From theater to General Hospital, and then on to primetime, Vanessa Marcil dishes to TV Source about her lengthy career and shares some great stories about her time in front of and behind the cameras. Diving into her various processes about the many different roles she has played, we were also able to gain a little more insight on Vanessa Marcil the person.
With a career spanning almost three decades, there’s still a newness and passion for acting that resonates strongly for the actress. I hinted at being nervous going into exciting projects, and with a chuckle, Marcil offered her own experience with nerves going onto a set. “I never know when it’s going to happen. I could be sitting with a legendary actor on set listening to stories about classic movies and then some random guest star who has like three lines can come on and make me nervous. I also feel like there is a simple reason for being nervous—it means it’s something you really care about.”
Caring about her craft is something that was instilled in her at a young age, in part due to how hard she fought to accomplish her dreams. The age-old question that every actor gets asked is what made them what to start acting, for Marcil, that can be traced back to her mother, Patricia. “My mother was an actress on-stage when she was younger, but she got pregnant at fourteen and had to give up on her dreams,” Marcil says, opening up about her past. “She didn’t have the support system to continue doing what she loved and tried to pass her love of acting to me and my siblings, but I was the only one who had a response to it. She enrolled me in theater at the children’s Circle Theater Acting Company at five years old and also took me to guitar lessons and dance. I started writing my own songs, and I won first place in a county wide talent contest playing guitar and singing a song I wrote at ten years old called ‘Growing up God’. We still have the trophy and the cassette tape recording of the performance. I was wearing clogs and jeans and we had to hide it all from my father.”
Although Marcil’s mother never had a car when she was younger, that never deterred Patricia from getting her daughter where she needed to go. Patricia used to put her in a red wagon and walked her everywhere. Her mother was also extremely protective of her, especially as her career progressed. “When I was fourteen, Frank Sinatra’s singing coach heard me singing in a play and offered to give me singing lessons and my mom said no because we couldn’t afford it, but then he offered to do it for free and even give me rides to the lessons. My mom is from the old school and wouldn’t let him pick me up, but she did let me do the lessons, but she had to be there the entire time,” says Marcil. “At one point his agent wanted to take me to New York on Broadway to do acting auditions, but my mom said no. She wouldn’t have had the choice to move my whole family there to New York City. My father never would have agreed to that. She wasn’t willing to send me off to New York City with strangers, like I see so many child actors’ parents do. Some send the kids off with ‘friends’ or a ‘chaperone.’”
The protective instincts Marcil’s mother exhibited with her is something she has tapped into when it comes to her son, Kassius. “He’s been offered movies, blog shows, and a very well-known modeling campaign. Kass and I both agreed the answer was no. He has seen the dark side of fame, growing up with us and his step-mother.”
Her mother’s hesitancy to allow her to be immersed in the public eye at an early age resulted in Marcil almost having a different career path. “She didn’t want me to be famous at my age, but I did keep acting, mostly stage plays. I was in college, and wanted to go to law school, still doing theater when I got discovered. I was playing Maggie, Elizabeth Taylor’s role, in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, and was discovered, for lack of a better term, by accident. I completely became a professional actor by accident.” Within three weeks of signing with her manager, Marcil landed the role of Brenda Barrett on General Hospital.
It would be easy to assume that becoming a professional actor would be met with resounding support from her family, but that wasn’t the case. Whereas Vanessa’s relationship with her mother was loving and supportive, the same could not be said regarding her late father, Pete Ortiz. “I didn’t speak to my dad for twenty years after I moved away from home at seventeen. I moved and legally took my mom’s last name – Marcil – instead of his. He used to leave me messages saying ‘you’ll never make it out there. You need to come home and just work as a secretary in the office of my construction business.’”
“Where I grew up, I never thought it was an option to act professionally. I mean, I think people would think of it now, but back then, it wasn’t even a thought,” says Marcil. Especially being a little Mexican girl from Indio, no one ever said anything about acting to me. I had no idea any of this was a possibility.”
Vanessa has played many roles over the years, and her selection process was something we wanted to tackle going into the interview. There are always rumors about her returning to General Hospital, but alas, there’s been no movement there since her brief two-day return in 2013 for the series 50th anniversary. So, there are always questions about how she picks and choses what projects she would like to participate in. For Marcil, her decision to take on projects is based around what works best for her homelife. “I could be much richer and way more famous if I did things the way other people wanted me to, but there were certain things that just weren’t right for me,” says the actress. “I was offered two roles that really blew up, but I didn’t want to be topless in one and in the other, the location wasn’t accessible to me. I also had to always factor in what was best for my son. Being a single mother was the most important thing in my life, and I had to put that first. And I wasn’t willing to do anything that was uncomfortable for me just to make more money. I don’t think I even knew it at the time that I was setting my own boundaries. There were just things I knew in my gut that weren’t right and it physically made me sick.”
