He was once a member of "General Hospital's" 'royal family' of Cassadines, and is the immensely talented tour de force behind "Days Of Our Lives'" deliciously diabolical 'Tony DiMera.'
Of course, I am speaking of actor Thaao Penghlis, who recently returned to his DAYS role after a five-year absence. While many of the residents of Salem would give anything to get into the inner workings of Tony's mind, I recently had the great privilege of delving further into the mind of his fascinating and talented portrayer to explore some of his own deep thoughts, motivations and desires.
In Part One of a very special, and oft-times compelling, two-part Soap Scene interview, Penghlis provides some insight into his early days as an actor, shares some behind-the-scenes revelations from his days on "General Hospital," discusses what drew him back to Days for this third tantalizing round of DiMera delight, and provides a glimpse into Tony's future. Read further and enjoy this closer look at one of the industry's premier talents...
ASHLEY S. BATTEL: It is truly a privilege to have you join us this week on Soap Scene, Thaao. First, tell the readers a bit about yourself. Where were you born, and what motivated you to embark on a career in the entertainment industry?
THAAO PENGHLIS: I remember that I was in my early twenties, and I came from Australia on a free trip with the Ballet Folk Laureate of Mexico. I came to New York by accident. I happened to go into an acting class just to observe it, as I hadn't seen one before. The teacher asked me to get up, and I said that I wasn't an actor, but she said "It doesn't matter. Give it a try." I read something, and she told me to sit down, and that she couldn't tell the difference between me and the chair.
So, it was a devastating beginning. I thought "Well, this isn't something that I wanted to do." I don't know why it stayed with me. I think maybe because I had seen John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. I went back to Australia, and came back after eight days. I couldn't stand being away from NY, so I went back, got into an acting class, and that's how it started.
ASB: What do you consider to be your "breakthrough" acting role?
THAAO PENGHLIS: It wasn't until I was 29, because I almost gave the business up then. I would say that it was the theatre, and with Milton Katselas, for whom I became an assistant for eight years. When we came together - a group of three actors in that workshop - he directed us in a piece of improvisation: A ballerina, a jockey and a choreographer. Those elements came together, and that idea blossomed into a play. It opened a year later at the Promenade Theatre in New York with Jules Stein and Joseph Kipnis.
That's when I suddenly thought that I had started something with just a seed, and that by going through it, and giving it a whole life, you give birth to something. I had never done that before, so I think that's what started the idea that I had some capabilities.
ASB: From all of the years spent learning from, and working for, Milton Katselas, what important message(s) have carried with you throughout your career? What is that one important element that left a lasting impression upon you?
THAAO PENGHLIS: I had written something called "My Heroes" on my website. If you could look at that, I do mention Milton. It's something that I wrote for a newspaper in Australia when they asked about the people who had influenced you in your life.
With Katselas, it was probably the saying "The way out is the way through." Whatever it was that I confronted, and especially with his teachings, I went through the tunnel, even though I didn't know when I was coming out of it. Once I did, I had the idea of what it was that I went through. That was always something that stayed with me, because when we're in the valleys of things in life, there's no light, or we have no understanding of what the process is, except to go through it. So, with anything that I did, I think "the way out is the way through" is the thing that I grabbed the most from him.
ASB: Reflect briefly on your days at "General Hospital." What memories do you have of your times on the show?
THAAO PENGHLIS: Well, it was exciting, because in those days of daytime, we were getting 50 million people a day watching it, so there was this madness going through. I was the first person who had an English accent on daytime. Some say it was the thing that even began "Dynasty."
I remember the producer said "He came second in the test, because everybody in America want to hear Americans. That's what soap operas are about: Americans." So, the producer of "General Hospital" suddenly saw that the actor they chose was not very strong, and so they brought me in and said "Listen, we'd like you to be the stronger brother." I think, because of my theatre training, my pace was always good. I always spoke a little on the fast side, but I think that the challenge was to learn. I thought that it was impossible for anyone to learn that many pages in one day. I had also heard that Elizabeth Taylor was coming on, and there was also John Colicos, a wonderful Canadian actor. It was an ensemble of actors...Anthony Geary was wonderful.
