Monday, August 30, 2010

THE BAY The Series Interviews: Matthew Ashford, Part One

You have seen him play roles on daytime that have shocked, amused, and even disgusted fans.  But one thing we can safely say about Matthew Ashford is that he is one of the most fascinating, unpredictable, and compelling actors to ever embrace the soap landscape.  Fortunately, he will be starring in the new and original series THE BAY coming in September. In this rare interview, We Love Soaps delves into the thoughts and spiritual beliefs behind the actor's craft, as well as his excitement about the new landscape of indie soaps. 

We Love Soaps: What a pleasure to speak with you! Let’s talk first about THE BAY.  Tell me how this  project came to you.
Matthew Ashford: I heard about THE BAY for months before I came on.  I knew there was this new show coming on, and that a number of actors and actresses had started other shows.  As an actor I am interested in where we are going in this industry.  No one knows how to make money from this right now.  The big giant dogs like Google are trying to figure how to assign a cost to use the web.  These little start ups are happening where people are saying, “I just want to work.  I just want to do this.”

THE BAY was started by Gregori Martin, who has a love of serialized storytelling.  He grew up with it and understands the power of storytelling.  When we finally got a chance to talk I had to consider where I am at in my career, and what is the most important thing for me right now. Am I being paid this exuberant sum to work on a network?  Or am I being given a chance to work with friends, peers, and people I respect who I thought I’d never get a chance to work with, and to create something that has never been done before?  It’s more the latter.

We are suddenly getting this opportunity for the artist, the actor, the writer, to step forward.  There is no sense of old money already being there, so we are creating the business.  It goes back to the early '50s when television was in its infancy.  Actors would be doing Broadway and they would make about $1.95 to do some show that was not even recorded.  It just went out to the universe, people saw it, and that was it.  We’re kind of back there again.  We’re putting something out there, seeing what sticks, seeing what comes back.  At this point, I have a chance to work with actors I love to work with, friends, and other actors who I have never worked with, like Tristan Rogers.  We can walk on the set as equals saying, “We are all in this thing together.”  To go back even further, radio in the '30s had artists and actors jumping in and creating things.  The Mercury Theater was created by Orson Wells.  It was artists coming together and saying, “None of us are making any money anyway.  Let’s get together and create something.”  That to me is the feeling of what is going on with THE BAY. People are jumping in saying, “I want to be a part of this, what can I do?”

We Love Soaps: I love what you are saying about taking control of talent.  I admire how Martha Byrne, Crystal Chappell, and Michael O’Leary have all done this with their own series this past year.  Instead of waiting for a role to come to them, they made it happen for themselves. 
Matthew Ashford: If we look back we would probably find that there were so many radio shows and so many television shows in the early '50s that came and went in weeks and months.  And none of us ever heard about them because them came and went in weeks and months.  This is the same thing, it’s the wild west.  There’s no real hierarchy right now.  People join in.  Everyone is bringing the same thing.  You have removed the big dollar signs. Those dollar signs are used against us as artists, as actors, as creators.  As much as people say they want to get paid, it ends up dividing us in so many ways creatively.  We are not there right now.  We are all creating together. 

We Love Soaps: It’s fascinating to see it come together without network censorship and bowing down to advertisers.
Matthew Ashford: People talk about the creation of the supercouple.  That, as much as anything, is defining and confining the actors.  It’s very hard to look at so many actors and say, “I can’t see that actress without that actor.”  It’s just too bad because that is so limiting.  Most actors want to say, “Hey, there is more to me than that.”

We Love Soaps: I have always enjoyed your roles on soaps going back to SEARCH FOR TOMORROW. You don’t do stereotypical “soap acting.” You have always brought complexity and nuance to your characters.  You went to North Carolina School of the Arts with Patsy Pease who told me she was in school with you and taught you jazz at one point.
Matthew Ashford: She was a star pupil to our jazz teacher.  I remember her being there as a prized pupil who could actually do what the jazz teacher was trying to teach.  He would say, “Patsy, show it...”  and she would.  She was one of the students the teachers wanted to show off because she was hot, she was great. 

We Love Soaps: How would you describe your approach to acting?
Matthew Ashford: I hate to draw a line between being on stage and being in front of a camera for a film or a television show in terms of portraying the truth of the moment.  But there are techniques and language that are spoken. Actors have to know how to act, and how to access an honest place.  Then from there they have to understand the language of the television world where they are, or the great stage where they are standing, or the tiny film moment.  But that is technique.  That is what I always have to keep working on and learning, and it changes.

I came to realize at a certain point that daytime is this great thing sucking up and chewing in everything you have to give.  A lot of people will say they don’t want to train because they don’t want to mess with their natural instrument.  Well, you may have a natural instrument, you may emote, but the fact is when someone or something takes what you have, and uses it up in a blink of an eye, and then says to you, “What else do you have?”, you have to suddenly go back and ask what you have.

So the technique is digging deeper and finding ways to express things or to share things only as you are willing.  I began to find that the truth that I was willing to give out, especially on DAYS, was sometimes very deep, deep inside, and I didn’t need to give it up in one day.   They would have been happy for me to give it all in one day.  The important thing was that I understood what the truth was, and the audience understood what it was.  Jack had a deep need and desire.  And every day we moved closer to that moment.  But it is not an ultimate moment because daytime goes on and on and on.  I started finding a way to tell a story that never ends.  I try to make it about the journey.

Deep inside all of this I became a Buddhist.  I started chanting nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which is a law of life.  Nam-myoho-renge-kyo means devotion to the mystic law of cause and effect through sound or teaching.  I became to understand these characters through their desires to be happy.  This is a basic Buddhist belief.  But our delusion keeps us from fulfilling that to the greatest level.  I may become happy, but if it’s at the expense of other people, then there is a hell to pay, eventually.  That holds true in life, but it's great story telling too.  So I began to use that instead of judging.  I stopped thinking of my characters as, “He’s a good person,” or “He’s a bad person.”  We all have those aspects inside of us.  I started to use that in terms of my goals of character creation and have been able to explore the nature of people through that.  Someone who is “evil” can do a really wonderful thing.  And somebody who is so good and wonderful can destroy lives.  So many people cause so much pain out of love.  That is the deepest cut of all.  “I love you, that’s why I had to do this...”

This is the wonderful opportunity we have right now to tell these stories.  A lot of seasoned wonderful actors are ready to tell honest stories.  We don’t have to tell trite stories.  I hope THE BAY rises to that.  There is a wonderful evolution in Showtime, HBO, AMC.  They are finding dramatic moments everywhere in the most simple things.  Network television is so afraid that women would not want to watch if men are being assholes, or if the men are being small-minded, unable to commit, focused on themselves.  These are all the things I brought to the floor with Jack Deveraux.  And strange as it may seem, the more I was willing to share being “ugly,” the more people connected to him and told me, “You remind me of my nephew, you remind me of my husband, you remind me of my boyfriend.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Please press here for Part Two in which Matthew discusses his transformation of Cagney on SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, and Jack's journey on DAYS OF OUR LIVES.  What Broadway musical was he listening to during Jack's violent reign in Salem? Find out in Part Two! Until then, check out the latest "confessions" from THE BAY.

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."

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