Y&R Executive Producer/Head Scribe Josh Griffith spoke exclusively with Soap Opera Digest about how the show pulled off the galvanizing drama of Jordan’s introduction and the reveal that Claire is Victoria and Cole’s not-so-dead daughter.
The reveal that Claire is really Eve, the daughter Victoria and Cole mourned back in 1998, has made for fabulous drama! Where did the idea to resurrect Eve come from? “Well, I’m always diving into the history to find something that’ll spark a story for now because I always think that’s much more satisfying for the audience, especially our long-term audience, if there’s something that we can just hook to the past, so that they go, ‘Oh wow. I remember that and I thought that was over and done with,’ as opposed to always bringing in something new.”
Talk us through the creative process of developing this story. “I was having a conversation with Danielle Unger [Director Current, CBS] and she had asked, ‘Have you ever seen a movie called Sorry, Wrong Number?’ I love that movie and for years, I had been trying to find a way to do a story like that, but I’ve never been able to find how to do it. And she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do it with Nikki?’ I said, ‘Melody [Thomas Scott, Nikki] would knock it out of the park.’ So that got me thinking that in Sorry, Wrong Number, [the character] is isolated and there’s something horrible happening that she can’t do anything about. That was the premise we took from the movie; the rest of it, we couldn’t because it’s based in the ’40s and it’s all about switchboards and phones and [so] that wouldn’t work for us. But the idea of Nikki being trapped somewhere and unable to get out while horrible things are happening that she can’t stop was very appealing. So then I thought, ‘All right, let’s look into Nikki’s past. Who would do this to her? Who from her past would want to do this to her?’ I knew it had to be something bigger than just Nikki. It’s got to be about the whole family.”
And Eve Howard would certainly fit that bill. “Right. I talked to Elizabeth [Le Brun], who’s our producer and does all of the tracking of the history of the show and asked who from Nikki and Victor’s past could potentially have a grudge they would want to accomplish now. And she said, ‘Well, it would be Eve Howard, but unfortunately, we saw her die on air, so that’s no good.’ I said, ‘Tell me a little more about it.’ We dug into it and I found out about the Cole connection and then there was the baby that died, and then I started thinking, ‘Ah, a baby that died.’ As I got deeper into the story, I said, ‘Well, it’s kind of interesting if it’s a sister, it’s a woman, and what if she raised this child to believe she had been abandoned by the Newmans, and she had literally spent 26 years grooming a psychopath?’ I found that fascinating. I said, ‘But she’s got to be redeemable; the child has to be redeemable. She has to have been totally manipulated, but the aunt can be as bats***t crazy as we want!’ I said, ‘I want to go all out! I want [Jordan] to be totally Silence–Of–The–Lambs crazy.”
Aunt Misbehavin’: Colleen Zenk as Jordan, l., with Hayley Erin as Claire.
Let’s talk about the fabulous Colleen Zenk (Jordan), who you had written for when she played Barbara on AS THE WORLD TURNS. “When I started thinking, ‘Who could play this?,’ I started remembering Barbara Ryan, who was about as evil as they come! And I said, ‘What’s Colleen Zenk doing?’ I heard, ‘Well, she moved to Florida and she’s been doing theater but she may have retired.’ So, I sent her a text or email saying, ‘Hi, it’s Josh Griffith from YOUNG AND RESTLESS, what are you up to?’ Two minutes later, my phone rings and it’s her saying, ‘Josh, how are you? What’s going on?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this story you might be interested in, but I don’t know if you’re retired.’ And she goes, ‘I’m not retired for this! I love the idea!’ She told me she’s never played anybody this bad, and I took that as a great compliment [laughs]. She is just fantastic. She’s nailed it. It’s just been a joy.”
What did you see in Hayley Erin’s (ex-Kiki, GH; ex-Abby, Y&R) audition that convinced you she was the right person for the role of Claire? “We looked at reels of what she had done on GENERAL HOSPITAL and I said, ‘Wow, she’s really strong, she’s really a good actor.’ And even though she had been on Y&R as teen Abby, I thought we were still safe with her as another character. So then we did a Zoom read and I told her a little bit about the character and she did a good read, but there were some elements that were missing, and I gave her one note, and off that one note, she turned it around and just leaned into that note so brilliantly that I said, ‘That’s it!’ We stopped looking. We found her.”
