On September 26, 1996, Nancy Lee Grahn made her Port Charles bow as Alexis Davis, a flawed and formidable heroine who quickly became a fan favorite. Here, Grahn reflects on the milestone of her 25th anniversary.
Soap Opera Digest: From 1985-93, you played Julia on SANTA BARBARA. When that show came to an end, where was your head regarding taking on another daytime role? Did you receive interest from other shows at that time?
Nancy Lee Grahn: It’s hard to recall but I remember feeling a mixture of fear, anticipation, resolve, excitement, concern, optimism, dread, hope … did I say fear? I received interest from other shows, but I had a movie to shoot after production ended and then I kept pretty busy from thereon in.
Digest: Julia was such a spectacularly written character. Did you have any fear that a follow-up soap role would pale in comparison?
Grahn: I experienced that almost immediately. No role I was offered before or after was ever as divine as Julia.
Digest: You’d done prime-time work, including a recurring role on MURDER ONE, in the lead-up to you joining GH. Can you pinpoint when you started to seriously consider joining another soap and what appealed to you about doing so?
Grahn: Yes. I wanted to have a baby. Soaps are steady and tailor-made for motherhood. Prime-time is trickier, less dependable and the hours are brutal.
Digest: How did the GH gig come about?
Grahn: I called Michele Val Jean [a former SB scribe who was then writing for GH], who called [then-Head Writer] Richard Culliton, who called [then-Executive Producer] Wendy Riche and they said, “We’ll take ya.”
Digest: What do you remember about your first day?
Grahn: I was very cognizant that I was in other people’s home, and was very respectful.
Digest: Were you able to have any creative input into the character of Alexis? And if so, do you recall what touches you feel you were able to add to the creation of Alexis and the development of her personality?
Grahn: You have to earn your right to have an opinion. So, not really at the beginning, but in time I’d factor in here and there. Often it was received, and other times not so much. I always advocated for Alexis to be true. Complex and unpredictable, too, but real is imperative. I’m a big fan of motivation as well. My paycheck is all I get sometimes in soapland.
Digest: Early on, Alexis was revealed to be Stefan’s half sister, the illegitimate daughter of Mikkos Cassadine. You worked closely with Stephen Nichols (ex-Stefan) and Tyler Christopher (ex-Nikolas), your Cassadine kin. What stands out to you about that?
Grahn: [Then-Writer] Patrick Mulcahey. He wrote much of that. His words make me happy.
Digest: Alexis’s first big love interest was Wally Kurth’s Ned. What are your memories of that storyline/relationship — and how would you rate Wally as a leading man?
Grahn: Of course he gets a 10. I love my Wal. I remember it was sweet, not terribly layered. It got more dimensional as we went along and I loved the sprint out of the wedding. I needed that romance to get me going on GH. Without a partner, you become the listener of other people’s interesting lives or the narrator of exposition, my two least favorite things to do.
Digest: Fans first got to know Alexis as a mom when her one-night stand with Sonny resulted in Kristina. Later, she and Ric welcomed Molly, and not too long after that, it was revealed that Sam was her biological daughter, as well. Can you talk about what you enjoy about “the Davis girls” and why you think their dynamic has become so beloved to the GH audience? You’re probably the coolest matriarch on TV, in my humble opinion!
Grahn: This is good because this is real. This looks like a slice of life and why I love this creation. The Davis girls are relatable and beloved because each one of us has our own distinct, relatable complexion. There is as much contrast between all of us as there is unbreakable unity. There is an equal measure of joy, despair, volatility and humor that keeps it dynamic and fun.
Digest: What comes to mind when you think about your TV daughters, Lexi Ainsworth (Kristina), Kelly Monaco (Sam) and Haley Pullos (Molly)?
Grahn: My mom. She had three daughters and what a gift that was for her, when it wasn’t a living hell [wink].
Digest: Over the years, when you’ve disagreed with a storyline direction for the character, how have you handled it? Or does it depend on the situation?
Grahn: Depends on who was in charge. I have been right, wrong, insistent, compliant, intense, calm, determined, yielding, impatient, tolerant, pissed off and genteel … but always with the intention of making it better.
