Soaps in Depth, October 5, 1999

DEAR SARAH...

In a personal essay, GH's associate headwriter, Patrick Mulcahey- one of the most respected and honored creative forces in daytime- reveals his thoughts on the surprising controversy that went into the creation of Carly, and the admiration he developed for her portrayer, Sarah Brown.

I remember very well the first time I saw Sarah on-air. We had slowly let drop to the audience that Bobbie had a daughter she'd given up at birth, and at the very tag end of an episode, we saw the girl, up to no good. Suddenly there was Sarah looking ungainly, uncomfortable, a little butch, badly dressed, smiling too much and too insincerely- you could hardly imagine anyone less actressy. I wasn't optimistic. But one thing she had right away: Immediately, she seemed exactly the sort of bad seed that might have sprung from our beloved-but-rough-around-the-edges Bobbie.

A Rocky Start

It's [casting director] Mark Teschner's genius that he can see things in actors that we may not see till much later. I thought her first couple of months on the air were awful. It was partly the function of the character's having a hidden agenda: Every moment she had with anyone was fake. It's one thing to ask a seasoned actor playing a detailed, fleshed-out, established character to do that. It's another to ask a girl of 19 or 20 or whatever Sarah was, who's playing a character that's a complete question mark. I mean, the audience didn't know what Carly "Roberts" was like for real, so how to show she was not what she seemed? All poor Sarah could do most of the time was make faces behind other characters' backs. It's pretty obvious now that bringing on a character and asking her to reveal nothing for weeks on end was not a stroke of genius on our parts.

 

Who's That Girl?

Worse yet, we the writers didn't really know what Carly was supposed to be. That may sound like a horrifying confession, but in daytime, a successful character is always a collaboration between the writers and the actor. We begin by making a few decisions about who we think the character is, the actor finds certain other decisions have to be made and makes them, sparks fly between the actor and another actor, we see what's happening on-screen and start playing around with it in the writing- that's how a character takes shape.

 

A Political Minefield

Carly was different. We were afraid of her. I started [on the show] right around the time Sarah did, but it's my understanding that there was quite a hullabaloo about Carly before she was ever cast. I was told a writer (the one I think I replaced) had even quit over it. The issue was this: Carly was coming to Port Charles for the purpose of haunting Bobbie and making her life miserable, out of supposed anger at having been "abandoned" by her. But of course, she wasn't abandoned, she was given up for adoption, and the network and producers were rightly concerned that we might be "sending the message" (that phrase that soap writers dread) either that adopted children were hateful and full of rage, or that their adoptive parents were neglectful or otherwise inadequate enough to instill this smoldering resentment of being adopted in their kids... I need not go on. The pitfalls are obvious, and I imagine Bob [Guza, the headwriter] promised Wendy [Riche, the executive producer] and ABC that we had no intention of falling into them.

 

Decisions, Decisions

Well, that was easier said than done. For one thing, the antidote to a character's being seen as a "message" is to make her so vivid and specific that she isn't anything but herself- she just is. But that takes time. Carly was brand-new- For another, no two people on the writing team had the same idea of how to keep Bob's promise and circumvent the difficulties. Worse yet, Bob was leaving the show and the new headwriter seemed to have a very different idea of who Carly was or should be. The upshot was that we were all afraid to make any big decisions about Carly when we wrote her. Sarah, naturally, wasn't about to make them either. She was waiting for the writing to make it clear who Carly was supposed to be, and she didn't have the experience or the confidence to say, as a veteran might have, "Okay, they don't know who she is so I'll make her up."

 

The Turning Point

I remember very sharply the first time I dared to make a big decision about Carly. She was in Bobbie's room alone and was supposed to try on a piece of Bobbie's jewelry. I decided Carly didn't care about the necklace or want to steal it. She didn't covet Bobbie's things. She might've thought she wanted to hurt Bobbie, but in coming to know her, she came to want to be Bobbie- to have her life. This was not only more human and sympathetic but was consistent with her soon-to-be-clear objective to seduce Tony. Well, that's all the logic Sarah needed to go on. It was like letting a genie out of a bottle. She was a completely different actor in that episode than anyone we'd ever seen before, and we all saw it and got excited about it.

 

Getting Under Carly's Skin

Thank God for [associate headwriter] Elizabeth Korte and Steve Burton (Jason). I think it was Elizabeth's idea that Carly should go slumming, run into Jason and decide he'd make the perfect anonymous sex-partner. Not only did Sarah and Steve turn out to be a great pairing, not only did it add depth and danger to the Robin/Jason romance, but it allowed us finally to explore who Carly really was when she was alone. What she wanted, what she hated, what she didn't expect that turned her from her path. I wrote a lot of those scenes, and watching Sarah play Carly then was like watching Popeye eat spinach- she just grew and grew, revealing not just a good actor but a magnificent one, with phenomenal intelligence and depth and inexhaustible emotional resources. One of the enduring thrills after 20 years in this medium is being able to watch somebody like Sarah discover herself and flex her muscles. It was and is glorious to behold.

 

Icing On The Cake

I often say that Bobbie and Carly are my favorite couple on the show. I love writing them. Jackie [Zeman] and Sarah are so finely tuned to their characters and each other - Sarah so gets Carly's dodges and passive-aggressive tricks, and Jackie so understands parent/child guilt trips and love/hate relationships, that my big problem writing their mother-daughter scenes is knowing when to stop.

 

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

There are a few actors who have perfect pitch with regard to the characters they play. Tony Geary comes to mind. He's incapable of misplaying Luke. Asleep he's Luke. There are even fewer actors who can make anything work. A Martinez [for whom Mulcahey wrote during his stint as Cruz Castillo on SANTA BARBARA] comes to mind. It doesn't matter what it is, how ridiculous it looks on paper- give it to A and he will sell it. Even if you have completely misconceived the action, if what's being asked is something the character as established would never do, A will enlarge the character so it seems like it couldn't be any other way. I put Sarah Brown in both categories. Her Carly is both a seamless creation and vast with possibility. Throw A.J. in a laundry cart and dump him in an alley? I cringed at the prospect, but there's no question Sarah pulled it off. Dump her baby the day after giving birth and still pass herself off as a good mother? With Sarah, you believe it completely.

 

"An EmotionaI Kaleidoscope"

I get so excited when I'm writing Carly. I shouldn't admit this, but privately, I keep raising the bar. I'll write a heavy Carly episode and fret, "Now look what I've done, she'll never be able to pull this off - but of course Sarah always does. My favorite Carly show in recent memory was the one where she started in a catfight with Hannah, proceeded to defend herself to Jason, then tell him off, then wheedle and cajole and apologize, then finally kiss him like there was no tomorrow on the Quartermaine terrace in the middle of the night. Sarah had to take Carly from zero to 60 and back in like five scenes, and she was flawless, fierce, endlessly inventive, an emotional kaleidoscope.

 

A Tip of The Hat

We started out with an actress who didn't know what we wanted and ended up with an actress who never doesn't know what to do. I feel so lucky as a writer to have her. My only fear is that we may just now have found the perfect story for her but won't be able to keep her long enough to play it. Alas, that's the price you pay for having the best- you can only have them for a little while because everybody's going to want them soon.


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