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Erika Slezak Library

Soap Opera Weekly
April 4, 1995, Volume 6 Issue 14


By: Laura Fissinger

OLTL's Erika Slezak loves her career, but loves her family more

THE MESSAGE IS RELAYED VIA THE PROPER SPOKESPERSON WITH GOOD MANNERS, A professional dose of personal warmth and an unspoken postscript: These conditions are nonnegotiable. Erika Slezak (Victoria"Lord Buchanan Carpenter, One Life to Live) will be happy to do a SOAP OPERA WEEKLY profile, her first in roughly 3 1/2 years. But she doesn't grant lunch interviews, and no press happens on her days off. Slezak will speak from her dressing room phone either Wednesday, or Thursday morning, for a full hour. Maximum. If those days at that precise time don't work, a different week can be agreed upon, sure. But the basic terms remain the same.

In an era when “celebrity journalism" easily can be mistaken for a feeding frenzy, Slezak's conditions might seem like a diva trip. Fame means you're fair game, or so assume the public and the press alike: One doesn't just market one's work nowadays; one must market oneself.

But the opposing point of view still lives and breathes. Many would argue that Slezak continually gives both and press their due by carrying a brutal workload on OLTL. For nearly a quarter of a century, often as many as five days a week, Slezak has helped create one of the most complex, resonant and believable characters in the annals of television history. She's that talented and that disciplined.

For Slezak, any internal debate about what she owed her profession or her fans was settled 14 years ago, when she held a baby boy named Michael for the first time. Her decisions were reinforced about two years later, looking down at the features of a newborn girl, Amanda. Talking about her two children and her choices, Slezak's tone of voice and inflections carry no question marks. She is who she is, and her children stand at her center.

As she explains why she doesn't jump the minute a journalist requests a sound bite, Slezak keeps talking, unprompted and relaxed; it sounds like she has her feet up on her dressing room table. "For one thing, I'm not selling anything! Second, my life is so boring." The laugh that follows says she likes it like that. A lot. "I do the suburban housewife day-to-day routine. I fix breakfast for the kids, I feed the three dogs. I pay the bills. At night we do things like watch Jeopardy.

“I didn't decide that family would be as important as my career. I got married very young, in Milwaukee.” She was 24 at the time, doing stage plays with the Milwaukee Repertory Company. “My former husband and I had very different ideas about what we wanted to do with our lives. He was a wonderful and delightful man, truly. But I wanted to get to New York and go for it, professionally. My work took precedence until eight or 10 years later, when I met Brian." For the few who don't know, Slezak's longtime spouse, Brian, is the widely respected Broadway and film actor Brian Davies, most recently in the spotlight via Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence."

"Brian and I connected when I was about 30 years old and I was realizing that I had a need for something very solid and real in life. This acting world is cruel, and the good moments are fleeting. You can be discovered and forgotten -- both! -- overnight." Not that Slezak didn't already know how show-biz bones got broken: Dad, award-winning Broadway and Hollywood actor Walter Slezak, had told his daughter countless times that nobody got through an acting career without leaving some skin on the stage door, at the very least. Although the actress had her fair share of scrapes by the time she met Davies, her perspective shifted for positive, private life reasons.

“It took Brian and me about four years to get together. And the major change really hit when I had my kids. I realized - in a blinding flash - what was most important." The words blinding flash shoot through the telephone with a jolt of something fierce and gut-level. "Now, this isn't true for every mother, I know - even after their children are born, some women can still feel the same intensity about their careers, and that's fine. It just didn't happen that way for me. I'd give up everything for my children, instantly! I would always give up anything for them. To me, kids are the only thing people leave on this earth. The responsibility is raising children who will grow up to better the world. What everyone on this planet needs is good people who will make the world better."

Just like the supposedly boring suburban mom she claims to be, Slezak pulls out verbal snapshots of the kids without being asked. Over the phone, that means stories and updates. It's been a crucial three years for Mrs. Davies, as she calls herself: Michael and Amanda are speeding into adolesence; so far, so sane, according to Slezak. The current big tussle between Mom and 12-year-old Amanda is about acting. Amanda wants to do it, and do it today. "I tell her, no, that I'm not going to take her childhood away from her, and that's my main reason. But she'll sit there watching Jurassic Park on the VCR saying, 'I can do that! I can do that!' It's a weekly argument."

Slezak's laugh is a wry crackle. No wonder. She had similar tangles with her father and her opera singer mom, Johanna Van Rijn. Only after Slezak reached college age with her goal unchanged did her parents send her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. If she survived the best and most merciless theater training around, well, she'd earned her dream. That's a moot point with Amanda for a few more years, mercifully. "Currently, her love is tennis. She's fabulous, and that's kind of scary. She can even give her father a good game, and he's a very decent player. It's a suitable sport for her - she's got a lot of inner toughness."

