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Guiding Light Project: A Conversation With Grant Aleksander
Grant Aleksander AKA Phillip Spaulding

Viewers of Guiding Light first saw Grant Aleksander when, in 1982, he took over the role of Phillip Spaulding. Aleksander's Phillip was a spoiled, bratty 17-year-old, freshly kicked out of prep school, and ready for adventure - and trouble. Enter Freddie "Rick" Bauer, Melinda "Mindy" Lewis and Beth Raines— and Guiding Light's legendary Four Musketeers was complete.

The Four Musketeers added a young, fresh look and feel to Springfield, while not forsaking Guiding Light's rich history. Unlike so many youth storylines we see on soaps today, which seem to drop out of nowhere, and are completely unconnected to established characters and themes, The Four Musketeers represented a bridge between the old guard and the brand-spanking new. These weren't unconnected strangers to Springfield. This youth storyline was all about a Bauer and a Spaulding forming connections with one another and with the up-and-coming Lewis family, and the new and somewhat mysterious Raines family.  These connections have grown and evolved over the years, and remain as strong as ever. Phillip Spaulding is considered by many fans to be the real heart of Guiding Light—a sentiment that has not been lost on the show's writers, who have chosen to afflict our favorite anti-hero with a seemingly terminal illness as the lights go out on Springfield, forever.

Even as he makes plans for what his next project will be, Grant kindly agreed to talk to me and Jennifer Gibbons about his long association with the role of Phillip Spaulding, the future of soaps, the unsung heroes who work behind-the-scenes in television production, and his experiences working with talented young people. He also opened up about a cause close to his heart - animal rights. I think it's fitting we start with Grant's words about this important issue, and move on from there.

On choosing a pet

The rights of animals and the humane treatment of animals—these causes have been near and dear to myself and to my wife for many years. One thing I'd like people to do, when they're ready for a pet, is get one from the pound. A lot of people have their mind set on a particular breed, and there's this misconception that one can only get what they want from a pet shop or a breeder, but this just isn't true. If you're looking for a German Shepard or whatever, contact your local animal shelter or pound. Let them know what you're looking for. The fact is, purebred animals wind up at animal shelters all the time. If they don't have the breed you want immediately, it's only a matter of time before  you'll get a call saying the pet you want is available. The very real truth is that every pet you get from a breeder or a pet store is one more animal that's being euthanized. It's also a fact that mixed-bred animals are stronger and healthier than purebreds. (See links, below, for further information and Grant's PSA for PETA)

Beth and Phillip on the Run/The Four Musketeers

It was the first remote I ever did. I didn't know what would be involved, which turned out to be snow, rain and ice. It was freezing.

You know, scenes are often shot out of sequence, and the weather really messed that up. We wound up having to reshoot a lot because the scenes wouldn't match up. One moment we'd be the in the snow, and the next scene, shot a day or two later, we'd be on ice or standing in the rain. That added up to a lot of hours spent out in the cold, and it brought about a sort of boot camp mentality. 

Those were long days—4 a.m. starts, late finishes. That sort of thing brings people together. You can't help but bond when you're going through that sort of thing with other actors. But you know, it's the story that's always key. A story has to be good because, if it isn't, it just won't work and no amount of camaraderie can change that. This was a good story, a quintessential fairy tale story: 4 kids coming together and discovering love. Not just romantic love, but the love they all feel for one another as friends. It's a friendship that has endured, too. But, yes, I'd have to say what stands out the most about that whole storyline was how cold we all were - especially the mime stuff that Judi Evans and I did—that day was especially cold and we were both freezing.

Association with the role

One thing about soaps is that you have relative anonymity if you're living in a town where your show isn't particularly popular. NYC has never been a big Guiding Light town, so I've never really had a problem there. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is a real Guiding Light stronghold. I definitely get recognized in Pittsburgh. It's never bothered me, though, except a little in the 80s, when the Four Musketeers story was really big, and you'd sometimes have fans screaming your name and chasing after you, I never liked that part very much.

People come to love their soaps in all kinds of ways—you'd be surprised. One thing I do know, a lot of athletes are soap opera fans. I can't walk into a major league ballpark without being recognized, and I'm not talking about the ball player's wives, but about the ballplayers, themselves.

On the nature of working on a daily drama

It's a typical show biz story. One of the costume designers found a breakdown that mentioned Justin Marler going to Arizona, and showed it to me. It was a little weird, and we both knew it was significant. Tom O'Rourke, the actor in that role, was a really good friend to me, a sort of mentor who taught me the ropes, so I told him about the breakdown and, sure enough, Tom was let go that very day. It was really sad—as I say, he was a great friend to me, and we've stayed in touch over the years. But, you know, it was an early lesson to me on how this business works. One day a decision is made to go a certain direction with a storyline and a set of characters, and you're informed that you're about to be written out. It's something actors, especially in this medium, have to be prepared for. The role of Justin Marler was seemingly the safest gig on daytime—he was universally loved, but even he wasn't safe.

