Saturday, January 23, 2010

FLASHBACK: Genie Francis 1979

I’ve Always Been A Black Sheep!

By Joanne Douglas
Soap Opera Digest

On a recent gloriously sunny day in New York, I had an appointment to interview daytime’s hottest teen star, GENERAL HOSPITAL’s Genie Francis. Since my only impression of her was as the scheming, self-centered, frequently tormented Laura on the soap, quite frankly I didn’t know what to expect. As I wended my way to her hotel room in the elegant Essex House, I wondered: Will Genie be a spoiled Hollywood kid, or, worse yet, what is she’s like her TV counterpart?

Well, to say the least, a pleasant surprise was awaiting me. Although I was somewhat apprehensive about calling on Genie so early in the day, she immediately put my worries to rest. Along with Soap Opera Digest’s photographer and Genie’s older sister, Shelley, we trekked over to Central Park to take a few pictures. As the four of us got acquainted, the real Genie started shining through. She’s a rare person – open, unassuming, totally unspoiled.

Genie is originally from Centerport, Long Island, but hasn’t been East since she was a little girl. At first, she explained, Manhattan was slightly overwhelming compared to the relatively laid-back life she leads on the West Coast. Yet the city was also one great big adventure. The bustling crowds, the beauty of Central Park, the fine restaurants were all new and exciting experiences for Genie and she savored them all.

The photos taken, we settled down to talk and jumped headlong into a discussion of the role Genie plays. Among other things, her character ran off to a commune at 15, murdered someone, had an affair with an older man and lied to her mother about it, and now wants to marry another man -- also older -- to escape the confinements of her parent’s home. (After this interview, Laura married Scotty.) Because Genie is a favorite with the audience, especially teens, I assumed many of them would try to emulate Laura’s behavior. With a toss of her long silky blonde locks, Genie set me straight.

"My fans don’t agree with what Laura does at all. They sympathize and understand her, because she is typically rebellious. But they make their own decisions. And the teenagers make the separation between me and the character. They realize it’s just a story."

Like 17-year-old Laura, lots of girls that tender age are already thinking of marriage, or at the very least, living with someone. As an actress, Genie is in the enviable position of being surrounded by a variety of handsome, eligible men. Contrary to what one might think, though, her demanding career spares Genie little time to date, much less contemplate waltzing down the aisle. Does she consider this a sacrifice?

"I’m not missing that much," Genie pointed out. "You can’t have everything. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. I wanted to work. I don’t care about a party. They’ll be plenty of time later on for dating. Right now, I’m doing what I love. And if I have to give up certain things, to me, it’s a very fair trade. Most people would give their right arm to be in my shoes."

The young star’s dedication is easy to understand once it’s discovered that she’s the daughter of Ivor Francis, a veteran actor with 40m years’ experience under his belt. Typically, he didn’t encourage his daughter to follow in his footsteps. Genie remembered, "Dad kept saying, ‘Don’t do it. It’s a rat race.’" Today, however, Ivor is grateful she was wise enough not to heed his advice!

In recent years, it’s become an increasingly popular phenomenon for embittered offspring of actors to reveal to the world in autobiographies the stifling, tortured Hollywood childhood they were forced to endure. According to the best-sellers, being a kid in Tinseltown isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Genie had an entirely different tale to tell. She said she hasn’t suffered a bit because her dad just happed to be in show business. In fact, she’s grateful her life was "different and not as run of the mill."

Unlike many children who feel pressured to measure up to a successful parent, Genie never had to wrestle with that dilemna. Lucky for her, she was also spared another common headache -- what to do with her life. "I’ve always wanted to be an actress," Genie announced, blue eyes sparkling. "I wanted it as a young girl, but I was very shy at that age. I made a decision to overcome that shyness. When you come to a certain age, you say to yourself, ‘This is stupid to just sit here.’ If you want something badly enough, you go out and get it. I’m really a black sheep. ‘Cause I’m different. I was always different from the other kids at school. I just got bored with being a kid. When I was 10, I was already thinking of being an actress."

Genie’s fast rise to fame has me convinced the path to success was paved for her by guardian angels. Instead of the long hard struggle and shattering disappointments that usually precede the "big break," her chance at the bright lights sounds almost too good -- and too easy -- to be true. Genie’s only professional job before landing on "GH" was a small part on ABC’s FAMILY as a girl who gave Buddy (Kristy McNichol) a hard time. Soon after, she auditioned twice for her soap role and landed it over 40 other actresses.

