Exclusive: Melinda Clarke Reflects on The O.C., Dishes on The Vampire Diaries and Nikita

9 05 2010

Last June I did a TDW series called “Teen Drama’s Villainous Characters,” looking at the villains of each series. Included in part three was The O.C.’s Julie Cooper. (Though, oddly enough, I forgot to include her in my Biggest Vixens series!) But a recent interview with Julie’s alter-ego, Melinda Clarke, reminded me that there was also something endearing about Julie. As Clarke told the Los Angeles Times last month, “Julie Cooper, though flawed and motivated by the wrong things, strived to be the best parent that she could be.” I thought today, Mother’s Day, would be an interesting day to reflect on that.

In my own exclusive interview with Clarke, we discussed Julie’s series-long transformation, where she thinks the character might be today and how Julie might be connected to Clarke’s character on The Vampire Diaries. Clarke also dished on her CW pilot Nikita.

TeenDramaWhore: Do you remember what your audition for The O.C. was like?

Melinda Clarke: Oh, yes. Actually, my first audition was for the role of Kirsten Cohen [who ended up being played by Kelly Rowan].

TDW: Wow, I don’t think I knew that!

Clarke: I was younger than the character. I was younger than both the characters, actually. But it was a regular role. In the pilot, Julie was only a guest star. I read for [Kirsten] but I was asked to come back for the other character. When I came in for the Julie role, I made sure that [executive producer] Josh Schwartz and the casting director knew that I grew up in Orange County. I was literally going to the audition and then driving to my mom’s house down in Orange County. And, of course, it was a completely different world. I did not grow up in the “O.C.” world. I grew up in kind of a liberal artsy family and on the beach, which is beautiful. But it definitely wasn’t the Julie Cooper world. And I just remember having so much fun with the Julie role. She was clearly just such a money-digging whore. To me, it’s so funny now to see The Real Housewives of Orange County because you realize it exists and that’s what Julie was. Julie was obviously the original housewife. Except they have a lot more plastic on their bodies than Julie did! Thank goodness. And I remember when I got the role, it went down to the last minute. The casting director, Patrick Rush–I had actually been in an episode of Everwood.

TDW: I know! That was one of my favorite shows.

Clarke: He was able to show a scene or two from that to the network, so they could offer me the role. I was up for the role but I got a role in Battlestar Galactica, the one that Tricia Helfer ended up doing. And of course she’s a perfect, beautiful, stunning swimsuit model who can act her butt off. She ended up doing that role but they wouldn’t let me out of the contract. When you audition for a show, you sign a contract. And they can decide between however many people they want. They weren’t letting me out of the contract to do The O.C. It was literally down to the last hour before they finally let me go so I could go do The O.C. And the rest is history. It turned into a great role.

TDW: It did. When did you realize that the show was a hit?

Clarke: There were a lot of different reasons why people gravitated to it. It was a good script. It was a great script.  We had Josh Schwartz writing great scripts. Great cast. We also had the advantage of being after American Idol on Wednesday nights. I think the first time we realized it was a really big hit was at a fan appearance down on one of the piers, I think down in Redondo Beach. We were each put into limos and driven up over the hill and down to the pier and there were thousands and thousands of kids and fans–and the show had only been on like a month or two. I think that’s when we all realized, “Woah! This is something that people are responding to. Very much so.” It was very soon.

TDW: When you look back on the show today, do you have a favorite storyline?

Clarke: The first thing that comes to mind is Julie living in the trailer park [in season 3]. Because it was just, would she do it or not? There’s one particular scene where Julie’s in cowboy boots, a cut-off jean skirt, a tank top, and a thong, chewing [tobacco] and watching Nascar …and Kirsten shows up [Episode 3.10, The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah]. That was one of my favorite scenes of the whole show. And the first season, I remember reading a script where she has this little affair with Luke [Chris Carmack] and she picks up the phone and calls him very stealth-like [Episode 1.20, The Telenovela]. It’s that scene in particular where she says like, “Meet me at the hotel. Knock twice. I’ll be there. And Luke, this is a booty call.” When I read that, I was like “I officially love this show!” The lines [in the show] were just fantastic. It’s so about creating culture instead of reflecting it. We were creating pop culture.

TDW: You were. You guys definitely left a mark.

Clarke: And there was a scene, I think in the same episode, when Caleb [Alan Dale] shows up late at night with the flowers and I say, “Is this a booty call?” And he goes, “What’s a boo-tee…call?” “When you show up unannounced with the crappy carnations from Ralph’s with the idea that I might just want (blank).”

TDW: Yes! So funny.

Clarke: And the last season, Marissa [Mischa Barton] gave me a lot to do emotionally. It was definitely an incredible arc for me as an actress to start with this woman who was so superficial but, of course, she’s not just one-dimensional, she’s multi-dimensional. Starting in her pink Juicy sweat suit outfit and then by the end she’s graduated from college and moving on with her life. She’s a survivor. And I miss her.

TDW: Julie was obviously very affected by Marissa’s death. Did you have any reservations about how that would go over with the fans?

Clarke: Oh my goodness, everyone was shocked. From what I understand, the official story is that they just felt like they couldn’t do any more to this character or any more with the character. She had been through hell and back. She’d been through so much. What more could they write? Or at least that’s what I heard. I don’t really know if it ended up being the best idea. It definitely gave me a lot to do, which was fantastic. I think the last season was really interesting. I don’t know. I think the show could’ve gone longer than it did. It didn’t even finish a full fourth season. But I don’t know. You’d have to ask those involved. There’s a lot of different reasons why people think it ended. We were also moved from Wednesdays at 9 after American Idol to Thursday at 8 against Friends. And then we were moved to Thursday at 9 against CSI. It’s a little bit tough to keep up with those.

TDW: As you said, the show ended with Julie getting her degree [Episode 4.16, The End’s Not Near, It’s Here].

Clarke: Which I actually have as a prop!

TDW: Oh, wow, you got to take that home?

Clarke: Yes. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone what it actually says, what she got her degree in.

TDW: I would love to know!

Clarke: It wasn’t ever part of the script but the prop guys had fun with it. It says she got a degree in psychology but she also double majored in paranormal studies.

TDW: That’s really funny. So, if you had to guess, where do you think Julie is today?

Clarke: Well, let’s see. They did the “years in the future” thing, so I think, chronologically, she’d still be getting her degree.

TDW: True.

Clarke: But if you wanted to start from there, she’s probably…she’s probably still unmarried and dating when she wants but being a good mom to her son, who would have to be somewhere around 10 now or something like that. I think she probably opened her own business and has been very successful with it. I don’t know if she was able to do anything with her degree or not. Oh my goodness, maybe she’s a psychic now, like John Edwards!

TDW: You know, that would make her a great fit for The Vampire Diaries. You could just go right over.

Clarke: Kelly Donovan’s basically Julie Cooper now! But [unlike Julie], she’s drinking away.

TDW: On The Vampire Diaries, you worked with Paul Wesley [Donnie] and he appeared on one episode of The O.C. [Episode 1.05, The Outsider].

Clarke: Yes, it was very memorable.

TDW: Did you meet him back then?

