Martha Byrne was a guest on Digest’s podcast, Dishing With Digest, where she recalled her Oakdale journey as AS THE WORLD TURNS’s Lily and Rose.
Soap Opera Digest: You actually tried out for the role of Lily in ’84 but did not get it, Lucy Deakins did. What do you remember about that first tryout for the role?
Martha Byrne: I remember Amy Locane auditioned, as well…. I believe I auditioned with Brian Bloom [ex-Dusty] and then never heard anything. I never heard that I didn’t get it or not. I obviously didn’t get it ’cause Lucy got it. But, you know, I had been in the business already for a bunch of years at 15 years old, which is so funny. But as the story goes, I got an audition for a movie called The Boy Who Could Fly, and I got a screen test in L.A. for that movie. I hadn’t heard from AS THE WORLD TURNS. It had been six months or so or whatever, maybe less, and I flew to L.A. to screen-test for that movie and I heard the producer say, “I wish Lucy was available.” And I didn’t put two and two together but I realized something happened, like, they didn’t get the actress they wanted. And come to find out it was Lucy Deakins, Lucy Deakins was the actress. So what happened was I came back to New York and I got a call I didn’t get the movie and I said, “You know what? I’m done with this business. I’m so over it. I want to just be a high school student. I want to get braces. I want to, like, have a normal life. I’m so sick of being disappointed.” And I got a phone call from [then-Executive Producer] Bob Calhoun saying, “We wanna give you the job of Lily.” … So, it was just like one of these whirlwind things. I never would’ve known it would last as long as it did, obviously. Totally fate. Just crazy.
Digest: Lily back then caught the eye of not one but two ultra mega hunks back in those early days: Brian Bloom’s Dusty and, of course, Jon Hensley’s Holden. But tell us about your relationship with Jon back when he was just starting. I know you did his screen test with him, right?
Byrne: I did. I did. That I will never forget because he was wearing … I’d never seen someone as good-looking in my life in person, first of all…. Doug [Marland, then-head writer] didn’t want Holden to be with Lily, he wanted him to be with Emily; that was part of the long-term story because he thought I was too young. I actually have the original document that Doug wrote to get the job on AS THE WORLD TURNS as the writer and in the document it says, “I’m not sure the girl currently playing the role is —” I don’t know if he said attractive enough or, you know, something along the lines of like, “I want a hot young girl to be with this guy.” I mean, I was a kid. I was not your typical heroine type of character…. Immediately when we started working together … because I can’t hide that, you can’t fake chemistry, you can’t hide that, it’s something that just comes through the screen, comes through the cameras. I just had that massive crush on him like a teenage kid would…. I look back now and I think, “My goodness. This poor guy.” I mean, everything you saw was real. The feelings that I had for him were like, ‘Oh, my God. He’s so cute.’ And I got to kiss him and hug him — all the things that any teenage girl in America wanted to do. But it was a friendship, but it was a deep friendship and he was incredibly respectful.
Digest: I need to go back to Dusty/Lily for a moment.
Byrne: Let me give you a little background on that. So, Brian was dating Allison Smith long before I got on AS THE WORLD TURNS. I knew Brian through Allison before I got the job. We were friends. We would see each other socially in the business a lot. And then I got the job. Again, Brian and I were like best friends, like, tight-as-can-be friends, especially with Allison and that factor. I saw Brian a lot more off-screen than I saw Jon. We were the same age so we were socially more connected. To this day we’re still friends. He was an incredible actor, too. Brian was a star. I came in and Brian had just won his first Emmy. He was on top of his game. I mean, I felt honored to be working with him because his level of his acting was so impressive.
Digest: So, obviously, Lily and Holden were such a throughline for your character. Did being part of a supercouple to you ever feel like a hindrance or are you happy Lily had a pretty clear true love and someone who seemed like her destiny to drive the storyline?
Byrne: I loved that. I loved it. You know, Jon and I would be like, “Oh, they’re putting us back together again.” And we were always a little like, “Oh, but it was fun when we were apart because we get to do other things and work with other actors.” … So no, it was never a hindrance; it’s a gift. I mean, it’s such a gift. I mean, the fact that you guys put us on the cover for couples of a lifetime is such an honor because this is an institution, daytime is an institution of wonderful storytelling. To be part of that as a history is just an honor for me.
Digest: Well, another really creatively fertile era for you, I think it’s fair to say, was from 2000 to 2003 when you played Rose, Lily’s long-lost twin, in addition to Lily and you won a second Daytime Emmy in that time frame. Were you excited to take on the challenge of a second character when the idea was proposed?
