Interview

ICYMI: Maurice Benard Interview

Maurice Benard’s long-awaited memoir, Nothing General About It: How Love (And Lithium) Saved Me On And Off GENERAL HOSPITAL), a candid, no-holds-barred account of the actor’s mental health and professional journey, was released in print and audiobook form on April 7. He spoke to Digest about the very personal project, in which he delves into his battle with bipolar disorder, his oft-rocky family life, and, of course, the highs and lows of his decades-long run as Sonny on GH.

Soap Opera Digest: The book was such a joy, Maurice.

Maurice Benard: Thank you. I’m so proud of it and the response is good and I think it’s gonna help people, and that’s all that matters.

Digest: When did you start kicking around the idea of writing your memoir?

Benard: Well, I think when I did OPRAH, she mentioned that I should write a book but I didn’t really think about doing it. I thought it was too much work. But over the years people have said it, especially because of the mental health [aspect], so I did it, and I’m so glad I did.

Digest: Did you have any reservations about being so vulnerable to put your story out there in this way?

Benard: Well, no, because people who know me know that I’m an open book and I talk about everything…. It’s funny, because the only time that I really felt vulnerable was when I did the audiobook, and it just broke my heart, man. Toward the end of the audiobook there was a couple of chapters that just killed me.

Digest: Tell us about the process of working with Susan Black, who wrote the book with you. How did you begin? Did she start interviewing you?

Benard: Yeah, she interviewed me with a tape recorder. She’s a friend of mine and she’s a film writer. [She] and I would just sit and talk for hours, man. I like to talk anyway, so we just did it and that was it. I kept talking and talking, I think for over a year and a half.

Digest: When you [write about how you] were institutionalized before your bipolar diagnosis, you really paint a picture of how terrifying an experience that was. Talking about it for the book, did that get emotionally overwhelming at times and stir things up for you?

Benard: You know, when we first started doing the book and I read that chapter, I felt, “Okay, book’s gonna be pretty good,” because that chapter, it was so real to me. It was like a movie. That was the hardest time ever of my life, but I got through it, and that’s the beauty of all this, is overcoming things you think you can’t. So, that’s the message I want to get out…. I’m not gonna lie, the first thought of anxiety, is, “I can’t do this.” And then because I have the tools, the strong side of me says, “Yes, you can and you will.” But my first thought in anxiety is, “I can’t,” and that’s the scary part. In the hospital, in the mental institution, it was 24/7 “I can’t”; that’s the difference. And that was a nervous breakdown, so it was not anxiety, but I think it’s all combined — anxiety, depression and manic episode in one — and then having to be locked down to the bed like an animal, every day, every minute was, “I can’t do this.” But you know what? I did. I got through it… I mean, there was stuff in there, like when I threatened to kill [wife Paula while in the throes of a breakdown]. It’s not easy to talk about, but it was needed.

Digest: When you look back on every- thing now, what would you say you learned about yourself from taking stock of your life story by putting it all down on paper?

Benard: I think what I’ve learned is that you truly … This might sound easy or cliché or whatever, but where I’m at now at 57 years old is that you truly can do any- thing you put your mind to, and when you really think that you can’t do some- thing, you truly can. I mean, it’s all, and I hate to say the word, but state of mind. It’s all in the state of mind. It’s where you get your thoughts to be to help you. I don’t think my thinking process was very strong years ago. I really don’t. In the book you read about [my difficulties starring in the 2019 Lifetime movie playing] John Gotti. Even there it wasn’t strong. I mean, I did it and I overcame it ’cause my wife willed it to happen and now I’m stronger because of it. But at that moment I still was weak.

Digest: You talk about leaving ALL MY CHILDREN [after a 1987-90 run as Nico] in large part because you were really focused on getting back to California and pursuing a movie career. Looking back, do you wish you stayed past that first contract?

Benard: No, I was cool leaving ALL MY CHILDREN. I needed to get out of New York and go to L.A. The first year of L.A. was actually gangbusters, except that I ran out of money [laughs]. No, I’m cool with all that. I don’t regret any of that. And, you know, a lot of times, for me it’s like everything that you do in life and what you go through in life is just meant to be to make you who you are. Somebody asked me a
question yesterday, “If you could not have gone through what you went through, like, nervous break- downs and all of that, would you go through it again?” And I’m like, “I wouldn’t want to,” even though now I’m glad I did because it’s made me who I am and stronger. But would I want to go through that again? No. Too much pain, man.

Digest: You also talk about the ups and down of your career in between your stints on ALL MY CHILDREN and GENERAL HOSPITAL, including how you were the runner-up for the role that went to Antonio Banderas as Tom Hanks’s boyfriend in Philadelphia and how devastated you were not to get it. What do you think about when you look back on that time now?

Benard: Yeah, that was a trip, man. You gotta understand, in one week I went in for a sitcom audition and they literally called my agent and my agent said, “You know what they said?” I said, “Yeah, what’d they say?” “We can’t tell you.” “What? What?” “They said you suck and they don’t want to see you again.” So I got down, man. I got depressed. And that same week I go in and read for Philadelphia and the big-time casting director, he’s like, “Oh, my God. That’s incredible. Thank you, Howard.” He goes, “Yes, I want you to read for Columbia and do a table reading.” So, I’m sitting at the table reading, not with Tom Hanks, but with great actors that I recognized. The great thing was in the script, it wasn’t in the movie, but in the script they go to a costume party dressed as Desi and Lucy. I’m Desi, Tom Hanks is Lucy. When we got to the lines I’m like, [imitating Desi Arnaz] “Come on, let’s go. You’re gonna go to the party?” And they were laughing and I’m like, “Am I gonna get this freakin’ movie?” And it ended up
[that] Antonio Banderas had done that documentary with Madonna [Truth or Dare] and he took the job for no money, so there you go. But you know something, I don’t think I was ready to break
into movies ’cause I hadn’t studied enough yet and had skills. I’m glad. And plus, GENERAL HOSPITAL would never have happened. Look, you gotta understand something — this is get- ting me emotional now — but what GH did for me when I first started and had a nervous breakdown there and quit the show, I will never, ever, ever forget that, that kind of loyalty, holding my hand. Anybody else would have fired me. I wasn’t popular then. I had three weeks on the show. But [former producers] Wendy Riche, Shelley Curtis, I’ll never forget.