Clarke: No, we actually met in Atlanta back in January. He’s good friends with Ben McKenzie [Ryan]. We said hello and I definitely remembered him, even though we never actually met. So we got to meet in Atlanta in 20 degree weather at night.

TDW: Ooh, that sounds fun.

Clarke: Yes. It is absolutely fun. It was an extreme winter in Atlanta this year.

TDW: Now you’re back in California, I hope.

Clarke: Yes. I was in Atlanta for two weeks, came home for a while, went back for another week, came back for a while, and then went back for two more weeks and them came back for a while and then went to Toronto for three weeks. So this California girl has definitely learned I can survive in cold weather but it’s not my favorite!

TDW: Were you already familiar with Kevin Williamson’s work on Dawson’s Creek and the Scream movies?

Clarke: Yes. I was fan of Dawson’s Creek. I was always very impressed with the characters on that show, their development and how smart he made the characters. Their conversations, their situations. They definitely had a very talented cast and a lot of them have moved on to do really amazing work.

TDW: I always saw The O.C. as the next step in the genre after Dawson’s Creek.

Clarke: There were things that Dawson’s Creek did that were a little more cerebral and The O.C. was a little bit more humorous. Very intelligent humor.

TDW: Right. I think the Dawson’s Creek had a philosophical intelligence whereas The O.C. had wit.

Clarke: Wit. Exactly.

TDW: With The Vampire Diaries, I have to ask: are you Team Damon or Team Stefan? Or, you can be Team Kelly, too!

Clarke: It was fun to work with Ian [Somerhalder] because there’s a looseness to him, to his character. He definitely brings a lot to the character. It’s not just lines on the page. And I think Kelly is similar to that. We don’t really know why Kelly is such a bad mother, why she does what she does, like drinking, and where she’s been. They definitely didn’t explain that so that leaves a lot to be explored in the future if she comes back.

TDW: That’s what the hope is. That we’ll see you again next season and delve into that.

Clarke: I’m not dead yet! I don’t think they have any intention of killing her. But it was definitely a little bit of a taste or a tease to have this character around to make her son’s life miserable but then ultimately leave town as a sacrifice, realizing she doesn’t make her son’s life any better.

TDW: You were cast in the pilot Nikita, which is also on The CW. So if Nikita is picked up, would you be able to do both shows?

Clarke: Technically, yes. Legally, yes. They’re both on the same network. It would probably be more of a scheduling situation. It would be up to the powers that be, the producers on Nikita, the producers on The Vampire Diaries. They’re such different characters and they don’t conflict as far as characters go but you would have to be within certain parameters. It’s more of a scheduling thing.

TDW: For those that aren’t familiar with the original La Femme Nikita show or even for those that are, what will this show be about?

Clarke: Well, Nikita was a runaway girl with no life, who was forced into becoming an assassin. There’s been different versions: a French film, American film, Canadian television show. This version is an updated version. Nikita is now not within the Division. She got out. She’s now played by Maggie Q. Brilliant casting. People may remember her from Mission Impossible 3. So she’s now out of the Division and she’s trying to make things very difficult for the Division. And we’ll also be focusing on the new young recruits who are trained to be assassins for the Division. But they’re essentially held against their will. They have to become an assassin or die. There’s a new young nikita and her character is played by Lyndsy Fonseca. People will remember her from Desperate Housewives but she’s now in Hot Tub Time Machine, which is a very cute movie. I think she’s in Kick-Ass, too. So she’s a hot actress right now. She’s our second lead. And my character is Amanda, one of the operatives and mentors within Division. She’s definitely not going down to the bar drinking shots. She’s a very strong and calculating and tough woman.

TDW: So are you doing action stunts?

Clarke: I would expect so. I would expect every single person on this show would have some action. It seems very alien [to the network] but there’s a lot of younger characters who will fulfill the CW demographic. I think the character of Alex, Lyndsy’s character, is supposed to be 19 years old. But there’s a lot of action, so I think young men will like it, too. Not just the young ladies.

TDW: Are you feeling confident about a series pick-up? Have you guys heard anything yet from The CW?

Clarke: Maybe I’m just jinxing everything by even talking about it. But, no, we don’t know. I have the highest of high hopes. Whenever you do a pilot and the network’s studios put money into the pilot, you’re going to hear positive feedback because they wouldn’t want to spend the money unless they’d like to get it on television. So hopefully this isn’t speaking before I should be talking about it but I think The CW is really behind it and I hope it does end up on the network, that they give us the chance.

TDW: I do, too. When you were cast in The Vampire Diaries, there were a lot of comments from people who were happy but who also want you back on their screen more permanently, not just guest roles.

Clarke: I like the ensemble situation [with permanent roles]. It’s nice to be able to have a life with my daughter and still work.

TDW: Right. And it means we’re seeing you regularly. We’re not waiting for the next guest role.

Clarke: I did one episode of Entourage last year but it was probably one of my favorite things I’ve done in a long time. It was a great scene with Jeremy Piven. I played myself. It was a brilliant thing. It was a fictitious version of Melinda Clarke. They had me come out of the Paramount lot and, of course, there’s these huge posters for my own television show. [The character] is a spy by night and a mom by day. I just thought that was very clever. I love that show. I would love to do a show like that more often. The industry is recovering from the single worst time in history. From the writer’s strike to the potential SAG strike. The lack of material. All of these things. The numbers of everything have gone down in every way, shape and form. It’s just a matter of finding the right thing and I’m really happy Warner Bros. and McG are producing Nikita and Danny Cannon from CSI is directing.

TDW: I forgot McG was doing it! He executive produced The O.C. as well. So it’s kind of like a little reunion.

Clarke: And, of course, he produces Chuck and Supernatural, [the latter of] which is on The CW, too. It all sounds like a wonderful recipe and I feel like Warner Bros. is behind it. Very much so. But you never know. You never know. Some great pilots never get on television. It’s a shame. But I think they feel good about this. And if it doesn’t go, you go after the next thing. Maybe I’ll go to Atlanta, Georgia more often.

TDW: Last question: There have been a few Twitter accounts claiming to be you and they’re not you. Can you just state for the record whether you’re on Twitter?

Clarke: I am not on Twitter in any way, shape or form.

TDW: Good, thank you.

Clarke: In fact, Kelly Rowan sent me a text not too long ago saying, “Did you know you and I are having conversations on Twitter?”

TDW: Yes! I saw that! There were two accounts that talked with each other, claiming to be you guys.

Clarke: We had a good laugh over that because neither one of us have the time for Twitter. Maybe we should. But I haven’t ever done anything like that.

Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index

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Exclusive: Amber Wallace Talks 90210, Looks Back on One Tree Hill

4 04 2010

Regular TDW readers know what a small world the world of teen dramas is. We see it each week with Six Degrees of Teen Dramas, finding how one actor leads to another. But the best connection is when you need just one actor.

That’s why I was thrilled last December when I spotted Amber Wallace on 90210. Previously seen as Glenda on One Tree Hill, Wallace was introduced on 90210 as Lila, a star reporter for the Blaze. When the show came back from hiatus in early March, we saw Wallace’s role grow.

In our exclusive interview, Wallace and I chatted about her characters on both shows as well as her musical inclinations.

