Interview with
Cynthia Geary

 

 

 

 

This interview was conducted with Cynthia Geary by Spanish fan Sílvia "Niki" Colominas on October 23, 2005.
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SC: I´ve read you were working as a waitress when a casting director gave you her card but you didn´t phone her till three days later. Then you got your first pilot reading that was for Northern Exposure. Is it true or is it just the classical Hollywood fashion, the typical legend/myth of a great actress discovered in a restaurant?

CG: The story is true. I was working in a Mexican Restaurant in LA when a manager I waited on gave me her card and asked me to call her. I got the pilot audition for No Ex about 3 months after I signed with her.

SC: When and how did your pilot reading for being Shelly work?

CG: I read for the role of a Shelly, a native American in the pilot script , in the spring of 1990. I went through a series of 5 auditions in 3 days until I reached the network executives at CBS who finally cast me.

SC: Do you remember which line did you have to read? In the pilot Shelly has no text, so which script did you have?

CG: I read a monologue Shelly had in the 3rd episode (I think?) about one-eyed jacks (a sandwich).

SC: How many time passed between the moment you made the reading and the moment you knew you were in?

CG: I read on a Thursday (I think) and waited all weekend for my agent to call and tell me I GOT THE JOB on the following Monday.

SC: Was Shelly Tambo your first job as an actress? Did you feel prepared?

CG: I had done a few commercials and small guest roles but no series regular work. I had no idea what to expect.  I was lucky to be surrounded by pros like John Cullum and Barry Corbin.

SC: Imagine you´re the casting director of Northern Exposure. Which actress would you select to play Shelly besides yourself? Why?

CG: I have to admit I'm not that familiar with the young TV talent right now. If they were making the feature film I'd choose Renee Zellweger or Reese Witherspoon because they both have a believability and innocence about them, and they can play comedy.

SC: In what moment did you meet John Cullum? And the rest of the cast?

CG: I think I met everyone the first day we shot the pilot.

SC: What did you feel when you arrive to Roslyn (Cicely) for the first time?

CG: Thrilled to be working, but I missed my boyfriend, now husband, back in LA.  Roslyn was very quaint and picturesque.

SC: If I´m not wrong you moved to Seattle when you started working in NX and you still live there. The great part of actresses and actors prefer to live in L.A. or N.Y. because it´s better for their jobs. It seems you opted for motherhood over career as a People Magazine article from December 18th, 2001 said. Do you agree? Do you think an actress unfortunately can´t combine both?

CG: I did not make a conscious decision to give up acting.  I'd love to do another series.  I did choose to stay in Seattle because my husband relocated to Seattle for me during the run of NoEx, and we were both happy here. I do think it's possible to have both family and career. In my case,  I realized that it is very hard to do if you don't live in LA or NYC.

SC: Despite you have worked in several movies people identify you with Shelly. Do you like it or do you wish the industry gives you the chance to show you can do it better and you can create another unforgettable character?

CG: I'm proud of my work as Shelly.  None of the roles I've played since NoEx have been anything like Shelly.  Of course, I'd love the chance to play another role as well written and unique as Shelly.

SC: In 1993, in The Northern Exposure Book by Louis Chunovic, at the question of "Who or what is the star of Northern Exposure?" you answered "The town of Cicely". That was more than a decade ago. Do you still believe the same? Why?

CG: Yes. Cicely provided the framework for everything to be believable in NoEx.

SC: As I already told you, I wrote my PhD on NX. I tried to see how it explored the nature of human being through myths, fairy tales and dreams. I know NX was nominated for Emmys as the Best Drama but I´m not agree it was a drama. Joyce Millman in her article called "Twenty ways the 90´s Changed Television" said;"Northern Exposure won the 1992 Emmy for the best drama series, but, in his acceptance speech, show co-creator John Falsey laughed, "We´re really a comedy!". When I tried to establish to what gender does NX belongs I found it wasn´t easy. Christine Scodari speaks about Dramedy (Drama + Comedy) and I think it´s true but it doesn´t reflect NX´s essence. We can also think about bizarre because it shows surrealistic things and quirky characters but, NX isn´t like Twin Peaks. I mean Twin Peaks showed the worst part of human being, it was a journey into nightmare while NX was a journey into myth, dreams and fairy tales. It was magicom. I don´t like to put things into boxes but if you had some boxes in front of you, each one with a label with next words: comedy, tragedy, drama, quirky gender, bizarre, etc. Into which box would you put Northern Exposure? Or would you create a new one?

