INTERVIEW: Days of our Lives' Thaao Penghlis on his Emmy nomination and blazing a trail for foreign representation on soaps

Posted Wednesday, June 03, 2020 7:53:14 AM

Thaao Penghlis (ex-Tony DiMera/Andre DiMera, Days of our Lives) opens up about his Lead Actor Emmy nomination, the special nuances that keep the DiMera family viable, and representing immigrants on an American television series.

Anyone who has met or spoken with daytime veteran Thaao Penghlis (ex-Tony DiMera/Andre DiMera, Days of our Lives; ex-Victor Cassadine, General Hospital) knows that he views his soap opera work as much more than just another acting job. He has taken each of his roles seriously and has gone extremely deep into his characterization, always finding the heart of each character -- no matter how dark or evil they may seem on the surface. His dedication and passion are evident on-screen, which has led to yet another Daytime Emmy nomination for the actor -- this time in the Outstanding Lead Actor category for his work in DAYS' mixed identity Andre/Tony, Kristen/Nicole [Arianne Zucker] storyline.

In celebration of his nomination, Soap Central spoke with Penghlis and got his thoughts on how he feels about being recognized by his peers, how he so effortlessly differentiates Andre and Tony, and the early struggles he faced as a foreign actor on a show that had previously focused on Anglo families.

Soap Central: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination!

Thaao Penghlis: Oh, thank you. It was a nice surprise, actually. I've been working in vignettes on the show, so it's not like I had a lot of material, and I was surprised that this material [led to this]. Now that I see it, I see that it was the week that I came back and did eleven shows in one week -- which to me is a miracle -- and the show [that I submitted] was one of three I did in one day. So, to remember all of that dialogue and then to get nominated for it was really a nice surprise. I thought, "I wonder at the end of this tunnel what kind of light is going to show itself," and... I wasn't expecting anything, and then somebody calls me up, a friend of mine from Florida, with the news. The Talk was preempted here, so we didn't see what the nominations were. And the first call I got from someone at the show was from Billy [Flynn, Chad DiMera], who plays my brother. It was a lovely surprise that he reached out, and his words were, "I just loved seeing you on that list." So, I was very touched by that. We always had a good relationship, and he's part of my family DiMera, which Joe [Mascolo, Stefano DiMera] and I started in 1981, and it's great to see that that family is still viable today, even though Joe and I had a different [history]. It was more ethnic, and that was a contrast to the Hortons. Joe and I always used to say, "Let's go fight the Hortons!" Joe was a great adversary and a great foil for me, and he's missed dearly. And then the other actors, I got calls from Deidre [Hall, Marlena Evans] and Leann [Hunley, Anna DiMera]. I mean, everybody was so excited, and I thought, well, out of that [terribly busy week], the light that came out of that tunnel was the nomination, and it was nice to see that all of the actors were vets.

Soap Central: Something that really shines through in your work is the fact that you do hold the DiMera clan so closely in your heart. I think the fans can see that in all of your performances.

Penghlis: Yes, you know, part of that is because I was brought up in Australia with an ethnic background, which is Greek. So, in many ways, I looked at [the family] not so much as Italian, but as Greek. Joe was the Italian. But it was always a rivalry contrast between the two of us. It was a very powerful son and father relationship, and we carried that through. I would have liked to have seen more casting done like we were. But still, when you have someone like Billy working with me, it's only the attitude, I've discovered; when you share the stage with an actor who really looks more Anglo than ethnic, at the core of it is the passion and the love between brothers -- and I think that's what validates Billy's performances over the years. He's done some wonderful work.

Soap Central: I love the fact that you're the vet --- the legend, really -- and yet you still shine a spotlight on Billy. Obviously, he's a great actor and deserves it, but it's nice to see someone like you acknowledge the new generation like you do with Billy.

Penghlis: He's one of our better actors. But we were trained so differently. I did eight years in New York before I could even utter a sound as an actor because of my immigration work and getting my papers to be able to do that. I think what it is, the underlying thing, is what kind of love is in that family. With all the arguments and all the rivalry and the clashes between them, depending on what dialogue you're being given, the thing that Billy and I had is what Joe and I had, and that is an underlying love, and that always permeated the scene. So, no matter what happened, there would always be a tear or an emotion of some sort, an embrace of some sort, that brought that family together. You don't see that so much with the Hortons or the more Anglo relationships. They're more distant. Like Joe used to say, "It's about La Famiglia." And even though different writers have come on board and given their own interpretations, we as actors [always carry that through]. I was the first of the family, and Joe came in six months later. The welcome was not as easy as it is now, because when I came in, I was the first ethnic actor on the show, and everybody kind of looked at me, saying, "What is this? What is changing?" It was all about the Hortons, and suddenly, this new family was coming in. And thanks to Pat Falken Smith, who was our writer at the time, she knew what she wanted, and she pulled me out of General Hospital and said, "I want you to start the whole DiMera family." So that began part of the history that continues today.

Soap Central: You're actually one of the few lucky actors who has been blessed with more than one character on the show. How do you feel about having had the honor of entertaining DAYS fans with two characters -- who are both loved!

