"They've Got Me Now!"
Afternoon TV Magazine, February 1984
by Susan Oakley
Article Provided By Wanda
There's a first time for everything! Reporters are privy to biographies, family pictures, and even recipes. But this was the first time our correspondent was shown an actress's birth certificate! The name on the document: Felicity LaFortune.
Felicity just 'happened to have it laying around' in her sunlit Greenwich Village apartment. "Somehow I just knew you would ask if that was my real name. Everyone does. Would I make up a name like that?"
Few actresses would show their birth certificates for obvious reasons, much less claim to be older than their publicity. "The public relations people said I was was 26; actually I'm 28," says Felicity. Such honesty! Obviously Felicity is a newcomer to the limelight. In fact, it was exactly one year ago that she was toiling away 'for peanuts' in a play in Chicago.
The producers of Ryan's Hope had been looking for a love interest for Jack Fenelli (Michael Levin) for a long time. In fact, the touching scenes with Jack and his deceased wife Mary had been in the can for over a year. The directors on Ryan's Hope hadn't been able to find anyone suitable for the role of Leigh Kirkland in any of the New York auditions. In the past, they had been lucky when they cast roles outside of the Big Apple cattle calls. Marg Helgenberger (Siobhan) was discovered doing Shakespeare at Northwestern. Mary Page Keller (ex-Amanda Kirkland, now Sally Frame on Another World) was found studying at the University of Maryland. Actresses working outside of New York take heart! Maybe the third time's the charm in the search for the perfect Leigh Kirkland. So the producers returned to the Windy City to view the local talent.
"I was cast in the part of a frumpy Italian housewife. Imagine my surprise when they asked me to read for the sophisticated role of Leigh! I had been a RH watcher for years. I still feel that RH has the best writing and acting around. I knew that they were looking for chemistry between myself and Michael Levin. So I gave them chemistry. I gave them all the chemistry that I could muster up! I noticed that everyone in the Kirkland family had straight hair. My own hair is very thick and curly. So I said, 'do I want this job or not?' I had my tresses straightened for the audition. Imagine their surprise when I walked in after my contract was signed with my hair all over the place. I thought the hairdresser was going to have a fit! I used to have hair down to the middle of my back, but little by little, they have snipped it away."
Her new hairdo is certainly the least of the changes that have occurred to Felicity in the past year. Besides being whisked into the coveted role on RH, Felicity didn't have to wait very long to find a new man in her life. She didn't have to look very far either. He was living right next door when she moved into her New York apartment. His name is Steve and he is an assistant director for a major film company. It would seem that Felicity has a fairy godmother or a magic lantern in her possession. On closer observation, however, Felicity wasn't born under the brightest star. Like most actors in this competitive business, she worked hard, scrimped for years to achieve her present success. And how about the new man in her life? Well, maybe she's just a little bit lucky.
"Sure, I would describe 1983 as a lucky year for me," says Felicity. "But I find it ironic that I came to New York three years ago and I got absolutely no work at all!" It took a move back to the midwest in apparent anonymity for Felicity to be discovered.
Felicity started acting quite by accident. She was trained as an opera singer and had been seriously studying since she was 13. Felicity was an apprentice at both the San Francisco and the Sante Fe Opera Companies. She was on the way to pursue her one goal in life - opera - when disaster struck.
"When I was 22, I lost my voice," she recalls. "It was pretty ghastly. Before that I had been the woman of steel as far as my voice was concerned. I could abuse it; not rest it, and it never complained before. Finally my voice just gave out and it really unnerved me. A specialist discovered that I had nodes on my vocal cords. Up until that time in my life, I had not known the meaning of the words, 'lack of confidence.' That feeling had never occurred to me before and it shook me to the bones."
Felicity went to a vocal therapist who told her that she could have an operation or completely shut up for a whole month. Felicity opted for silence. "That was one of the strangest things that I have ever gone through in my life. I simply did not speak. I carried around a note pad and a pencil to communicate. After I got over the initial urge to talk, I found it to be incredibly restful. I loved it. I discovered something very important from this experience. I realized how much nothing, how much blather was coming out of my mouth all day long. Friends began to treat me differently. Either they stopped speaking to me or talked to me slowly and loudly. I would scribble a note to them: 'I'm not deaf. I can hear you, I just can't speak.'" After Felicity got her voice back, she was very reluctant to return to opera. It would be three years before she dared to sing again.
