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.
DJ: You started work as Rosanna Cabot on As The World Turns in 2002. What led you to take this role?
CM: I had just bought an apartment when 9-11 happened. I was going to sell it and go back to school full time, but the lure of a juicy part with a great cast was too much to pass up on. At that time it was a smart move and I don't regret it.
DJ: Rosanna had been portrayed by a different actress in the 1990's. Was it hard for you to create a role that had been so well established by someone else?
CM: It's funny but I didn't know that role, so it didn't really make a difference to me. I do feel for Yvonne, though. It's always hard to watch someone else play with your box of crayons.
DJ: What was your psychological take on Rosanna?
CM: Rosanna was scary- she was WAY tougher than me! I think she taught me to be stronger. She wanted to be in control, to be in charge, to have what she wanted the way she wanted it and was willing to coerce that from whomever she had to. I think she used her money to get what she wanted because she didn't really feel that confident in her ability to pull a man. I liked that about her. Guess I can relate.
DJ: How was Rosanna different from Cady?
CM: She dressed up a hell of a lot more than I do! She's pumps and I'm army boots. I'm WAY goofier. I can't think as fast as she does- she had a great ability to be witty and to use that humor to cut as well as to heal. I don't do that as I think it's really passive aggressive and ultimately mean spirited. I hate meanness. Be honest, be rude, but don't be mean- not in real life. Mean, however, can be very entertaining, especially as an audience member. I always like watching strong women on TV and thinking "oooo, I wish I could say that!"
DJ: What was it like for you to portray someone who had such different values from yourself ?
CM: Well, hmm. Different values... I think we are all more similar than we are different, so it wasn't so much a value thing- I just had to boil it down to a place where I could relate. I don't really want to play myself- it's too easy, but I don't want to play a woman that you can't find compassion or sympathy for. Hubris is a good thing, because it's relatable. However, I can't play women who are defined by their bodies, for example. That I just can't relate to! It's just not in me- at least not yet!
DJ: Was it ever hard for you to do justice for someone so obsessed with babies?
CM: Not really. I have a thing about youth- I think innocence should be protected as much as possible, probably because I lost mine way too early. Babies are the epitome of innocence.
DJ: It seems to me that you have always been candid about your opinions in views in interviews, certainly more so that many other actors. Why do you choose to express yourself views so publicly?
CM: Lord knows. I suppose I have always had a thing about honesty. I actually have a very high opinion about human beings although that has been challenged in recent months. I know it would probably benefit me to shut my mouth about certain things, but then I would feel like I was being a coward, I guess. I couldn't live with that, so... out it goes.
DJ: Has speaking your mind ever come back to hurt you in some way?
CM: Well sure- I got fired off AMC for it. Peanut butter banana pancakes, man. I told the writer I thought it was a mistake to make Tad a torturer and I thought that at least Tad and Dixie should have a sit down with the kids to say "you know what dad did was wrong, don't you?". I didn't realize she wasn't open to my opinion. I also wanted Dixie to be strong and not such a victim and I think that annoyed her. Hey, I get it was her show and Julie's show, but I just couldn't live with the "torture is okay because Tad was trying to save his kid" thing, and we had two weeks of grisly, buried alive in his own poop TORTURE of Dr. Madden. Torture is NEVER okay, NEVER cool, NEVER funny, NEVER acceptable. As a generation I think we need to wake up and stand for human rights far more than we do. Torture is not acceptable as entertainment in it's own right. Period. Yes, I hated Reservoir Dogs. I think all the violence in our entertainment has numbed us, and that is terrible. I couldn't be a part of it without speaking out.
DJ: Knowing what you know now, what might you have done differently in your career?
CM: I might have gone to Julliard. I think I would have had more fun with acting, played more theater roles, but then again I know a lot of people who didn't make it past the second year. That's a tough joint, but it would have opened some doors for me. In retrospect I doubt it could have been tougher than some of the shit I went through on a soap.
DJ: If you could go back 20 years, what advice would you give Cady?
CM: GO TO SCHOOL. TRAVEL WHENEVER POSSIBLE. Worry less or not at all if you can help it. Don't take it all so seriously! It's okay to be different!
DJ: What's next for you?
CM: Well right now I am planning on going back to school to finally finish my BA. I take classes at night in case a job comes up, but I'm not frothing at the mouth for work. I would love to act if there was a good part with a good group, but I also like working with others, teaching. I taught a small seminar on turning dreams into performance art and I loved it. Acting can be a spiritual experience, as can the process of watching it, and I am very drawn to being a part of that. I also write, I have two poetry and art books out and am planning on finishing my third. I might record my new music, just to do it. I think it's really important for me to just stay conscious moment to moment and be happy. Life can be shorter than you plan and I want to make sure I have enjoyed every moment I could. Suck the marrow of existence. Eat chocolate! Dance! I have had my share of tragedy and I would like to really shake it off and wiggle a lot more.
Damon L. Jacobs is the author of Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve. Check him out at his blog Shouldess.com.