Soap Opera Digest: You studied acting at Sarah Lawrence and worked on and off on Broadway after finishing school, and then you made your soap debut on THE DOCTORS playing Kit in 1982.
Hillary B. Smith: I always wanted to just do daytime. I just wanted to live in New York City and do a soap opera and then I could do my theater at night. That’s all I ever wanted. And I could not get arrested on a soap opera! I did prime-time, I did Broadway, I did regional, I did everything but I could not get arrested on a soap opera. I couldn’t even get an under-five on a soap opera until THE DOCTORS.
Digest: What stands out to you about your brief experience on THE DOCTORS?
Smith: I met some of the best friends in the business that I had when I was there. Alec Baldwin [ex-Billy] and I ended up sharing an apartment together in New York City afterward with Tuck Milligan [ex-Theo et al]. The three of us had so much fun. [Kim] Zimmer [ex-Nola et al] and I to this day are buddies. Alec, Zimmer and I all had the same agent, so we had met before I went on. My first day on THE DOCTORS was actually Kim Zimmer’s last day on THE DOCTORS. I also watched THE DOCTORS when I was a kid…. And it was also really cool, ’cause we were in the [NBC] broadcast center there, so when we arrived for work, I shared the elevator with Secretary of States and all these political people and all these very famous people who were all going up for THE TODAY SHOW, ’cause we were all on the same floor, and our makeup rooms overlapped. I’d see [anchors] Tom Brokaw and I’d see Jane Pauley. You really felt like you were in the heart of it.
Digest: You took over the role of Margo Hughes on AS THE WORLD TURNS, which had been previously played by Margaret Colin. So tell us your WORLD TURNS casting story.
Smith: My now-husband and I got engaged, I had done a movie. I mean, everything was kind of going and everyone was trying to push me to Los Angeles. My husband lived in Boston. We were kind of at that point where it was like, “Well, I guess we kind of need to make a decision. I’m going to go to Los Angeles.” And that’s when he popped the question so we had to rethink things. I said, “Well, I’ll come back to daytime. I did it before. I can commute between New York and Boston.” My agent put the memo out and this part came up…. I screen-tested with Justin Deas [ex-Tom et al]. And Margaret [Deas’s real-life wife] would be pleased to know he was not really happy about having a new Margo. I think it was whoever could kind of hold their own and not lose their cool on him got the part, so I got the part! We actually became really good buds. I mean, he was one of the most fabulous actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.
Digest: What do you remember about your first day on the job there?
Smith: Oh, wow. Well, it was a wedding. I can’t remember what character’s wedding it was. All I remember was arriving and Scott Bryce [ex-Craig] taking me and dipping me, like in a dance dip, and saying, “I’m so glad you’re here.” And I thought, “Wow, I’m engaged and now I’m meeting this terrific guy? What the hell?” But we call each other brother and sister to this day. I think again, I met some wonderful people. Scotty Bryce, Don Hastings [ex-Bob], Larry Bryggman [ex-John], and then [the late] Benjamin Hendrickson [ex-Hal], my love … I had Gregg Marx [ex-Tom], Julianne Moore [ex-Frannie/Sabrina], Meg Ryan [ex-Betsy]. It was a really fabulous experience, kind of in the trenches ’cause we sort of felt like the … This is going to be so politically incorrect, but bear with me. We sort of felt like the ugly redheaded stepchild that had been sent out to foster care, because we were kind of low man on the totem pole in the ratings. But the cast was so incred- ible. And then when Doug Marland came to write it, I mean, I don’t think there was a better written show. We had the talent pool there. Marisa Tomei [ex-Marcy] and Julianne Moore. We had really, really good talent there. I always felt like I was a real working actor.
Digest: Was it a surprise to you at all to see how successful so many actors who you did work with became after leaving the soap?
Smith: No. I remember before got on the show watching it and God, this one girl just was riveting to watch. I was just looking at her going, “She’s phenomenal.” And that was Meg Ryan. She had such a spark and a quirk and she was so interesting to watch. She was thoughtful in everything she did and so relaxed. Watching her and Scotty Bryce together, it was really fun. And working with Larry Bryggman, I mean, it’s almost like a master class. And Benjamin and I really had just the best time. And my Gregg Marx, who I just adored. And who’s the guy on BREAKING BAD?
Digest: Bryan Cranston.
Smith: Thank you! So when Gregg Marx left we had to replace him. I had a broken heart with that one. There was a quick replacement, Jason Kincaid came in just for a brief time, and then Bob Calhoun [then-executive producer] and I went out to Los Angeles and we were reading people out in Los Angeles and we read Bryan Cranston and I was done. Done. Absolutely. He’s the guy. But the network wanted to see him, so they flew him back east. There were a group of guys, all really good. When we got back east, that’s when we had them one after the other, and then there was Scott Holmes [ex-Tom]. Bob Calhoun and I looked at each other and went, “Wow.” We were so sure that Bryan Cranston was the one and Scotty Holmes just had it. It was him. And again, no skin off his nose. Bryan went off to do some lovely, lovely things.