TeenDramaWhore: 90210 viewers first met you in an episode that aired in December [Episode 2.12, Winter Wonderland]. When did you know you would be coming back again?

Amber Wallace: I already knew about the episode with Navid [Michael Steger] and the date [Episode 2.15, What’s Past Is Prologue]. I knew I was going to be in it for, I thought, maybe a couple of episodes. I didn’t realize I was going to be in it for the length that I actually am.

TDW: Wow. So all those episodes back, all those months back, this was technically coming up and we, as viewers, had no idea that the seeds were being planted for this current storyline.

Wallace: Exactly. I think this season they had the writers come in and do this whole outline for the whole thing so they knew what was going to be happening. And, like I said, I thought I was only going to be in a couple of episodes and every time I would go to the script reading, it was like, “Is my character going to be written out this week?”

TDW: But you ended up doing a batch of six.

Wallace: Yes.

TDW: What’s coming up next?

Wallace: The band plays live and everything that goes along with that. That episode is really fun and really cute. Nothing too heartbreaking in that. And then the episode after that, jealousy comes into play.

TDW: It seems that Navid and Lila have the common journalism interest going for them and they remembered they shared a past when they were young. But Navid and Adrianna [Jessica Lowndes] are so different. Do you think opposites attract? Or does Lila have the upper-hand?

Wallace: I don’t know. It really depends. I think when opposites attract, it can be better because things won’t get boring. It kind of adds life to the relationship. You learn things from the other person. Navid and Adrianna, they have such a strong past with the things that they went through, so I think that’s where their bond comes from. But I think it helps to have things to talk about, things in common because that helps with little every day stuff, what you want to do and sharing it with someone else. But it really depends. It can be different.

TDW: Is Lila familiar with everything Adrianna and Navid went through the year before?

Wallace: You know, it never said anything in the script but I made a choice to be aware of most of it. Lila doesn’t run in the same crowd so I don’t think she knows everything that happened but everyone in the school knew that Adrianna was pregnant. I made a choice to have Lila be aware that they went through pretty significant events, regardless of whether I knew exactly what each one of them were. So whether or not Lila knew–weren’t they engaged at one point or something?

TDW: They kind of were.

Wallace: I think that’s something that Lila did not know.

TDW: Coming into this, where you’re playing opposite two characters who have this intricate backstory, did you have to read up on last season or did you watch the episodes or anything?

Wallace: I definitely did. When I found out I was going to be on the show, I went and I got the [first] season and I made sure that I watched all of the episodes. When I was on set, I tried to ask the actors, for the episodes that hadn’t aired yet, “What’s happening? I need to know” and they told me. I think it’s really important to know the [characters] and what’s going on. It can be a little intimidating to go on a set and be a new character and not know anyone, especially when you’re coming between two characters that are so huge in the show so I better have my info straight!

TDW: What’s the deal with you coming back next season? Is it possible?

Wallace: Maybe, yeah. I think it’s one of things where it really depends on how everyone takes Lila, if they like her a lot. It’s one of those things where people need to write in and say, “I really like this character. I’d really like to see her again” and if there’s an overwhelming majority vote on that, then I think it’s a definite possibility that she can come back.

TDW: I can’t interview you and not ask about One Tree Hill, where you played Glenda. Your first episode there was the school shooting [Episode 3.16, With Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept].

Wallace: Right.

TDW: Do you remember what kind of reaction you had when you first read the script for that episode?

Wallace: Well, actually, I was not given the full script for that episode. That episode was very hush-hush because it was so dramatic and so much happened. I wasn’t sure what was going on. I knew that there was a school shooting but I didn’t know who was doing it. Really, I knew what my character knew. I’m stuck in a gym with this girl [Brooke, Sophia Bush] and there’s a shooting going on and we all have to go home. I literally knew what Glenda knew and that kinda helped in the acting. So I had no idea and when I saw the episode, it was so stunning. I felt so honored to be part of something like that. The episode was so beautiful and heartfelt. I cried.

TDW: Were you surprised when the next season came around and they asked you to come back?

Wallace: I was completely surprised and thrilled. I had one scene [Episode 4.04, Can’t Stop This Thing We’ve Started] and I became a goth all of a sudden, which was really funny to me. When we were filming that scene with me and Sophia, they were like, “Oh, we’re going to bring you into wardrobe and get you fitted the next episode.” And I was like, “Next episode? I’m doing another episode?” It was taken episode-by-episode and I wasn’t really sure when I’d be gone. I actually had to turn down an episode. I was asked to be in the finale of that season but I was filming a movie at the time and I couldn’t do it.

TDW: Oh, wow. Did you know what you were going to be doing in the finale?

Wallace: No idea. With that show, I didn’t go to any of the script readings. Sometimes I would get a script and sometimes I wouldn’t. It was a little bit different. The set was kind of different. So I have no idea what I would’ve been doing.

TDW: One of the other episodes you did, though, where you’re paired up with Lucas [Chad Michael Murray], is one of my favorites [Episode 4.13, Pictures of You]. That was a fun episode but there’s such meaning there in the conversations you had, in teaching each other about stereotypes and judging people before you actually know them. Really, you were on for a short amount of time overall, but you took part in two really meaningful, memorable episodes in the series, in  my opinion.

Wallace: Yeah, I guess you’re right. I think it helps that I have a different look from a lot of actresses today. That’s something that I really enjoy because I do tend to play characters that impart that message. It is an important message, not to judge people if they’re different and that people need to be happy with themselves if they are different.

TDW: Going along with that–and I want to word this as respectfully as possible–I’ve seen some comments from people who have said they are thrilled to see Navid with Lila because she’s full-figured. She’s not model-skinny.

Wallace: Curvy, I like to say.

TDW: That’s a great way to put it. The show has gotten criticism in the past for having these lead female characters who are stick-figure thin and now people are refreshed to see this new body type on the show.

Wallace: I’m glad.

TDW: Going back to One Tree Hill for a second, are you still in touch with the cast?

Wallace: No. That’s the funny thing about filming as a recurring character or in a movie or something. You work with people closely for a short amount of time and you do make friends but then you go about your way. I didn’t live in North Carolina. It’s hard to stay in contact with people when you’ve only worked with them for a short amount of time and then you go some place else and your lives go separate ways. I think I’m friends with people on Facebook, maybe, but you never really know who’s actually running their Facebook or who’s running anything.

TDW: Speaking of Facebook, and Twitter, too, I see you’re using them increasingly so to interact with fans. What’s that experience been like?

Wallace: It’s not overwhelming if I’m not really working at the time and people find me with “I really liked your character on this…” Sometimes when an episode, like on Tuesday, airs, you get inundated with messages and it can be a little overwhelming. But it’s really cool. It’s very surreal to have people know who you are from your work. This business is so hard to break into. It’s so hard to get roles and be seen and have people comment on what you do. People are really thrilled when you talk to them. “I can’t believe somebody famous is talking to me!” And I’m like, “What?! Me?!

TDW: You forget that you’re the famous one.

Wallace: Exactly. I’m like, “Uh, I’m thrilled that you’re talking to me!

TDW: Your Twitter handle is AmberBrookeBand. Do you have your own band?

