By Michael Fairman
Originally published on Advocate.com September 24 2009 5:35 AM ET
If anyone is cherished and beloved on All My Children, it’s the wacky and outlandish Opal Gardner. With two decades of wonderful performances under her belt, actress Jill Larson really made Opal her own, scoring two Daytime Emmy nominations. Not an easy feat considering she followed two-time Daytime Emmy award winner Dorothy Lyman in the role.
Now, with All My Children heading west in the next few months, Jill’s future with the show is uncertain. Recent reports have her leaving the show, which would be a shame to longtime gay fans of the soap.
Advocate.com caught up with Jill for this exclusive interview to ask her status with the show, to talk about her many projects that have helped and inspired the gay community, and, of course, to talk Pine Valley trash with the one and only Opal!
Advocate.com: There is so much to talk about!
Jill Larson: Oh, my goodness there is, but let’s stick to the happy stuff if we can.
Opal has been such an iconic character. She recently has had some heart problems and now AMC is moving west!
And that is giving me problems! [Laughs] Regarding the move to L.A., I can’t say anything because I don’t have anything to say. I am no longer on contract, and I am not being offered a package at this point. So, I don’t know what the status of the recurring characters will be. It seems to me there has been a trend toward trying to put more of us on recurring in recent years. My main concern is that everything that can possibly be done is being done to save the integrity of the show through a transition like this.
What was your reaction when you found out AMC was picking up and taking the show to Los Angeles?
I was really stunned! I knew there was some gossip going on around the stage before it happened. Everyone was saying, “Oh, they could never do that,” because all these people would never move to L.A. and disrupt their lives. We were all called in and within a minute of it happening, we all gathered in the studio for The View. ABC Daytime president Brian Frons said, “We are not canceling the show,” and everyone cheered. “But, we are moving it to L.A.,” and there was this stunned silence! I think people were in shock and trying to sort out what it means to them personally. I can understand that Brian said we have this great studio out there that is all set up for HD, and so forth, and twice as much space in terms of square feet than we have now, and will cost considerably less than what we pay now. It’s hard to argue that in times like these, when these shows are in such peril anyway. Brian went on to say he felt that there is a real indicator that Disney was committed to the show. They would not be making a move like this if they were not still investing in the show.
I felt like it was a sign that while they were saved and moved to L.A., the wonderful One Life to Live became the more vulnerable soap, because it got left in New York. That is what scares me.
Well, the frightening thing is we just don’t know. I guess our show was chosen to go out there for better or worse, because it’s a bigger show, and what I know about all of that is nothing.
How are your cast mates feeling now?
There is a real sadness. Half of the people who have worked on the show all these years, we will be leaving them behind, and it’s heartbreaking. I just don’t know. I feel like I want to look upon it as an opportunity for the show, and hopefully it will prove to be a successful venture.
So, in the meantime, will Opal continue to have heart issues?
It’s a funny thing. I am not actually sure Opal ever had a heart problem. It’s just these palpitations. It has to do with anxiety and horrifying visions more than anything else, like an actual physiological heart issue. It becomes very useful at various times!
What do you think about Opal’s visions of the great beyond?
I love it! I have enough of that experience in my own life that I love, and by and large they have used it quite well. It’s been quite amusing and at times quite tender. I always hoped at times they would do a little more with me and Ryan, because that is where that first thing started, way back when I was channeling his dead wife, Gillian. That made a close bond between Ryan and me, which Cameron Mathison [Ryan] and I have tried to maintain within the confines of what they write for us. It gives an opportunity, or gives us something that creates tension and anticipation, but has the potential to be humorous. And they have found a bit of that. All in all, I think it works well. I love the fact that they are more and more reconnecting Opal with all of the characters; and that she is the glue in Pine Valley.
How is working with on-screen son Michael Knight [Tad]?