When asked to expand on a particular situation that stood out, she opened up about her time on Beverly Hills, 90210. It’s no secret that working on the primetime Fox soap was not a fun experience for the actress, who has spoken about the way she was treated in previous interviews. “I ended up giving up so much money to leave early, I was originally supposed to stay two years, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular, but in my gut, I knew the job wasn’t right for me. Every day it was torture. But if you’re afraid of something you just push through it and you will more than likely end up feeling great about it in the end, but this was different. For me, if there is something in my gut that just isn’t right each day will get worse and worse. It was devastating. When I left in GH 1997, I was offered a contract role on Ally McBeal,” says Marcil. “The story is that Michelle Phifer took her husband, David Kelly, into her room where I was on her TV portraying Brenda, and he called my agent right there and offered me a test deal on, what I think is, one of the greatest shows ever made. Obviously, he is truly one of our greatest writers of all time, but right before that, Aaron Spelling called and offered my agents a two-year contract for more money than I had ever made in my life. Daytime actors make about ten percent of the salary per episode that primetime actors make. So basically, my agents took the money over the quality, and I got rid of them after that. But I also got Kassius out of that whole situation, so it was meant to be.”
On a lighter note, speaking about her fans and their various stories about how they react to her, she was asked to share her own experiences with meeting people she admired. “I was friends with Prince for over 30 years and I never really talked about it. I just kind of inherently knew that to him that would mean more than just saying I knew him just to let people know about it. I was really young, but I just kinda picked up on that.” She stated that she has fans and friends that are the same way in regard to her and she finds it extremely rare.
Nowadays, it’s necessary for stars to cultivate relationships with their fans through social media. Marcil says she’s had both good and bad experiences with the platforms. “There was a time where I had a group of people from my social media that won a trip to a movie premiere with me, and I took them. I met one of my now friends, and she was laid back and extremely cool. She didn’t pressure me or ask for my phone number or anything, we just clicked. And then there was another person in the same group that was a little more aggressive. She found my fiancé and started messaging him and he ended up having to make his account private. I get it, people get excited to connect and sometimes forget that it’s invasive.”
Sharing a few laughs, we joked about how to deal with the negative feedback and trolls. “I have someone that runs my accounts, and sometimes she has to block a lot of people for the hateful things they say. Like I like to think I’m a pretty evolved person, but sometimes I’m not very thick skinned when it’s something that is extremely hurtful or personal. I don’t understand people who go out of their way to start things just because of differing opinions. I like constructive criticism; I don’t mind that. I feel like most people who claim to hate something and go on and on about it actually really love it. The opposite of love is indifference. Not hate. You don’t just harp on something you don’t care about. It still hurts, but intellectually, I get it.”
Marcil dove in a little deeper about balancing how to draw the line between a healthy interaction and knowing when to admit that something is uncomfortable. “I know that when you go through hard times the artists that get you through those times can be comforting to you, and you feel super connected. You want to appreciate all of your fans, and sometimes that is hard to navigate as an artist because there is only one of you and there is never enough time in one day to acknowledge everyone. Sometimes even your family feels neglected when you’re working or on a set.”
Speaking of family, Marcil opened up about her son and the special moments she was able to share with him growing up because of how selective she was with her roles. “Even though my son was always on set with me all the time, he realized that he wasn’t the most important thing and he felt that. I was blown away that at his young age he noticed that, and it hurt a little,” noted the actress. “The special moments I have had with him, I realized, happen between us when we were least expecting it. Like when I’d be driving him to school or even working in the yard and he’d come to me wanting to talk or whatever. I realized I wouldn’t have had all those moments if I hadn’t been there with him. In the past other people used to drive him around and do our yard work for us, and I could have missed all those moments because I wasn’t there.”
We have all heard the term opposites attract, but what kind of people help make up a healthy circle? Vanessa was quick to chime in about what makes her feel comfortable. “I have a chapter in my book called ‘Look out for Mr. Nice Guy ‘because the people who have done the most awful things to me were always so nice to my face. And then there were people who were just honest and told it like it was and they were usually okay.” With a quick chuckle she added, “The people who hold everything in could be the ones plotting your death. Just express yourself.”
