Gina Tognoni (Phyllis) was a guest on Digest’s podcast, Dishing With Digest, and traced her soap roots, from ONE LIFE TO LIVE to Y&R.
Soap Opera Digest: Tell us what you remember about your [OLTL] audition.
Gina Tognoni: Oh, you know, I was a young girl. I was in my ’20s. I had come out here to become an actress. I was studying acting at the time and oddly, I was about to let it go. I had given it a long shot. I had been auditioning straight for about a year and a half and really wasn’t picking up anything, but learning quite a bit, but I was getting a little frustrated and I thought, “Well, maybe this isn’t for me.” … I was at Santa Monica College and I had gotten a call from my agent at the time who said, “There is this contract role for Kelly Cramer at ABC’s ONE LIFE TO LIVE and it’s a great role. Why don’t you give it a shot?” And I thought, “Well, it’s in New York. I’m here in L.A. I’m gonna be going to school.” … In fact, I was taking exams for anthropology or something like that. The audition came about that week that our exams were beginning and I ran out, did the audition, came back and scheduled to take some tests the next few days, got a call that I was supposed to fly to New York and do a screen test…. I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I’ll give it a shot.” I went back, did the screen test, and got the job. I remember it was on set at ONE LIFE TO LIVE. I thought the whole process was so amazing. But in the back of my mind I thought, “This isn’t gonna happen.” And it happened. They said, “You’re our Kelly Cramer,” and that was it. In an instant my life changed. I had to go and ask to be excused from my classes and I got so many credits, but I lost a lot of credits, but at the same time — I always say it was like a divine order. It was like the universe telling me, “Nope, you’re gonna go this way right now.” And I did. I said yes, and nothing’s really been the same ever since, really and truly. I mean I was 20-something years old and my first contract. What a great opportunity. My first boyfriend was Nathan Fillion [ex-Joey], on-screen. He was the first love interest I had. I mean, how lucky could I be? We became very fast friends. I met some of my best friends there, Erin Torpey [ex-Jessica], Darlene Vogel [ex-Melanie], I still stay in touch with cameramen. Kassie DePavia [ex-Blair; Eve, DAYS], I’m still in touch with, who is out here now. It was such formative years. I learned everything I could think of as far as television at ONE LIFE TO LIVE. Just the basics. I’m just so grateful to all of them.
Digest: I was watching some of your very first episodes on YouTube recently. It was Kelly dressed so outrageously when she went to the Gold Star Gala. It’s so fun these records exist of you cutting your teeth as an actress.
Tognoni: Exactly. That’s exactly what it was. I was really, really green. I was terrified most every day ’cause I just didn’t know what to be afraid of, but I just knew to just keep going forward and the people that I was working with like Robin Strasser [ex-Dorian] always encouraged me to keep going and I felt so at home. And then I would use what I learned as far as my basics and everything was just serving itself. I felt that I was in the right place at the right time. I stayed there for about, I wanna say, almost seven years. It was just such a home. It was one of the best ways to learn. I had an incredible learning ground, and I got paid for it, which was extra cool.
Digest: Did you ever think about leaving after your first contract?
Tognoni: Yeah, I did. I believe at that time Nathan might’ve left. I think so. Nathan was at a time that it was good for him to leave. He had to. It was time for me to stay. Everything comes in seasons, and I’ve always kind of just taken one step at a time and I’m glad I made that decision. And then when I left and it was time to go I believe I went back to Los Angeles. That was really important, too. Everything was exactly as it was supposed to be.
Digest: You came back to the show and then settled at GUIDING LIGHT for a run.
Tognoni: A nice little ride.
Digest: What do you remember about making that transition?
Tognoni: Now that one I did a little with a question mark. I was in Los Angeles. I had been out here, they called and said, “There is this role, Dinah, and it would be a recast. It would bring you back to New York. What do you think?” And I had a big question mark, I’m not gonna lie. I just didn’t know if I was ready. I took a jump: “It’s not the end of the world. Let’s see what happens.” I came back to New York. I was really enjoying L.A. at the time, actually. I was kind of finding my own rhythm again. And then this popped up. I was talking to my mom quite a bit about it and she said, “Yeah, embrace it.” And it ended up being one of the most important moves I made. First of all, I met my husband [Joseph Chiarello] during that period of time. I met some pretty incredible people and I think opened up in a different way as an actor. From that, I started kind of branching out and I did some episodic. I was picking up some speed and just kind of doing other things, but I got to experience — I did some [LAW & ORDER] SVU in New York, I did THE SOPRANOS in New York. Still at GUIDING LIGHT, the writing I found so good. I found the acting so good. This to me was a real New York soap. It had such a realness to it. I got to work with people like Beth Ehlers [ex-Harley], who to this day I think is seriously one of the best actresses that I’ve ever worked with. She would probably right now be rolling her eyes. “Whatever!” But truly, this woman would make it like you were in her living room. I got to be around people like that and learn a lot. So again, it just fed me in a way that I needed to be fed. I was in the right place at the right time.
