Turn‘s LaToya Morgan On Why Soap Operas Deserve Major Respect

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Refinery29 recently caught up with busy TV and movie writer LaToya Morgan, who took time off from writing the fourth season of AMC’s addictive historical spy drama Turn: Washington’s Spies, to chat with us about her love and respect for the under-appreciated soap opera genre. Morgan knows her way around a good story. The Shameless and Parenthood alum recently signed a two-year writing deal with AMC, is finishing up the film adaption of the book Two Minute Rule, has sold a screenplay about iconic activist Angela Davis — and still thinks soaps can be the height of storytelling. She thinks the daytime dramas don’t get enough credit, particularly when it comes to breaking ground on social issues, an area dear to Morgan’s heart. (Morgan’s Twitter feed is alive with her activism on social issues.) In our Q&A she talked writing, storytelling, and that gorgeous dress that Melissa McCarthy personally designed for her — the first couture piece that McCarthy made for anyone else — to wear at Morgan’s inaugural award show as a nominee. How did you first come to appreciate soap operas?
“Every woman in my family has always watched soap operas — they’ve been the fabric of my life. When I would come home from school, my mom literally had four hours of television to watch because she would record All My Children, One Life to Live, General Hospital, and Oprah. “We would talk about the storylines. She loved certain characters; I probably leaned more toward the villains. We would have passionate arguments about them, and that tied us together. Sometimes even when we weren't talking, if we had a fight or an argument, we were able to bond because we'd be, ‘Hey, did you see that storyline…’” What are some of your favorites?
“Even though I watch some of them all, One Life to Live was always my favorite. Erika Slezak, who played Victoria Lord, was the gold standard, the queen of soap opera. You can't talk about her without talking about Robin Strasser, who played Dorian Lord, who was also a titan. There were some really great actresses who were powerhouses. They don't get enough love, so I'm going to give them some love right now.* “There are some scenes between Erika Slezak and Robin Strasser, such as when Viki is going through her dissociative identity disorder —learning what happens to her character because of her father's abuse — that are absolutely riveting. The chemistry between these two actresses, the way they hold each other up, the way they allow each other to break themselves open to tell this really emotional story, is phenomenal.

"Game of Thrones" has some very soapy elements — it just happens to be presented with dragons and swords, which is not a bad thing, but it's all just good, juicy drama.

“That's the height of storytelling when you can talk about an issue that maybe some people are dealing with, like abuse, and then have the audience experience such great empathy because they care about these characters who have been a part of their lives for so long. They should get more credit.” One Life to Live creator Agnes Nixon recently passed away. You’ve characterized her on Twitter as a pioneer. Can you tell us about why you view her in this way and her influence today?
"Whenever I watched the credits, I thought 'Who's this woman who created these two very interesting and very different worlds of All My Children and One Life to Live?' Especially One Life to Live, which had such a diverse group of characters — it was important to see people who looked like they were from the neighborhood where I came from. "Agnes Nixon was not afraid to go headlong into issues, such as AIDS, through the AIDS Memorial Quilt and coming out stories. The decision to make Erica Kane's daughter, Bianca, a lesbian had a huge impact. She decided to do that because Erica Kane was someone who everyone loved, who had been a part of their lives for so long. Another of One Life to Live’s most impactful storylines was the Todd Manning, Marty Saybrooke college gang rape storyline and sexual assault [in 1993]. "My mother told me about an interracial storyline when Agnes first started, and she did an abortion storyline in the 1970s that my grandmother told me about. She decided to write a character dealing with cervical cancer at a time when you couldn't say certain words on television. She couldn't use the word 'cancer,' and she couldn't say 'hysterectomy.' That's what the character went through and the audience was allowed to take that journey with her. Agnes leaned into some really challenging stories and made us feel for those characters. That is her lasting impact as a writer." And to think many people just write off the genre as all evil twins.
"There's always amnesia and crazy storylines where people go to the Old West or into some fantasy world called Eterna. There's just weird stuff, but then there's great social drama as well." How does soap opera storytelling manifest itself in more seriously regarded drama?
“Soap operas are put into a separate category than regular drama and that should not be the case. They are dramas, yes, and sometimes they are heightened, but they are dramas. “Once you take it from daytime to prime time, then suddenly it becomes legitimized. We see that going back to the nighttime soaps that my mom used to love, like Dynasty and Dallas. There’s a resurgence of that now with shows like Empire, and Scandal, where you marry some very soapy elements and you put it in the White House. Game of Thrones has some very soapy elements — it just happens to be presented with dragons and swords, which is not a bad thing, but it's all just good, juicy drama.”
Given the emergence of soapy drama in prime time, why is it so hard for soap opera actors to break out into more visible roles?
“I don't think it has to do with talent. I think it has to do with schedule. If you're under a contract for a show for three or four years, you could be on every single day, five days a week. It's hard to audition. There are some actresses and actors on some of my favorite shows right now who I would hire in a heartbeat because they are that good. “There’s a raw, naked, natural talent to doing a scene in one take and bringing such great emotional dexterity to a scene. That’s what soap opera actors and theater actors are asked to do on a daily basis. I'm a fan of actors; it's something I could never do. I'm too shy, and so I write. Your writing recently earned you a nomination, along with Melissa McCarthy designing your red carpet dress. How did that come about?
“I was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for dramatic writing for Turn. I was very excited until I realized “Oh my God, what am I going to wear?” I decided, "I'm just going to go to Nordstrom and get a dress." My friend Lisa said, "Are you crazy? This is the first time you're being nominated for something.” Long story short, she convinced me to reach out to Melissa McCarthy. She actually composed the email I sent to my agent, who got it to Melissa's agent. The next thing I know I'm getting a call from the assistant saying, "Hold for Melissa McCarthy, please." I'm like, "What?" Then I hear, "Hi, LaToya, it's Melissa." Oh my God, my head was exploding. It was awesome.” What was the process like?
"Melissa was in the middle of an insanely busy schedule where she was doing SNL, shooting two movies, and launching her fashion line. She was beyond lovely. When we first sat down, she sketched this gorgeous dress. She picked this beautiful fabric and just made me feel like a princess. It was a wonderful feeling, especially on my first time ever doing a red carpet event. She's a mega-star taking time out to design this dress. I will always love her for that. She even let me borrow her own bracelet and her earrings for the event. Melissa’s impeccable tailor Daniela Kurrle, who built it with Melissa's guidance, even came to my house and helped me get dressed the day of the awards show — and she totally didn't have to! She's a gem." I’m sure you'll soon be winning a lot of awards and she'll be designing a lot more.
"I'm going to cross my fingers. She said if I ever needed another dress she would be happy to do it. I will definitely take her up on it if I'm so lucky to get a chance to be on the red carpet again." *In a follow-up email, LaToya also wanted to give the following soap opera talents recognition: Some current GHers [General Hospital cast members] in addition to Maura West — Roger Howarth, Jane Elliot, Finola Hughes, Vinessa Antoine, and of course Maurice Benard. I also loved Jonathan Jackson, who transitioned to prime time with Nashville. A few former OLTLers [One Life to Live cast members] before cancellation in addition to Erika Slezak and Robin Strasser—Kassie DePaiva and Florencia Lozano.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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