So you think your life's a soap opera? Tell it to Colleen Zenk! Few daytime actors are as beloved and admired as this brave As the World Turnsstar, who has survived a very public battle with deadly oral cancer and recently filed for divorce from her husband of 23 years, ex-ATWT actor Mark Pinter, on grounds of infidelity and abandonment. Oh, yeah, and her soap got canceled, too. (ATWT's final episode airs this Friday, Sept. 17 on CBS.) TV Guide Magazine spoke with Zenk, a real-life mother of six, as she's about to end her 32-year run as Oakdale firecracker Barbara Ryan. Prepare to be inspired.
TV Guide Magazine: As the World turns toward its last couple of episodes, what are you feeling?
Zenk: All I can think is why? The cancellation makes no sense. The last few episodes have been wrenching. Oh, my God! Those scenes with John and Lucinda! And Reid's death! And the ashes! It's all so emotional and poignant. I just can't believe we only have a couple of episodes left because I still haven't dealt with the loss of the show and the loss of Barbara. To continue shooting months and months after we got the cancellation notice created a grand illusion. It was easy to fall into a place of denial and say "We're fine!" because we were still telling great stories. Someone told me it took Victoria Wyndham five years to accept the loss of Another World. [Laughs] I'm a different kind of human being than that, but the loss is still huge.
TV Guide Magazine: At least you got one last big storyline — Barbara's kidnapping — and a happy-ever-after ending. A few years back, could you have ever imagined your character would end the show married to that wackadoo Henry Coleman [Trent Dawson]?
Zenk: Never ever would I have seen them taking me down that road. And to get my own story! I never thought I'd see that day again. The writers sent me love letters with that material — a real Valentine. Each and every one of those crazy days when Barbara was trapped in the warehouse, though perhaps it went on a bit long, was a gift to me. And to work with the fabulously talented Trent Dawson! You've interviewed him, right? You know he's nothing like Henry. It took me a while to realize he's not the cut-up he is on air. We are both actors who take the material, no matter how outrageous it may be, and play it without talking down to it. He's serious and thoughtful about the work and, trust me, I've worked with a number of actors over the years who weren't. They didn't see this job as worthy. It was a constant thrill to partner with someone who finds such joy in the work. The writers have repeatedly said they wish they'd put us two together years ago.
TV Guide Magazine: But if they'd done that, Barbara and Henry would likely have broken up by now. You know soaps! This way, you two go out with a bang.
Zenk: I like that about the finale. It still leaves us with a sense of life! In the end, they let Barbara be happy, and let her have a catharsis for all her misdeeds over the years. They let her exorcize the spirit of James Stenbeck [Anthony Herrera] so she could move on. On the other hand, they didn't put a bow on everybody, especially some of the young characters, and that's how it should be — the young ones don't need to be married off. They still have their lives ahead of them, and the audience will want to continue imagining how those lives turned out long after the show ends.
TV Guide Magazine: You've been through so much since the cancer diagnosis in 2007. How did it affect your work?
Zenk: I feel extraordinarily freed up as an actor, and that has everything to do with what I've gone through. I would not be able to tackle the recent material with as much abandon as I did had life not dished me all this crap these last few years. It's a kind of fearlessness, but it certainly wasn't conscious. It wasn't until this past spring that I realized I was no longer working in such an uptight way. I said to [exec producer] Chris Goutman, "If I get too big, just rein me in." But he never did. A few years ago, I would not have been able to portray Barbara as an older woman with the kind of confidence I did in this go-round. A great deal of that is having survived cancer twice. There's nothing like staring death in the face and saying, "Screw you!"
TV Guide Magazine: Remarkably, you stayed on the air during your cancer battle and Barbara was given the same diagnosis. How was it dealing with your illness in such a high-profile way?
Zenk: I had a lot of resistance at home and elsewhere about taking it public. But I did it anyway. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I had tremendous emotional support from everyone at work. Procter & Gamble didn't have to keep me employed, and certainly not under contract, after I got sick. They could easily have said, "This is not going to work." The show worked around all my surgeries and treatments and radiation. And I sounded like hell for a very long time, and I didn't look so good, either. I'm told no one can hear my speech impediment anymore. I sure can hear it, and it doesn't sound so good to me. But people have ignored it, and that's extraordinary. Having that kind of love all around really changes you. Having that unrelenting, unquestioning, no-holds-barred kind of love was what kept me alive.
TV Guide Magazine: Was there ever a point where you regretted going public?
Zenk: No, but there was one time when I totally lost it. It was the day we shot the episode where Barbara got her diagnosis and the same day I also shot a PSA about oral cancer to air during the show. We did the PSA right after my scenes and, though I was all ready with my copy memorized, I got about three words into it and completely broke down in tears. It took a while for me to get it together, and more than a few tries to get a clean take. All of a sudden I wasn't acting. I was talking about me. I had none of the risk factors for this kind of cancer, so it made no sense whatsoever that I got it. Making it my mission to get the word out and giving voice to this particular type of cancer was the only way I could take command of the situation. It was the only way I could make any of it make sense. [For more information about oral cancer and its prevention, go to oralcancerfoundation.com.]
TV Guide Magazine: That which does not kill us...
Zenk: It's so true! I'm starting my life over completely in every way. People say "My God, Colleen, you're dealing with so much loss all at once." Well, I look at it the way my oncologist says I need to look at it — from a positive point of view. It a chance to go on and find out what the next stage of my life is going to be. I'm 57 years old. Suddenly I'm a single parent. My show's over. I'm scared as hell. But, more than anything, I'm excited. I look at the future as nothing but opportunity.
Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!