Digest: You won two Daytime Emmys as Dinah. What did that mean to you at the time?
Tognoni: Huge. Huge. It just meant, “Oh, you can do it,” and it also meant a lot that my community would think the same, that I moved them on some level, right? So I just thought that was so cool. As far as outward acknowledgement, it’s probably one of the coolest things of when it comes to doing this. I had my mom with me on my first experience of winning that and I was able to thank her and my family. This is when the Emmys were aired, you know, televised, so that’s important to me that I had the opportunity in that time when it was very special. Not that it’s not special now, but it’s changed so much. And then the second one was just as incredible. I forgot to thank my husband, so that was a bit of a shadow on that one for a little bit. I had a tough time letting that one go, but eventually I did. When I won my third one at Y&R, that’s why I came out with him right away. It took me like seven years. In a way, that’s sort of how I put that all together in my mind.
Digest: GUIDING LIGHT went off the air in 2009. What was that like for you to live through the show’s cancellation?
Tognoni: You know, it was a funny year because here we were, this incredible show was coming off the air that I think was devastating to so many fans. To the industry, things were really sloping at that time. Things were just really changing in daytime. ALL MY CHILDREN was moving. They were going to L.A. But that was the year of my marriage as well, 2009. I had gotten married in May and my husband and I were just beginning our journey together, so that was really taking center stage, but at the same time, this incredible experience was coming to an end. I was filled with reverence and gratitude, but at the same time, I knew that times were changing. It was bittersweet. It was a hard year and yet it was full of a lot of emotion, but mainly positive ’cause of the marriage. But I gotta tell you, we lost something very, very special when we lost GUIDING LIGHT and I will always say that. You can watch these scenes during the day whether it was with Justin Deas [ex-Buzz] and he just would do a scene and it would be like a matinee. His scenes would be like watching a matinee. And the level of performance, Kim Zimmer [ex-Reva], God she was good. She was so compelling and just a real original. I got the chance to get to know her and work with her and I loved that. I don’t know if it was the time, but it was just incredibly special. It was a time everyone knew what they were doing. They made it look so easy. And I thought the writing was really character-driven. We knew who these characters were. Nobody was acting like the other person or speaking like the other person. You didn’t need huge sets, you could have a small set but it didn’t matter. People were moved by the relationship between the two characters and that’s what kept them coming back every day because they felt something.
Digest: What was your original approach to playing [Y&R’s] Phyllis? Did you want to look into her backstory? Create something of your own?
Tognoni: So, I was a huge fan of Michelle Stafford [ex-Phyllis; Nina, GH]. I think that she was just — oh, my goodness, if she hadn’t have done the work that she did, nobody would’ve known who Phyllis was, but she made sure that everybody knew who she was. She was awesome. And her courage is crazy. So from that, I was like, “Oh, man, okay, so I gotta go there.” That’s how I knew right away there was a reason why I was supposed to do this. I think one thing Phyllis teaches me is to stop thinking and just do it. Take your little wings and go. That’s just who she is. In my life, I always need that. Michelle Stafford did that in a way that was very raw. I started from there, and then I always remember, and this is true, Robin Strasser always said, “Put your fingerprints all over it,” and it works. You acknowledge what is a part of it and what people expect, but then you can start making it your own. I like doing that. I think it’s a good thing to have as an actor. You gotta pay attention to her core personality. I always have to remind myself of that because when you go through so many changes in head writing sometimes those things can be undefined, so it’s up to the actor to continue to remind as much as he or she can as to what that character is about. This has not been easy. This has not been a cakewalk. And the fact that people accepted me and thought that it was a good thing I’m very, very grateful for, ’cause it’s not something I walked in and did, I had to think about it. Definitely challenging.
Digest: What do you think when you look back on your Y&R journey so far?
Tognoni: I can’t believe I survived it! I fly so much. I fly back home a lot. You know, it was necessary. I needed to do this. It has taught me more than I could have ever imagined. It has also brought me back to why I got into this in the first place. I do love what I do. I love the art of expression. This place keeps me honest about why I do this. I’m in such a loving environment. It is not a mean environment. I’m just so thankful. I really am.
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