Can you imagine General Hospital’s diabolic villainess Helena Cassadine behaving in a humble and gracious manner, and being complimentary of others? Not in this lifetime. But her portrayer, esteemed television, stage and screen actress Constance Towers, embodies those fine characteristics and more.
For example, on GH, Helena hates her granddaughter-in-law Emily with a passion and spends her time threatening Emily’s life. But behind the scenes, Towers holds Emily’s portrayer, Natalia Livingston, in the highest regard. Towers is also a fan of Tyler Christopher, who plays her grandson Nikolas, and until recently, his doppelganger, Connor.
“Both Natalia and Tyler are so sweet, on-screen and off,” Towers tells Soapdom in an exclusive interview. “They’re delightful to work with because they’re consummate professionals and really care about what they do. Some actors you work with are there for other reasons, but not them.”
Towers believes that the newly revealed off-screen romance between Livingston and Christopher has only added a positive dimension to their roles. “Their characterization of Emily and Nikolas’ love story is very dear, and the personal outside relationship between them has heightened the relationship between their characters,” Towers says.
Christopher’s work in his dual role of Nikolas and Connor also merits high praise from Towers. “When Tyler was playing Connor, you really believed he was someone else. He infused Connor with rich subtleties to show his lack of breeding. But when Tyler plays Nikolas, you can tell that he is well bred because Tyler allows Nikolas’ nobility to shine through. The character has the mannerisms of someone who has grown up with money. These distinctions are slight but Tyler does them so well.”
Towers has learned a lot about distinctions - especially in her leading men. The character of Lucky Spencer has been played by three very unique young actors during her tenure as Helena. On Jonathan Jackson, the first Lucky, she says simply, “I love him,” her soft-spoken voice filled with affection. “He is a delightful young man and was terrific in the part.”
Regarding Jacob Young (now JR Chandler on All My Children) as the second Lucky, she says, “Jacob is so dear. He was so new and fresh and pure when he started in the role. It was fun to watch him develop. I also grew to love him as a person.”
Towers confides to Soapdom that the transition from Young to Greg Vaughan, the current Lucky, was a struggle at first. “Greg is totally different than Jacob and it took some time for me to get used to him. He’s older and has a different look. And when I first started working with him, I’d been off the show for awhile and had to get my rhythm back. But I really like Greg, and he’s working out fine as Lucky.”
Livingston, Christopher and Vaughan are in good company. Throughout her career, Towers has worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names. After getting her start in the business as a chanteuse at the poshest supper clubs in New York City, including The Plaza and the St. Regis, she went on to make her mark in movies. She made her film debut in 1959 playing opposite John Wayne and William Holden in the John Ford classic western, The Horse Soldiers, and went on to appear in another Ford movie, 1960’s Sergeant Rutledge. She is perhaps best known for her stage work, including the 1978 Broadway revival of The King and I, for which Richard Rodgers personally selected her to star as Anna opposite Yul Brynner. Rodgers also requested her for the Lincoln Center revival of Carousel where she played the lead role of Julie.
Towers TV credits are too numerous to mention, but some highlights include appearances on Providence, Frasier, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Matlock, Designing Women, MacGyver, L.A. Law, Murder She Wrote, Fantasy Island, and Perry Mason. She was a series regular on the soap opera Capitol from 1982-1987, and had guest spots on the soaps Love is a Many Splendored Thing in the 70’s, and The Young and the Restless and Sunset Beach in the 90’s.
In the 90’s, Towers also had the opportunity to work with Hillary Swank and Gwyneth Paltrow before they won their Oscars. In the 1994 movie, The Next Karate Kid, Towers played Swank’s grandmother. Of Swank who captured her second Oscar this past weekend, Towers says with an air of matter-of-factness, “I had no doubt in my mind that Hillary would go on to big things. She has such a special quality that jumps out when you meet her and when you work with her. She is so real, so serious, and she has a magic essence. She is a very interesting performer both to work with and to watch.”
In the 1998 movie, A Perfect Murder, a remake of the classic Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder, Towers played Paltrow’s mother and Michael Douglas’ mother-in-law. “Gwyneth is the nicest person,” Towers comments with a smile. “She always showed up on the set ready to work and was very professional. I’m not surprised she and Hillary have become so successful.”
