Annette O'Toole Interview: From "It" to "Virgin River," a Cool Career
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Actors
Image attributed to John Russo
Annette O’Toole is known for portraying Lana Lang in Superman III, Martha Kent (the mother of Clark Kent) in the television series Smallville, adult Beverly Marsha in the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s epic horror novel It, Tammy Wynette in the TV movie Stand by Your Man and Rose Fitzgerald Kenney in The Kennedys of Massachusetts, a role that earned her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress.
O’Toole can currently be seen in the role of Hope McCrea in the Netflix romantic drama series Virgin River, which also stars Alexandra Breckenridge, Martin Henderson, Colin Lawrence and Tim Matheson. The upcoming fifth season is scheduled to premiere in 2023. O’Toole and her husband, actor Michael McKean (Laverne & Shirley), are singer-songwriters and share a musical career. They have been married since March 1999.
I love her independence. I love her ability to articulate in difficult situations, which is the opposite of me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Annette, how are you?
Annette O’Toole: I’m good. I never know if I’m being heard or seen. I’m still not used to it after all these years of communicating this way. But, hello. I’m with you.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I certainly understand that. How’s your day so far?
Annette O’Toole: Well, my day’s pretty good. It’s 10 o’clock where I am. You sound like you’re in the South somewhere.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Birmingham.
Annette O’Toole: Birmingham. I’ve never been to Birmingham. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Alabama. I was born and raised in Houston, and I have family in Louisiana, and my grandmother came from Arkansas, so I’m all over there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Since filming has wrapped up on season five of Virgin River, what have you been doing?
Annette O’Toole: I’ve been doing a lot of personal things, a lot of family obligations that are big ones. My mom’s 97 and has been living on her own in a condo with people coming to help her out. She’s amazingly independent, but she’s at the point now where I had to get her to live in an assisted living facility. The good thing is it’s right around the corner from me. I walk every day, and it’s just a part of my routine to see her. She’s so close. It’s a month today since she’s been there. So this was all what the holiday was about, gearing up and doing it.
I know there’s no exciting work to talk about (laughs). But personally, there’s been a lot going on like that. Everybody’s okay, and we did just get back from San Francisco the last weekend. They have an event there called Sketchfest. It’s a comedy festival, and they’re celebrating their 20th anniversary. They honored the movie The Mighty Wind because it’s also having a 20th anniversary of being released. There was a showing of the movie in the theater room, which was nice because most people have never seen it on a big screen. So they saw the movie, and there was a question and answer period.
My husband Michael was there as was Jane Lynch, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, and it was emceed by Kevin Pollak who’s a wonderful actor. Then after that, as a surprise, I came out, and my husband and I sang two songs from the movie, one of which is “The Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.” So that was really fun. It was the only kind of work-related thing I’ve done since Virgin River wrapped up. But that’s okay. I need time off, and I need family time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. Why did you become interested in Virgin River?
Annette O’Toole: Sue Tenney, our original showrunner, called my agent and wanted to have a discussion with me about this project. I think Tim was already onboard, and I’d worked with him three times in the past and have known him for a long time. So that was attractive, and she and I just talked about it. She said it was based on the series of books, romantic genre books. I hadn’t read the books, but Sue told me her vision.
I liked the idea of making that relationship between Hope and Doc prominent because if you’re going to do a romantic story, older people also have romance in their lives or they have issues or relationship things they’re dealing with … or not. But I wanted there to be as much about that couple as there was about the younger people in the show, and Sue probably brought that idea up first. So that was great, and she kind of depended on me to give her insight of what I was thinking about this person.
Our new showrunner is absolutely the same. He committed to that whole thing and asks me and talks to me and gives me information on what he wants to do and how I feel about that, which is lovely. I don’t think there are many shows where they consult the actors. When it’s on the page, you do make the best of it. You do the best you can with it to make it make sense and make it real for yourself.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So ultimately, what do you love about Hope?
Annette O’Toole: I love her independence. I love her ability to articulate in difficult situations, which is the opposite of me. My mother watches the show, and she says, “She’s not like you at all! You’re so different!” I said, “Mom, I’m an actress. That’s what I do. I’ve also played murderers, and I’m not a murderer.” (laughs)
I just like that Hope doesn’t suffer fools. She’s kind of like what you see is what you get, although she does like to be secretive, too. She’s just a big personality, and I love her, warts and all. I just think she’s great. I’d like to be more like her actually.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In season four, Hope has some mental and physical challenges due to a traumatic brain injury. As an actor, how difficult is that to portray and not lose the essence of the character?
