One Life to Live Star Erika Slezak on What Life Is Like for Megan Draper

Erika Slezak, Megan Draper. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images,Michael Yarish/AMCFrederick M. Brown/Getty ImagesMichael Yarish/AMC

Maybe Megan Draper is Sharon Tate. Maybe. But for now all we really know is that she’s an insecure, lonely soap actress being propositioned by her costar, ignored by her husband, and occasionally approached by fans. What’s happening? We called up One Life to Live star Erika Slezak, who’s been playing Viki on the show since 1971, to get her insight into what Megan might be going through, how she can possibly make Corinne and Collette feel like two totally different women (Slezak also played Viki’s alternate personality Niki), and whether Don’s jealous behavior was typical of the time.

Megan is now playing two characters and she’s having a hard time of it. Having played two characters yourself, can you relate to that experience?
Yes, absolutely. The first time I had to play Niki, we were doing a flashback. And I had never played the character; I knew very little about her. And they said, “Just be the exact opposite of Viki.” So [Niki] became trashy. So for Megan, the maid is a nice character, and then when she plays the opposite, that can only be fun. But you do have to find the differences. It’s a different look, it’s a different attitude. For Megan, that may be difficult for her. But it’s a good thing for her, too, because it means there’s more story for her.

Don does say to her, when she expresses some concern that everyone thinks she’s an idiot, “They just gave you a second part” — as though that’s job security. Is it? Or is Megan right to be worried?
No, no, no. That’s a good thing. When suddenly you’re playing two parts? That’s a very good thing.

The director calls her “honey” and “sweetheart.” Did that resonate with you?
Oh yeah, to this day: Darling, sweetie pie. You know. If you don’t know somebody’s name, you say darling or honey.

I thought it was patronizing.
Slightly. I’m sure on the show it was slightly disparaging. But that was very common in those days; very common. You know, you had some kind of hot-shot director or even a regular director who, I don’t know, it’s an odd thing: They want to feel superior so they put you down in that way. You have a name and they’re not using it; they call you anything other than that.

There’s a sense that Megan isn’t respected for her talent, but for her looks. Like she’s getting these story lines because Arlene and her husband —
They want to sleep with her.

Right. And when Megan refuses Arlene’s latest advance, Megan basically says, “How am I supposed to know I won’t be punished for this?” What’s your instinct there?
She could lose the job very quickly. It depends. In television, everything depends on the audience: If they like you, you’re going to stay. If they don’t like you, you’re gone yesterday. It doesn’t matter, really, about the writers, especially in the early days; the networks were in charge of everything. And I’ve seen cases where an actor was just useless and despised by the writers and everybody else. But he had a very high Q rating. So you can’t get rid of him; you cannot. Even though he was a pain in the neck and difficult to work with. Every single actress and actor has a Q rating. There is a company who will go around and randomly ask focus groups or whatever, “What do you think of this actor? What do you think of this actress?” If your Q rating is high and favorable, they will keep you on the show no matter what. For Megan, if her characters are popular, it almost doesn’t matter what she does. They can try to write her out, but the network could step in and say no.

What would it take for her to get fired, despite a high Q rating?
Everybody had a moral clause in their contract. You have to behave in accordance with the standards of the network. In other words, you can’t go down the street, take your clothes off. You can’t get arrested. Were she to be found out — for instance, if she did have a liaison with the writer and the wife and the network found out about it, she could be fired for that. If there were to be bad publicity surrounding her, she could be fired for that.

What about if she got pregnant? When she had the miscarriage, she said she was relieved that she did because she doesn’t think that it was the right time to have a baby.
When I was on the show, [pregnancies] were written in. Or you were replaced, as I was when my second child was born, because my character was being drugged — they thought the audience would get confused. So I was replaced for six months. But Susan Lucci, for instance, was pregnant twice on the show and each time they hid it. They put you behind a potted palm or a chair or a big purse.

So she didn’t necessarily have to feel threatened that she’d get fired.
No, but she was very new to the show. A pregnancy for her character at that point would not have been beneficial. So, yes, it would have hurt her. That’s why she said she feels relieved. Because that would have put the end to that — I mean, she was a maid in somebody’s house.

As she becomes more focused on her career, do you think we could expect to see her personality change more and more?
Just in those two little clips where people recognize her — in the first one [in Hawaii], you can see she’s sort of, Oh! Okay! And by the second time, in the elevator, she’s a little more comfortable. And by the third time, she’ll be a lot more comfortable. It becomes part of your day when you’re out and about and people stop you and say, “Oh, I love your show. Can I have your autograph?” And you’re very gracious: “Yes, yes, yes.” Some people, they get to the point where they say, “No, get away from me, leave me alone.”