There was an Australian actor there who told me that I wouldn't last (laughs). It was not very nice. It was Tristan Rogers, and he said that I wouldn't last (laughs). Nothing like meeting a fellow countryman. I remember grabbing my chest in a moment of passion because I think I upset him, and he told me to shut up in the scene, and that wasn't in the dialogue. I remember the producer coming out and she said "Do you see this pencil, Tristan? If I break it after your name, that's it...there's nothing more to say."
That was Gloria Monty, and she said to me "Get out," called me to her office, and said "You're the only one who's going to survive of the 30 actors who were brought on to that storyline." That was quite a treat, and I really appreciated her. She gave me my break, I think, in daytime, and she believed in me, and proceeded to tell me to get out of daytime...it wasn't good enough. So, it was an interesting kind of mixed message.
Of course, Pat Falken Smith created Tony DiMera on "Days Of Our Lives," and they took me over there. [Victor Cassadine] was supposed to be put in jail for a couple of months and come back to "General Hospital," but I decided to go with Pat, and they always said that I was the one that got away.
ASB: And you have played Tony on and off for about 20 years now?
THAAO PENGHLIS: Yes, that's right.
ASB: That's certainly a lifetime in daytime!
THAAO PENGHLIS: It certainly is a lifetime in daytime. I can't believe what my poor brain is going to be like when it's over (laughs). Yesterday, I did 14 scenes from two shows back-to-back, and by scene 12, I couldn't remember anything. I got to that point, and there's Drake, with all of his energy, and I'm looking at him and saying "Oh, Drake, calm down (laughs).
ASB: (laughs). This is your third incarnation as Tony on DAYS. What drew you back to the show for this third round?
THAAO PENGHLIS: Well, you know, I was supposed to come back three months after I had expired, but the only obstacle that I've ever had in daytime was the head writer...and I don't know why to this day. His thing was that he had nothing more to write for me, and I didn't believe that was the truth. I think it was a personal vendetta. The middle of the staff of the character was weakened by his interpretation of me, by using me like a pawn. I felt used the second time around, and even though I was given some great challenges emotionally, I felt the character was weakened...the power was taken away.
This time around, when I met with Ken Corday and Steve Weiman, certain people had left which I felt were people, even though everything was fine with them, I had felt in a way...and this is not to say that I was unappreciated - it wasn't that - but I think that there are some things in life that have shadows. I felt that the people that have gone in my life have certain shadows crossing my path, and those shadows are gone. When I met with Ken, who has always been so enthusiastic and excited - you couldn't wish better from a producer - he welcomed me in such a way that I went "Mmmm."
So, I thought that because I had come out from a very struggling time personally because of my parents' death, I wanted to know what it was that I had become or what it was that I saw in some way, because those things are silent many times in our lives. That is the great thing about being an actor: We get to express those things through our work. What I love about daytime in the serial form is that on a constant basis, you have to feed those characters and keep them alive, because they give you a nice slice of bread, and you give them back a sandwich. I felt that the writers were excited, and you embrace it that way.
I took a trip to Egypt and Greece just before I came back on the show, and I felt very full. Sometimes, the process is slow in daytime, because you have to repeat certain things, but I'm working with Drake and Deidre Hall. I love those actors, and love working with them. They're terrific, professional, they're there, and there's no games..and you enjoy working with them. I've been handed a full plate.
ASB: That is truly wonderful, Thaao! Let's delve a bit into the character of Tony. For those who might not follow "Days Of Our Lives," tell us a bit about your character Tony DiMera, and how he fits in on the canvas. How would you describe Tony, his aspirations and his motivations?
