Actor at Work
AMC's Genie Francis Refuses To Rest On Her Laur-els
She's probably played out variations on this scene, oh, 5,000 times during the past 13 years. But Genie Francis (Ceara, All My Children) feels different when she plays it these days.
"Are you an actress?" the waitress blurts, trying not to say more or ask anything else.
Francis looks up; her amiable but cautious expression tells the waitress there's no glamour or glitz here. "Yes," Francis responds, simply.
It's a proud answer: Finally, Genie Francis believes she's escaping celebrity and becoming a bona fide actress. She's more than pleased with her "great part" of Ceara Connor on AMC. "I really do think the show is helping me become better at what I do," she says. And this past summer, Francis finally broke through in stage work, winning her first role (a major one, too, playing former astronaut Krista McAuliffe's daughter in Defying Gravity) at the prestigious Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts. In between everything else on her schedule, Francis takes acting classes.
Still, she's chilled by celebrity's shadow. And the young woman who made the cover of Newsweek magazine during the Luke and Laura phenomenon on General Hospital ought to know what that chill feels like. "Most people think celebrity is something that's going to 'fix' them. In my opinion, it has very little use except when we're using it for charity work. But I'm here to tell you that otherwise, it's not an answer. It's a new problem.
"And there's a very real prejudice about celebrity," she adds, "soap celebrity especially. The strongest misconception about me is the 'Genie-Francis-Celeb-Soap-Queen-Dumb-Blonde-Not-Very-Good-Actress' notion."
Ignoring misconceptions, Francis studied and auditioned for a year before Williamstown gave the thumbs up. She cracks that megawatt smile. "The great thing is, it wasn't a piece of stunt casting. I auditioned like 100 other New York actresses, and I landed the role because of my reading. It did a hell of a lot for my heart and soul. My agent said, 'Several people who came to see you in the play were all set to hate you. But you turned them around, and the talk afterwards was how wonderful you were.'"
Theater had a lot to do with Francis packing it up and moving from Los Angeles to New York in 1990. But loving the stage doesn't mean Francis still isn't interested in movies, TV films or soaps. In fact, she'd just hit the Big Apple when AMC tempted her with the complex, tough and trouble Ceara. Before long, the 28-year-old actress was wrapped inside a wrenching incest storyline that brought an avalanche of moving letters from viewers.
"We talked on the phone about it," recalls Ellyn Marciano, Francis' pal of 15 years. "The incest story was really hard. I don't think she gave herself enough credit for that -- but Genie doesn't give herself credit for most things. What I admire most about her is her courage to look at her scariest feelings, and look at the hard things in life. Then she faces those things and works on herself. So few people do that! I think that's also what makes her such a good actress. Because she deals with so many emotions herself, she can draw on them fast at work, like in the incest story."
After the incest story peaked, Francis spent some time on the back burner before Ceara headed to the neighboring soap town of Corinth (where Loving takes place). "I love the idea of being part of a new way to bring viewers to a soap," she says of the unconventional move. "It's [also] nice because I got to keep my own dressing room, since Loving is taped right across the hall." The only minor drawback of being front burner on either show is the time factor. Although most actors say they go crazy during slow stretches, Francis says she didn't. "If I'm on the back burner, I get to go to acting classes, I get to do theater. I think it's fabulous."
Francis had her first lessons in acting at home on Long Island, NY. Her teacher was her father, the character actor and acting teacher Ivor Francis. (He played Professor Mitchell on Bright Promise.)
"As soon as I learned to read, I was in his lap reading lines with him! Or watching TV, he'd look over at me and say, 'Now, do you know what that actress is doing wrong?' He'd make me study the actress, and answer him," she says. "I remember the moment he looked at me and said, 'You've got it.' It was just a little school play he'd seen. But Dad was like, 'God, she can do it!'"
Ivor Francis died five years ago. "I still miss him," she says. "The pain gets less, but it doesn't go away. But I can feel him smiling sometimes, you know?"
Francis married a man who believed in her talent. She got to know Jonathan Frakes through work on projects like the North and South miniseries. "Genie's learning to separate show-biz life from real life," observes Marciano. "Her relationship with Jonathan has helped. But being in the same business, they deal with more than other couples do."
Francis adores her mate, but even that wouldn't allow her to take on a role which didn't feel right. "I tried, when I was first married, to be 'the wife' in the traditional sense," she explains. "You know, staying in LA, turning down jobs that would take me away. Well, I can't be that kind of traditional wife. I think if you give that much of yourself away, what is there left? What is there to come home to? And angry woman. Who needs it? So my husband, thank God, knows that nobody needs that, and he loves me enough to let me go. You just can't give yourself away."
"It's quite the opposite for Francis right now: She's hunting for new pieces of herself and finding them, professional pieces and personal ones. Her husband, who hopes to moves East as soon as Star Trek allows it, aids in the search.
"When I met Jonathan, I was very shy and insecure and quiet. To this day, self-esteem is still the biggest problem for me." Francis chuckles. "I could be the Low Self-Esteem Poster Child! Anyway, Jonathan was Mr. Social Butterfly. He's really fun-loving, totally down-to-earth, and definitely the life of the party. I was very attracted to his self-confidence. If I didn't have Jonathan, I wouldn't have learned to laugh -- at life, or at myself."
by Laura Fissinger