Wallace: I do. I have a band that’s based in Atlanta. When I go back, I try to perform shows and rehearse with them. I’m trying to get them to come out here for month or two so we can book some gigs out in L.A. I’m also writing with another friend, actually this girl Jen, who taught everyone their instruments on 90210. She and I have been writing together. I’m just trying to keep myself creative. I love music.

TDW: In the band on the show, you play the bass, right?

Wallace: Yes.

TDW: Do you play that in real life, too?

Wallace: I don’t. I play guitar in real life, which, obviously, is not the same thing but it helps a lot. Our instructor, Jen, she’s brilliant. She helped me so much. It was a little bit difficult but I think I picked it up pretty quickly.

TDW: What’s next for you?

Wallace: I have some projects possibly on the way. I’m talking to people about that. And then just trying to audition. I just moved to L.A. from Atlanta, when I started filming 90210. I was like, “I’m going to go out and film that, I might as well stay and make the big move and really go for it.” There’s nothing at the moment to talk about, though, but hopefully good things, hopefully more projects. We’ll see.

TDW: Keep us posted!

Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index





Dawson’s Creek Writer Jeffrey Stepakoff Reflects, Discusses New Novel

28 03 2010

As you may recall, I adored Jeffrey Stepakoff’s book, Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing. The title alone sold me but I relished learning not just about the inner-workings of one of my favorite TV shows but also about the industry in general.

Stepakoff and I have been in touch on and off the past few years, and I was thrilled when he contacted me a few months ago to let me know about his upcoming novel, Fireworks Over Toccoa, which will be released Tuesday.

In our recent chat, Stepakoff discussed his book and shared the lessons he learned from his days writing and producing Dawson’s Creek.

TeenDramaWhore: For those that don’t know, what was your title on Dawson’s Creek and how long were you there for?

Jeffrey Stepakoff: I was on Dawson’s for three years, seasons 3, 4 and 5. My last title there was co-executive producer.

TDW: What were you responsible for?

Stepakoff: Like most writer-producers, I was responsible for writing, of course, sometimes supervising writing, story development and I had producorial responsibilities, which meant going to the set and participating in making the production.

TDW: When did it occur to you write a book about your experience in television and have one of the focal points be specifically about your time on Dawson’s Creek?

Stepakoff: Well, the book, of course, is not just about Dawson’s Creek. It’s really about my experience as a television writer during what was arguably the most tumultuous period and one of the most thrilling periods in television history. There was a book that I very much loved that came out in the late-80s by Michael Lewis called Liar’s Poker. Liar’s Poker was Michael Lewis talking about what went on during the bond trading era of the 80s , and while I was working in television during this remarkable period of time, I thought, “You know what? Someone should track what’s going on here. Someone should track the rise of television, the rise of creative content, this explosion of new networks, this explosion for new venues for television programming.” As we got closer to the reality television era, it became clear to me that this was a really remarkable untold story in the history of television and much of it centered around the television writer. So, to answer your question, it was something I had thought about for quite a while, actually, and it wasn’t until that I kind of had one foot out of the story room that I was able to really focus on it. So it’s not really just a story about Dawson’s Creek. It’s a story about television and, moreover, the history of the television writer during this remarkable period of time in television history.

TDW: This is your first novel. Can you give a little synopsis?

Stepakoff: Fireworks Over Toccoa is a love story set in Toccoa, Georgia–which is a small town about two hours north of Atlanta–in 1945. It follows the life of a young girl, Lily, who at 17-years-old marries a young man, who two weeks after ships off to war in 1942. Three-and-a-half years later, in the last week of June 1945, right before the Fourth of July, she’s preparing for her husband to return home and the entire small town of Toccoa has a fireworks display they’re preparing for. For the display, they’ve hired this young pyrotechnician, an Italian boy or a boy of Italian heritage, from Pennsylvania to come down and put on the show. Nobody has seen fireworks in the area in almost a decade because of the war. During the war, anyone who made pyrotechnics, any of the small family-run factories, were actually making munitions during World War II. So this is a big deal for the town in many ways. And while this young Italian man comes to town, Lily meets him, sees his fireworks and discovers that her feelings about what she wants in the world are not what they were three-and-a-half years ago when she committed to her husband. She falls in love with this young Italian man and has to make some very hard, challenging and, ultimately, dramatic decisions about what she wants to do with the rest of her life. So it’s a love story and a story about what’s going on in the world in this period of time.

TDW: Why have a character at 17, versus someone older than that, with a husband in the war?

Stepakoff: During the 1940s people married earlier. Right before World War II, young women were marrying, as were young men, because the boys were shipping off to war. It was an incredible time in American history and world history, where people were making all kinds of life-changing decisions because no on really knew what tomorrow would bring. At 17, people were thinking about today. They weren’t thinking about three-and-a-half years later. I also think 17 is a very dramatic period of time for people. It’s a great time in the life of  a character to tell a story.

TDW: Is there anything you learned from working on Dawson’s Creek or one of the other shows you worked on that you were able to apply to working on this novel?

Stepakoff: It’s funny that you ask because I’m actually sitting here working on my second book. I’m taking my understanding of classic story structure, Aristotelian story structure, which is what we use in television and motion pictures, to craft my novels as well. These are stories that are meant to touch, move and entertain in a very traditional form. So did I learn anything from working on Dawson’s or other shows? Yeah, I learned story structure. I learned how to craft a story first on the fly and then later with a degree of richness that I think comes from sitting in a story room and working on television and also motion pictures. I spent several years, a couple of years, in Disney feature animation doing a very similar thing, which was designing this kind of story structure. My work in Hollywood has very much informed the current work that I’m doing in fiction writing. The difference is that when you write television or a motion picture, you’re really laying out the outline or the blueprint for a story. You’re writing dialogue, you’re writing very direct action. But when you write a novel, you’re the writer, the director, the characters, the set designer, the lighting designer–you lay all of it out. You lay out the arc of the story, the subtext, what the characters are thinking, you describe what everything looks like. Obviously it’s a much longer process but in many ways it’s a greatly satisfying process because you get everything just the way you want it, ideally. But it’s very much like the television and motion picture writing and production experience.

TDW: I’m particularly interested in some of your earlier background because I, too, have an interest in television writing and novel writing but I recently finished journalism school and I know you were a journalism major for undergrad.

Stepakoff: That’s right. You were at Northwestern, right?

TDW: Yes, I was.

Stepakoff: Excellent. It’s a great school.

TDW: I really enjoyed it but I do have questions about transitioning to other things. I’m wondering what from your journalism education you’ve been able to apply to this.

Stepakoff: It’s a very good question, Shari. I like rich and authentic worlds. I like to put myself into a world that’s real. I like to learn about worlds. In journalism, of course, we learn to really delve into a story, to look for facts, to look for the story. The difference, I suppose, is that in journalism, you’re looking for the real facts to tell whereas in fiction or dramatic writing, you want to make a story satisfying and you can fictionalize things. But journalism is great to dig in and find out information that really took place. A lot of what I wrote in Fireworks Over Toccoa is about the war and what people were doing, everything from how women wore their hair to what was going on with the Coca Cola company to race relations to how men and women were dealing with each other–all of that is research is that I did, journalistic research, that helped me render a world. So the journalism background was very helpful.

