ICYMI Emily O'Brien (Gwen, DAYS) Interview

Bringing wild, out-there characters to life has become the daytime norm for Emily O’Brien. A decade after her stint as the quirky, witchcraft-practicing Jana Hawkes on Y&R, the actress has landed at DAYS playing Jake’s mercurial, offbeat girlfriend, Gwen. “Getting to play somebody who’s kind of raw and scruffy, a misanthrope who doesn’t really fit in very well, feels extremely comfortable for reasons that I don’t know,” chuckles O’Brien. “I really truly enjoy playing an outcast.”

O’Brien, who insists she’s “definitely quite centered and calm in real life,” felt an instant kinship with the volatile Gwen. “She’s different and quite unpredictable and much more dangerous, maybe I should say. She doesn’t look or behave like most of the people in town, and that’s really fun,” says the actress. “There’s more room to make a character colorful than if you’re playing an ingenue or a straight character, and it’s more interesting.”

Since debuting in June, O’Brien has been enjoying the twists and turns Gwen’s been taking, and the addition of comedy to the mix; specifically a few scenes she shared with Matthew Ashford (Jack) and Melissa Reeves (Jennifer). “I only worked with them once, but that was great fun,” recounts O’Brien, noting that they were all “cracking up in rehearsal. It was a really nice dynamic between this hurricane [Gwen] that came into the room and this couple who were trying to enjoy a peaceful evening together. Scenes like those are real gems when you get them.”

As are the opportunities O’Brien has had with her core group of DAYS co-stars. Namely, leading men Brandon Barash (Jake) and Billy Flynn (Chad) and on-screen nemesis Camila Banus (Gabi). “Brandon’s so good and ready for anything,” relays O’Brien. “Billy is a wonderful actor, too, and very open. That’s what we’re all looking for as actors. Spontaneity makes it fun. And Camila is on top of it, always ready to play. We have such good banter.”

Having come to Salem after a long run in Genoa City, followed by a 10-year break from daytime, O’Brien felt prepared to re-enter the medium, knowing “it’s extremely quick. But DAYS moves doubly quick,” points out O’Brien. “On Y&R we did maybe an extra episode per week, and DAYS was doing two episodes per day. That was very overwhelming for me. Then I finally got the hang of it. It’s taught me definite memorization skills and to just go with your gut.”

O’Brien has followed that mindset often, like when she decided to pack her bags, head back to her native England, and enroll in the Guildhall School of Music & Drama to study Shakespeare after exiting Y&R in 2011. It was there, after all, where she spent the early years of her life being raised by a British father and a Persian mother. “My experience has been very colorful and very fruitful,” reflects O’Brien. “To be a mix of Middle Eastern and British, they’re two different sides of the spectrum. I think I’m very fortunate. I also grew up quite confused, and I mean that in jest. In England, I was brought up Catholic and going to Catholic school. My mother is Jewish and Persian, and my dad, in respect to my [paternal] grandfather, said that he would become a Jew. But my dad’s mother wanted us to be Catholic, so we [O’Brien and her sister, Natalie] went to Catholic school.”

However, things changed — abruptly — when, at the age of nine, O’Brien and her family relocated. “When we moved to the States, all of a sudden I’m going to synagogue, and my mother’s entire side of the family is here,” continues O’Brien. “So I’d gone from dad and all the English side to coming here. But I’d spoken Farsi fluently, since I was a young child, so it was very easy to just mix with the family.”

Mingling with other kids was another story. “Here I was with a little English accent and everyone was making fun of me,” remembers O’Brien. “I didn’t know how to fit in. So I said, ‘I need to get rid of this [accent].’ But then I went back to England and my friends there were like, ‘What happened to your accent? You don’t sound English anymore.’ So there was some confusion growing up. I definitely had some trouble integrating myself with other girls my age.”

As the years have passed, O’Brien has come to appreciate her unique upbringing. “I love it. I embrace it,” she says. “It’s a huge part of who I am, and I speak Farsi every day when I speak to my family. I feel very cultured as a result of it, because I’ve been able to experience both sides and in two different countries. I’ve also found it’s an asset to have another culture and another language to be able to switch between dialects as an actor. That’s been very useful to me.”