At age 14, Michael already stands 6 feet 2 inches, and his home away from home is a football field. "He's a nose tackle. He's doing well at it, which pleases me. They actually practice growling - I love that," Mom chuckles. "He's not a very aggressive child, so football is good for his personality." So is globe-hopping, according to Slezak and Davies. "We travel with the kids as much as time allows, to as many places in the world as we can. We really want to give them as many options and opportunities as possible. I feel you can learn as much by traveling as you can in a classroom. Plus, this is a great stage in their lives for the children to be exposed to different cultures and people. Last Easter break, for instance, the four of us went to Paris." No need to ask if everyone had a good time.

Everything Slezak has given to Michael and Amanda instead of her career seems to be paying off at this point: "I find them to be bright and funny. Each one is nice. Each one is responsible. And most important, they're good people - truly good people." In Slezak's book, that means they might actually grow up to "make the world a better place"; they might actually show her that she did her job like she ached to do it.

Slezak's co-star Laura Bonarrigo (Cassie) wants a family of her own someday; Slezak is a mother and actress she's watching closely. "I have tremendous respect for how she's set her life priorities and stuck by them," Bonarrigo says earnestly. "I admire what she's done in her private life, and for her family. And she has the same integrity in her work. She inspires me, because she treats acting like the art form it is."

OLTL performers have often used those words to describe Slezak for the press over the years -- respect, admire, inspiration. Only a few close castmates ever seem to gain much of an inside track on Slezak's personality, on the decidedly unregal woman who still rides the New York subways in sunglasses and a baseball cap. Between the focused on-set demeanor and her policy regarding publicity, Slezak has found herself veiled in a reputation for being nice, but aloof. During this particular interview, anyway, a warm pulse runs through Slezak's formality, but it isn't hard to bring up her image as a cool customer.

"Yes, I'm aware of that distance about me that people mention. Of course, I want others to like me! Everybody does, really, underneath it all. But not all people will like you, even if you stand on your head for them." Slezak says it like someone who has hard evidence. "Lee Patterson, who played my husband Joe Riley - he taught me something about relationships on the job. He said, 'You check your personal problems at the door and do the work, and then you go home.' I don't intrude on others' lives here. I find you get to know people whether you want to or not, but if you get to know them too well, or get caught up in the talk about this one, or that disagreement, or whatever..." Slezak makes a whistling sound, then imitates a hard sigh, like someone who just got done riding a plane through a thunderstorm. "Being caught in the personal exchanges around a place like a soap opera set is bad news. You need a clear emotional field to work well, and all that interpersonal stuff clutters the emotional field. So I do go out of my way to be nice to people, but not to be their friend. It's like, 'Be friendly, be pleasant, keep your mouth shut and stay in your dressing room.' Sure, you get close to a few co-workers, when you just naturally gravitate to each other. But otherwise, for me, the policy holds.

"Also, I have opinions. Anyone asks me what I think about something, they're going to hear what I think." Slezak rolls out a rowdy laugh. "They don't always want to hear what I end up saying. Unfortunately, I'm not a people-pleaser." What's unfortunate about that? "Well, I think those folks get involved more..." The sentence drifts off. "Because I don't people-please, a lot of people do think I'm aloof. But I'm not. I'm not aloof."

The last time SPW spoke with Slezak, there was nothing distant about her displeasure with daytime's crop of new, young performers. At that time, Slezak bristled over the pretty faces without hardcore training and respect for daytime drama.

"There is no such thing as soap acting; there is only good or bad acting. The kids, then or now, who talk about daytime as a stepping stone to movies, I'd always think, 'Hey, why don't you just skip daytime and go straight to Hollywood now?' That kind of person screws up our efforts to do our jobs. Daytime takes an enormous amount of discipline and work from everyone on the set. Enormous work." She pauses. "I'm looking at the current cast list for our show right now, and I must say, since I last talked to you, they're hiring different people. These people can, indeed, act. I don't see the disparity of ability in the present line-up." Her grin is nearly audible. "Sure, they're pretty - but as long as they're also real actors, why not?”

"There's a new actor playing Viki's son Kevin, as you know -- Jack Armstrong. As fond as I am of Kirk Geiger, I'm pleased with Jack. It looks like he's going to do well, and he seems like a good person." Slezak the passionate actress gets to bring Mrs. Davies the parent to work sometimes -- and they both have big fun. Especially when one of the on-set kids doesn't worry about all of that "aloof' business. "The day I met Jack, he was just great. He walked right up to me and said, 'Hi, Mom!' " Mrs. Davies cracks up, recounting that moment. "What a nice boy."

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