Byrne: Very much so. I really needed something to kind of shake my tree a little bit. I felt like things were a little stagnant for me. When I say that I mean where do I go, like, everything was kind of done. When [EP] Chris Goutman presented it to me it was not supposed to be a biological twin, it was supposed to be just like a look-alike; that was the original idea. And then it was Hogan Sheffer who became the head writer right after that decision was made. He said, “No, no, no, no. Let’s dive back into the history and make her a relative in some way.” So had he not done that, I think it would have fizzled … I think it would have been a very short-lived story, I believe, because if it’s not rooted in anything it’s just —
Byrne: Exactly. And I feel like if it were to happen today there’s no way the story would have lasted because you always have growing pains with a story like that. There was a lot of work that went into that and I don’t know if it would have lasted in today’s society with the way social media works and such, I feel like it would have died on the vine, which would have been unfortunate because there was so much fruitful story that came from it…. I’m sad she died. I feel like there was more to do, but I understood why they did it at the time. I got it. I understand. But I feel like she was really kind of just getting started in a lot of ways. And maybe she could have been back-burnered for a bit or something. It was just a fun character to bring out. But she died. Bye-bye. Dead Rose.
Digest: Now we recently had a reader poll of the most shocking daytime exits. Of course, yours was on there. In 2008, you left the show over a contract dispute, as we understood it, which was probably one of the biggest stories of the year that year and the really most truly shocking. When you look back now, what stands out to you about that? Do you have any regrets, because the show was ultimately canceled, that you had not stayed till the end?
Byrne: Again, and I don’t really talk a lot about what happened behind the scenes for why that all actually happened. Yeah, was it a contract dispute? Ultimately is that what it ended up being? Yes. Was it a power struggle more on the other side? Yes. Okay. So, yeah, on paper that’s what it was, but it wasn’t. Why I don’t talk about it is because it’s very personal and it was very upsetting and I just couldn’t work there anymore. As time has gone by, I look back and I go, “Well, of course, you couldn’t.” I knew I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t stay there anymore and that was painful to come to that realization that I can’t come back here anymore. And yes, does it come down to a contract? But that’s how it started; it didn’t end that way…. I look at it now as like 99 percent of my time there was perfection and the one percent, the end sucked. And I have to focus on the 99 percent because what I’ve decided in my life [is] that if you focus on the things that person did that were the positives as opposed to what that negative was, you’ll feel better…. And I’ve kind of gotten to that kind of peace about that a long time ago. But at the time it’s very hard not to talk about it because people would want to know and I just didn’t want to talk about it because I couldn’t believe what was happening. I just couldn’t believe that this was the way I was being treated. It hurt. It was not nice. My husband was like, “You can’t stay there anymore.” I’m like, “I know I can’t stay here anymore.” It was very painful and very difficult to walk away, but I feel like if you stay you’re saying it’s okay, and it wasn’t okay…. There was an issue, but then it turned into something really dark and I didn’t like it. It was not nice and it was unpleasant. I wish it didn’t go down that road. Would I have done anything differently? I don’t think so because I don’t think we can live with that anyway. I feel like we have to, in the moment, certain things are what they are, right? The reality is what you’re dealing with. The retrospect is, what would you have done differently? Well, I don’t know the answer to that and I still don’t have the answer because it was presented to me in such a way that I had no choice. Does that make sense?
Digest: Well, this May will mark 35 years since you began your daytime adventure.
Digest: What does it mean for you to hear that and to know that you made such a mark, not only on the history of AS THE WORLD TURNS but the soap opera genre in general?
Byrne: You know, when I started AS THE WORLD TURNS I didn’t know it was gonna be a long-term job. I didn’t know what it would be, I just knew it was a job. I was an actress, a working actress. I look back now and I see clippings from when we would go to malls and 10,000 people would show up and you’d get bushels and bushels of fan mail at the studio. That seemed normal. That was like our normal at the time. One thing I will say is I realized the impact that it’s had this long because of what happened in the beginning. The seeds were there, the blocks that were there to create this long-term relationship with the fans and they’re still so dedicated, they’re still so supportive of me and the show and the characters and actors. Without the good writing we would have nothing, without Douglas Marland. The fact that we remember scenes from 35 years ago, are you gonna say that about other shows now? You’re not gonna remember the impact that a lot of these shows had back then. To be able to talk about it now and have it have impact still is sort of mind-blowing, if you think about it.