THAAO PENGHLIS: Well, Salem to me is very white - a very Anglo-Saxon kind of world. Tony DiMera is a man who has a sort of European background...I mean, we all have to a degree, but it's usually English, German or Welch, or something. This is European, and there's a certain flair to this character. I have a hand in choosing his clothes, and I like to dress him. I feel that the clothes are a part of what makes me walk the way that I do on that show. It changes my being separate from who I am.
Tony likes things done well, and I think he challenges. He's brought in to challenge most of the adult characters on the show. I believe that because of my training as an actor, when I look at things, my dimensions in life are much larger, and so as daytime also has stories that are larger than life, you need those characters. That's why Stefano was so huge, because he brought an enormous appetite.
So, to me, it's a man whose appetite is always his great thirst. He's a catalyst! He wants to shift people out of their comfort zones. When he does, they don't like it, because people are reminded that they're stuck, and then they're afraid.
I think that's one of the reasons of how I play him: I enjoy stirring people up. To me, I look at people who've been...I'm not saying that they're couch potatoes in life, but they're just "This is my life, and that's how it is, and I'm religious, and I'm married, and I have two children...," but it's not! We're all here separately. We come in separately, and leave separately. I'm here to remind people that there's more to them...and so I present their challenges. Of course, then I'm wondering who presents my challenges, and I don't know yet (laughs)...perhaps the writers do (laughs). So, on days when the dialogue is not as great, I just wear colors, and speak a little faster (laughs).
I miss for the first time that I don't have a love interest. This has been a long time. I've had no one that I can dip with - no shower scenes, no bathtub scenes, no love in the afternoon (laughs). They'll probably bring me someone...some mystery woman out of the blue.
ASB: Yes, I'm sure that undoubtedly some day, someone will pop in...
THAAO PENGHLIS: Yes, a big spider! A Black Widow, and I'll get my comeuppance (laughs).
ASB: (laughs) Do you find that returning to a former role presents any unique challenges as opposed to premiering a new character? Do you approach the role any differently?
THAAO PENGHLIS: You know, let's face it: In the end, in daytime, you are what that character is. They will certainly give you the skeleton, but you fill him up. A writer can write so much, but after a while, they look to you to present them new ideas.
I remember one day, I said about the character Bart on the show to the writers: "You know, it's so hard to me to believe that someone that silly or stupid would be in my employ. Perhaps what no one ever got was that he really is brilliant, and there are phrases that he gives information about because he's kind of dyslexic, and maybe that presents somebody else. So, I think there's some duplicity there...and so they love the idea, and I think they're going to run with it. So, it's in the way that I see things.
I like to think that my surroundings are a reflection of who I am. I would certainly change the DiMera household if I could, but that's too expensive right now. I'd like my stylings to be a bit more contemporary. I think at this stage, they have a good full year of story, and it depends on how it plays itself out.
I think Drake and I are good challenges for each other. He enjoys working with me, and vice versa. I think he is awakened. He's got a new energy in him, because when he comes, he sees a sparkle in my eye, and I'm beginning to see a sparkle in his eye, and I thought "Oh, I see. He's taking over what I was playing, so I see that he is doing it too now (laughs). So, in talking about how you affect other actors, it's nice to see someone else's light go on when they work with you.
ASB: You have already touched upon this subject briefly, but are you afforded the opportunity to provide input for your character? Is there anything in particular that you would like to see Tony do?
THAAO PENGHLIS: I was always impressed with Pacino in "The Godfather." I used to love the way that he sat in the chair. Just tell a director in daytime "I'd like to sit in the chair just for a minute," and they get so nervous, because they think that, in order to make it interesting, you have to pace, you have to move. [The director would say] "I want you to move over here," and I say "Why would I move over there? What for?" He would say "Well, just move over there," and I go "Oh, you mean just for the sake of camera?"
I?ll give you one classic example: One day, young man...I believe in boundaries. That is the reason why we have living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms - they're all boundaries - and the reason why we have a front door. However, when characters come into your house, it's supposed to be a fortress. They come, and suddenly they feel like they can walk straight through, and I say "Hold it."
