Steve Burton and Vanessa Marcil Steve Burton and Vanessa Marcil

You could say she's arguably the soap world's most popular female star — but there's really no argument about it. Nobody stirs up a fan fuss quite like Vanessa Marcil Giovinazzo, who returns to General Hospital Aug. 11 as drama queen Brenda Barrett. The actress, who recently wed CSI: NY regular Carmine Giovinazzo, hasn't been seen on GH since 2003 when her character fled Port Charles after being dumped at the altar. She'll be fleeing right back: Brenda is now a hotshot international supermodel with a dangerous secret and she needs protection from her former love, mob don Sonny Corinthos (Maurice Benard). The Emmy winner has kept busy since her GH days — five seasons as the yummy casino host Sam on Las Vegas and recurring roles on Without a Trace and Lipstick Jungle — and she's mom to 8-year-old Kassius, her son from a relationship with actor Brian Austin Green. Yet, through much of this time, she never stopped negotiating a GH return. Marcil Giovinazzo opened up to TV Guide Magazine on a number of topics: her fears and insecurities, why she nixed coming back to GH with James Franco and the family health crisis that made her rethink her priorities and get back to daytime.

TV Guide Magazine: Congrats on the wedding! All these big life changes for you!
Marcil Giovinazzo: Carmine and I have known each other forever. We were first engaged 11 years ago and I've loved him and his family ever since.

TV Guide Magazine: So why the return to GH now, and with a one-year deal? Why not enjoy married life for a while?
Marcil Giovinazzo: Because it feels so right. A lot's been going on. We found out that my older sister, Sherry, has breast cancer. We've bought a farm in upstate New York and she and I went up there to spend a week together before she had to start her chemo, and it got me thinking about how grateful I am to GH for giving me pretty much everything I have. [Head writer] Bob Guza and I got back in touch again during that time. I told him I wanted to settle down for a while so that I could be available to my sister and my family, and that maybe during that time I could come in and out at GH for a couple of days a week. I called [ABC Daytime chief] Brian Frons and asked him if he would have me back, and he was gracious enough to say yes. I just couldn't feel any more grateful that I'm still allowed to visit such a great place. I love that Julianne Moore went back to As the World Turns to honor where she came from. It's important to do that. I left GH for a few different reasons, but it was never because I wasn't madly in love with the show and the character and with daytime.

TV Guide Magazine: This return has been in the talk stages for years, with so many false alarms that it got to the point where it seemed like you were just screwing with us.
Marcil Giovinazzo: We came close to a deal a few times before this. Very close. It was always a matter of when, not if — and I said that in every conversation I had with Bob Guza. But, for me, there could never be a return where Brenda wasn't incredibly involved with the characters who are basically her family. She doesn't have any blood family. She has no parents. I'd tell Bob, "You know my list — Sonny, Jason, Robin, Jax. These are the characters I want to work with every day. If you can promise me that's going to happen, we can work this out." He called me one time and said, "Listen, James Franco's coming on the show and we'd love for you to walk in with him." But I didn't want to do that. He's a great movie star and an incredible actor and it's an honor to have him on GH. But what does he have to do with Brenda? It was important that Brenda's return be about her people, her family.

TV Guide Magazine: Still, there is a secret Brenda-Franco connection, right?
Marcil Giovinazzo: Yes. And I want to work with him, don't get me wrong! I just want to make sure that we are respecting the characters and respecting the fans.

TV Guide Magazine: Are you nervous about coming back? The heat is on.
Marcil Giovinazzo: You've know me for years — I have nerves about everything! I get nervous just going to the 7-Eleven to get gas. Brenda is so much bolder and ballsier and cooler than I am. I think that's why she's so much fun to play. I'm socially awkward and shy and usually terrified, and that can get misconstrued and come across as other things...