TDW: Is your second novel a sequel or something independent?

Stepakoff: It’s a new story. The same kind of structure and, I suppose, the same sort of storytelling voice but it’s a new story.

TDW: I can’t let you go without asking the age-old Dawson’s Creek question: Dawson and Joey or Pacey and Joey?

Stepakoff: I like whatever is best for the story. Typically, what’s best for the story is to keep things dynamic. That’s the best way I can answer you.

TDW: What is dynamic to you?

Stepakoff: Fluid. It means that people, just like we do in real life, can change their minds and change their hearts based on how a story unfolds.

TDW: So, to you, there isn’t necessarily an endgame.

Stepakoff: I think that’s a good way to put it, yes.

TDW: I think quite a few people will be happy to hear that!

To learn more about Fireworks of Toccoa, including how you can win a related sweepstakes, visit FireworksOverToccoa.com.

Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index





Exclusive: John Wesley Shipp On Being A Dawson’s Creek Dad

20 12 2009

What’s better than a dad? A superhero dad. And, yes, my friends, they do exist. Look no further than John Wesley Shipp. Not only did he play a bonafide masked crusader in The Flash as, um, The Flash but he was also the most kick ass dad Capeside ever had on Dawson’s Creek.

Shipp and I discussed Mitch’s most memorable scenes, the heyday of soap operas and his independent film work.

TeenDramaWhore: What was it like living and filming in Wilmington? It’s so far from Los Angeles where most things are filmed.

John Wesley Shipp: You know, it’s funny. Not just in terms of where to work but at different points in my career when I’ve really wanted to have an experience, I’ve noticed that if I really hold it in my mind, the experience will present itself. Right before Dawson’s happened, I was thinking, you know, I’m sick of living in L.A., the land of perpetual glare. I sure would like to do a series somewhere that had seasons. I’m from the Southeast, so close to my family, which is all in Atlanta, would be nice. Not a series like The Flash, where I’m killing myself every day, practically opening a vein with each episode. But something that had some interest and was cool. Dawson’s Creek presented itself so it’s kind of what I asked for. At least in the beginning, the parents had vital storylines. Of course, they were subsidiary but they were independent and intersecting with what the kids were experiencing. That was fun. It was fun for a couple of years and then it was fun again at the very end. But in terms of working in Wilmington, Wilmington’s a cool town. I love the fact that the water–which Dawson’s Creek used very effectively–was almost a character in the series. It was very effectively used. It’s very much a part of the landscape. And the town is sort of like traditional, small town, historical society, Southeastern coastal town meets Hollywood. And then there’s the beach culture. On one side, it’s all new, the Outer Banks, cool places, houses to rent, condos. The other side, which is on the Cape Fear River, is older, historical. They had downtown candlelit carriage rides to view the houses that had been restored. There’s a river culture. There’s even a little sophistication in it. They had this wild club there for a while. They have cool cigar bars and eateries and restaurants down on the river. So I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. I also think that given the fact that the show exploded the way it did and we had such a young cast–and I know it was a pain in the ass for them being separated as the years went on–I think the production probably benefited from the fact that we weren’t in L.A. or we weren’t in the fastest-track place, because those kids became international stars overnight. Even as intelligent and well-intentioned as they were, it probably would’ve been very heady stuff for them had we been, say, in L.A.

TDW: Let’s throw New York into the mix, because you filmed in New York City, too, when you were on Guiding Light.

Shipp: Yeah, I lived in New York City for 14 years. I love New York City. I started my career there and I had my first success there. When I was living there, I was living there the way you’d want to live there. I had a great apartment on the Upper West Side overlooking the river and I had a house on six-and-a-half acres in Woodstock to go to on the weekends. So that kind of was the ideal way to live in New York. Then I went back in 1992 for a year when I did Dancing with Lughnasa on Broadway and a stint on All My Children. I don’t know if it was my youth or my success that I remember fondly or if it’s entirely New York but I’m actually wanting to move back there. L.A. can be very oppressive. There’s many opportunities about L.A.; I don’t want to be a whiner about it. But it is a one-industry town and everyone is in the motion picture industry. Everyone has a script in tow and everyone is an actor and everyone is a producer and everyone is on the hustle, getting this project made–you know what I mean? It can be a bit mind-numbing. Plus all that sun. New York is, as they call it, the great teeming metropolis. It’s teeming with life. Everybody does something different and nobody is particularly impressed with what you do because everybody is so busy carving out a piece of the rock themselves, a piece of that island for themselves. It’s just such a melting pot and it’s exciting. You walk out onto those streets and you’re alive. So many different people from so many different worlds. I think for an artist or an actor, it’s probably much healthier creatively to live in New York than L.A. But I’ll only speak for myself.

TDW: If you came back to New York City, would you want to do Broadway again or another soap? One of the ones that’s still here, anyway.

Shipp: I don’t know about daytime. Daytime seems to be in a pretty tough spot at the moment. I wonder, and I’ve heard speculation, about whether there will be any daytime dramas left in 5-7 years. Certainly I would like to do theater. I’m attached right now to the production of a little play with the Firebone Theatre Company called Song of the Bow. I’m attached to that and they’re looking at production next September. I’m also, after our phone interview, talking to a producer from Atlanta. He’s actually in New York right now checking out theater space. They’re taking the play from Atlanta to New York in January and he’s talking to me about the possibility of whether it would be a good fit for me. I would love that. I would love going back to New York doing a play. I think it would be the best thing for me right now so we’ll see. We’ll see if it holds true that what I hold in my mind happens. Of course, first choice, I’d really like to do an interesting series in New York because (whispers) that’s a lot more money. We’ll see what happens.

TDW: What was your reaction when you found out Guiding Light was going off the air after 72 years?

Shipp: Well, the Guiding Light I knew, from everything I had heard, no longer existed. They weren’t shooting in a studio anymore. It was practically students with handheld cameras in driveways.

TDW: That was very much my understanding of it as well, from what I’ve read and from watching it.

Shipp: I would watch it. It would be on at the gym and I’d look up. I just thought the production values had flipped. I was at a Guiding Light Emmy party at Krista Tesreau’s on August 29 in L.A. I have some pictures up from that party on my Facebook page. It seemed like ancient history. I left that show, what, 25 years ago? A quarter of a century. It was exciting. Guiding Light was a great time and it was a great time to be in daytime. That and when I went over and did the story on As The World Turns with Julianne Moore and Steven Weber. It was a time when the youth explosion, the numbers, the ratings were way up from what they had ever been before. As a consequence, the networks and Proctor & Gamble were putting money in. I went to the Spanish Islands on location. I went to St. Croix on location. Of course we also went more regionally. I don’t think they did even local locations anymore. We went up to Connecticut, Kent Falls, where we did the whole Laurel Falls Kelly-Morgan wedding and story. It was an exciting time. If you were going to do daytime, the early to mid-80s was the time to do it. I was very fortunate to work for Douglas Marland on both Guiding Light and As The World Turns. I had the best of the best in my daytime experience.

TDW: So if that was so wonderful, what 10-15 years later made you switch not only to primetime but a teen drama?