In 2004, when I was told I'd be written off, this lesson came in handy. Even though I'd been prepared for that call as being part of the job, the timing did throw me off because the character was just so popular. Evidently, the plan was to have Phillip gone for a few months, but there were some miscommunications about that. I left and, after a bit I wrapped my head around the idea of no longer being on the show, started to see it as an opportunity to step away do some other things. Just as I got excited about some other projects, the show called to ask me to come back, but the timing was wrong for me. I was involved in some theater work, going to school, and then I directed As the World Turns, which was something I'd wanted to do for a long time. After a few years I met with the Guiding Light people and told them I'd  be happy to talk about returning if the time was right and the story line was interesting. 

With this most recent stint as Phillip,  Jill (Lorie Hurst), who I've known for years,  called me and said she had a story line for Phillip, and I went with it. The rumors about GL shutting down had been going around for a long time, but this last year or so, there was a strong sense that this was it. Getting asked back - it's been a blessing. I'm happy that I was able to see this through.

On working with child actors on Guiding Light

A lot of the kids who act are easily distracted, they're fascinated by the cameras, the lights, and that's natural—they're kids. Once in a while you come across a child who's not like that, at all. Hayden (Panettiere, who played a young Lizzie Spaulding) was a child who immediately enjoyed what she was doing. It was clear to see, from the very beginning, that she wasn't like a lot of the other children on television. Hayden would come in, know what she wanted to do with a scene, have ideas about what a scene was about and where she wanted to go with it. Even at that age, she'd want to sit down and talk about scenes.

Hayden's mom, Leslie, was really careful to protect Hayden and make sure the entire experience was a positive one, and it was, because Hayden clearly enjoyed it. It was just plain to see that Hayden was really interested in the process, and that she understood what scenes were about.  Here was a kid who knew how to focus and be professional at a very early age. This doesn't happen often. I miss her. We keep in touch a little but you know, she's gone on to so many other things, and I'm so proud of her—not just because of her professional success, but because of the work she's doing outside of acting. She's been very vocal about animal rights, which is a cause that's near and dear to me. It's really difficult to get young people to get involved and be active - so I love when I see this. Not just causes I support, but any cause—I love seeing young people voicing their opinions and taking a stand. Hayden is doing a lot of that, and I'm proud of that.

Zack Conroy (who plays James Spaulding): It's uncanny. He looks a lot like a young Phillip. He's a delightful young man and a very talented one. This will undoubtedly be a springboard for bigger things for him.

Jacqueline Tsirkin (who plays Emma Spencer) is a real doll. She's a lot like Hayden in that she seems to really understand what she's doing, and she sincerely enjoys it. I think that, if she wants a future in this business, she can definitely have one.

On Tina Sloan

Tina (Sloan, who plays Lillian Raines) is one of my favorite people in the world—a fantastic person to work with and a fantastic human being. She and I love working together, and we're both so happy to have so many scenes together as the show winds down. I want to mention that Tina's written a one-woman show that anyone who's a fan of Guiding Light should see. My wife and I, and some of the other cast members, went to see it this week in Cape May, New Jersey, and she's taking it to Atlanta in September. It's not just for soap fans, either, but for anyone—man or woman—who is reaching a stage in life when they look in the mirror and start to notice the changes that life brings, and maybe doesn't recognize that person looking back at them. It's a really worth seeing. (Link to Tina Sloan's Changing Shoes, below)

On Phillip's reaction to the same-sex relationship between Olivia and Natalia

Phillip comes into this now, at this stage in his life, in a way that is different than he might have at any other time. He's been through a lot of changes, and he's examined his life. He knows that, if you find the person you love, you need to value what time you have with them, no matter who they are. He sees the relationship that Olivia and Natalia share as something special...something that provides a safe and loving environment for his child. It's good and healthy for Emma, so he supports it. 

Phillip is a character who has always thrived on and caused conflict. And conflict builds story. If the show had a future, there would  have to be some kind of conflict between Phillip and Olivia/Natalia in order for a story to exist between them.  I could easily see something upsetting Phillip, and him seeking custody of Emma...but it would be something Olivia did or some other issue he perceived as a problem. I don't think it would be the same-sex nature of her relationship—this just isn't an issue for him. On the other hand, I could also see a totally different type of conflict having nothing to do with Emma—like maybe Phillip and Natalia forging a friendship and Olivia not being very comfortable with that, or misunderstanding it. But, either way, Phillip is comfortable with the same-sex nature of Olivia and Natalia's relationship, because he can see it's providing Emma with what she needs in a family.

