If a journalist lives long enough, she'll get to interview the star of a TV show she was obsessed with in her youth.
Last week — pinch me — that aging journalist was me.
For 45 delightful minutes, I chatted up actress Genie Francis, best known to daytime-soap viewers as "Laura" of General Hospital fame.
In my college years, I adored the show. On Nov. 17, 1981, with 30 million other viewers, I raced home to watch "Laura" marry "Luke," played by actor Anthony Geary, on what remains the most-watched episode of any daytime drama.
Dubbed a "super couple" by TV Guide, "Luke and Laura" were a rare phenom in pop culture: a soap-opera love duo known beyond the sudsy boundaries of the tales that fill the small screens of America's weekday afternoons.
Since then, Francis has left and returned to General Hospital numerous times; this month marks her latest return to the gloriously dysfunctional town of Port Charles. Along the way, she has built a durable career as a star in other daytime dramas (among them, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless) and prime-time miniseries (North and South, Bare Essence), as well as in numerous guest-starring roles on such hits as Murder, She Wrote; Roseanne; and Roswell.
Now 56 years old and happily empty-nesting in Los Angeles with her husband, actor/director Jonathan Frakes (beloved by millions as "Commander William T. Riker" of the Star Trek franchise), she's looking forward to visiting Philly on Oct. 13 for the Inquirer's "55+Thrive" Lifestyle Conference. Its sponsors include Nutrisystem, and Francis — who has recently lost 30 pounds — is one of the weight-loss company's celebrity endorsers.
At the event, I'll conduct a Q&A onstage with Francis about what it's like for her to be a 50-something actress in a youth-obsessed industry, how she has managed to stay married for 30 years to the same person (a rarity in Hollywood), and what she cares about most at this stage of life.
During our pre-interview call last week, I found Francis to be warm, down-to-earth, thoughtful, and candid. Here's some of what we spoke about:
What’s the best part about getting older?
I've stopped people-pleasing. I'm finally at a place where I don't care as much about what others think. If they ask me to do or to be something that causes me discomfort, my answer is no — just no. Also, when something happens that upsets me, it doesn't stay with me. I can't be bothered anymore.
Has that change surprised you?
Yes, but I was so overdue to start choosing to be happy.
What’s the hardest part of being 56?
Back pain! It's also hard to age as an actress. I still find that the business, and certainly some of the people that I work with, are unkind. But I don't take it into my soul the way I once did. Now, I just think of it as them being sexist and inappropriate.
Looking back, what makes you proud?
I'm a survivor. I've survived in a very difficult business and survived a lot of personal issues and very difficult childhood events. I've endured, and I am proud that I've been able to live with some dignity.
Can you elaborate?
Without getting specific, surviving traumatic incidents gives you a fight-or-flight response, and I've had to negotiate my way through that. There's a lot of alcoholism in my gene pool, and I have an addictive personality — my nature is to be restless, irritable, and discontented. That made me a good candidate for using substances like drugs and alcohol, which were everywhere in my environment in the 1980s. But food has definitely been the hardest substance for me to handle.
I don't need alcohol to survive, so it's not even in my house. But we all have to eat to survive. When you have food issues, your tiger comes out of the cage three, four times a day and you must take it for a walk. Plus, it's socially acceptable to be eating all the time; food is everywhere. That makes food hard to manage.
How are you feeling these days?
Really good. I'm maintaining my 30-pound loss, and I might trim down a few more now that I'm back on TV. But the tiger is in the cage.
You’ve been working since age 13, when you joined General Hospital. What was your childhood like?
Let me tell you what happens to a girl that age. She's on the set 52 weeks a year in a completely sealed environment. She's tutored one-on-one, and has no interaction with her peer group. She doesn't have to go to school or negotiate through the difficult teen years in which other kids get to learn about who they are socially, which groups they like to gravitate toward or to stay away from, which boys she likes or doesn't. She doesn't get to develop lifelong school friendships that are considered so important that her school will hold reunions for years to come. There's important, profound development that takes place during that period, but for child actors our development just stops, yet we're living in this adult world we're not ready for.
Remember when Justin Bieber crashed that high school prom, and people were like, "Oh, my God, that's obnoxious, why would he do that?" Not me. I cried. There's no doubt in my mind how much he ached to be with his peer group and needed that company.
Gosh, what an insight …
I didn't know what I had missed until I saw my children have the normalcy of their childhood. And I thought, "God, no wonder I'm this way or that way."
Speaking of your children, how are you spending your new free time now that Jameson, 24, and Elizabeth, 21, are out of the house?
I'm working on a project that's taking forever — I bought a 1980s house and I'm modernizing it. I love it. There's a lot of '80s houses in L.A. that could use a face-lift.
Will you live in it?
I'll probably sell it. We already have two beautiful homes — the one here in L.A. and one in Maine [where she and her husband once owned a cottage-furnishing store called the Cherished Home]. In different ways, I've had a stressful life. So coming home is my refuge. I love color, space, and comfort, for me and my family. And I'm obsessed with design in general. When I can't sleep, I imagine a room and think of ways I could design it — the layout, the materials, the whole look. It calms me right down.
You and Jonathan recently celebrated your 30th anniversary. What’s your secret?
The only thing I can tell you is what my grandmother told me: "To stay married a long time, you have to be willing to have a couple of really bad years. And you may have to have them more than once." In other words, you find ways to work through what's going on between you and your partner. Because that's what marriage is: an agreement to work through it.
Has the empty nest affected your marriage?
It's brought back a really nice closeness. You don't have to split your attention and love the way you do when kids are in the house. There's more time for doing simple things together — walking the dogs, shopping, lunch. Also, I don't know what's happened to me, but I'm now more tolerant of my husband watching sports! It used to make me so angry. Now, I actually like to stay in the room with him and knit while the games are on. I enjoy the camaraderie of the teams, some of the excellent plays.
At 56, which relationships matter most to you?
The ones with my children and husband continue to be super important. Same with the few longtime friendships I have. As for work, those relationships matter. But these days, I just want to be a worker among workers and get along with everybody. [laughs] But I won't take any crap.