Jane Elliot Dishes Her Role as General Hospital's Queen of Mean
Is there a greater force of nature than Jane Elliot? The Emmy-winning suds sensation signed up to play General Hospital witch Tracy Quartermaine back in 1978 and she's still kicking ass and taking names. Need proof? "Jane really keeps me on my game," says six-time Emmy winner Tony Geary (Luke). "She will bust your balls if you show up less than 100 percent ready, and I like that! There's no one I'd rather work with, no one I'd rather take a note from. When she takes me aside, I listen." So do we! TV Guide Magazine spoke with Elliot — a brilliant, fearless actress who rarely gives interviews — to find out what it's like to play the soap world's most unapologetic hellion. Retirement, empty-nest syndrome, playing a nun opposite Elvis — we covered it all!
TV Guide Magazine: Why, as Tracy, do you never seem to worry about alienating the audience? Viewers love you because you don't care if we love you!
Elliot: Somebody has to wear the black hat and give the audience someone to shake their fists at. They want someone to hate. And if that's what you want to pay me to do, I'm happy to do it! A show owes it to the audience to give them a place to vent. There is a profound contrast between the way I live my life and what I do when I go to work. I never get the two of us confused. I never wear makeup. I certainly don't dress like Tracy. I don't have a Twitter account. I don't go to fan club gatherings. I'm not one of those actors who spends a lot of time engaging with the audience. I'm fierce about my anonymity, which is why it's easy for me to play the villain. I'm not close enough to the audience to have them throw a pie in my face because of something Tracy just did.
TV Guide Magazine: Which proves one can remain popular in soaps without milking the fan base, right?
Elliot: I'm questioning that. Maybe by doing it my way I'm cutting off my nose to spite my face. But, hey, I'm 65 years old! I've made it to my pension, to Social Security, to Medicare. I did it!
TV Guide Magazine: Actors who play villains often try to show at least a shred of sensitivity or humanity to keep the audience on their side.
Elliot: Please! I'm so happy I don't have to come to work and cry. Kelly Monaco [Sam] cries five days a week! How exhausting. I love playing smart and tough and having funny lines. Do I like Tracy as a person? Noooo. But I do love the job. I love how multi-dimensional my character is. She's too untrustworthy and very self-serving. She wants to be kind and loving but her narcissism ultimately gets in her way. She's been good to [Luke's daughter] Lulu and honestly loves her. Tracy sees herself and Lulu as motherless children. Lulu touches a part of Tracy no one has touched, not even Tracy's own sons. It's a girl thing.
TV Guide Magazine: The new regime at GH really seems to get you.
Elliot: [Exec producer] Frank Valentini is as good as it gets. He has that old-fashioned Gloria Monty commitment to the job and is the first one in the building in the morning and the last one out at night. And he works all weekend! This is not to say that the people before him didn't care, but he's committed to this show in a very unique way. There's no substitute for loving the medium. You know that saying "A new broom sweeps clean"? Well, that's Frank. As good as [former exec producer] Jill Phelps was and as much as I loved working with her, a new broom sweeps clean. Frank comes to this show with fresh eyes, with no disappointments, no frustrations over lost battles. He comes with everything he has to give.
TV Guide Magazine: It's great that they've finally played up Tracy's past with the mob, which dated back to when you played her on The City. What took so long?
Elliot: It was the biggest thrill when [current head writer] Ron Carlivati came to GH. I tried for nine years to get [former head writer] Bob Guza to acknowledge that Tracy had been married to a member of the mob in New York and he completely ignored it. But within minutes of Ron getting there he brought it up, and I love him for that! I'm told that they're going to do a love triangle with Anna [Finola Hughes], Luke and Tracy, and how thrilling would that be? How good is that? In all my years on GH, Tracy has never been in a triangle!
TV Guide Magazine: What's it like after all these years to still play scenes with Geary?
Elliot: It is so rich. We go back to 1978. That's 34 years! Off-screen, we're great friends. We travel together. There's nothing like having all of us — Tony, Finola, Robin Mattson [Heather] — back in the building as a group again. All those years we spent together are still in our muscle memory and it really pays off. When Tony and I look at each other on camera you see all of that history. It goes beyond the words. It's two people who have spent more than half their lives together. [Laughs] Tony and I went on a trip to Norway and we were at the bottom of a funicular, one of those trolley things that goes up a mountain, when this couple came up and said "We knew Tracy and Luke were on vacation but we never imagined you'd be here!" If we could have crawled into a hole together we would have. Tony and I have the grace of a gnat when it comes to being recognized. But it's one of the things that bonds us.
TV Guide Magazine: How would you be if GH came to an end?
Elliot: I have so many paths in front of me. Part of me wants to get an agent and stay in the business. I think I'm the only 65-year-old actress in Los Angeles who hasn't had plastic surgery, so somebody's gotta play the old-lady parts! I'm the only one who will look my age! I do know this: I am not going to die sitting in traffic on the 405. My goal has always been to retire to northern California. My kids want to reconvene there someday. My daughter, Annie Rose, is now in the Midwest. My son, Adrian, is in San Francisco. I want to end up somewhere around there but not for a few years yet. If I am going to pursue work I need to be in L.A. But do I need it? I've done theater, TV, film. There are mornings when I wake up and go, "I don't need this anymore. Just go, Jane! Move on! Get to the next part of your life!" I have nothing left to prove.
TV Guide Magazine: You even acted with Elvis for Christ's sake!
Elliot: [Laughs] I did act with Elvis for Christ's sake!
TV Guide Magazine: That movie Change of Habit with you and Mary Tyler Moore as incognito nuns in the ghetto opposite the King? Best. Resume. Credit. Ever.
Elliot: I just came across some old Elvis memorabilia out in my garage. I don't know if I wasn't listening, but they never really tell you how profound "empty nest syndrome" is for a mother, especially a single mother. I raised my children by myself, so it's not like a husband is next to me in the bed after the kids are gone. It's me alone. I loved raising my kids. I loved the process, the dirt of it, the tears of it, the frustration of it, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, growth charts, pediatrician appointments. I loved all of it. And then it's done. Over. Gone. The stillness in their absence is so huge. [Laughs] Now where was I going with all this? Oh, yeah, Elvis! So now I'm downsizing, looking for a smaller place to live and going through all my boxes of stuff in my moldy garage, boxes I haven't opened for 15 years. The Lego train sets, the baby clothes, the show business memorabilia. Oh, my God, the things I found! A flower and telegram from Elvis on my first day at Change of Habit. A thank you letter from Anne Frank's father, Otto Frank.
TV Guide Magazine: Seriously? How'd that happen?
Elliot: Years and years ago I did the voice of Anne Frank for a Sunday morning religious program, Eternal Light, reading excerpts from her diary. And her father wrote me a thank you letter. Can you imagine that?
TV Guide Magazine: I've got goose bumps!
Elliot: Me, too! And there was so much more — photos, videos, all this astonishing stuff I had forgotten all about because I don't have what they call a "vanity wall." I don't live in that consciousness. I've never been comfortable with celebrity. So it all went in a box that my son labeled "Show Business Blah." [Laughs] One day I'll have grandchildren who will think I'm very cool.
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