Success is a topic Towers knows something about, having found a home on GH since 1997. Playing the villiainess has invigorated Towers. “I usually play the pure-as-the-driven-snow heroines, so to be evil and manipulative is fun and exciting. It’s also a challenge, and I love it,” she says with enthusiasm.
The role of Helena was originated by Elizabeth Taylor in 1981, and played by another actress briefly in 1996, but Towers never felt any pressure to follow in Taylor’s legendary footsteps. “I didn’t know I was taking over the part, and I had never seen Elizabeth in the role. It allowed me to come in and make it fresh and original, and to develop the character on my own.”
Towers shared with Soapdom that the best part about playing Helena is the lack of boundaries. “There are no restrictions. Helena is bigger than life and I get to stretch and explore every ounce of that.”
However, playing such an over-the-top character presents its own unique set of challenges for the talented actress. “It’s difficult to keep her real. I want to show that she does have a vulnerable side underneath it all. I want her to be believable and likeable even though she is evil.”
Towers knows she has created the proper balance in Helena based on fan feedback. “The biggest compliment I can receive is when a fan comes up to me or writes me and says ‘I love to hate you,’” Towers says with a hearty laugh. “When that happens then I know I am doing my job right!”
When asked by Soapdom what she would like to see in Helena’s future, Towers has some creative fantasies. “It would be great fun for Helena to control Sonny (Maurice Benard) for a minute. She would have to be in control, because that is so critical to playing her. But it would be great if she took away one of his power bases, and he had to do her bidding!”
While Towers would like to see Helena involved with Sonny, it wouldn’t be in a romantic way. “I think it would be wonderful for Helena to have a real romance, but there is no one on the canvas now I could see that happening with. A real romance would allow her to be more human. It’s fun that she has her “boy toys” on the side now, but it wouldn’t ever work to consummate them.
“Consider Helena’s relationship with Luke (Tony Geary),” she elaborates. “I think there has always been an underlying attraction between them. It would be a shame if it was ever consummated. It reminds me of the relationship between Anna and The King in The King and I. Attraction that is unspoken and never acted on creates an interesting dynamic in the relationship between the two characters.”
Another way Towers would like to see Helena evolve is in her relationship with Emily. “Part of Helena becoming more human would involve her not always showing herself and her intentions, not always having weapons as her defense. She could use her intelligence to be on top of every situation. It would be interesting to see her befriend Emily, and secretly manipulate her from behind instead of being so overt. Emily would have to figure out where Helena was coming from.”
Figuring out where Helena is coming from is a job Towers is happy to leave to the writers though. “The writers have done a brilliant job of writing Helena, which makes her fun for me to play. They amaze me with the things they come up with, and they have just done a wonderful job with this character.”
Since exploring new dimensions of her character is something Towers enjoys, and given her background in musical theater, Soapdom asked if she would like GH to tape an episode showcasing the actors’ singing talents, like One Life to Live recently did with their Valentine’s Day episode. She immediately recalls the annual Nurse’s Ball episodes that GH no longer tapes.
“I always wanted Helena to sing at the Nurse’s Ball, but the writers didn’t feel it was appropriate for the character,” Towers says. “We talk about it all the time in the hair and makeup room. I would love to do something like that to show another side of the character. Luke and Helena could do the Tango to the song “Whatever Lola Wants,” only changing it to “Whatever Helena Wants, Helena Gets,” and it would be so perfect,” she says with a chuckle. “There’s also a Cole Porter song from the musical Kiss Me Kate, called “Always True to you in my Fashion.” Really, only Helena could love someone in her fashion! Or a song about killing husbands would be just right for Helena,” she jokes with a trace of irony.
When not brainstorming fanciful songs for Helena to sing, Towers occasionally finds time in her busy schedule to watch other soaps. “I watch The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful when I can. I love the Bells. They are so unique and wonderful. They keep the themes of their shows on the families. Also, like GH, they stay with a story long enough for it to develop, which makes it easy to get right back in if you aren’t around to see it for awhile.”
Towers herself is planning on staying around. “I love being on General Hospital and I love the character of Helena. Playing her is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had!”
Lesleyann Coker is a contributing columnist for Soapdom.com, and co-author of Boob Tube, a satirical novel currently being shopped to publishers that examines what really goes on behind the scenes of the soap opera industry. She is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly magazine, and has interviewed over 200 daytime and primetime actors during her career.
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