On air, when Claire revealed her agenda, Hayley flipped a switch that was amazing! “Yes! And that was from [the audition]. We had one scene where she was Good Claire, the best assistant in the world. And then we had the next scene was, ‘Now we need to see what she really is about.’ And I gave her that one note and that’s what you saw on air, that flip…. We really tried to make it so that you never saw this coming. I thought the other crucial moment that Hayley did so brilliantly was the moment where Claire realized that her aunt had lied to her and then you saw all the hurt and you saw 26 years of betrayal. When I saw that, I said, ‘Okay. She is absolutely redeemable.’ ”
You said you originally created this story for Melody. What did you think of how she did with the material? “Mel has been knocking this out of the park. Nobody does alcoholic like Melody! She’s so real and heartbreaking when Nikki falls off the wagon. I knew Mel would be good, but she went so far beyond what I even imagined. Those scenes alone in the bedroom? I mean, just stunning. Just spectacular. And this story is far from over. Nikki has been forced to fall off the wagon by crazy people and her recovery is going to be equally spectacular.”
Drinking Alone: Nikki’s (Melody Thomas Scott) captors pushed her off the wagon.
The sight of Nikki hooked up to an IV of vodka was bone-chilling. How did you come up with that idea? “I was writing up the outline and I thought, ‘She already tried to escape once, so [Claire and Jordan] are not going to let that happen again.’ As I’m writing this scene, the clear liquid in the IV just popped in my head, ‘Oh, wow, that’s gotta be vodka just pumping into her system.’ It just popped into my head; I was like, ‘There’s no way this isn’t vodka. That’s what they’re doing to her.’ ”
What was the significance of the creepy doll Nikki found on her bed? “It was a deep clue I added that turned out to be a little too obscure for even my wife to figure out! I kept going, ‘It’s right there! It’s right there for you!’ It was a Victorian doll, so Victorian/Victoria.”
Let’s talk about Eric Braeden (Victor), who added so much to the scenes in the lake house. “Eric had a blast [performing those scenes]! My concern was that Eric was going to say, ‘Well, Victor’s got to be in action right away!’ But I explained I wanted to first get this poison into Victor and just see him weaken and weaken and weaken. Eric played it so perfectly. The minute he saw a moment where he could act, despite the fact that he was on death’s door, Victor rose to the occasion to rescue her. Eric was just awesome!”
Having an entire episode dedicated to the drama unfolding at the lake house was very effective from a dramatic standpoint, but it breaks the mold of how a soap opera episode is traditionally structured. What appeals to you about breaking that mold aracters? “We did it with the Cameron story, when Cameron came back, the big climax with Sharon. I don’t do it all the time; I’d do it more if I could. But I think it’s nice to do standalone episodes sometimes, if the drama warrants it. It can be very, very effective. It’s also great for everybody, for the crew and everybody, to sort of feel like they’re making a mini movie.”
It’s definitely a value-add to this tale to have J. Eddie Peck’s Cole in it. When did the idea of bringing Cole back come into play? “I knew we had to pull Cole into this. So we reached out to J. Eddie and he said, ‘Sure, it sounds great. I’d love to do it.’ We’ve got the stories continuing because now Victoria and Cole have to deal with the fact that they may have a daughter that they said good-bye to 26 years ago.”
So Cole will be sticking around? “Absolutely. He is taking a sabbatical from Oxford anyway to work on a book and he’s going to say, ‘I can write a book any time, but this is much more important. I need to see this through.’ Cole has this kind of wonderful quality that’s unlike anyone else that we have on the canvas.”
Make Yourself At Home: J. Eddie Peck’s Cole will be sticking around the canvas.
Luckily, the insanity in the Howard family skipped a generation with Cole. “In Claire’s defense, it was pure nurture, not nature. She was trained from the time she was five years old.”
Claire is a Newman by blood, and we know how important family is to the Newmans. But they can’t ignore what she did to them, even though her mind was poisoned against them. “That’s exactly right and it’s going to be a huge conflict between Victoria and Nikki and Victor because on the one hand, this could be another Newman child and Victoria now has an opportunity to embrace that. But at the same time, this is someone who was instrumental in pumping vodka via an IV into her mother. That’s a great dilemma and conflict.”
Bringing on a villain with deep ties to Y&R history has been a winning formula for you twice this year now, first with Cameron and now with Claire/Eve. Has your success on this front gotten your wheels turning about other menaces from the past who might come back to stir up trouble? “I’m always looking for menaces from the past because it’s so much richer and more satisfying than bringing in some new villain of the week that nobody knows or cares about. There’s no emotional threat and it’s just going to be a gimmick. Sometimes a gimmick works and it’s fun, but I’d much rather find a way that the threat and and the danger tie into bigger issues and when you bring it from the past, it does that so that we’ve got a year’s worth of stories just from those few episodes.”