TV Guide Magazine: Like, that you're standoffish and think you're hot s--t?
Marcil Giovinazzo: Well...yeah. I don't want to appear to be some kind of overemotional, oversensitive girl, and I am both of those things. It's the joke among my friends that when I go out in public I feel that I'll never be cool. When I try to be cool, it never works for me. I'm like Carrie Bradshaw in that episode where she finally gets to be a runway model and she trips.

TV Guide Magazine: So how do you step back onto the GH set after this massive PR blitz and not come off like the diva who is here to save the show? The ABC promo campaign pretty much presents you that way.
Marcil Giovinazzo: Oh, please, I am so not the star around there! It's like when you go home and you're around your parents and brothers and sisters and you automatically revert to being the 10-year-old no matter what you've done with your adult life. At my mom's house, I'm just Vanessa and everybody tells me to shut up and go do the breakfast dishes. I have no doubt that Maurice Benard will be like, "Why are you doing the scene that way? Why are you saying your lines like that? It's horrible!" [Laughs] It'll be business as usual.

TV Guide Magazine: There's much hope that you'll up the ratings. Do you feel pressure?
Marcil Giovinazzo: I don't think about ratings, or awards. I act for the satisfaction I feel at the end of the day, that feeling of having done really good work and learning and growing and becoming a better actor, and really accomplishing something, maybe creating a great moment that wasn't planned. That's what I'm really all about. In my household, we don't read magazines or go on the Internet, we don't listen to the radio or watch TV. And not in a snotty way. We're just a little isolated from the world and we like it that way. I want my son to read more, to listen to music, to learn to love museums. I treasure my one-on-one time with him. So I go to work, I do my scenes, and I ignore the rest of it. I just shut it all out.

TV Guide Magazine: You had great success with Las Vegas but, to be blunt, it seemed like a real comedown for you after playing a kickass role like Brenda.
Marcil Giovinazzo: I'll tell you a funny story about that. I feel that I've always manifested everything I've ever really wanted in my life. I picture it, and do all the footwork to make it happen, and then it appears. And that's what I did with Las Vegas! I had a blast at GH, but on my last visit I had recently given birth to Kassius and couldn't help but feel that all the intense emotional trauma I put myself through as Brenda was affecting him. You can't go on a set and open up your chest all day and then just shake it off. Well, I can't anyway. And I was really worried about the effect it might have on my son. As an actor, you try to stay in that emotional space between scenes, and there I was in my dressing room holding him in my lap and feeding him — he was only one at the time — and I didn't want him soaking up all that physical and mental turmoil. Those first few years are what sets a child for life — how he feels about himself, how he connects with others, how safe he feels in the world. So during one especially brutal day at GH, I sat down and tried to visualize a better scenario for us both, one where I was appearing in an ensemble show — something fun and light — where I could come to work just a couple of days a week and the focus wasn't on me. Suddenly Las Vegas appeared, and it was perfect!

TV Guide Magazine: You didn't care that the show didn't push you, test you, stretch you?
Marcil Giovinazzo: Not at all. I no longer had to prepare for a scene by torturing myself and thinking about my dog dying when I was a kid, and all that dark stuff. I got to walk onto a bright, fun, glamorous set, deliver a couple of lines, hand an envelope to James Caan — I was acting with James Caan! — and then spend the rest of the day with my baby. That's all changed now. I'm still cutting my chest open as an actor. Unfortunately, I don't know how to do it any other way. But Kassius is his own little man now. He's in school. He has his friends. His whole life used to revolve around me but now it's, "Mom, you're so annoying!"

TV Guide Magazine: Have you watched GH while you've been away?
Marcil Giovinazzo: Not one single moment since I've been gone. It would have made me sad, because I've missed being on the show so much. I've had many other experiences that were important to me as an actor but nothing has been better than GH. Nothing has even come close. Playing Brenda is such a personal and intense experience that — at the risk of sounding silly and melodramatic — I think I was born to play her. I'm certainly living my dream when I do!

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!