Digest: There are so many great stories and tidbits in this book that I think will really be of special interest to GH fans and to fans of Sonny. You talk about meeting Kin Shriner (Scott) on your very first day of work and ultimately learning that he struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. Did Kin know you were going to be writing about that as well?

Benard: Yeah, I asked him for that. You know, with Kin, you gotta understand something. When I first came on and for, like, forever, maybe 20 years, I wasn’t close to him. I’m not going to say we were enemies. And then in the last four years, I don’t know how many years, I don’t know what happened. We clicked and now we love each other. I didn’t know he had this OCD. I didn’t know. And then we started talking. It’s amazing. I’m glad that I was able to talk about him in the book.

Digest: You totally addressed the [Sonny/ Brenda] pairing and working with Vanessa (Marcil, ex-Brenda) in the book. All Sonny and Brenda fans have favorite moments…. What are yours?

Benard: There’s a lot, man. Okay, I’ll say this with the Sonny/Brenda: without dialogue that I’ve me in this soap is where she opens the doors and then Sonny sees her and thinks that she’s dead and the music, the rain … and I was sick that day. I had to go to the emergency [room] the next day; I had a big stomach problem and nobody could figure out what it was. So, when I was laying on the ground there it was really bad. But that scene, walking in, it was fantastic. For me, that’s probably my favorite scene.

Digest: You write about how it bugged you that there came to this dynamic on GH where Jason was the hero and every- one hated Sonny and that it was really hard to try to play this charming mobster no matter what awful thing Sonny did. Do you ever wish Sonny was in a different line of work?

Benard: You know, look, especially early on, I would have liked to have played maybe different stuff. One time he got out [of the mob] and then the fans hated it. I gotta be honest with you, you know, it’s funny because lately, for a while there I was kind of, not phoniing it in, but just kind of doing what I do. I think more so the Alzheimer’s story, I don’t feel as much Sonny as I do Maurice. It’s just hard maybe, and emotional, but it’s not as fun, let’s say. But I decided, in the last two or three months, to go back to playing Sonny like the Sonny that I used to play, and I changed the energy. You can ask Steve Burton [Jason]. He’ll tell you, too. It’s a whole different vibe, man. And that’s who Sonny kind of is. It has to do with his business, danger, mystery. If it’s written well, it really works. Obviously, if it’s not written well, people can get tired of it. But when I’m in that mode, acting-wise, it’s exciting for me.

Digest: You also described a period of time on the show when Tamara Braun was playing Carly where you were very unhappy with the storyline and it sort of bled over into what you described as maybe kind of bullying behavior toward Tamara on your part. Why did you decide that this was important for you to admit to and address in the book?

Benard: Well, because I don’t feel great about it. It was part of my life that was very, very difficult in different ways. I thought the audience would like to get little tidbits and it would be cool for that, but I also don’t feel great about it. I already talked to Tamara about it so it’s not like  it’s a secret. But a lot of what I was doing came from… I don’t know if I want to say ego or not getting what I want and just being a baby.

Digest: You touched on the way that the “haters” reacted when Sonny got to play hero and rescue everyone on The Haunted Star when Helena brainwashed “Jake Doe” into putting a bomb on the boat. And then you discussed more generally how much that kind of reaction and how much outside influence, the response you get on social media, matters to you. I think it may come as a surprise to people given your stature in our industry and your popularity that those kinds of things still get under your skin.

Benard: Yeah, I have a problem with worry- ing about what people think. I’m working on it. I’m trying to get through that. My wife doesn’t have that at all and I have it. I’ve always had it. But I’m much better than I used to be. But as far as what you said earlier about when it was the whole town against Sonny, I want someone to dispute that, please, so I can give you every story and tell you exactly, because I remember it, how that is. Nobody has said anything to me but I’d love somebody to say to me, “That’s not true.” I mean, if we go down the line to where Sonny shot Carly in the head, it was Sonny’s fault that Michael got in a coma, then they put Sonny with Emily and everybody in town thinks he’s Woody Allen.

Digest: Not Woody Allen!

Benard (laughs): And those are just a few. But if I really researched I could give you so many [examples]. I used to say to Jill [Farren Phelps, former executive producer], “Hey, Jill. I don’t mind being in a fight, but I have a toothpick! Give me a gun, man! Have somebody on my side, too.” And then their answer would always be, “Well, you’re so good, Maurice. We know you can get out of it.” Yeah. After a while it drove me out of my head.

Digest: But in spite of all of that, Sonny is really one of the most popular characters ever on daytime television. I think that’s why it probably would come as a surprise to people just because you’re Maurice Benard, you know, that you do struggle with that kind of insecurity or that these issues are very personal for you.

Benard: Yeah. It’s funny because we’re all built differently. Like, I say to my dad and whoever else, Paula, “You should kiss the ground that you don’t have mental illness.” I mean, in the last year and a half I’ve been feeling a lot of joy. My whole life I’ve been happy, but true joy I’ve never really felt my whole life. But in the last year and a half because of whatever I’d [been] going through … I felt true joy.

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