Digest: In 1992, when ONE LIFE hired you to play the legendary Nora Hanen, how did that job come about?
Smith: I put the word out and ONE LIFE TO LIVE called. I kind of felt badly because ONE LIFE TO LIVE and AS THE WORLD TURNS were in the same time slot. I called Doug Marland out of courtesy and I said, “I just want you to know, I’m thinking about coming back to daytime and ONE LIFE TO LIVE has already called and I’m going to go meet with them.” He goes, “You’re so sweet to call. We’re so happy with Ellen Dolan [who succeeded Smith as Margo when she exited ATWT in 1989]. It’s great.” So I went to the screen test and I was screen-testing with Bobby Woods [ex-Bo]…. And then I remember [then- Executive Producer] Linda Gottlieb calling me upstairs going, “You know, we’re really looking for a redhead.” I said, “Well, a redhead screen- tested. You should hire her.” She said, “Well, would you be interested in being a redhead?” I was like, “Sure, I’ll be a redhead, but you’ve got a redhead downstairs and she was great.” So it took about a week but then they called and said I had the part. Two weeks later, I had already dyed my hair red and I was getting ready to go in for my first day of work and Doug Marland calls and says, “Ellen Dolan is leaving the show. Will you please come back?” I said, “Oh, Doug, I can’t.” He said, “Why? Why can’t you?” I said, “My hair is red. My first day of work is tomorrow. I can’t. I’m already locked in.” He goes, “If I can get you out of it, would you consider it?” And I had to seriously sit there and think, and I went, “I don’t think I can, Doug. I’ve given them my word.” And he was like, “Of course you did.” And that was that.
Digest: Do you have any personal favorite scenes or memories from the Bo/Nora romance?
Smith: There were so many wonderful ones. I think one of the funny things was when she ends up staying the night for the first time and there’s just underwear and bras hanging from chandeliers, literally, underwear hang- ing from chandeliers, and we’re under a throw on his couch in his suite at the hotel, ’cause I think he was still staying there, and Asa comes in and knocks on the door and he just keeps calling me filly. “Hey, little filly.” And I keep saying, “Nora.” That dynamic was really great. It was always fun to have that dynam ic happening…. We were allowed to dance, we were allowed to do a lot of things that we wanted to do. We had one scene where [Director] Jill Mitwell just kept the cameras rolling and we just danced around the empty house. We just moved into a new house, so we danced. It was fun.
Digest: Tell us what you remember about your last day of filming on ONE LIFE.
Smith: I just remember when we said our last words, Eddie Alderson [ex-Matthew], who I also adore and stay in touch with, Eddie Alderson and Woodsy and I ended up the three of us in a bear hug. I have a picture of it, just in this embrace, just sobbing…. That and also I remember Wall Street Journal came and they were interviewing Woodsy and I, and I think Woodsy and I kept looking at each other going, “This is so surreal.”
Digest: [You did] VENICE: THE SERIES and also now BEACON HILL you’re doing. What do you enjoy about working in that medium, which you’ve done both as an actress and a producer?
Smith: Yes, and I actually co-direct- ed the last season of BEACON HILL with Crystal [Chappell, executive producer/ex-Carly, DAYS et al]. It’s really interesting when you step behind the camera. It’s so much fun to watch people you’ve been working with fly. You cast them in something, you have an idea in your mind of how you think it’s going to go, and then you watch them formulate this character that’s so genuine and true to them, that’s so far removed from anything you’ve ever seen them do, it’s phenomenal. It’s so much fun to watch my peers work. I just was thrilled…. It was just joyful. And producing has been something I’ve been doing for a while which I love ’cause it uses the other side of the brain…. Crystal gave me the opportunity to do it. She gave people the opportunity to do things that were a little out of the norm of what they’ve done before, a little out of the comfort zone, and it was really interesting. She was very supportive in having people fly and do what you want to do and do what’s natural and what feels good to you.
Digest: When work resumes and filming resumes, would you be open to doing a longer daytime run, be it as Nora on GH or maybe a ONE LIFE TO LIVE reboot someday or playing a different character on one of the other shows?
Smith: There aren’t that many shows for me to try another stint on! I don’t know. I have no idea. You know what? I learned it back when I was commuting, but it’s really been reinforced now. I don’t look too far in the future. I just kind of stay in the moment and enjoy the moment. If something came up, I would have to look at it then, but right now I’m with my family.