As ‘General Hospital’ Gears Up for Graceland Fan Weekend, a Conversation with Laura Wright and Cynthia Watros
It was a moment that makes you grateful to be a daytime viewer. In a scene that aired late last month, there they were, Emmy winners all — Cynthia Watros, Maura West and Laura Wright, standing next to each other in a classic reaction shot as Maurice Benard’s Port Charles resident
mob boss coffee importer Sonny Corinthos confronts the three of them, as multiple secrets bubble beneath the surface. From “Loving,” “The City,” “All My Children,” “As The World Turns” and “Guiding Light” the quartet represented 30 years of daytime acting excellence, now brought together daily on ABC’s “General Hospital,” celebrating its landmark 60th anniversary this year.
In an era when only three soaps remain on network airwaves and a pair of strikes threaten Hollywood, “General Hospital” is still going strong, often just as exciting and fast-paced than ever.
A big reason for that is the work of Watros and Wright, portraying Port Charles arch rivals Nina Reeves and Carly Spencer. Despite their onscreen screaming matches, offscreen the two have been friends for 30 years, ever since working together on “Guiding Light” while coming up together in the industry back in the 1990s. And for the first time ever, the pair will appear together (along with mutual scene partner Benard, Port Charles’ favorite dimpled don) Oct. 27-29 at the Fourth Annual “General Hospital” Fan Celebration at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Benard, Wright and Watros will be joined by fellow castmates Eden McCoy (Josslyn Jacks), Lynn Herring (Lucy Coe), Josh Swickard (Harrison Chase), Michael Easton (Dr. Hamilton Finn), Tabyana Ali (Trina Robinson), Walt Willey (Jackson Montgomery), along with “General Hospital” executive producer Frank Valentini.
In addition to panels featuring the actors, a casting call with fans, autograph sessions and a themed costume party, a Nurses Ball has been added this year (hosted by Herring herself!) and a taping of Benard’s popular YouTube series “State of Mind.” (Editor’s Note: At a future GH Graceland fan weekend, we are personally advocating for a screening of Elvis’ final film, 1969’s “Change of Habit” followed by a Q&A with GH legend Jane Elliot, who made her big screen debut in the film, co-starring with The King. Says Wright: “That would be amazing. Jane Elliot is an incredible woman and so smart. To have her on a panel? I would want to be there!”)
As fans and actors prepare to gather together at Graceland later this month, there will be a lot to discuss since viewers are thisclose to witnessing Sonny and Nina’s nuptials and just maybe Nina getting busted for turning Carly and her new beau Drew Cain (Cameron Mathison) in to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for insider trading.
In advance of their Graceland weekend with fans, Cynthia Watros and Laura Wright graciously hopped on a call together to discuss their 30-year friendship, their dedicated fans and that transformational Nixon Falls storyline, where an amnesic Sonny first fell for Nina Reeves, resulting in the dramatic end of Sonny and Carly’s latest marriage.
While this year’s Graceland fan event marks Watros’ first time at the festivities, Wright will be returning for her fourth time. So what keeps her coming back? “First, it’s Graceland,” says Wright. “Who doesn’t want to hang out with Elvis and all of that energy with our fans and the Elvis fans? Plus, they do an incredible job so the actors want to come and the fans want to show up. When you make it a wonderful experience for the fans and the actors, plus factor in the excitement of ‘General Hospital’ and the fans? It’s just perfect.”
In daytime’s current fast-paced shooting schedules, where actors routinely have to memorize and shoot pages and pages of scenes for multiple episodes, sometimes working 12-hour days, Wright and Watros say the short hand that exists between them having worked together for so long comes in handy. “It’s about trust,” says Wright. Adds Watros: “I think Laura would agree with this, you really have to do your work before you even step foot on the stage floor because you really don’t have the time to work things out. Ninety-nine percent of the work is done in my living room or texting back and forth with Laura. When we get on the set, we get two tries.” Adds Wright: “I mean, you get more if you keep messing up! (laughs).” “That’s right!,” add Watros, laughing. “But as far as saying, ‘Oh, we should try that again just to see..’ or, ‘Gee, I didn’t feel that organically…’” “Right!” adds Wright. “‘Can I keep going until it feels right?’ (both laugh). And quite frankly, depending on how much you have [to shoot] in a day, if someone did that, you’d be like ‘ Are you [expletive] kidding me?’ I’ve got 24 [scenes] today. Pull it together! (both laugh).”
“Yes, the pace is insane but there’s a rhythm you get into and you get used to it,” explains Watros. “If you plopped Laura and I into a play where we did rehearsals for weeks, we’d be looking at each other saying, ‘Wow, they move really slow!’ (Laura laughs). You get used to the speed and there’s a lot of spontaneity that’s still there, even with the speed.”
Adds Wright: “Exactly. Cynthia and I can block something in the morning, talk through our concerns and and then rehearse it in our dressing rooms and still go up on set and be like, ‘Wow!’ and high-five each other after and say, ‘We had no idea the scene was going to do that.’ When you get on set with the height of emotion and let it just go, there is still this excitement. We had no idea that was going to come out of what we had worked on all day. And you go, ‘This is why we do this!’”