CG: I like your word, Magicom. If  we were competing for an  Emmy today, I guess I'd say it's a comedy.

SC: In an interview to Mr. John Cullum in Broadway On Line, Michael Buckley asked him about the message underneath the musical comedy parodies. John Cullum answered; "It takes you on a comic journey. If you don't want to get the message, you don't have to. It's very subliminal". Do you think in Northern Exposure happened the same? I mean, it was a very smart tv series with great intertextuality. There were a lot of references to literature, music, philosophy, folklore, etc. Deep and interesting messages, but it wasn´t like a magisterial lesson. There were different levels of reading for all type of viewers.

CG: I absolutely agree. That is why we appealed to such a broad audience.

SC: I think the essence of NX (at least, one of them) is showing opposite worlds. This series speaks about dichotomies; science versus magic, nature versus civilization, woman versus man, west versus east, fantasy versus reality, medicine versus shamanism, etc. Northern Exposure shows that sometimes the frontier between opposite worlds doesn´t exist at all, nor does it becomes erased. We, as a watchers, are settled in this frontier, in fact Alaska is the state called "The Last Frontier". Are you agree that one of the essences of NX is showing opposite worlds?

CG: Yes I agree. It also demonstrated how these opposite worlds blur and blend together.

SC: If we take my Dichotomy´s Theory as a truth, Shelly should be defined for the dichotomies of  superficiliaty-intelligence and
Friendship-Love. The first one explores her conflict between her past as a beauty queen (which I think it ends when she divorces her first husband) and her present as Holling´s wife at The Brick. The second dichotomy explores her conflict between her love for Holling and her friendship with Maurice. How would you define your character, Shelly Tamboo Vincoeur? With which colour, season, flower, planet or any other thing would you identify her?  


CG: Shelly lives in the present. She embrases her current situation and environment and lives it to the fullest.  I do not see it as
dichotomies in her character.  I would say she evolves with her experiences and life events.  I'd describe Shelly as open and receptive in touch with her emotions .

Colour- Fushia (for vibrance) Flower- Sunflower (big, bright, wide open) Planet- Venus

SC: Somehow Shelly seems to be a victim of popular culture and a symbol of it as well. She gets obsessed with decoration magazines and decides to change Holling´s house, making it more feminine (unforgettable when Joel discovers the bathroom so pink!!!). And she becomes a TV Adict. She was a beauty queen and is a fashion expert. She also has a very personal expressions and way of speaking. Do you think all these things Shelly does were written to catch young audience? Do you think the writers wanted not only high culture and philosophy represented by Chris?

CG: Yes. I think the writers did a wonderful job of co-mingling diverse characters from completely different backgrounds in a positive and unique way.

SC: I guess you might know fans have made a list of Shelly´s earrings. I did it by myself and I realized that in almost every
episode the earrings Shelly wear reflect the theme of the episode. I mean, for example, that they´re pumpkins in Thanksgiving episode, golf balls when Joel finds that golf player, etc. Who had this idea? Do you keep any of these earrings?


CG: Our costume designer, Katherine Bentley created  all the earrings. She promised to give me part of the collection as a keepsake, but I still have never received them!

SC: Joshua Brand says that there is no evolution. That the characters are always the same because if they weren´t, it should be
another tv series. Do you think Shelly had an evolution? In your opinion. Which is the main change in Shelly´s life? Moving to Cicely? Marry Holling? Having Randi?


CG: I do think Shelly grew and evolved. I think her move to Cicely allowed her to grow, evolve and change.

SC: In your interview for Chunovic´s book in 1993 you said you wanted Shelly to be more involved with more characters other than Holling. In your opinion, did it happen?