When Genie first started on the soap, she formed a close, "fatherly" relationship, with actor Michael Gregory (ex-Rick Webber). He took her under his protective wing and showed her the ropes. Being a novice, Genie was somewhat intimidated by old pro Denise Alexander -- who portrays her on-screen mother, Dr. Lesley Webber -- but the two are now close pals.

Asked how she copes with her overnight catapult to soap opera stardom and enormous popularity at the age of 17, Genie paused thoughtfully, then answered: "It’s hard to understand everything that’s happened to me because it happened so fast. It took just one role to propel me. I do feel pressured and sometimes I feel that I’ve almost gotten myself in over my head. Every time I turn around, there’s a new challenge, so sometimes I feel like, 'My God, how can I keep up with this? Everyone wants a piece of me!' Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but then I have to stand back and say, 'I asked for this.' And I did."

Her schedule being what it is, Genie couldn’t attend conventional high school classes. For a while, she was tutored on the set, but it became an unbearable ordeal for her to be yanked out of rehearsals and into a room to hit the books… Too much bouncing around from one world to another…. To win her diploma, Genie took the California High School Proficiency Exam.

What are her plans for continuing her education? Genie revealed: "It’s too much to go to school and do a show in the same day, so I’ve decided to concentrate on my career now. I do have plans to go to college, though. I wouldn’t study drama. Something completely different. My father pushes journalism, because he thinks I would be a good newswoman. And I’ve always enjoyed writing. I even won a couple of awards in high school for writing. I would probably lean toward working on-camera, in the news aspect."

But before she becomes the next Barbara Walters, Genie aches to do a play and a movie first -- hopefully something dramatic. Unlike many of her peers who confess they'd give their eyeteeth for a shot at a nighttime series, Genie is dead set against it. She bristles at the thought of doing a primetime situation comedy, in particular, because of their generally silly plots and high mortality rate. An enduring career, not being a flash in the pan, is what Genie has in mind: "I’d rather be known for my talent as an actress, not as a famous personality who’s up there for a year and then it’s all gone."

To millions of viewers the characters they see day after day on the soaps become "friends" -- a part of the family -- and this makes actors in this medium far more approachable than the larger-than-life movie stars. As one might expect, the easy accessibility of daytime performers can often be to their detriment. During her stay in New York, Genie, too, had a taste of the hassles that accompany having a familiar face.

One overzealous fan wasn’t content to simply have her sign autographs for him -- no, he pestered Genie relentlessly by hanging around her hotel, following her around the city, and even showing up at a restaurant in which she was dining! When Genie finally said, "Enough is enough," he called her a "pill"! Has this upsetting experience turned her off fans altogether?

"Some people have come up to me on the street and accosted me. They’re terrible!" she related with a sigh. "But a true fan, someone who really likes me, I love them. They’re on my side. I’m more than happy to answer their questions.

"Even though I don’t know the fans, I come into their living rooms every afternoon, so they know me, they know my face," Genie continued. "They laugh with me and cry with me, so of course, they feel as if they know me. I’m not upset at all if they stop and say hello."

Annoying admirers aside, the only other aspect of acting she dislikes is learning lines. For her, being an actress definitely has more pros than cons. Genie described performing as, "A creative high, a beautiful feeling that flows. I often feel as though I’m sitting on top of the world after a satisfying scene."

Yet there’s the flip side of the coin. Soap actresses, because of the nature of the intense roles, often carry their characters’ anxieties and tensions home after the day taping. Even for someone as level-headed as Genie, it’s sometimes difficult to separate herself from Laura.

"It’s very hard to shut her off," she confessed. "I will get home and I find that my body is sore from tension, or I’m still about to cry. A lot of times, 15 or 20 minutes after tapings, I’m still crying. I have to constantly think, ‘It’s over, it’s over, you’re Genie now.’" Then as an afterthought: "I’ve learned as I’ve gone on. It’s getting easier and easier."

On that upbeat note, Genie and I had to wind up our visit so she could get herself together for the journey back to Los Angeles. As I bid her good-bye, I had a strong feeling that this very special girl, this self-proclaimed back sheep, is going to be lighting our screens for years to come. May her future horizons be as luminous as the sunny morning we spent together!

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