesty that was able to be created and captured and delivered.

Beth Chamberlin and Elizabeth Keifer.
Photo Credit: Sue Coflin/Max Photos
I watched Beth Chamberlin and Liz Keifer do a scene when we got together that was so beautiful, and we just taped it once. We never had a rehearsal for it. It was so good, when we were done my camera crew rolled their cameras back so they could watch it again. I was already moving on the next piece but they wanted to watch it again because it was so beautiful.

WE LOVE SOAPS: So this really is "A Project With Old Friends."
ELLEN WHEELER: It's A Project With Old Friends and we don't know where it's going, or even if it will go, but for all of us it's such a labor of love. We're happy to be a part of something that has a glimmer of hope of being something that could bring the band back together. We were all saying that if this turned out to be just one day when we all got together to tell stories again and talk about why we love working with each other, what more could we want than that? But none of us believe it will be that because in the depths of our hearts we believe in this kind of storytelling, and in our ability to relate to our fans and to future fans. New delivery methods in media allow for such a growth of fans that hasn't existed. Teenagers do not sit home at 2 o'clock and watch TV that is delivered every day at that time.

WE LOVE SOAPS: One in four college students don't have cable TV and have no plans to get it. They watch shows on their tablets or laptops.
ELLEN WHEELER: I'm 50 and I don't have any appointment television. None. And I'm the demographic P&G would have been going for. Even with football games, my husband and I don't start watching until later. If it's a game that starts at 6 o'clock at night we don't start watching until 7:30 or 8 so we can fast forward through commercials. By the time we get to the last 5 minutes of the 4th quarter we are watching live.

WE LOVE SOAPS: You know how much I love you as an actress. Will you act again? Is that something you want to do?
ELLEN WHEELER: I love it and I think about it a lot. One of the things I like about it compared to producing, and I couldn't possibly choose between the two, is it is much more a finite job and usually has more of a beginning and end. Soap operas don't but with most other acting  you get hired and do your week or month and then you're done. You're in pre-production, then production and post-production, and by the time you're done with post-production the next project has started.

There's something wonderful about doing a play, where you have rehearsal and then the run of the play. While I still have a son in high school that would allow me the ability to come home and still bake cookies.

I can't imagine with all the incredibly brilliant actresses out there anyone picking up the phone and saying, "Hey Ellen, come do this acting job."

WE LOVE SOAPS: I've been a fan since you joined ANOTHER WORLD as Marley Love in 1984, and then her twin, Victoria came along the next year. Back then Marley was the primary twin, but after you left, Vicky became the primary character. There was something about Marley back then that stuck with me as a favorite character.
ELLEN WHEELER: I think that's common with soap fans. Their entry point into a serial is always their point of reference. For them that's what they always harken back to; when the show was like this it was its best. And that's not wrong, it's kind of normal.

WE LOVE SOAPS: Back in the '80s we didn't know actors were leaving a soap many times until we heard that dreaded announcer message, "The role of Victoria Love is now being played by Rhonda Lewin." I was such an upset teenager and thought at the time she was an awful replacement.
ELLEN WHEELER: It's not that she was awful. You get connected to a person and it doesn't have anything to do with the next person being good or bad. You make that connection and it can be a difficult change to make. I loved Marley and Victoria. I loved playing them and loved figuring out in myself those places of good and bad, light and dark that separated the two.

WE LOVE SOAPS: Then you moved to ALL MY CHILDREN as Cindy and were brilliant in that role as well. I wasn't an every day fan until your first day then didn't miss it after that. And you were so convincing playing a mom to Scott before you were a mom in real life.
ELLEN WHEELER: I had a lot of maternal experience even though I wasn't a mom.

WE LOVE SOAPS: You won two Emmys but I feel like your body of work as an actress is underappreciated.
ELLEN WHEELER: There are a lot of incredible soap opera people in general--writers, actors, directors--whose body of work is underappreciated because it was mostly in soaps.  As a society we can't seem to think highly in the art of soap operas.

WE LOVE SOAPS: Speaking of writers, it's nice to see you working with Jill Lorie Hurst again.
ELLEN WHEELER: Jill is a wonderful person and a wonderful writer.

Roger Newcomb is a producer and writer in New York City. Aside from co-hosting WE LOVE SOAPS TV, he has written and produced a full-length indie film, Manhattanites, and two radio soap operas. He has also made acting appearances in indie web series such as IMAGINARY BITCHES, and produces the annual Indie Soap Awards. He served as a producer on the first two seasons of Emmy-nominated THE BAY, and is executive producer on the indie short May Mercy Lie, which is currently making the rounds at film festivals. He appeared in FRANCOPRHENIA in 2012 and the documentary SOAP LIFE, out on DVD in 2013.

9 comments:

  1. I really hope this new project gets off the ground. It would be a treat seeing the cast working together again. I had always hoped they would work together again in this fashion. Now it seems they are giving it a shot. Some fans need to understand this isnt GL, but a new entity entirely primiarly utilizing GL former cast. Sending good thoughts on this.

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  2. Thanks, Roger for your interview with EW. I am 36, and Guiding Light was my soap (started watching at age 13 I believe). Toward the end of GL's run, I was probably too harsh on Elllen Wheeler. Looking back now, I know she had alot of hurdles to deal with and the show really was finding its groove toward the end. I miss GL terribly and even now think what the Lewises, Shaynes, Spauldings, and Coopers are up to and this passion project of her is just great. Whatever they are doing, I know it won't be as their GL characters, which is unfortunate. But please let us know when Ellen will post some videos on her/their new project. I would love to see it.

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  3. I am all giddy with excitement for this project to come to fruition.

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  4. Thank you for the interview. Great questions. I so miss seeing Ellen as an actress too though :( Hope they'll continue! They are in my thoughts as well.

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  5. My wish is that they could get the rights to GL and relaunch a smaller, simpler version with that great cast of characters. Propect Park showed it could be done, if ABC wasn't involved and the union deals were done before hand. .

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  6. I loved GL. I started watching it as a small child since my mom and grandma watched it. They would fill me in when I went to school. During the summers I would come in for lunch to watch the show. I would love to see this project happen.

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  7. the book is called "Who Moved My Cheese?", Ms. Wheeler. i suggest reading it.

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  8. Thank you for the interview! Lovely. :) I look forward to whatever this team produces. :)

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  9. Great interview, Roger. I'm really excited to hear about this project. And I still have a positive view of the last stretch of GL. I know Wheeler's heart was in the right place, and she was inventive in many ways that we're seeing play out today. It may have just been too much change too soon, but building something new out of the ashes of GL sounds like a fantastic idea.

    It's impossible to overstate the importance of Jill Lorie Hurst, too - I think she "got" GL, and the kind of multilayered storytelling, many of us had been seeking. Here's hoping something fantastic comes of this!

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