CG: Yes and No. I had a wonderful episode with RuthAnne when I help her with Italian. There was also Joel's NYC dream episdoe when I got to play his  very type A wife. I do feel very lucky that I  got to work with John Cullum everyday. He remains my favorite actor with whom I've had the oportunity to work.

SC: Some directors don´t like their actors read all the script. Woody Allen or David Lynch, for example, only give to the actors the scenes that have their dialogues. Northern Exposure is a choral TV Show where every character has a very close relation with one another. I think you had all the episode´s script. Did you create Shelly in terms of interacting with the other characters or as an independent entity?

CG: Both.  I always read the entire script and I knew what Shelly's motivations and intentions were before we started filming each day.  Still my performance and reactions were always influenced by what other actors were giving me in a scene.

SC: As you might know all Northern Exposure´s fans agree that Holling and Shelly are the perfect couple. They really love each
other and they´re an example of stability, the perfect hostes. Think about it, Maggie and Joel are always fighting, Maurice misses a family and his relationship with Barbara Semanski isn't easy at all, either. Chris has only short affairs, Ed teenager´s romances. Holling and Shelly got along with each other seamlessly, despite
their 41-year-age difference. Which is the key of their sucessful relationship?

CG: Tolerance and mutual respect for each other's individuality.

SC: On the other hand there were Joel and Maggie, who had a really complicated relationship, full of up and down´s. Did you like them? Did you like the Bubble Man? What do you think about the way Joel and Maggie had sex? Did you like how it happened in "Ill wind"?

CG: I think you have to have conflict to create drama and an interesting story. It's also true to life.

SC: In my opinion Shelly has a nice and special connection with Ed, Maggie and Ruth Anne as well. Even with Maurice. Which Shelly´s relationship did you like the most apart of Holling´s one?

CG: RuthAnne.  I had a special friendship with Peg Phillips in my real life.  I really admire her.

SC: Maggie and Shelly had a "quirky" relationship, both of them are really beautiful woman, but somehow they´re the opposite. Maggie is very masculine and tough, Shelly is very femenine and sweet. They´re friends and speak to each other but don´t listen to each other at all. I specially remember two moments. In Midnight Sun when both are at the caravan proving clothes, Maggie speakes about the importance of appearance of a woman for men (refering to Joel) and Shelly speakes about the same (refering to Holling who wants her to wear her cheerleader clothes all the time). The other moment is when Shelly is living with Maggie because Holling said that horrible thing about her feet. Maggie feels good because she finally has someone waiting for her at home but Shelly, after listening a feminist speech, decides to come back with Holling. How did you and Janine Turner decide to work that scenes? Did your personal relationship in real life helped?

CG: It was fun to play those scenes with Janine because we both had very clear intentions. We didn't need to discuss it before we played the scene.

SC: How many time did you use to have to study every script? How many days were necessary to shoot a single episode? How was a normal work day for you?

CG: I would read a script twice. Time I spent on individual scenes varied. After doing the series several years, you knew your
character so well it didn't require as much preperation to be ready for a scene. We shot most episodes in  8 days ( 2 days off). Work
load varied drastically depending on the size of my role in the episode. On average I worked about 3 days a week 8-10 hours.

SC: Maurice is a man of honour who needs to believe in heroes. His sense of honour makes him to have problems with the others. For example, in the episode "Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence" (1.02) he dismisses Chris because he speaks about Whitman´s homosexuality at K-BHR. Maurice says "We need our heroes", it seems to him a gay man couldn´t be a hero, so he would have to supress that information for the sake of maintaining Whitman´s well-deserved respect. What do you think about Maurice´s homophobe?

CG: I love the way NoEx portrayed the relationships of Ron and Eric and Cicely and Roslyn. I think, unfortunately, Maurice's homophobe was and is a very real sentiment in the USA today.

SC: Do you really think Maurice loved Shelly or she was just a beautiful thing to have and contemplate? I remember Maurice says that "women were objects of desire, admiration, nothing more" ´til he meets Barbara Semansky.

CG: I think Shelly was more of a possesion (like a puppy) for Maurice. Semansky was his equal.

