Eileen Davidson is straight-up soap-opera royalty: She won Daytime Emmys for portraying two different characters on two different soaps: Ashley Abbott on The Young And The Restless and Kristen DiMera on Days Of Our Lives. Then she made a splash in primetime as well, joining her pal Lisa Rinna as one of the Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, Davidson is married to fellow actor Vincent Van Patten and has been writing novels in a soap-opera mystery series, like Death In Daytime and Diva Las Vegas.
Her old home Days just released a new streaming spin-off, Beyond Salem, on Peacock, in which Davidson and other vets like Rinna, Deidre Hall, Charles Shaughnessy, and Drake Hogestyn, along with new additions like Jackée Harry and Jackie Cox, travel across the world searching for the six precious gems stolen from the pointedly titled Alamainian Peacock. The five-episode series seems determined to shove Days into a more modern era: It features a prominent gay storyline, for example, which includes appearances from drag queens like Cox and Roxy Wood. In another plot line, Ciara Brady (Victoria Konefal) and her new husband Ben (Robert Scott Wilson) get drawn into an Eyes Wide Shut-style sex party. (Soaps have long been know for their steamy sex scenes, but Beyond Salem pushes that intimacy envelope even further.) Fan favorites like Carrie (Christie Clark) and Austin (Austin Peck) return—and, of course, Davidson’s Kristen is as duplicitous as ever. The A.V. Club spoke with Davidson about Beyond Salem and its possible effects on the fluctuating future of daytime, and the differences between appearing on a fictional soap versus a reality-based one like RHOBH.
The A.V. Club: You have been on soaps since the ’80s, and of course daytime dramas go back even further than that. What do you think the secret is to the longevity of this form?
Eileen Davidson: Oh, I thought you meant the secret for my longevity. [Laughs.] I would say, first of all, it’s generational for sure. Most people that are watching it today watched it with their parents or grandparents. You just kind of pass it on to the to the the younger generation as it goes. I think what’s great about Peacock and Beyond Salem is that you don’t really have to have that history. It is bringing it to the 21st century by tying in such a different kind of pop culture, like the Housewives. But it’s also tying in the old way of doing things, too, with having the people that have been on [Days] for a long time.
AVC: But with stuff you would never even have dreamt of back then, like a drag show and a pretty risqué sex party. It seems like that they’re really trying to push the boundaries of what you can do on a soap with this show.
ED: Exactly. It’s on a streaming platform; you have more latitude.
AVC: Kristen is so fascinating. She has so many different facets to her. In one of the episodes even Billie’s saying that she’s one of her best friends, but she can’t really support what Kristen’s doing right now.
ED: It’s so true, I call her the sociopath with a heart of gold, because she can justify anything she does.
AVC: What was it like for you to be back on the Days set?
ED: It was really fun, you know, it was kind of fast and furious, but it was great to be able to say hi to everybody that I hadn’t seen in a few years. And it was great to work with Lisa [Rinna] for sure. We had great chemistry off camera. And I think we do on camera clearly because we both knew exactly what we were doing. So that made it more fun.
AVC: And the “beast” line was a direct reference to one of your Housewives episodes, right?
ED: Oh, yes. The line about the bread was also. I think this was a configuration of all the different franchise conflicts over the years. Certainly a couple of them were from when Lisa and I were present.
AVC: You were on Housewives as a regular a few years back, and you still make occasional appearances. How do you compare that real-life soap opera to the soap operas that you acted on for so many years? It still seems like a soap, but it was also your actual life. And you were one of the most stable people on RHOBH because you have a wonderful marriage and a supportive husband and not everybody on the show could say that. What was that like for you?
ED: This really is like comparing apples and oranges. I mean, with scripted, you know what you’re getting yourself into, and you leave at to the studio, when you drive off the lot. But I mean, these are real things that are being said and you’re real people. So it’s just night and day.
AVC: Was being on Housewives more strenuous than you expected?
ED: I don’t think you can really describe the situation to anybody. It is like nothing else. I mean, it’s a mind, you know, fill in the blank. There’s all sorts of stuff going on that you don’t even understand. And to this day, I’m still unpacking information. Because you just realize, “Oh, that’s what that was about.”
This is the best way I can explain it: When it was first announced that I was going to be on the show, it was announced that I was getting $750,000. I wasn’t. And I knew I wasn’t. But then I realized in that moment what [the producers] were doing. And I really went, “Oh, holy crap.” What they’re doing is they’re setting it up so that there’s already conflict before these women even meet me. So that gives you a little taste. Somebody is back there pulling some strings and setting things up. Not to say this stuff isn’t actually really happening in real time. It is. But what they do is they kind of fuel the fire. Does that make sense?
AVC: Sure, all the reality show producers seem like they’re always tweaking.
ED: [They] have to. Otherwise we’d all be sitting around having cocktails and just laughing. [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s what’s so great about watching you and Lisa on Housewives and then on Beyond Salem. It’s so great that you two have that bond that you can get through all those all those different scenarios together.
ED: Yeah, and we do. I mean, I really care about her. I feel like she and I have a special bond between us—especially because we started together. So it’s just there, no matter what happens. I don’t always agree with everything that she does on [Housewives], but I also understand it probably more than most people, because I was on it. I know how these things work.
AVC: Is Kristen going to have a showdown with Marlena on Beyond Salem? They had such a great rivalry.
ED: Oh god, I wish. I don’t think so. And they deserve to be broken up again, John and Marlena. Somebody’s gotta do it.
AVC: What were what were some of your favorite moments on Young And The Restless or on Days, some of your favorite storylines that you can remember?