“General Hospital” fans remain hotly divided over the aptly named Nixon Falls storyline that slowly unspooled onscreen throughout 2021. The fictional burg where an amnesiac Sonny ends up after falling off a bridge was a nod to “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” creator Agnes Nixon, who once famously described her soap plotting as “Make them laugh, make them cry and make them wait.” And fans did precisely that as Sonny and Nina fell in love, a grieving Carly became a bad ass mob boss and then fell in love with her bestie Jason Morgan.
So when did Wright and Watros first learn about the storyline that up-ended all of their characters’ trajectories? Recalls Wright: “We knew a couple weeks in advance that Sonny was going to lose his memory but I had no idea where it was going.” Adds Watros: “I think I was the last to know! With the Nixon Falls scenes, we were [shooting] the end of the day on a set away from the others. We were in our own little world. I think maybe I found out the week before and at the time, I didn’t really know Maurice. So when Nina was getting to know Sonny/Mike, Cynthia was getting to know Maurice as well and we both fell in love with him.”
Both Watros and Wright laugh recalling the challenges of shooting the pivotal phone call in the plot where Nina calls Carly to tell her she’s discovered her presumed dead husband alive in a Pennsylvania bar — until Carly pisses Nina off into keeping the secret. For starters, on a separate set, Wright says she had to shoot her scene first without knowing how Watros would play Nina on the other end of the call. “And I remember thinking, ‘OK, I have to really rip her so Nina actually has the justification for the biggest move she’s ever going to make,’” recalls Wright. “‘I’ve really got to be an asshole so Nina is like, ‘Oh, really? Goodbye!’”
Adds Watros laughing: “It was such a soap opera move. I mean, Carly would have done that in a heartbeat. We had a stage manager reading Laura’s part so I had to use my imagination to figure out how Laura would do it!”
The multi-year fallout from the storyline has generated passionate responses from fans online, some of whom loved the new pairing of Sonny and Nina while others loathed it. Both Wright and Watros are highly skilled social media pros who happily engage with fans regularly online. But Wright has one boundary fans can’t cross. “I grew up watching soaps and there were times when I screamed and yelled and threw things at the TV but that was the fun of it,” she says. “That passion, that excitement, that anger. I still get that way when I watch ‘House of Dragons’ and all of my other shows. I love it. But I don’t attack the actors. For me, that’s a huge issue. If you have a problem with your favorites, I get it. But everyone, from writers, producers, directors and actors, everyone is showing up and doing the best they can. Everybody. And there are tons of Sonny/Nina fans too. It’s all over the spectrum and it’s wonderful. I just think personally attacking any actor in any way is absolutely uncalled for. Have your passion for the character all day long but if you start attacking the actors? That’s unacceptable. And I have no problem blocking you.”
The cast and crew have also had to grieve real life losses this year. Last month, former castmate Billy Miller died suddenly at age 43. In May, “General Hospital” viewers and cast alike were also stunned when Jacklyn Zeman, who had portrayed Bobbie Spencer (and Carly Spencer’s mother) on the show for 45 years died after a short battle with cancer at age 70. For most of her 18 years on the show, Wright had worked closely with Zeman. In retrospect, she says she’s grateful she got to be in what would turn out to be Zeman’s final scenes on the soap.
“Jackie was incredible and had the best stories on the planet,” recalls Wright. “That last week we got to work together was the Nurses Ball where we sat together in the audience. When we shoot that, there’s a lot of time for chit-chatting and all of our stuff is stashed under the table — your water, your phone and we’re sitting on our scripts. I had five days that week of sitting and hanging out with Jackie from eight in the morning until nine o’clock at night. It was such a gift. And we sat with Eden [McCoy, who plays Carly’s daughter Josslyn Jacks] and Taby [Ali, who plays Trina Robinson]. The four of us sat together so I was like, ‘Jackie, tell them this story or that story!’ She had travelled the world and had the most incredible life experiences, both on and off camera. She was a part of daytime from the late 1970s to this year. It was incredible to get to have that full week with Jackie and hanging out with her every day right before we lost her.”
The Graceland fan weekend will represent the first major fan gathering since Zeman’s death and both Watros and Wright are looking forward to reconnecting with viewers. Of GH fan events, Watros says: “I’m always amazed by how fans come with such open hearts. Usually there’s a desk in front of you and they’ll ask for a photo or an autograph and they’ll tell you about their grandmother or they’ll tell you about something that’s happening in their lives. It’s because they feel like they know you and they open up to you. It’s us connecting together and I love that.” Adds Wright: “When they show up and you get to meet the granddaughter or the grandmother and they tell you, ‘We love watching together’ or sisters tell you, ‘We get together every Friday to talk about what happened that week.’ It warms your heart. They let us into their living rooms five days a week. We’re family to them and you can really feel it when you’re at an event. It’s what makes daytime so unique.”
For more information or tickets to the 2023 “General Hospital” Fan Celebration at Graceland, click here. To follow Laura Wright and Cynthia Watros on X, click here and here. Here are the links to follow the official General Hospital social media accounts on X and Instagram.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.