SC: At Chunovic´s book I read your favourite scene was when you were yelling to Holling about your big feet. And that your favourite show was Burning down the house (3.14) which belongs to the third season.
I guess by that time you still didn´t know about the next ones. So, now that the series is over, which was your favourite scene and your favourite show of the entire series? Still the same?

CG: For me, the best episode was Old Tree because I got to sing. It was such a unique thing for tv at that time. I also loved the episode when I gave birth to Miranda.

SC: As an actress who didn´t have many experience I guess the role of Shelly had to be a gift. Did you ever feel that any of Shelly´s actions or lines were out of keeping her nature? I mean, if you ever felt that something was against Shelly´s nature. Did you ever feel afraid of the audience reaction towards a show? Towards something Shelly does or says?

CG: I remember being worried about the episode that Shelly discovers Holling isn't circumsized and she talks about his "Johnny".  My fear was that I was making the same dumb joke over and over again and that it wouldn't be funny. When I tried to talk to John Falsey , HE BASICALLY SAID JUST DO IT BECAUSE HE WAS THE BOSS and I was a novice actor.  I think the scene worked.... so, I guess he was right.

SC: Which was the scene or show you liked the least?

CG: CAN'T REMEMBER!

SC: I guess you might have thousand of memories from the show. Can you tell me any special anecdote?

SC: You worked in Northern Exposure till the end. The first two seasons, according to Mr. Jeff Melvoin, were kind of mini-seasons but the other ones were longer. Was any kind of scheme about the evolution of the characters through the season available for the actors or not? Maybe you didn´t know Shelly´s evolution far in advance but had an idea about the development of the character in every season or in the next episodes.

CG: We received scripts about 1 week in advance, so I NEVER KNEW WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. Shelly's pregnancy was the longest story line I had.

SC: Which type of relationship did you have as an actress with the writers of the series? Did you ever be able to speak with any of them to suggest ideas?

CG: Our writers/ producers lived in LA. Unfortunately, I rarely ever saw or talked to them.

SC: Northern Exposure often speakes about religion. It shows and accepts different believes (Jewish, Native American, Catholic, etc). Did you like Shelly being catholic? How did you work that sensitive and religious part of Shelly?

CG: My father is Catholic. He had issues with the episode where Shelly confesses to Chris in the closet.

SC: One of the great things of the series is playing with the audience espectations and always surprising the watchers. I
specially remember the episode where Ruth Anne wants to learn italian to be able to read The Divine Comedy by Dante in his native language. Shelly decides to help her because she suddenly realizes she speakes italian. Did you like that show? I guess this episode and other ones like this helped you to create a more complete human being, not the typical silly blonde as Shelly would look like at first. By the way, do you speak italian?


CG: I loved it. It was nice to have that interaction with RuthAnne. I enjoyed working on the Italian as well.  I don't speak Italian. I was a vocal performance major in college, so I did sing many Italian arias.

SC: I think Shelly´s charm is that she has, like Ed, a golden heart full of honesty, that´s why the devil selects her. I only remember two moments when Shelly seems not so good girl. First when she feels jelous of her high school friend who pretends to marry her first husband. Second when Shelly doesn´t want to give Joel his music tapes in the last season. Did you enjoy that type of "nasty" reactions to make a more realistic Shelly or not?

CG: Yes.  As an actress, it is always fun to be presented with a new objective or problem. I love being able to vary and stretch my character.

SC: In one episode Shelly thinks her nose is growing because she told a lie. NX has many typical things of fairy tales, like this reference to Pinocchio. How did you receive these type of fantastic stories as an actress?

CG: I love them.

SC: What about when Shelly meets her not born yet daughter Miranda at the laundry? And when she sings all the time as a bird preparing her nest?

CG: One of my favorite episodes.

SC: Many NX´s fans have children who watch the show, they prefer Morty than Sesame Street. Has your daughter ever watched the series? Do you agree NX can be an educative series?

CG: My daughter is only 5 years old. She has never seen the series. I will let her watch it when she shows an interest. I  think it is a wonderful show.