Digest: Do you have a favorite storyline from your years on GH, or favorite Alexis era?
Grahn: Well the whole Sonny/Alexis trajectory was really well done and satisfying until a regime change took a machete to it. I did love the drunk Alexis beat. And “Julexis” was good for me. Was it good for you?
Digest: Do you have a least favorite?
Grahn: Well, donning the red wig to fake a personality disorder ranks high up there and anything where I have no purpose other than butting into other people’s lives or narrating exposition of other people’s storylines. It’s like doing a commentary alone while I watch other people have sex. I’ve had my fair share of that over the years. My least favorite thing to do is pretend that the person I’m looking at who looks exactly like the person who was very clearly dead is not alarming and perfectly normal.
Digest: In 2012, when Frank Valentini took over as EP, he reversed course on the menopause storyline that had begun for Alexis, putting the brakes on an era for Alexis where she was, in your words (in a Digest interview in 2018), “menopausal, uninterested in romance and quite frankly, I felt, uninterested in anything … She was room filler.” Do you remember the conversation you had with Frank where he essentially told you, “Nope, Alexis is still vibrant and sexy in my book,” and what it meant to you that your new boss saw that your character needed and deserved new storyline life, romantic and otherwise?
Grahn: Yes and I do! He gave us both life. The difference a producer makes.
Digest: Alexis had been without a serious love interest for a long while before the “Julexis” phenomenon was born in 2013. Reflecting on it now, why do you think the combination of Alexis and Julian, and the chemistry between you and Wil deVry, caught fire the way that it did?
Grahn: Well, I owe [former Head Writer] Ron Carlivati a shout-out for investigating Sam’s father and giving Wil and me a canvas to create some chemistry. It is, I think, a savvy writer and producer who see a spark and keep throwing tinder on it to keep it burning, which keeps the audience warm. It makes good TV and at the same time recognizes the fans’ engagement with it, which is always a smart thing to do.
Digest: One thing that has been a constant, whether Alexis has been front and center or more of a supporting story figure, is her undeniable and enduring popularity with the fans. What’s your take on why the audience feels so strongly about, and so fiercely protective of, this character?
Grahn: I care deeply about the audience. I value them. I think about them with every decision I make with the goal being to not cheat them in any way. I operate always with the assumption that they are smart and deserving. I consider us partners in this dance. What I give to them directly affects what they give back to me. If I tell them the truth, make them feel real things, whether it be love, rage, irritation, sorrow or laughter, they will receive it and let me know to do more of that or not, and so the dance continues. We are connected in this way, and we all appreciate connection. Our love affair is mutual.
Digest: What makes Alexis fun to play, 25 years into your run?
Grahn: That she is not, nor never should be, some potted palm in the background. She is vibrant, different, unpredictable, with loads of stories left for her to tackle.
Digest: Earlier this year the show celebrated your milestone with an exceptional episode exploring Alexis’s psyche. Was that a rewarding day of work for you?
Grahn: Indeed. The whole experience was a true gift from start to finish. Everyone involved went above and beyond and showed up with nothing but love and grace. I was truly honored and will not forget it. A touchstone moment for me at GH, full stop.
Digest: Alexis is behind bars at the moment, but if you were to write out a wish list for her storyline future, what might we find on it?
Grahn: I think a charming, clever, brilliant, smug, competitive, Republican attorney who she can’t stand and can’t stay away from. A little Adam’s Rib is always a winning formula.
Digest: It’s your 25th anniversary, and in a way, Alexis’s 25th birthday. If you were to make a toast to her on this most auspicious occasion, what would you say?
Grahn: “Well done thus far, oh feisty one, but the best is yet to come.”
Digest: Can you sum up how signing that first contract with GH changed your life, as you think about the role the job has played in your life for the last quarter century?
Grahn: This job gave me everything. It gave me a space to do what I love to do and the security I needed in my life to raise [daughter] Kate in the way I always dreamed about. Since I will never be done raising her — she begs to differ — I will need GH to continue to take care of us indefinitely. I can still screw up people’s court cases and slug back vodka with a walker.
Digest: Before we wrap up, is there anything you’d like to say directly to your fans?
Grahn: Thank you! But we are so not done.