Shipp: It was what was offered. I mean, I had been through The Flash and that was disappointing in many ways. It was handled so badly by the network and that’s not just my opinion. That’s the network’s opinion. We had a number of things going against us for that show, even though we were a critical hit and the industry really dug us. But we had a network that had the oldest demographic so all of our in-house advertising fell on deaf ears. Plus we debuted in the fall and then we were off for baseball because CBS had the World Series that year. So we went on and off then we went back on. Then the Gulf War broke out. Then we went back on and George H.W. Bush threw up in Japan so we were preempted again. Then they moved our night. So it was impossible to find an audience, although it’s doing well now on DVD. It was released in 2006. So after that I went back to New York and did the play Dancing at Lughnasa on Broadway and a series of guest shots and TV movies and things like that. And then Dawson’s Creek presented itself. The interesting thing about that is they had already shot the 20-minute pilot presentation. I believe at the time they were auditioning for Mitch, I was in Moab, Utah with David Carradine, Lee Majors, Cathy Lee Crosby and Michelle Greene doing a movie called the Lost Treasure of Dos Santos. What a cast, huh? It was a riot. But, anyway, then I heard about this project. They were deciding to go in a different direction with the father and they sent me the pilot presentation. If you can think back to before Dawson’s Creek exploded on TV–and as a result of it, so many spin-offs and so many teen dramas and so much saturation and copy-cat shows to the point where it became something of a cultural joke almost–if you think back before Dawson’s Creek, there was nothing like it. I mean, yeah, you had Beverly Hills 90210 but it was completely different in tone. The kids were beautiful and–ours were, too–but theirs were popular and sexy and with it and hip, slick and cool and, let’s face it, didn’t have the brain power of our characters. What was interesting about Dawson’s is that it was not slick. The kids were not hip, slick and cool. They were a little bit on the outside. Joey Potter [Katie Holmes], that whole story–not exactly your typical teen queen there with the problems in her family. Pacey Witter’s [Joshua Jackson] father being a drunk. And that Michelle Williams [Jen] character being a real outcast at the beginning. And even Dawson [James Van Der Beek], his mom cheating on his dad and experimenting with an open relationship. There really was nothing like it. And, also, I noticed the language that these kids were using. I thought, wow! We were even criticized for that. We’re writing up to the youth audience; we’re not writing down to them. Why would you criticize that? Isn’t that a good thing? You mean the dialogue is too smart? That’s a criticism? But, anyway, how did I come to do it–I didn’t really look it as a teen drama. Now, when [creator] Kevin Williamson left the show [between seasons 2 and 3] and it became more and more of that and the parents were increasingly de-emphasized, that led to my leaving. At the end of the four seasons and the kids were going to be going to college, I saw the handwriting on the wall. We would be standing in the background with Lily and waving at Parents Day and I really had no interest in doing that. So when they wanted to renegotiate our contact, I set my price really high. Then they started production on the fifth season and two weeks into production, the WB shut them down because they had no story and that’s when Paul Stupin came to me in L.A. and said if we gave you the money you were asking, would you come back and kill the character? I kind of budged my heart for a minute but I have to tell you, it was a great decision. It was the perfect time to leave Dawson’s Creek. I did indeed get two beautiful episodes that made me feel like the previous four years had been about something. You know what I mean?

TDW: Yes. Those episodes [5.03, Capeside Revisited & 5.04, The Long Goodbye] are just incredibly moving. For a show that was, at times, a lot about sadness, those really stand out as sadder moments and turning points for Dawson, his mom, for the way that it affected his relationship with Joey. We got that in that episode after Mitch’s death. We see how his death has affected everyone as there’s those flashbacks or re-imaginings of Mitch with each of the characters.

Shipp: And imagine for me–what a sendoff?! And what a tribute to Mitch. I mean, I really got to tie up each relationship. I got a retrospective of what Mitch had been and, as you say, what he had meant to everyone and went out on a real high note. It worked out really well for me.

TDW: The other scene [in episode 2.05, Full Moon Rising] that stands out in my mind–and I was talking about it to someone just a few weeks ago; they were watching the series for the first time–was the scene where you’re in the kitchen with Dawson and he’s kind of confronting Mitch about having an open marriage and Mitch kind of breaks down and says, you know, “I was never taught what to do if my wife had an affair.” And the way that you just delivered that line was just heartbreaking.

Shipp: Honey, thank you so much. I loved that. Kevin Williamson wrote that episode. I didn’t even have to act it, you know what I mean? Just the idea of this man and those words. You can barely even say them. I think I even heard you choke up trying to say them.

TDW: Yeah, it’s true.

Shipp: “My dad taught me how to do this, he taught me had to do that but he never taught me what to do if my wife cheated on me. I never knew to ask.” I mean, I can barely say those lines now. So beautifully written and so incredibly vulnerable, particularly for a male character on television. I love that scene. I love that episode.

TDW: Did you keep up with the show or its storylines after you left?

Shipp: Not at all. I never saw it after I left. And it’s not that I sat down and made a conscious decision and it’s not that I had a resentment about the way things went down, because it was totally a collaboration. They needed something from me and I wanted something from them and we both got it. But, having said that, when you’re such an integral part of a family–and that’s what you become and it’s also an impact of being in Wilmington because we only really had each other. So on the weekends, you’ll be going out on boats and going out to Masonboro Island, we’d throw the football around, ride around on wave runners. We did everything together so it was very much a family and to know that your family was going on without you, it was too sad for me. I really had to make a clean break. It’s interesting. They had asked me to come back recently. AFI–was it in AFI?

TDW: The Paley Center. They had the panel.

Shipp: They asked me to come and be a part of it but I couldn’t do it. I think James did it and Meredith [Monroe, Andie].

TDW: Yep. It was James, Meredith, Kevin, Paul Stupin and Busy Philipps [Audrey].

Shipp: They had actually asked me to do it and I wish I could’ve. That would’ve made me feel like a part–it would’ve completed something for me to be able to do it. But I’ve been up in San Jose. I’ve been very busy and I just got back from doing an independent film in Ohio that I’m very excited about and had another, a comedy with Jodie Sweetin, play to really good notices at two film festivals, one in Wilmington.  And another film I had premiered in New Orleans at the New Orleans Film Festival in the last several months so, you know, I’ve been busy. But one thing James had said–they said something about the death of his father and he said “I was really sad because I wouldn’t get to see John anymore” and that’s the way it was. I was literally killed off. When you leave a show, you leave a show. And it was accentuated by the fact that we were sequestered in Wilmington. So, no, I never saw an episode after I left.

TDW: Well, I can tell you that, in the series finale, Gale [Mary-Margaret Humes] actually remarried.

Shipp: Yeah, I knew that because I keep in touch with Mary-Margaret. But do you know that I just found out–and I mean a couple of months ago–that Jen died, right?

TDW: Yes.

Shipp: I just found that out, like two months ago.

TDW: If you have the time, I really recommend picking up the complete series and watching the last two seasons. The emotion that we talked about earlier was there for Jen’s and maybe that goes back to the fact that Kevin Williamson returned for the series finale after he had been gone for so long. You really had his voice, his emotion and his rawness that he would put into things.