For years, I’ve always been curious about her creative process, and how she channels her energy into the roles she does. When asked pointedly what that process looks like for her, she was blunt. “My creative process is chaotic,” she teased. “I have meltdowns, I freak out, and procrastinate, and that’s all before taking the role.”
What about once the role has been accepted? “I immerse myself into whatever the role is. I research it and follow the backstory. I study like a mad person and I run my lines for like twelve hours at a time. I don’t always feel like I’m talented,” she says. “I think art is a gift from the universe. I feel like this magic spark just appears and something just clicks in my performances. I work my ass off because I feel like one day the magic might not appear and I’ll be just stuck.”
Of course, I gushed over her performances and how great she is at even the nonverbal actions her characters exhibit. She went on to talk about the important things she tries to put into her performances. “I don’t watch my projects once they’re done, and I definitely don’t watch them with people because they don’t get everything I tried to put into the role. For me, every little thing, even the small pauses matter. Like I can be watching something with someone and they’re like ‘you want a sandwich?’ And I’m like you’re missing it! And they just repeat the lines without the feelings and I’m like you don’t get it.”
Given the litany of projects she’s worked on over the years, we were surprised when Vanessa Marcil admitted that she actually doesn’t have a favorite. However, she does have a moment that stands out, one that she will always remember and surprisingly it involves one of Hollywood’s most successful women. “While I was on General Hospital someone said to me—’Everyone likes your character so much, no one is ever going to see you as anything but Brenda Barrett’—and I said, no, I don’t really like how people were treated in daytime. It wasn’t always a good feeling, maybe I’ll continue doing stage acting, I still did stage plays on the weekend while I worked at GH. And they told me, ‘no, no, no one will be able to see you as anything but Brenda.’ My producer was obsessed with my hair, so I cut it all off. I gave it to the locks of love foundation for a child with cancer. But, anyway, I was backstage at the Emmys and they threatened to fire me. My lawyer said, ‘go ahead and fire her, but you’re still going to have to pay her for the rest of her contract.’ I was backstage crying and the producer said, ‘well it’s your career you’re ruining’ and I just couldn’t stop crying. Oprah was there in hair and makeup and she asked what was going on and told me I was the most beautiful girl she’d ever seen, and I was like ‘What? Oh, thank you.’ I told her they were making me put in these horrible hair pieces.”
As Marcil is recounting the story, I literally stopped and chuckled. Adding in—Yes, they were atrocious. To which she agreed and continued. “In the land of good hair pieces, I had those. But Oprah looked at me and said, ‘you don’t have to put those on. Here you’re Vanessa, not your character. You don’t have to wear those.’” Marcil says she remembered thinking how shocked she was to find out she could tell them no. She told the producers Oprah told her she didn’t have to wear them, and she went out without the hair pieces. She gained a lot of confidence that day and had her agent send her out for different roles that she ended up booking.
That boosted confidence and assertiveness led to Marcil booking the film The Rock and a series that lasted one season called High Incident. She played a woman addicted to Meth and she revealed that it was one of the roles she had the most fun playing. “It was the closest thing to my real life. I always played these rich girls, and this street girl was poor and rough. That was more like my childhood. The reason High Incident was my favorite time was because I wore no make-up, I had short hair; she was a street girl/meth addict who literally got to take a baseball bat to a police car and bust out all of the windows. I’ve always done most of my own stunts when they met me, so I actually got to do that. It was a Steven Spielberg production with Blair Underwood and was cancelled after the first season because it aired opposite Friends. I ended up reading with David Schwimmer for Friends after that but did Spin City with Charlie Sheen instead. I booked a two-year contract on NYPD Blue, playing a badass cop with that short hair but had to quit and be out on bed rest when I found out I was pregnant with Kassius.”
As the interview came to a close, Marcil was sure to end on the best note possible. “I really want to do things that challenge me. I want to do some controversial roles. I’m not afraid to fail. You learn the most from your failures, I learned that from my son. He is never afraid to try things he knows he might fail at. I never want my son to feel pain, but I had to learn that failure is a part of success.”
I took the time to let her know that she would always have our support and she was humbly appreciative. “This was really fun. I really enjoyed myself. It’s always fun when you can enjoy the person you’re talking to. It was an honor that you wanted to talk to me.”