On the recent "We're difficult people to love" scene with Olivia, and Phillip and Olivia's new friendship

We adjusted that scene because, the way it was first written, it almost made it seem as if Phillip was telling Olivia that only she is a difficult person to love or that she doesn't actually deserve to be loved. And that's not at all what that scene was supposed to be about. We tweaked it to make sure it was clear that what Phillip is saying is that he and Olivia are both tempestuous and compicated, and so they're both difficult for people to love - but not unworthy. We wanted to make sure that came through, and I think the final version of that scene conveys that message.

Oliva and Phillip are well-matched in many ways. Romantically they bring out the worst in each other but, once you get past the trauma and recognize that there's so much water under the bridge, so much history, this new friendship makes sense. They both have big emotions and, now that there's so much behind them, it makes sense for them....when people go through the wars with one another, something happens to them.

About soap opera as a medium, and where it is today

Sure, Mad Men is a serial drama—a soap opera. So many night time shows are serialized drama. It's important to know that we're all in the same family: Dynasty, Dallas, that whole collection of shows—those were soap operas.

Something about the term "soap opera" makes some people think of a substandard form of drama. There is a case to be made about the limitations of putting on a daily show. You don't have the luxury of time to craft  things the way you do when you're putting a weekly show together. We do so much, so quickly. Unlike weekly shows, we film five shows a week, 52 weeks a year.  No one else is doing that.

It's a fact that, when you do something of this scope, you're going to see a boom mike or whatever once in a while, because time constraints are very real and very limited. On the other hand, daytime soaps can develop and deliver a story in real time. For a lot of people, having their daily soap on while they iron the clothes or do other things is like having a friend around, and the stories progress at a pace that makes it possible to have a soap opera on and not have to pay 100% attention to every moment. There's a comfort and familiarity that you can't get with a weekly serial.

The wonderful thing about this particular form of serialized drama—the daily—and the sad part about what's lost with Guiding Light going off the air, is continuity, the familiarity of it. It's a very particular type of storytelling and, if a serial drama dies, it's difficult to revive. People may have some disparaging remarks when they hear the term "soap opera" but the truth of the matter is that that none of us working in the dramatic arts is out there curing cancer. We're all in the business of entertaining people, and I think it's pointless and unproductive to disparage the type of acting another performer is involved in.

I've never really been much of a soap opera viewer, because I've worked in the medium, myself, for so long. I was always on the other side of it. When I started directing ATWT, I got a great piece of advice. Someone advised me to direct by watching with the sound off. If you turn down the sound you can really focus on the physical actions of the actors, which is where a director in this medium needs to pay close attention.

On Guiding Light's production model and the future of television

All of the changes that were made to the production of GL were motivated by the need to save money. People—and not just the actors, but the camera operators, the lighting people, everyone—should be really proud of what's been achieved. Every single person involved had to jump into the deep end and learn to swim, and I'm incredibly impressed by how people made it work.

I'd totally be willing to work on a web-based program if it were a project that interested me. I think in the future all television will be internet-based. It's just a matter of figuring out how to capture an audience and measure success. It used to be that you needed an editing suite if you wanted to film and edit something. These days all you need is a Macbook and some software. Anyone willing to use a hand-held cam and shoot with natural light can produce a program. Of course there's no substitute for a professional crew—camera operators and lighting people. You won't ever get anything as rich as that just using your laptop. That level of professionalism and quality is can't be reproduced.

On Guiding Light's legacy and the recent efforts to honor Guiding Light

The Paley Center for Media event was great. 60 Minutes has done a piece on Guiding Light, as has CNN. It's a nice way to take it out—the show. In some ways it's bittersweet, which is apt. A lot of us have been on the show for decades, so this is a goodbye for us, as well as for the viewers. While we're sad about it wrapping up, but we're all reminding ourselves that this was supposed to be a short-term gig. We've all been so fortunate to have had such long runs with the show and, as actors, we're grateful. It's a rare thing. (Link to story and photos of the Paley event below)

Final Words, and the future

I'm looking at doing some theater, which  is something I've always loved. In fact, when we're done talking today, I'm headed to my agent to talk about what's next for me.

One thing I'd like people to know is just how much all of us who have worked on Guiding Light appreciate their support over all these years. It means a lot to us - to all of us. And I hope that, once Guiding Light is off the air, viewers will find another soap to watch. Way back when I started in this business there was some rivalry between the various shows, but these days, we're all family, and moving from Guiding Light to another soap will help keep the medium going, and keep people employed. 

When Guiding Light was cancelled, it didn't just mean the end of work for the actors, but for all of the hard-working people behind the scenes who make things happen—lighting people, camera operators, make-up artists.... It's an industry that generates work for lot of people and every time one of these shows is cancelled, those hard-working people find themselves out of work. If you want to support the medium and all the people who work so hard to bring it to television every day, one thing you can do is find another soap to watch. 

Links

Grant Aleksander's PSA for PETA

The Humane Society on Humane Pet Adoption

Guiding Light's Four Musketeers 25th Reunion Preview

The Paley Center for Media honors Guiding Light 

 

Tina Sloan's Changing Shoes