In the interim, Felicity turned to the next best thing - acting. She performed in many repertory companies around the country. She was in many plays in Chicago, her hometown. Felicity admits to being a total neophyte when it comes to television and film.
"The audition for RH was the first time that I had ever been in front of a camera - ever. It was terrifying! I had always worked on the stage," says Felicity. "I hadn't even done a commercial!" After she landed the role of Leigh Kirkland, everything was new for her. The first month on the set, she kept getting notes from the director that she was being too theatrical and to tone it down. Yet Felicity contends that a little theatricality can be interesting in a television role. Some people can make it work for them.
"Take a perfect example, Dorothy Lyman (ex-Opal Gardner, All My Children). Now there's a woman who tore up the set! Her character was not the type to tone down. She used her whole body, so the camera just moved back and let her rip. I think a lot of actors make a mistake by not using some of their stage training. It certainly worked for Dorothy." (And Ms. Lyman has two Daytime Emmys to prove it!)
Felicity had other hurdles to cross when she found herself acting in another medium. Stage actresses receive their scripts up to a month before a performance. They have time to think about their role and memorize their lines. Not so in daytime TV. Actors often get their scripts the night before. Just like the viewer, the performers on the soaps have no idea what will happen to their dramatic alter-ego.
"As soon as I got the part of Leigh Kirkland on RH," says Felicity, "I said, 'OK, when do I talk to the writers about my character?" And the director said, 'oh, don't worry about that.' I said, 'right, then may I have my script three weeks in advance so I can work on my character?" And they said: 'No, no we'll give you the script the night before and you can work on your character during the day.' During the day! I thought I was going to have a heart attack!"
At times like this, an actor reaches into his bag of tricks. He uses his instincts and just tries to make his part as interesting as possible. The actor learns to draw upon himself and his own personal experiences. After the first month of trauma, Felicity began to adapt quite nicely. "Since I didn't know what was going to happen to Leigh, I basically played myself, only heightened," says Felicity. "That way, I figure I've got more latitude. I want Leigh to be as broad a personality as possible; that way I've got more options. It's uncanny, but the writers on Ryan's Hope are using much of my own personality when they write Leigh's lines and they have never met me!"
So is Leigh Kirkland a clone of Felicity LaFortune? Which one is an imitation of the other? "I wouldn't say that, but in many ways we are alike. There's a definite parallel in connection with my feelings about children and Leigh's relationship with Jack's daughter Ryan", says Felicity. "I love children but I'm frightened of the responsibility. I mean I don't have a pet, I don't even own a plant! Leigh is also approaching the possibility of being a stepmother with a bit of trepidation."
Felicity's scenes with Jenny Rebecca Dweir (Ryan) are certainly handled with sensitivity and warmth. They explore the tenuous beginning of a relationship that many women in this country are experiencing.
"What a good little actress!" exclaims Felicity. "I remember the first time I met her. I was having my makeup applied and Jenny Rebecca walked in and kind of looked me up and down and said, 'You're Leigh. We have a scene together next Tuesday. I hope you know your lines.' Then she walked away. I thought, 'this kid's going to to wipe the floor with me! What to do? Well, she's turned out to be a delightful kid and the affection we show for each other is genuine."
Getting back to that chemistry that is obviously clicking between her and actor Michael Levin. Is their affection genuine? "Oh, he's a doll," says Felicity. "Everyone in the cast is so helpful. I like working with a smaller cast and a core of professionals who have been on the show since its inception. As I mentioned before, RH was the only soap that I watched. I still can't believe I'm a part of it. I don't know why they hired me. I don't care. They've got me now!"
As she left the room to put away her birth certificate, Felicity was humming, no, singing to herself. It was an aria from, that's right, an opera!
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