SC: Shelly has a nice relationship with Joel. When she thinks she´s pregnant for the first time she trustes him and Joel helps her a lot. It seems Joel Fleischman experiments the journey of Joseph Campbell´s hero. Fleischman starts a journey he didn´t want going to Cicely. Then, he can comes back ("Horns" 6.13) but he denies the return. Finally, he´s saved by the external world in a magical scape ("The Quest" 6.15), acrosses the return´s threshold and goes to NY. Joel has freedom to live and shows it in the card "NY is a state of mind" he sends to Maggie. Well, Joel was a very rational person that now speaks about a state of mind... I guess his experience in Cicely has repaired the hole in his life that it created in the beginning. Sometimes you have to break something to make it better then. I can´t avoid to ask you for Joel´s character. I don´t know if you were a watcher of the series or if you only knew about the episodes where your character was in but I´d like to know what is your opinion about Joel´s evolution in the show? I mean Joel, not Rob Morrow.

CG: I  definitely think Joel evolves and comes to love and appreciate Cicely and  its people.

SC: In the last season appeared the Capra´s in "Sons of the Tundra" (6.09). Did you like them? How do you feel knowing the majority of fans really hated them since the beginning? Which do you think is the reason of that hate?

CG: Everyone knew the show was ending when Rob left, including our writers! The CAPRAS  were a means to plug that hole and not fresh creative new charaters. I don't think the writers took advantage of Paul Provenza's talent as a comic at all.

SC: (My personal opinion about the problem with Capra´s is that Phil was shown as a natural substitute of Joel. He was a copy of him and people didn´t accept that. And, personally, I think Paul Provenza wasn´t as good actor as Rob Morrow. In any case, very big shoes to fill. As a NX fan I think Northern Exposure was a choral tv show and, although Joel Fleischman was my fave character and that I loved and love him because I arrived with him to Cicely and I felt identified with his feeling of fish out of water I think he wasn´t the main character, he was a key one, but not the only one. I think NX was about all the community so, although Joel left the series, it´d have been able to go on anyway. But you can´t ask people who have been watching the series during the years to feel identified with Phil because when Joel arrived to Cicely, the watchers were newcomers to Cicely like him, too. But when Phil arrives in Cicely, the watchers have been living there for a years and can´t be interested in the feeling of fish out of water of the new doctor).

SC: In what moment did you feel you were in a very special and quirky tv show? In what moment and for what reason did you realize all of you were making a show that would be a classic and would last forever?

CG: Good question. We're fairly isolated in Redmond, WA.  I don't think I knew how special the show was until our 3rd season, when we receieved an unprecendented 50 episode pick up.

SC: Did you like the way NX ended?

NO.

SC: Have you ever heard about the SSB, Season Sixth Blues or "The season it wasn´t"? What do you think about it?

CG: No, but it makes sense.

SC: If you had the chance to write the last episode, Which would be for you the perfect ending for the series? Including all the characters.

CG: I wish I could write that well!

SC: I know you attended the Moose Days or Moose Festival, whatever you prefer to call it, once at least (I think in 2004) where you met some of my friends like Jerrilynn, Kathy, Kurt, etc. Did you enjoy it? What do you think about this type of fan phenomenon?

CG: I had a good time. Everyone was very nice. It made me miss No Ex very much.

SC: Have you ever been so fan of a tv series or a movie? Are you a mooser (or mooseketer or cicelian) yourself?

CG: No.  There have been a few shows that I make an effort to see each week, but I've never written a fan letter.

SC: Fans are always asking for NX to come back. They have not only imagined the future of Cicely, but its past, the "precuela" (I don´t know the english word, it´d be like Star Wars, episodes that show what happened before the ones we watched already) and even would like NX to have its own cinema film. What do you think about these fan desires? Would you accept to play Shelly again?

CG: I would love for that to happen. I would play Shelly again. Unfortunately, I think it is very unlikely.

SC: Ms. Geary, thanks a lot in advance for attending me. It´s a great honour to be able to interview you. As I already told you Shelly was one of my three favourite characters and I want to thank you for the great moments I lived watching the series during all these years.

Sincerely,

Sílvia.
October 23rd, 2005.

 

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