After becoming a breakout star on PORT CHARLES, where she played vampire bride Livvie Locke from 2000-03, Kelly Monaco made the move to GH to play con woman Sam McCall, debuting on October 1, 2003. On the occasion of her 13th anniversary, she reflects on Sam’s evolution.
Soap Opera Digest: You’ve been playing the Sam/Jason story since very early in your time on the show, first with Steve Burton (now Dylan, Y&R) and now opposite Billy Miller. Do you feel a different energy, actor to actor, with Billy in the role?
Kelly Monaco: Oh, yeah, with a different person, it’s a whole different rhythm that you have to get used to, a whole different communication, a whole different language. Billy speaks a different language than Steve, and our chemistry is completely different, our friendship is completely different, our working relationship is completely different. These are all things you have to figure out along the way, and incorporate the best of what you can for Billy, first, to make the character his own. As his scene partner and co-star, I thought it was really important to allow him to find his footing and allow him to make Jason his Jason, and not Steve Burton’s Jason.
Digest: How has the recast altered the “JaSam” dynamic for you?
Monaco: There are very different personality traits in the characters [from the two actors]. As Kelly playing the role of Sam, I had to find the things that Billy was doing playing Jason that were super-different than what Steve did and have Sam fall in love with those traits, those characteristics, the quirkiness. It’s a completely different dynamic and completely different energy, but the story is the same, and as long as we just follow through with that main thread, I think it’s really fun to discover all these new nuances on the side. I’m having a blast with it! Both of them bring a certain dynamic to the character of Jason. I love Steve’s work and what he brought, and I also love what Billy’s bringing. It’s fresh and it’s new and exciting, and I hope it continues for a while.
Digest: I feel like Sam has matured a lot in recent years, particularly in the wake of Jason’s presumed death in 2012.
Monaco: Yeah, she had to stand on her own two feet. I appreciate you saying that because that is something that I worked really hard at after Steve left and I knew that the character of Jason was going to be gone. I wasn’t sure in what direction they were going to take Sam, but I said to myself, “No matter how this story goes and where they are putting this character, I have got to find a way to make sure that she is solid enough to get by on her own, that a man doesn’t define her, her children don’t define her. She’s got to find her footing, whether it’s there in the writing or it’s something I have to play that’s not there.” I felt that it was really important to figure that out. I wasn’t sure how to navigate it, but I knew that it was something that needed to happen. When Jason Thompson [ex-Patrick, now Y&R’s Billy] was leaving [in 2015], once again, I had to reevaluate and say to myself, “Okay, now what happens with this character with no man?” Like, she’s got to be independent from a man! I worked really hard to make sure that it was clear that Sam had a backbone and she could be single for a year or two years if she had to.
Digest: Not likely in Port Charles!
Monaco (laughs): I know! I was actually going to throw that at the writers and Frank [Valentini, executive producer] and make that suggestion, if Jason stayed “Jake”, if Jason didn’t remember [his identity] and that didn’t pan out. Like, “She doesn’t need a man!” But my responsibility as an actor was to give that depth and the layers to hopefully make sure that it was possible for her to stand on her own two feet if she had to. It’s something that I really consciously tried to play without saying anything to anybody. Well, I talked to my mom about it. My mom is a huge fan of the show; she’s been watching since Luke and Laura got married, since the early ’80s, and I was like, “Mom, I’ve got to be methodical about the way I react.” Like I said, whether it was in the writing or not, there were choices that I was making as an actor that I made because I wanted to have this character be able to stand on her own two feet if she had to, and with power.
Digest: I love that you care enough to have these kinds of conversations with your mom!
Monaco: Yeah, well, sometimes I don’t know if I’ve just been doing this too long and I’m too invested and I spend too much time thinking about it [laughs]! But sometimes people can smile and wave and get away with it — and I don’t ever want to do that. I have smiled and waved before and it’s not fair to the audience, it’s not fair to my co-workers, it’s not fair to the writers, the producers, the whole team. So I’ve made a really conscious effort not to do that. There was a time that I did that, but it hasn’t been in years. I would never want to take the audience for granted and phone it in. So, I do really care. I think about it a lot.
Digest: Do you still get nervous before taping something you know is a big deal to the audience, like Sam and Jason’s recent wedding?
Monaco: Yeah! I mean, I really care about what I do and I put a lot of myself into my work, so it’s really nerve-wracking! I feel the pressure to deliver something fresh, something new, something exciting, something dramatic, something that the fans are going to want to see more of and not feel like they’re watching a clip from 2005. If I were lazy, I could be playing the same thing, but I consciously want to keep being creative and getting better at my job. I don’t know if I’m ever satisfied with my work, though. I am probably one of my harshest critics. I always think I could do better, that I might have missed something or that there’s something I could have done better. Maybe that’s just my chemical makeup!
Digest: That reminds me, at the risk of making you blush, that Bradford Anderson (Spinelli) was positively gushing about your work when I spoke to him today.
Monaco: Awww, that’s really sweet. I love him so much. I miss him! I wish they would bring him back on the canvas a little bit more than just to pop in and out. It’s really nice to have him around. He’s so professional and so talented. Sam doesn’t really get to interact with chicks outside of her family unless she’s fighting with them, so Spinelli is basically her best friend. He’s her road dog.
Digest: The positive female relationships in Sam’s life do more or less begin and end with her family, with the “Davis girls”. Tell me about creating that dynamic with Nancy Lee Grahn (Alexis), Lexi Ainsworth (Kristina) and Haley Pullos (Molly).
Monaco: I love them and I love their family bond. I can relate to it. I have only sisters, so it’s interesting to play a character who only has sisters and knows how important and special that bond is. It’s something I am able to kind of bring in from my own life. It feels really natural to support each other as family. We are, practically! We’re a pseudo family.
Digest: Regarding Sam’s less positive female relationships, what is your take on where she and Liz stand these days?
Monaco: I think Sam and Elizabeth started mending some fences back at Shriners when Sam brought Danny to visit Jake. They are cordial because they have baby daddy issues. I don’t necessarily think that one would want to sit down for coffee or throw back a cocktail with the other, but I think they are doing what adults are supposed to do when people are co-parenting, and they’re making it work. Would they rather not be around each other? I mean, sure! But they are kind to each other because they have to be.
Digest: As you think about having played Sam for 13 years now, what does her enduring popularity mean to you?
Monaco: I don’t really think about the effect that my character has on the audience. I think the only time I really get a grasp on it and a light is kind of shined upon it is during our fan club weekend and stuff like that, when you really get to meet the fan base face to face and listen to their personal stories about why they watch the show and what you do that makes their day a little bit better. That’s when I go, “Oh, wow. I’m making a difference!” It makes me realize that I’m not just telling a story that’s self-gratifying on television, I’m actually making a difference for people and helping them escape for an hour a day. Sometimes it’s hard to remember or wrap my head around the fact that there are actually people out there rooting for me and for my character, but I appreciate it and I value that so much. I feel really lucky to have found my home here.