The dialects have come into play in O’Brien’s voice-over and motion capture work, too. It’s the career she’s been making a living doing for the past decade, in video game projects like The Lord of the Rings’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor; Death Stranding; Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series; and the TV series LOVE, DEATH + ROBOTS for Netflix. “There are many video games with Persian roles,” she notes. “In Telltale’s Batman game I was a Persian character, and I recently did another video game where I was Persian. It’s been very nice to be able to integrate that side of myself, because it had been rare up until the past decade or so.”

O’Brien got to integrate the English side of herself in the animated musical fantasy comedy special TOM AND JERRY: WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. “I played Veruca Salt, who’s British, and got to sing ‘I Want It Now’,” she recounts. “That was really fun, because I grew up watching TOM AND JERRY.” Of course, she uses that British accent in her portrayal of Gwen on DAYS, a role she was eager to get back to when the soap resumed production in September. “I find it very interesting, because she kind of came in with all these secrets,” she points out. “You don’t know where she came from, what her intentions are. I like that her one clear intention is that she loves Jake very much and wants to make sure he has a seat in the DiMera house. As the story has evolved and I’ve learned more about her, it’s taken me by surprise a little bit. I don’t know how much I’m able to say, but there’s definitely more to her and that will start to unravel.”

There’s a lot more to O’Brien, too, who acts, sings, has a resumé full of voice-over work — and writes. A project she scripted, Beatrice, won Best Short Film in 2012 at the Big Island Film Festival in Hawaii. “That was really kind of an experiment to see if I could do it,” admits O’Brien. “I ended up doing much better than I thought. I wrote and directed a second one called Too Close about a brother and sister in the 1950s that takes a close look at boundaries. And I’ve written a 1940s war story about two sisters isolated in a house waiting for their father to come back. I’ve written a few things that I’m trying to get out there.”

In the meantime, she’s delving into Gwen, and understands that she’s not everyone’s cup of tea yet. “Some people have reached out and are really enjoying her,” notes O’Brien. “But it’s funny, some fans are like, ‘Keep your fingers out of your mouth. Why do you keep biting your nails?’ I don’t know how to explain that. It was written in the script on the very first day. I thought, ‘There it is right on the paper. Gwen’s a nail-biter.’ So I’m not really ripping out my nails on set. If it’s coming across that way though, that’s a great thing.”


O’Brien didn’t feel like a stranger walking into the DAYS studio for the first time, because she already knew a few of her new castmates. Among them: Paul Telfer (Xander), and former Y&R co-stars Stephen Nichols (Steve; ex-Tucker, Y&R) and Stacy Haiduk (Kristen; ex-Patty/Emily, Y&R). “Stacy had also done a film with the cinematographer who did my short film, Beatrice,” notes O’Brien. “And the director of Beatrice, Lance Dumais, is actually good friends with Paul Telfer. So that’s how I knew Paul.” While O’Brien has yet to work with the trio, “I have seen them and we’ve said hello,” she says.

And, in the interim, she’s made a new pal on set. “I really like Marci Miller [Abigail]. She’s wonderful. I feel very comfortable with her.” And, as a result, she’s become someone she often chats with backstage. “I’ve been able to confide in her about a few things, just about my life,” shares O’Brien. “Marci has a really beautiful, calm presence. I like that about her. She’s very easy to talk to and very present and there with you. She really listens to you. I really appreciate it when I come across that, somebody who doesn’t seem distracted and really listens to you.”


Born: May 28 Hails From: Bedfordshire, England

Family Matters: “My sister, Natalie, is a costume designer and lives here in L.A. And my parents are in San Diego — Carlsbad by the Sea. They’re close, so I’m very lucky.”

Also Known As: Y&R’s Jana Hawkes Fisher, 2006-11

Must-See TV: “I loved watching THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, but that’s done now. I’m currently watching SUCCESSION, although it’s a little bit heavy at times, and OUTLANDER. That’s something that my dad and I have been watching.”

Parlez-vous français? “I lived in France for the summer after I left Y&R and studied French there. I had studied for 10 years already, but French is really difficult. If you’re not speaking it every day it’s very hard to keep up. I’m not 100 percent fluent, but I can speak conversational French.”

As Time Goes By: “I do love clocks. I probably have two in every room. I love the sound of them and I love looking at them. It adds such a nice little feature, and it’s better than looking at your phone all the time.” Making Music: “I started playing cello a year and a half ago, taking classes at L.A. Community College. I’m a horrible musician, and I’m pretty bad at the cello. I’m just in love with the sound. It’s the closest sound to the human voice.”