But right now she mostly just seems insecure and lonely. Especially with Don, who doesn’t understand what’s she’s going through. Did a lot of marriages suffer from that?
Oh yeah. Not a lot, but some, certainly. It’s very difficult. Because if one partner is not aware of the hours, of the strain, of the pressure that is on you as an actress … it’s difficult for them to understand. It can destroy relationships.

Don was threatened by Megan’s love scene. Were a lot of husbands like that?
Sure. But as soon as they say “Cut,” it’s over. “Goodbye.” “Nice to meet you.” It is part of your job. And it’s kind of a weird job, but it is part of your job.

What would your advice to Megan be, insofar as juggling her work and her marriage goes?
That’s hard. My advice is: Don’t marry somebody in advertising. You know, it helps to have a spouse who understands what you do, and who is either a part of the world or just understands it and is very nonchalant about it, I guess. I’m married to an actor, so he gets it. I don’t think my husband ever watched love scenes, because he didn’t have to, he didn’t particularly want to. But he understands what it is.

Did husbands ever really show up on sets like Don did?
Yes, it happened. And not way back in 1968 or 1971, when I joined the show. It happened recently to an actress on our show who was married and her husband absolutely couldn’t take it. And they are no longer married. He said, “I can’t take this, you have to quit.” And she said, “I’m not going to quit.” That’s a tricky problem. My God, it was worse in the movies, because they went much further in the movies in 1968 than they did on the soap operas.

Megan reassured Don that the scene would be tame, that the network was tame.
Yes, and she was lying. She thought it would be tame, but it’s never tame when someone you love is watching you make love to someone else. The fact that she was lying on the bed and he started to undress her — that’s not tame. With the couple wanting the foursome — that’s never happened to me, but that makes it even more awkward. That upset him almost more because he seemed to think that her life was part of that kind of craziness that surrounds a soap opera.

How were the soaps perceived in ’68? Like, when One Life to Live started that year, how quickly did people catch on that the plotlines were bananas?
Okay. To be fair to [creator] Agnes Nixon, her plot lines were never bananas. She went as far as she could go, but she was always concerned with the social aspect and making things real and accessible to the audience. So nothing was ever really crazy. Soaps have come a long way. Obviously in the beginning they were looked down on by the whole industry because it was like, You can’t get a better job than that? And yet, people had jobs on shows like that for 50 years. Come the seventies and eighties and nineties, when work was drying up in Hollywood, people were desperate to be on soaps, and they weren’t looking down on them so much. Although, I think today, we’re considered the bottom of the rung.

I didn’t mean bananas disrespectfully. But amnesia and things like that happen.
Well, yes, those are kind of funny stories. That’s just to complicate things and keep the story going. It’s always wonderful when a character gets amnesia. Because you go back to scratch.

It looks like Jessica Paré has lost a lot of weight since last season. Assuming she did that for her character on the show, was there a lot of pressure for soap actresses to lose weight?
Oh yes, oh yes. Always. In those days, absolutely. That’s kind of the downside to our business: They only want you thin and pretty. Unless you are very unusual. That wonderful actress in Mike & Molly, Melissa McCarthy. She’s so good, they don’t care what she looks like. Because she’s funny. And if you could be funny and clever, then you didn’t have to — but if you were a young ingénue then, yes, you had to be thin and pretty.

Were you ever told to lose weight?
Yeah. A producer said, “I want you to lose weight.” And I said, “I weigh” — whatever I weighed at the time, 120 pounds or something, which was a perfectly acceptable weight, and I’d been on the show for a number of years at that point. I thought it was rude of him to say it. I wasn’t fat. I was never skinny, skinny, skinny. But I had a very acceptable body. And I was upset with him, that he did that. And I did not lose the weight.

Good for you.
I said, “I’m staying the way I am. My costumes fit and I look good in them.” So shut up. And as I said, I’d been on the show a long time and I had, not leverage, but a little clout. Viki was a very popular character and I thought, He’s not going to fire me over this. The network wouldn’t have allowed it.

What are Megan’s hours like?
In those days, shows were half hour. We started rehearsal at eight-thirty in the morning and you were wrapped and out of there at five in the afternoon. It was very unusual to have a longer day than that.

How much do you think she’s making?
She probably would have started at minimum; when I started in ’71, minimum was $225 an episode. So let’s go backwards and say maybe $190, $180 in 1968. Or $150. An episode.

She’s certainly dressing really well. She always did, but is she expected to look especially good now?
Yes, they would have expected you to dress well. The producer who hired me, actually, I used to come to work in sneakers and pigtails. And she looked at me one day and said, “Would Joan Crawford come to work like that?” She was kind of kidding. But I think she really did want me to get dressed up just to walk down the street.

One Life to Live’s Erika Slezak on Megan Draper