Penghis: Well, it's interesting. How do you make a hateful character loved? The fans have been fantastic, I've got to give it to them. You can't lie to them, because they watch you all the time. You're in their kitchen, you're in their living room. When there is a performance that is not heartfelt [they know it]. The thing that I always wanted -- because Andre was such a villainous, diabolical character, even though Tony was, too, in a way, because that was part of what I chose at the beginning -- was to differentiate between the two of them. I always wanted to find the heart, and in a way, the character of Abigail found his heart. I purposefully did that because if you don't have a heart, the audience can't identify with you. And so, that's what I chose, and, of course, my mistake was, by choosing Abigail, she ends up killing Andre! [Laughs] But she was a joy to work with -- both Abigails [Kate Mansi and Marci Miller] were a joy to work with. Contrast, but it was great. But I am always thinking, "How do you differentiate between one and the other on the same screen?" So, to me, Andre was always the impostor, and Tony was the original, so I made Tony a classy kind of guy and Andre somebody who wished he was like him. The classic example was when Andre was walking through the door of the study one day, wearing Tony's robe, and he got caught in the door and ripped it apart, and I thought, "That's Andre." Andre was always the one who was trying to disguise himself because he never felt good enough. But that's how I would differentiate, and the audience loved both characters, so that was always good.

Soap Central: To bring it back to the Emmys, you mentioned Billy Flynn and a few others, but who from DAYS have you heard from or reached out to with congratulations on your nominations? Were there more?

Penghlis: Yes, I mean, you know, Twitter is Twitter. The convenience of text messages just, I think to myself, "What have we become?" To me, [connections are] always about the heart, and the reason you invest in friends is because you're sharing your heart with someone. And I find, what's a tweet, you know? It's some convenient way of saying hello and goodbye. I hate that. But I spoke to Ari [Zucker, Nicole Walker] and congratulated her. I love working with her, as well. And also Leann, and Billy was the first one, and that was the lovely surprise. I also reached out to Wally [Kurth, Justin Kiriakis], who is a lovely actor. It's so funny with soaps. When I did Mission: Impossible, all of those actors who are still alive today, we still see each other. Whereas in soaps, it's not the same. Once you're off the canvas, [you don't always stay in touch]. I've had Bill and Susan [Hayes, Doug and Julie Williams], who I adore, come to my home for dinner, but people don't entertain. I do see Lauren [Koslow, Kate Roberts] a lot and Leann, and also Deidre and I keep in touch a lot. They're three of the women that I just adore on the show, and they're all very happy [about my nomination]. I mean, Deidre was beside herself. She was screaming in an email and saying, "Hooray, hooray, how wonderful!" But I find that for some people, it would have been nice if they had made a call, but I didn't hear from them. You look at the reality of it all, and you just take in the context of what it is. The context is this show changed my life. I've had two Emmy nominations back to back, and [DAYS writer] Ryan Quan reached out and said congratulations to two Emmy noms back to back. But I just hope we don't lose out to General Hospital again. They're always the ones who somehow beat the odds!

Soap Central: They certainly do! But you were a part of General Hospital, so do you also feel like that's your second home?

Penghlis: Well, you know, I was one of the original Cassadines, and that was an incredible storyline with a big producer who really saved daytime, as far as I'm concerned -- Gloria Monty. But, no, when you're doing this much work in one week... Thank God for technique, and thank God for my training. I know enough to be able to walk through a door [and deliver]. Someone saw my work once and asked, "How did you make all those transitions so readily?" And you look at it, and you're going, "That's training. That's understanding." A director I did a mini-series with said, "Where did you get your training from?" And I said, "Why do you ask?" And he said, "You know how to have a camera follow you." And I said, "Oh, my God, that's soaps!" It's all part of that training, and after being on and off [of DAYS] for 38 years, you better know what you're doing. I remember I used to go to classes and learn how to do monologues. And I didn't realize how that was going to help me on the show, but with all of those phone calls, nobody is on the other end! So, you better know how to do a monologue and not have people think, "Is he going crazy? Is he talking to himself?" [Laughs]

Soap Central: Speaking of some of your earlier days, do you remember the moment when you realized you were famous? Like when the fans really started to respond to your work?

Penghlis: Yes, a woman came after me with an umbrella because Tony had raped his wife, Gloria Loring [ex-Liz Chandler], at the time, and she said, "You're a bad boy -- but I love you!" [Laughs] That's when I realized, "Oh, is this how it's going to be?" I called my sister six weeks after being on DAYS, and I asked [her about the show], and she said, "Oh, yes, I love Days of our Lives." I said, "Oh, I'm going to be on it," and she said, "You're going to ruin it for me!" [Laughs] But I was able to get a home [due to my job on DAYS], and you always want to go beyond your parents and you want to inspire those that come after you, so I became an example to my family. Part of it is because I came as an immigrant, and who knew that America would embrace me? I mean, I must say that this country is extraordinary that way, and I shall always remember how kind they've been to me.

Soap Central: I do love that soaps have traditionally always been on the forefront of welcoming different cultures, different backgrounds, even different sexualities.

Penghlis: Not in the beginning. When I first started [at GH], Gloria Monty said to me, "I love your accent, I want you on my show." But then, when I went to DAYS, nobody had an accent. I was the foreigner, and everybody was staring down at me in the beginning, and I had some problems with being accepted. But once they saw that I was a serious actor, it changed. It all changed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: When you have the opportunity to chat with Thaao you can easily lose track of time -- and that's what happened during this interview. Thaao was called away abruptly because he's a busy man, but Soap Central appreciates the time he has given us both now and in the past.

What do you think about Thaao Penghlis receiving an Emmy nomination for his work as DAYS' Andre? Do you think he'll take home the gold? We want to hear from you -- so drop your comments in the Comments section below, tweet about it on Twitter, share it on Facebook, or chat about it on our Message Boards.

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