Shipp: I’ll tell you, those are good words to describe it. It seemed to me that–this goes back to the pilot presentation when I first watched it–this had a sound and a look and a feel that was unlike anything that was on television. It’s difficult now to imagine as there’s been so many copy-cats and spin-offs and it’s been run into the ground. There was a rawness amidst the sophistication. There was a bumpiness, a sense of dis-ease about the emotional lives. And also I always felt that Kevin really was Dawson, I think. I haven’t had this discussion with him. I could be wrong. But I thought we were seeing all of this life on the creek through the eyes of Dawson, which were Kevin Williamson’s eyes. I felt for James after Kevin left because I really felt that Kevin is the only one that really gets Dawson and I’m sure that was difficult for James after Kevin left. It was much easier to write for Pacey, much easier to write for Joey. To a lesser degree I think it was easier to write for Jen. I don’t really think they quite knew–they experimented with different things. But it was easier to write for Pacey and Joey. But the more awkward unique perspective of a Dawson was Kevin’s voice. I mean, my god, Greg Berlanti is a wonderful writer and oh, god, the man–I just blanked on his name–who wrote my last two episodes was just brilliant and some of the best stuff I had. But I do feel the show suffered from Kevin’s awkwardness and the lack of the Kevin’s awkwardness. There was something really awkward in the writing of Dawson that Kevin really got that we missed after he left.

TDW: Going back to you and your storylines, did you think the show gave a realistic portrayal of parent-child and husband-wife relationships?

Shipp: I don’t know about realism. I think realism is overrated. I would say it gave an interesting perspective. One thing I will say is with the explosion of information with the Internet and the sophistication of kids–I mean, my nine-year-old niece and twelve-year-old nephew have their computers in school and their this and their that and they’re so much more aware of the world and what’s going on–that I sort of think that the parents, adults, have a much wider ranger of possibilities. They’re not locked into authoritarian roles in modern society. In other words, in the 40s and 50s you started wearing suits and you got a corporate job and the dad was the head of the house and the mother was the nurturer and the father was the provider and everybody knew what their roles were and everybody got old very soon. I sort of think after the 60s and 70s and all that, and certainly today, there’s a much wider range of possibilities and, in a sense, the kids are growing up faster and the parents aren’t growing up as fast, getting old as fast. So they’re meeting in the middle. Does that make sense? I know what I’m trying to say. It’s that consequently you have a lot of more options. What I enjoyed was when Kevin would turn the–and he did it many times–he would turn the father-son relationship on its head. Another thing we were criticized for. I read things saying what kind of parents were these, what kind of role models, blah, blah, blah. But what I enjoyed was the intentional flip-flopping, the parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent. I think that was interesting writing. Is it realistic? I don’t know. Again, I think realism is overrated. If I want realism, I don’t have to ever turn on the TV. I just live my life. But I think it has to be true but it doesn’t have to necessarily be real if there’s a sense of truth in it, and I think there was. I was tickled to death that Dawson goes out on his first date and I’m more comfortable talking about it than he is. I tell him, “Have fun, play safe.” And he’s all “For chrissake, dad!”  You know, coming in and finding his parents making love on the coffee table, he’s totally grossed out and disgusted by that but I thought that was great. I loved that. It certainly was more fun for me as an actor than if I had to come in and be “the dad,” you know what I mean? I mean, who was Mitch? What did he do for a living? Who was this goofy, kind of lovable, sensitive, lost character? There was a certain wisdom that he had, simple wisdom. Certainly he wasn’t the stereotypical patriarch of the family and I was glad ‘cause that would’ve been boring as hell.

TDW: Are you recognized for the role at all when you walk down the street?

Shipp: Oh, yeah. Constantly. You know what I’m most amazed about? And my mom has picked up on this, too. The amount of times I get recognized for Guiding Light. I wouldn’t even recognize myself from Guiding Light! But the two things I get recognized the most for are, of course, Dawson’s Creek and The Flash.

TDW: Are you back in touch with any of the Dawson’s Creek cast or crew?

Shipp: Yeah. I never was out of touch with some of the people. Mary-Margaret and I, in fact, our friendship if anything has grown deeper since the show. We’re very close. We’re constantly in touch and she kind of plays the mom role and gets the gang together every now and then. I haven’t talked to Katie in years but she and I have messaged. She sent a message through an agent at the premiere of a movie but she’s got her own thing going on now and that’s consuming her. I’ve actually seen Meredith several times and her husband. Michelle, of course, has been in New York. The person I’ve most consistently been with–and I keep up with everybody through her–is Mary-Margaret.

TDW: One of the films–I think you already mentioned it–that you’ve been working on is Port City.

Shipp: Yeah, that was the comedy with Jodie Sweetin at the festival in Wilmington.

TDW: Well, coincidentally, that also stars Matthew Laurance and Barabra Alyn Woods, who also played parents on teen dramas.

Shipp: Oh, yeah.

TDW: Matthew was on 90210 [as Mel] and Barbara was on One Tree Hill [as Deb].

Shipp: It’s like, where do teen drama parents go to die? Port City. (laughs) And then this last film that I did–I just got back a couple of weeks ago from Ohio where we filmed it–was a company out of Chicago called Glass City Films. It’s a wonderful script called Separation Anxiety, in which a young man either falls to his death accidentally from an icy dam or commits suicide and we don’t know which. His two best friends, one female and one male–there’s also some sexual tension there that we find out about–and his father, who is me, spend the movie trying to make sense out of his death based on what we need to believe. Interestingly enough, the father needed to believe it was suicide, which I immediately found interesting. He saw his son as kind of a drifter, where his life was just sort of a series of accidents. It was intolerable for him to think that at the end of his life, it was just one more accident. He needed to believe that it was an intentional act that he set out to accomplish and accomplished. Now isn’t that an interesting perspective? That’s not something I’ve ever seen, where his father needs to believe his son committed suicide. We fight it out, the three of us–me and the two best friends. Most of my scenes are with the girl who–that’s a complicated relationship so I won’t go into it but it’s more than just best buddies with her and my son. We spend a lot of time hashing and thrashing that out and what we need to believe and finally come to an accommodation where I’m able to go bury my son. It was a good group of people, a talented crew and cast. I can’t wait to see it put together.

TDW: Where we can we actually see you next? Is Port City going to get a wide release or is it just doing festivals?

Shipp: I don’t know. Karma Police, which debuted at the Dallas Film Festival the year before last, is out on DVD and on I think–I can’t keep up with these sites–Blockbuster Online or Netflix, so I know it’s out there. Grotesque, my little short film that I’m so proud of, we banged out in New Orleans last year in about a week. I play a priest with a dubious past. That’s online and the trailer for that is in my Facebook videos and there’s a link to the actual 29-minute version. And then Separation Anxiety will also do the festival market.

TDW: Do you like the festivals better than a major motion picture that’s in theaters everywhere?

Shipp: No. I would rather it be straight to theaters. Again, it’s a matter of what’s offered. I will say one thing–and it’s not just my particular insight–but there’s a lot more creative freedom the less money there is riding on a project, you know what I mean? The more money, the more hands in the pie. The more sets of suits that have their handprints on the script and the edit and the this and the that, the more of a business it is. I understand that. It’s wonderful and spontaneous and creative working in an independent film atmosphere but make no mistake: I would not turn down an A film that would be set for a major release.