It is heavenly! He is definitely a lot of fun, but so much more than that. He always stuns me with his originality. As an actor, what you strive to do and long to do is truly live in the moment when you are acting. It’s very tough and difficult in soap operas. You don’t rehearse anymore, so it is much more challenging. But Michael always brings something of his own and something spontaneous, and whether it’s funny or poignant, it always feels very true to me. Working with him is one of the greatest delights for me in every way. I feel my acting is enriched and made better by working with him.
You replaced Dorothy Lyman as Opal. And it is really interesting because your relationship goes way back!
We have a long history. We both grew up in Minneapolis. I did not know her in high school, but I knew her brother. I did a little student film with him and I auditioned for her at one time. There was some talk of me doing this play she produced, A Couple of White Chicks Just Sitting Around Talking. They eventually got Susan Sarandon for it. That was the first time I was connected with her. Then she was going to produce a comedy revue called Serious Business and I was a part of it. Later, Dorothy was directing me in another play off-off-Broadway… in a dreadful play [laughs], and while we were rehearsing it one afternoon she said, “I have to go do this audition and I will be back in an hour,” and it was for the part of Opal. So she got that role and turned it into what she did with her brilliance. Then I understudied her on Broadway and it was like all these times we were interconnecting.
How did you finally come into playing Opal?
They called me up and I [had] just moved to L.A.! I had just done OLTL. I played bomb-loving Ursula Blackwell. She is now in the home of the criminally insane, and I would love to play that character again. The executive producer at the time, Paul Rauch, said, “You must go to L.A.” So he gave me a bunch of people to contact. So I said, "OK, I guess it’s time." I was there for two weeks when they called and said, “There is an offer out for you to come and play Opal.” My first thought was, Well, no, I just got here and I think I am going to stay here. Then a friend of mine said to me, “You know, Jill, you have a little debt and you want to pay off that house of yours. Yes, you are here, but you don’t have a job, you don’t even have an agent, and, you know, look at it as a two-year prison term. It’s OK.” [Laughs]
Which turned into?
Twenty years this November!
You have made some very interesting projects and choices in your career surrounding issues that face the gay community. Are you yourself gay?
I am not gay. I am straight. But I love the gay community. When we did the first story line on AMC with Chris Bruno, who played Michael the gay schoolteacher, and they told me I was going to be the one that was going to be the homophobe, I said, “Oh, please. Oh, please, no!” They said, “Listen, you are a beloved character. We want somebody like you, who has a transformation and has a revelation, because that is the way we bring around people who are not of our opinion.” That made sense to me. So I said, “All right, great! And then in that respect, absolutely I will.” Ultimately, it was written pretty well and hopefully that is one of the things that AMC is known for. The show really does approach and handle some important issues that will convert some people and change people on how they think of things.
Let’s talk about Gibbs Garden.
The subject of the student film that I produced, Gibbs Garden, was about a dear friend of mine. It was tender and heartbreaking. The film was about him taking care of his lover, who had AIDS, and of course he passed away. This was in the '80s.
Tell us about your role in Were the World Mine.
I was Nora, the wife of the headmaster, in Were the World Mine. I strongly recommend that you see it if you haven’t. It’s wonderfully humorous and poignant and sincere. It begs the question, What would happen if I had the power to make someone that I love love me back? Of course, it’s a question that has been asked by people from the beginning of time. In the movie, they do the play Midsummer Night's Dream and this kid gets a magic potion. Suddenly, this little homophobic town, for one enchanted night, everyone falls in love with someone of their own sex.
Who does your character fall in love with?
I fall in love with the mother. I am chasing her all over town. It could be so campy and extreme and silly, but it’s done with enough respect for the characters and integrity that it has a lovely feeling when you walk away. My brother-in-law saw it in Minneapolis. He called me up and said, “I just loved the movie. I loved it so much that now I just want to be gay!” [Laughs]
It would seem you have been around gay culture most of your life. Have you seen the tide turning in favor of acceptance?