The director says to this young man: "I want you to walk through, walk around here and do all of this stuff." I said "No, no, you can't do that." He said "What do you mean?" I said "Firstly, if anyone has the authority to walk into my house, my power's gone. This is what I would like: I would like the man to have good manners and stay in front of the door, and then he has four lines, and then he's going to get the door closed in his face, because he wasn't invited." That's what the writers wrote...and that's how I want to play it.
If we think that we can tell people out there that they can walk through anyone's house...do you understand the message? Most of our boundaries have been knocked down anyway. The kids don't know who they're talking to anymore. They have no idea that when they're talking to someone who's older, there's no sign of respect. Their tone is the same. I said that I want to change that...whatever I can do, I want to change that. So, I'm going to have a meeting with my producer, and discuss this situation.
ASB: Any previews/sneak peeks that you can provide for upcoming episodes, or are they keeping story details under wraps?
THAAO PENGHLIS: They're pretty tight-lipped...well, certainly, I can say that it's going to be a full house. I think that we're going to find out that some things that took place in my coma was not of someone who was just unconscious. I think there were some experiments made - at least I think that, but I don't know that for fact - but I'm sure that when they told me that he was going to be in a coma, I thought "Oh my God, that's going to be a well of stories, and who knows who I met during that time."
So, I think that the future is...you know, it's the old Tony, but it's also the new Tony, because Stefano's gone. It's a man who has arrived, and is in a way threatening, but at the same time, has a tremendous amount of compassion. I did watch "Godfather" again, and I do like the stillness in that character, and that's what I want to bring if they'll allow me...but it's a good group. I think that it's the best that there's been - I'm not saying actors, but as far as a team effort, I think it's the best it's been. These producers are fabulous, and the directors are good. Certainly, at this stage, they allow me an opinion without being an upstart.
You reach a certain point in your life where you can turn around, and you're an example of, what do they say, "we walk our talk." I think that's happened - and it's just happened - and that's what's new about where I'm at. You know, they always say: "The new is in the mold of the old,"...so I think that's where I'm at.
In this second installment of our two-part interview, we expand our focus to learn more about Penghlis's off-screen pursuits, and discover his very passionate and compelling views on the state of daytime television, and more. I hope that you enjoy this closer look at the life of one of the industry's most fascinating and articulate performers...
ASB: Let's delve a bit into some of your off-screen pursuits, Thaao. How do you feel that the time spent working as a screenwriter has affected your perspective as an actor?
THAAO PENGHLIS: Yes, it's amazing, though: The amount of time it takes to get scripts done, yet I can't wait to start a new one. To think of what it's taken Sheri Anderson and myself to put these together, how many hours. Five years' work, going overseas and doing research, going to Troy, archaeological sites and libraries to do research material. I went through 60,000 documents.
We just finished this particular epic, and I'm very proud of it. Everything has its own time, but we're looking at epics again, because our movies have become events. So, yes, it's diverse, and I believe that it contributed to the imagination that was developed for me as an actor.
THAAO PENGHLIS: I think that part of the problem is, too, that we have too many actors that come on daytime that have never worked before, and so they don't have any technique. I believe that we went through a bad spell, and I think daytime has paid for it, because we concentrated too much on the youth. Youth, to me, is not that interesting. You can watch them for so long, but what are they going to tell us that we already went through that was painful enough? You know, who wants to have hors d'oeuvres every day of their life. I think now we're getting back to adult stories. When I was growing up, I wanted to look at adults, and always found them fascinating, because they always taught me something that I didn't know.
I think that there's been a group of writers over the past few years - and I won't mention names - I hold them responsible for the fall of some of the daytime audience, because they created out of perversions, I think. It wasn't really to serve the public, but rather to serve themselves.
I had heard stories of head writers who would make fun of older actors, and then as one producer said to me who's no longer around "I mean, let's face it, when people are going through television, they will stop at something attractive...not something old." I said "Yes, but how long can they stay?" He says "Well, as long as they can." I said, "Well, give them an interesting action, they will stop. Give them an interesting piece of behaviour, and they will stop."
