Daytime superstar Cady McClain has come along way, since her 1988 debut as Pigeon Hollow-to-Pine Valley transplant Dixie Cooney on All My Children. Since that time, she skyrocketed to supercouple status opposite Michael E. Knight’s Tad Martin, before managing to do what few popular soap stars accomplish, in making just as much of an impression on a second soap opera, As The World Turns, where she played automobile heiress Rosanna Cabot. Along the way, McClain established herself in real life as an outspoken and passionate presence, which she says led to her beloved character Dixie succumbing to death by poisoned pancakes. McClain revealed to freelance writer, author and licensed marriage and family therapist Damon L. Jacobs her feelings about Dixie’s "lazy" exit, her ghostly return, her two stints as Rosanna and also shared insight about the psychological makeups of both her iconic characters.
Damon L. Jacobs: It was a little over 20 years ago we were first introduced to Dixie. At such a young age, how did you connect to her?
Cady McClain: I had been acting for 10 years before I got this part, so I had a fair amount of training already under my belt. Watching Coal Miner’s Daughter really helped me find the character, as did watching Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. I was a young, ambitious woman from a topsy-turvy upbringing myself, and my mom’s illness was a big motivator for me to get with the business of growing up quickly, as Dixie’s mothers death was for her. I have always looked for parallels in order to connect to a character. When they aren’t there, it’s hard to play the part, for me. When I’m really up against it, I try to think of someone who has been in the situation and how lonely they might feel, and play the part as well as I can so that they might feel connected in the world.
DJ: What was your psychological take on Dixie?
CM: I think having a family and being secure was always a big motivation, but towards the end of my run it became more about finding her own identity outside of the family- wanting to be more than "Junior’s mother" or "Tad’s wife". I think she was afraid of stepping out of that role (as was I) and the backlash that could cause, and with good reason. In 2006, her abandonment of her (albeit grown) son really came back to haunt her.
DJ: Were there parts of Dixie you could identify with?
CM: Oh sure. I grew up fast, I wanted a secure family from the time I was young, but I had that security through working instead of through home relationships. The art of that took me a while to learn.
DJ: How were you different from her?
CM: Well, I don’t think I am quite as needy as she was, and I am way tougher. I never wanted to be hard, but on some level I had to learn to be in order to survive. Deep down I’m still a big mush who likes kittens and puppies and hearts and flowers, but when I get my dander up, I can be a tough broad. Think "Desperaux"- mouse with a sword. That’s me, really.
DJ: Your portrayal of Dixie quickly won over the hearts and loyalty of AMC fans. Why do you think that is?
CM: I have no idea. I would like to think that it might have had something to do with her quirkiness and that she knew she was far from perfect. Tad was the super handsome guy and Dixie was the funny dorky hometown girl who adored him. In the beginning she was really naive and passionate about what she wanted and perhaps that was appealing. I think that generally, Southerners are just charming, warm people, and I tried to implement that quality in her.
DJ: Focusing on the ways you were different from Dixie, how then were you able to make her so realistic for the audience?
CM: One of the things I value most is finding stories that I can relate to. I have always felt like an oddball, but I am finding that a lot more people also feel that way- more than I thought. So I look for the truth in something and I think even though some people might not agree, it’s hard to deny that its a valid truth. People can relate to basic truths- there is just no denying them.
DJ: You first took a break from the show in 1996? Why was that?
CM: Oh my mom died in 1995 and I was just worn out with working and dealing with her long illness. It was a major thing for me, her death, because my dad left us when I was 12, so she was it, and we hadn’t been brought up to be close with our other relatives. I was just worn out. Plus, I had spent a vital part of my youth working and dealing with that trauma, so I wanted to stretch myself and see what else I had inside. Turns out there is a lot for me to play with, creatively. I’m never bored.
DJ: Why did you decide to return after that?
CM: Honestly, money. I wanted to go to school and at the time I didn’t see how I could do that. I could have sold some things and had more financial security, but I wasn’t ready to let go of those things emotionally, since they were attached to my mom. I thought perhaps I could do both school and work, and I did, but it was tough. You gotta really commit.
DJ: Were you upset when Dixie was "killed" in 2002? Did you plan on returning?
CM: I was a little surprised but not really upset. I was proving myself in another character. I had to prove I could play someone other than Dixie. When you get a part where you’re "set", it’s a double edged sword- it’s great security but you loose your passion after a while- you really have to fight to keep the character fresh. I thought- great, if she’s dead she can come back different next time.
DJ: Four words: "peanut butter banana pancakes". Response?
CM: Lazy. A lazy, malicious choice by a pissed off writer. No one should be above criticism or feedback- especially when it comes from someone like me who was trying so hard to make every moment work, and had a history of really being a team player and a trooper. After all those years I assumed the higher ups would know that I was coming from a good place, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t think as actors we just just have to bend over and take it up the ying yang, but sometimes there can be a climate in which the higher ups just don’t want to hear it. I was afraid I might have shook too many people up with my blog, but it wasn’t just that. I had a couple days where I looked like shit and in this business, that can be used against you if you’re not careful. I think I got the "she’s a pain in the ass and she looks like shit- dump her" treatment. In retrospect I can’t blame them. If I was a producer dealing with what Julie had to deal with at the time I might have done the same thing. She didn’t really know me like the audience did, not until I came back as a ghost. Then she got it. She’s a nice lady I have nothing against her, and I’m sorry the writer got my intentions the wrong way, which she undoubtedly did. It’s old news, ultimately, but I feel the most sorry for the audience. That sucked for them. They committed for years and got a lousy ending. The ghost story was good, but it wasn’t enough, in my opinion. At least the gesture was made.
DJ: How did Dixie’s fate affect you personally?
CM: At first I was relieved in a way- no more "golden handcuffs". A real push in the butt to take my other creative projects more seriously. Deep down, though, it was depressing. It hurt to be so misunderstood.
DJ: How do you deal when a work situation is not going the way you prefer?
CM: Ugh- that is the worst. As I have grown up, I am learning you just have to compartmentalize. Work is work, life is life. Even if things are hard at work, it’s no excuse to make the rest of your life miserable. You just have to work harder at keeping a positive attitude, to let go of others negativity, and focus on what makes you happy.