I have been in the theater since I was 10. I always thought that was a place where it embraced people for what they had to offer, but not necessarily who they were or how they presented it. In a way it was “outcasts,” which I often found myself to be, and that was one of the beautiful things about the theater. Growing up with people of all persuasions you stop seeing it as being an issue. I have a 13-year-old and she goes to a private school here in New York. It’s an Episcopal school. My daughter is Chinese. They have this diversity committee there, and my daughter was asked to be on the committee. It was for prospective families who were considering going to the school. Somehow, the moderator asked the kids about gay marriage. They all had the same opinion: If two people love each other they should get married. It was responded to with such an absence of anything, and soon this will not be an issue, we hope. You see kids in this generation who are oblivious to it as a political issue. It’s a wonderful indicator of what the future has to hold.
You adopted your Chinese daughter, Anni-Ming.
Yes, and I am a single mom.
What made you decide to adopt a little girl from China?
I was never one of those women who felt I had to have a child to be fulfilled as a woman. I was always very excited and passionate about my career. Then one day I woke up and thought, Is that what I should do now? I did the research, and my sister adopted two children from Korea. So we already had an Asian influence in the family, and after researching various areas I decided to pursue China. And lo and behold, I adopted her when she was five months old. I went to China and it was an amazing experience, and it continues to be.
You were also recently in the film Manhattanites?
Yes. I was asked to do this part that eventually went to Ilene Kristen [Roxy, OLTL]. I am so glad she was able to do it. They asked me to do it [and] at the time my mother had taken a bad turn in her health. I just knew I would have to be flying back and forth, and it was a hard time for me. I could not do anything heavy at that moment. I could do some small role in it. So again I played a Bible thumper! [Laughs] What is going on here? Maybe it’s a sign I should get a Bible! I don’t know.
Would you entertain the thought of getting into a relationship again?
I am pretty happy being a single woman. I was married in my 20s. I would love to have a relationship if I met somebody who inspired those feelings in me. And it’s a big if.
What do you think of the Erica/Ryan "cougar" story line on AMC?
I love the idea! I feel like that same thing with any love. You fall in love with someone and you really don’t worry about what package they are in. I have a good friend whose husband is 20 years younger. They have a wonderful relationship. I find it distasteful that if it’s an older woman that makes her a "cougar." Somehow we have a need to give someone nicknames!
So you think Susan Lucci and Cameron Mathison together works?
I think it’s interesting from an age perspective, and they are great. The part that disturbs me about this one is that it’s Erica’s daughter’s ex-husband. I think that is a bit creepy.
What would you love Opal to get to do now?
I would love for Opal to have her black son come back and the father of that boy. I always thought they would find a love story between the two of them. That is way outside of anybody that’s on the show now. In that regard, I just stopped dreaming of the story. I have just been told, “That will never happen.” I would just love more meaningful interaction with both of my sons. There are so many ways in which Opal could be connected with some of those younger women on the show like Colby and Randi. I want to see the women come together on the show. If they were not going to have the Glam-o-Rama on the show anymore, then have Opal have her own gossip column!
Whatever happened to the Glam-o-rama?
The Glam-o-rama just died an ignoble death. They made a high-end spa out of Cortlandt Manor for a little while, and they never actually wrote for it. They had the funny hunky Swedish masseur, who was the guy that everybody wanted. And they would go, “Oh, I am coming for a massage with…Sven!” But you never saw Sven. We wanted to have a sort of office manager guy who was gay who was running the place and would cause all sorts of various troubles with the characters. There were lots of ideas thrown around but never realized.
Do you like that Opal is the Pine Valley "buttinski"?
I used to feel that way about her and I loved that. But they have not really written too much of that for her lately. I am finding that head writer Chuck Pratt is finding interesting ideas. I love the fact that even though they burned down Cortlandt Manor, it did get Opal into a house. So she was not so isolated. I would love Opal to find love and revisit the more zany side of her character… the side that you felt like anything could happen. I loved it when Erica and I had those capers.
In closing, all things being equal, would you consider coming out to L.A. with us?
I would love to come to Los Angeles. I would love a chance to spend an extended period in L.A. with a job. So who knows? There are so many details to straighten out if this would even happen, and I truly haven't had a definitive conversation yet. But knowing about how they are looking at recurring characters, I don’t know if it will be possible. We shall see.