We always say the cliche is "Beauty is skin deep." We don't stay with it, if that's all it is, once we start diving in deeper. I think that they did a great disservice to us all, because the idea of getting older is supposed to be a thing of beauty, and what we're finding is that it's not, because we feel like we're not needed. Cosmetics companies do those things, and advertisers have done that...and we're paying a price for it.
Greed has been a terrible thing. I think that the downfall of anything is eventually going to be our greed. Look at our stocks and everything today. Power and greed...even our governments, and even their behaviour behind it all with the oil - it's all greed. I wonder sometimes how much do people need!
Even though I said to you before that I'm a catalyst in getting people out of their comfort zones, as terrible as 9/11 was, you saw what took place with people, they came together! You know, we're sacrificed in life, and life has its sacrifices. I believe that sometimes, people come in to be sometimes sacrificed in order to create or change behaviour...and things have not been the same. I just think that, out of it, you look at it and say that we just have to treat each other better!
ASB: Further to your comments regarding youth storylines, there has long appeared to be an uneven balance towards youth across the board...and this is something that I had noticed even during my own younger days (laughs). At times, it appears that this is seemingly performed at the expense of all other demographic groups.
THAAO PENGHLIS: Yes, we're constantly making mistakes, I think. It's like anything - it's a flash in the pan. It's an idea. You look at the 18-49, because that really tells you about the future, and DAYS doubles anyone. There are so many people who tape things, and who watch the show when they come home. That's why they're always surprised with DAYS, because we have a huge audience out there who tapes and watches at home.
When it really comes down to it, people are trying to save their jobs and come up with gimmicks. They're all doing it to try and postpone their exits. That's what I think that everyone is trying to do in life - trying to postpone their exit...in death, and in their jobs. So, we go to irresponsibility, and what may be a flash in the pan. You look at movies today, the good ones...at the end, we have our Oscars, because we need to say that "Hey, we do some things well," but most of the time, we don't anymore. Everything has become events. Everything has become like the food we eat: It's not naturally grown anymore, it's force-grown. I suppose that it's the way of the world...that I understand that as we get older, we want quieter times, and to reflect and to understand, because we're not listening anymore.
ASB: Of all of the locations to which you have traveled, which one do you consider to be the most fascinating or memorable?
THAAO PENGHLIS: I think that when I did "Memories of Midnight" with Jane Seymour and Omar Sharif. They called me up, and said that they needed me in Sacreb, Yugoslavia...and a job took me to Dubrovnik, which is an incredible place which was bombed during their war. We went to Venice and Athens, and I thought that was an amazing journey. As far as a personal journey, I would say that this particular last one where I flew over the Valley of the Kings in a balloon. I crash-landed, but it was wonderful while we were up there.
I shot also in the jungles of Australia in the North. I did a miniseries a couple of years ago called "Tribe" with Joanna Cassidy and Antonio Sabato Jr. I used to think that "Oh, it would be nice to be in the jungle somewhere." Well, it's not, because let's face it: You don't look good, you've always got to be swept down, and your clothes stink...all that stuff, and you go "Oh, these clothes, they smell, they're dirty." You get up, you take a shower, and then you go to the set and they dirty you up.
I like studios! I like the environment of the studio. I like the idea of coming through the gates to my own dressing room. I like that controlled atmosphere. It's safe, it's an ensemble of actors that you see every day, and that's a nice location to me.
I've also been to the Midwest, and to North Carolina. They're lovely areas, but there's too much humidity. The Grand Canyon would be a great location, because visually, it's so incredible. I'd love to shoot in Greece again. I love Greece...or Italy.
ASB: Do you ever foresee a return to primetime television?
THAAO PENGHLIS: Well, certainly, in the first year I have no outs, so that means that I can't, but yes, I think so. When my parents died, my dream of being an actor kind of died with it, and that's why it's so interesting now coming back. I've come up like a Phoenix, and so I feel like it powers my life, and I thought that "Well, this is uncanny. Now I'm enjoying acting again."