TDW: I hope to see you in one soon! And I’d really like to see Port City.

Shipp: You know, it’s funny. I was kind of worried about it because it’s sort of a screwball comedy and my character’s really a jerk, a goofy filthy jerk and that’s not necessarily been my trademark but all the feedback I’ve gotten is “Wow! What a great departure! You should do more comedy!,” which my brother has been telling me for years because he knows how innately ridiculous I am. But I’ve managed to shield the rest of the world from that.

TDW: Hopefully not for long!

Shipp: I’ve actually taken off the last year, for all intents and purposes. Those projects that I mentioned came to me of their own volition. I’ve not been interviewing. I’ve not been auditioning. My dad came up to San Jose to pastor a new liberal church out here that’s been facing some difficulty and then he had heart surgery. Well, I came up to San Jose and they ended up losing their music director and my background is music. I was an opera major at Indiana University in Bloomington before switching my major to theater and I’ve studied keyboards since the age of 5 so I grew up with music of the church and for the last year, that’s been my primary occupation–rediscovering my love of music and my spirituality in a very inclusive and liberal atmosphere. It’s been great for me being of service to my parents, who are now back in Atlanta. My dad’s doing fine. And I agreed to stay on at the church through Christmas, the Christmas Eve service. So I have two more Sundays to plan musically and then I’ll be flying to Atlanta to be with my family and probably re-engage my career full-time beginning in February.

TDW: Mary-Beth Peil was an opera major as well.

Shipp: Yep. She has a glorious voice. A wonderful woman. People who only knew who her from Dawson’s Creek have no idea who that woman is.

TDW: I interviewed her, via e-mail actually, last month and I would’ve loved to hear her real voice because I know her Grams voice isn’t actually hers.

Shipp: No, she’s young and sexy and funny. You just wouldn’t know her with her hair down and all that. And she tends to be play those severe, more matronly parts because she’s good at it. She’s on a series now, isn’t she?

TDW: Yes, The Good Wife with Julianna Margulies.

Shipp: Right.

TDW: Alright, well, I’m glad we were finally able to connect.

Shipp: My pleasure, Shari. It’s been great talking to you.

Come back next week for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index





Exclusive: Helen Ward Reveals the Secrets Behind Peyton’s Artwork on One Tree Hill

13 12 2009

As I watch and rewatch certain episodes of One Tree Hill, I never tire of seeing Peyton’s artwork. Even when you take out the connections it has to the storyline, the artistic talent there still just blows me away. I always wondered just who was responsible for it and so I did what all the Millenials do: I googled it.

Lo and behold, I came across the name Helen Ward and tracked her down via her Web site. Helen was kind enough to take some out of her busy schedule to give TDW the behind-the-scenes dish on creating art for One Tree Hill.

TeenDramaWhore: What was the process of joining One Tree Hill as an artist?  Surely it’s not the same as casting an actress, right?

Helen Ward: Before joining OTH, I had already worked as a set designer, storyboard artist and illustrator for a number of films.  But I still had to try out for the job.  I think they asked a bunch of people to give their shot at a particular drawing.  They were pretty specific about what they were looking for. I guess my work was closest. I got the job.

TDW: Did you try to get to know Hilarie Burton (Peyton) before drawing for her character?  Or was it more important just to understand the character?

Ward: I did not try and get to know Hilarie.  She is a talented actress and has done a great job with the character.  But it was the character I was drawing for and I learned what I needed to from the show and the scripts.

TDW: What is the process of drawing for a particular episode?  Does Burton, creator Mark Schwahn or anyone else give any input?

Ward: Mostly Robbie Beck, the props master for OTH, would contact me about drawings for the show.  Mark Schwahn always knew exactly what he wanted and it would be described in the script. So Robbie would send me the info and I would initially do some quick sketches.  Almost all of our communication was via e-mail.  I wish I could say something more exciting, like Hilarie and I would chat about what Peyton would be drawing, but the only time I ever spoke with her was when they were filming at my house in Wilmington (which oddly enough was Peyton’s house on the show.)   But I didn’t mention to her that I was her “ghost artist.”

TDW: In scenes that show Peyton drawing or painting, is she actually just going over your work?

Ward: When Peyton is shown drawing on camera, there would likely be very light lines for her to follow. Often I would give a finished version and an unfinished for this purpose.  If I remember correctly, it was usually the words that I left undone.

TDW: How has Peyton’s art evolved over the years?

Ward: I look back at the first season and think the drawings are awful!  I certainly became more comfortable working in her style, but I think her style also evolved to fit mine. Does that make sense? Initially I was trying to do something that just didn’t flow well from me.  The drawings were too clean. A little forced and not at all the way I liked to work.  But as the show progressed, I began to put more of my own style in them.   I became more comfortable and the work got better.

TDW: Do you have a favorite drawing or episode?

Ward: So my least favorite are just about anything from the first season, and my favorites are the very last drawings I did for the show [Episode 6.19, Letting Go].  Peyton does the panels of certain scenes from her past with Lucas [Chad Michael Murray].  I really had fun with those.  Each page had multiple panels and told a longer story than the single frame images that made up most of the previous work. Plus it was nice to come full circle.  I think my first drawing for the show was “You don’t know me.” One of those last ones was a version of that as well.   That was a fun five years.  I’m a little sad that Peyton has moved on.

TDW: Most people don’t know you’re behind all the artwork, right?

Ward: And who am I going to tell that I am behind the artwork?  I don’t think most people think about all the work that happens behind the scenes.  And it should be that way. The viewers should be caught up in the show.  Anyway, it doesn’t come up much.  I do have a niece who thinks it’s pretty cool.  And I impressed a bunch of third-graders at career day at my daughter’s school.  But they were much more excited by the work I did for the Hannah Montana movie.  Go figure.

TDW: Now that Burton has left the show, does it mean we won’t be seeing any more of your work?

Ward: I have been very busy with a variety of projects. I’ve done a number of portraits for movies, which is probably my favorite type of work. I just finished up work for “The Lottery Ticket,” [which is] currently being filmed in Atlanta.  Some of that work was like what I have done for OTH.  One of the characters is supposed to have created a whole bunch of sketches.  I think they are hanging in his bedroom.  I also did a huge religious painting that hangs in a church scene. (That was fun.)  I will eventually post more of this current work to my Web site.

TDW: What other projects do you work on or will you be working on?

Ward: I feel supremely lucky to do what I do.  I love drawing and couldn’t be happier than when I am working on a project, drawing away and listening to music.  And drawing for OTH was exceptional. It wasn’t just a one-time gig for a movie that is out in theaters for a couple weeks. It was ongoing and evolving. Although I had nothing to do with the concepts behind Peyton’s art, and her drawings are a tiny part of the show,  I have to admit I have loved hearing that people out there have connected with the artwork.  I have received e-mails from OTH fans who say they love to draw and the artwork on the show is really important to them.  How cool is that?!

Come back next week for another exclusive interview!

TDW Interview Index








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