ED: Oh, gosh, where do I begin? That’s a loaded question. I love the breast cancer storyline for Ashley [on The Young And The Restless], because it made women who were watching the show go in and get a mammogram. And they actually have many, many letters saying it saved their lives, which is intense. So that’s one I always I hold very near and dear to my heart, the fact that that storyline actually affected people in real time.
And on Days, there was a possession storyline back in the day and I was playing all the characters. I think I made daytime history by playing five characters at one time, and that’s crazy. I love the stuff with Eric Martsolf a few years ago. We both won Emmys that year. It’s just so much fun being brought on for just a short period of time to wreak havoc and they gave so much fun stuff to sink my teeth into of it.
I love the Alzheimer’s storyline on Young And Restless—again, it’s something topical that can help people. People could relate to that because so many people understand it or living with it or as caretakers. So, you know, a lot of a lot of things. I feel very grateful for that.
AVC: Many long-running soaps like All My Children, As The World Turns, and Guiding Light have ended, but the ones that you’re on are still on the air. Any ideas on what has kept them around?
ED: Right? I mean, I could say, oh, because of the writing, because of the producing. But, you know, all these shows have something positive for the people that fall in love with them and watch them. And I never could have believed All My Children going off the air. So I don’t know. I just got lucky. But the three shows that I’ve been on [Y&R, Days, and The Bold And The Beautiful] are still on.
AVC: You’ve also won Emmys for playing two different soap characters. You don’t see that often either, because usually soap actors, have their one iconic character. But you actually have more than one.
ED: That is particularly meaningful to me as an actor. I’m really proud of that. Because they’re not not just a little different. They’re completely different. I mean, when I won for Days as Kristen—she’s a nutbird, she raped a priest and is off the rails. She’s such a big character. And then Ashley is more emotional and just more like a real person. So much more subdued in terms of these kind of antics.
AVC: But then when you do a movie or a primetime series, does it seem so much easier because you’re not on set every single day with a stack of dialogue to learn? Because daytime is such a tough schedule.
ED: Well that’s true. But while you were there [on set] a long time, you’re just not doing a lot. And I did a series for Stephen Cannell back in the day; he was the producer of shows like The A-Team and The Rockford Files. And I was just on set all the time, 18 hour days. And just sitting in a trailer for the majority of it. It kind of made me nuts because I was so used to instant gratification, just getting out there with these juicy scenes. But there’s something to be said for both kind of things.
AVC: But when you had these huge storylines on your soaps, your work schedule must have been really busy for what seems like years at a time.
ED: Sometimes I’ve just been incredibly busy. I had so much dialogue and it was complicated dialogue. And I feel like my mind was just… I couldn’t fit any more information in my brain. It was like refusing to take it in.
AVC: And in those emotional scenes, too, you’ve had so many great actors to play off of during your career.
ED: There’s so many. I would have to say Peter Bergman [who played Ashley’s brother Jack]. And I love Melissa Ordway, my daughter on Young And Restless. Jerry Douglas [who played Ashley’s father John]. And Drake [Hogestyn]. The list is endless. I feel very, very blessed to work with such great, terrific talent. There’s like a true love; we really trust each other and it’s easy for us to work with each other because of that trust.
Also what’s funny about it is it depends on who’s writing the show. You have these different writers that come in with their own kind of creative slant on things. Jim Reilly [who wrote Days’ possession storyline] was into that weird kind of stuff. He went on to do Passions.
AVC: Did they get new writers for Beyond Salem or was it the veteran writers that they’ve been working with?
ED: As a matter of fact, it was the same writers. I just think that they had more freedom to do different things, which is why they made it sexier and more tongue-in-cheek. The actors and writers got a chance to kind of stretch their their creative juices. It gave everybody a chance to go beyond what they’re usually doing. Excuse the pun.
AVC: I remember all the hoopla over the first male gay kiss in daytime, on As The World Turns. Which makes the Sonny-Will storyline on Beyond Salem even more meaningful, because they were the first male-male wedding in daytime history.
ED: Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come? I think what’s interesting about it, with streaming now, there’s no, like, R-rated stuff comes out after 10 at night. Those days are gone, with cable and streaming. It’s just gone. So you don’t have to adhere to that as much because now you can watch all these things all the time at any time of day.
AVC: So what’s what’s next for you?
ED: I wrote something years ago called Dial Emme For Murder. It’s about an actress who works on soaps who is in love with true crime—which I am, I love true crime—and she likes to solve murders. So it’s kind of like an updated Murder, She Wrote—sexier, funnier. And one of the women that I know that I worked with on this movie Seven Days To Vegas, and I did a short film with her last year called Aftermath, we decided to try to get this done through Palm Springs Women In Film And Television, which is a nonprofit. It helps women, specifically, but all people learn how to work in the film business. And we’re using our project as a way of getting everybody involved. So it’s kind of a different way of doing things. I’m going to be co-director. It’s very women-forward, a lot of great, strong, fantastic, funny women characters. I’m super proud of it and just trying to get that off the ground. I’ve been a little busy lately, so it’s kind of been put on the back burner, but hoping to put more effort towards that in the near future.
AVC: Wow, it sounds like you’re just not slowing down at all, really.
ED: You know, it’s funny. It’s just kind of happened. I’m going to be working on Young And The Restless a lot this fall, as it turns out. So, yeah, I’ve got some stuff going on.
AVC: Well, it was so great to have you come back for Beyond Salem. The transformation from goofy nun Sister Mary Moira into Kristen’s usual gorgeous self was just phenomenal.
ED: [Laughs.] That was fun, wasn’t it? I love that. I love going from the nun to the red dress. Fantastic.