To have the luxury of doing just a couple of scenes in one day would be wonderful again where everything's a little more concentrated, where the lighting is better, where the dialogue is better...because we're always shooting a first rehearsal. That's why this medium is the toughest of all. These writers - what they have to put out so fast, and then we, as actors, also have to put it out as fast.
ASB: Yes! I've been a fan of the genre since the age of eight, and it continues to amaze me to this day.
THAAO PENGHLIS: Well, I remember someone said yesterday "Oh my God, you all looked terrible on the show. The lighting was terrible yesterday." I said "Well, what was the scene?" She said "Well, I wasn't watching the scene. I was on the telephone, but the TV was on, and I was just watching you." I went "Don't do that to me again. Don't shortchange, and don't take a piece like that and say that the lighting wasn't good, but you didn't know what else was going on."
To me, if you're involved in the work, and what the characters are doing, who gives a damn about...you know, you can't always look well. That's one of the things that gets me. People are always saying "You know, you look tired." I thought "You know what? I was tired. I finished at midnight, and was back on the set at seven with all of those lines."
It's for all of us, but you know, what can you do? It's part of us. We always want to take away. We want to criticize, nothing's ever good enough. Daytime is never good enough. Daytime is always going to be considered 'the apology.' Yet, it draws so many people because in a lot of ways, it's a serial...having another family in the home, and letting you know that we have bigger problems than they do.
ASB: Fast forward, say, ten years from now. Where would you like to see Thaao Penghlis both personally and professionally?
THAAO PENGHLIS: Probably as a writer or producer in film on location. I haven't even written parts in the films for myself, so it wasn't as if I wrote because I wanted to act in movies. I wrote it because I felt Sheri and I had an idea, and we expressed it.
Do I want to be in daytime still? I don't know...it does wear you. I'm amazed how Deidre and Drake hold up so well. Our salaries are generous there. I don't know...all I know is that my movies are my stories that I want to see up there. I want to be able to buy a bag of popcorn (laughs) and just sit there with family, and just say to them: This world came out of how I was trained in my youth through the abuse and difficulties, the drama of being insecure and being poor, and not having a lot to do because of that struggle in my youth...and an environment - a Greek world in Australia that was not looked upon in an Anglo world with an enormous amount of love. All that struggle, and whatever I took in, is part of what I think helped me express what I'm doing these days. It's helped me ground myself, you know.
That's why I love Tom Hanks. He's an incredible image for an American male, and I think he's extraordinary, because he has great integrity and great dignity. He came from a real struggling background, but what he's done with himself, and the way he speaks. He's a great image maker for young people to look up, and certainly for us adults to share is extraordinary.
ASB: Is there anything else that you'd like to add in closing to our readers?
THAAO PENGHLIS: I think it's very important that we don't become victims in our lives. Somebody throws us a ball that we catch, and I think that it's very important to understand that we certainly came in with a full house to deal with, and I think when we get involved in other peoples' dilemmas - not to say that you don't share and help them, but we have to watch out that we don't become caught in things that are not really part of what our path is about, so that we end up helping others and delaying our own progress.
A lot of women have been made to feel like victims, and I think that sometimes, for them to be more at cause in life, I think the world is better when we take action - when we don't feel sorry, or say "Oh, look at my poor life, or my terrible body," or whatever it is that stops us from going forward. I think just the fact that we chose to come here, and through the struggles that we did...someone said to me once that "We bring part of that soul here that still hasn't found God." I think that it's important to think "Why come back if we do to repeat some of this stuff that we're afraid to look at"?
That's why the tunnel thing that's important about "The Way Out is the Way Through" has always summed it up for me. Once you've gone through it, and you see what it is, then in the same way, you add another level to your life, and it gives you a much better sense of stamina and self, and an example to our youth. Let's face it, we eventually become teachers, and I'd rather be able to turn around and say "This is what I am, and I have something to say."