Annette O’Toole: It’s challenging and fun. I liked it. It was like being thrown a bit of a curveball. The reason it all happened was because Sue wasn’t sure I was coming back. I didn’t go through season three mostly because of my Mother and other family because at the time, there was no vaccine. My nightmare was that I’d be in Vancouver and not be able to come home because that happened to me during 9/11 when I was stuck up there, and I had to drive home. The airports were closed. But Covid was so scary. It still is. But then it was really scary, and I just couldn’t commit to being away from my family, my Mom, my husband and children for that long without knowing if I could return or if I’d be separated from them.
So they were very kind and asked me to stay on the show. We couldn’t even have a film crew come to the house. It was that strict at the time. So my daughter came over with her iPhone and shot four or five scenes for the show. Sue didn’t know what my feeling was going to be on returning, but I was desperate to get to work. If there had been a vaccine, if there had been a way I could’ve gotten home without it being a big deal, I would’ve done season three.
Anyway, I said, “Yes. I want to come back. I so want to work. And now, there’s a vaccine.” So Sue said, “You’ve had a traumatic brain injury. You had a horrible car crash.” I wasn’t even getting scripts. I didn’t even know what was going on in season three, so I had no idea how they dealt with it except they sent me my scenes that I was going to do. That’s all I knew. I said, “Is there a way to make this injury not quite so catastrophic?” Sue said, “You had brain surgery.” I said, “That’s going to be hard to come out of realistically at her age. She’s in her late 60s. She’s already had a heart attack. She lives on coffee and candy. She seems like she has a lot of get up and go, and she does, but she’s also abusive to her body.” Sue said, “No. We’ve already committed to that. You’ve had this head-on collision with a truck. You’re in a coma, and Doc’s just beside himself.” So I said, “Okay. I read about these injuries. I didn’t do crazy research, but I did enough, I think, to make it real.”
Anyway, they wanted Hope to start coming out of it. They wanted to see progress. So I had to think of it not even episode to episode but scene to scene. So that’s a challenge I love. I’m very excited when I have something besides just, “Oh, are we in love today or are we breaking up?” You know? We’ve got to have a little bit more than that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: More than, “Have a slice of apple pie.” (laughs)
Annette O’Toole: Exactly. So that was really fun to do. There are people that contacted me who either have had a traumatic brain injury or know people in their family who have and have dealt with it. They said they felt it was very accurate. The thing about the brain is, everybody’s situation is different in how your body takes it and deals with it and how it responds to surgery or medication. There are so many variables that you can’t just say that this wouldn’t happen, and let’s figure out a way it could. Let’s figure out a way where she’s at this age and can recover because that’s ultimately what they wanted. So that’s what I did.
Season five is much more about that, of course, about the injury not being the primary thing in her life. It is in the beginning of the season, but then she starts to deal with it in other way. Seasons four and five were a lot of fun.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You mentioned Tim Matheson (who plays Doc Mullins) earlier. We’ve interviewed him a couple of times, and he’s a super nice guy.
Annette O’Toole: Oh, he’s great.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What do you think about the chemistry between Hope and Doc?
Annette O’Toole: I think it’s undeniable. We have some because we played opposite one another twice as married people and once as an engaged couple, so we’ve always been teamed up. I think it’s great. I think we’re different enough. He is much more cerebral as a person, I think, and as the character is a doctor, he just see’s things differently, and that’s good. That’s healthy. We have a really good working marriage.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So season five will show Hope getting better or completely healed?
Annette O’Toole: I don’t know that she will ever not have effects from it. But they’re not going to be at the forefront of what we’re doing. I think every once in a while, Hope might have a blinding headache, and there will be some mention of it, that she’s not quite focusing as she should because of the residual effects of this injury. But I can play that. It doesn’t have to be in the script. I can just keep track of that myself if they want it to go on. The reality is, you would have something. You would still have some effects even years down the line.
But what I can tell you is there’s a lot more interaction with the townspeople together in season five. It’s nice. You really get a sense of the community. A big event happens in the town where everybody has to work together toward a common goal, and everybody’s on call. There’s a lot going on. The episodes are very rich. There’s not just one thing or the other. The energy is going to be heightened for that season.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you stay in Vancouver while shooting season five? I know that Tim and his wife have a home there.
Annette O’Toole: Yeah. They have a condo. I went back and forth a bit because if I had four days off, it was much easier. Covid restrictions were lifted, but early on, you had to get tested, and it was such a nightmare to do it all. But this last year was a lot easier, so I did go back and forth. But yeah, I have like a corporate apartment downtown. It’s fine. It’s all I need.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your Mom owned a dance studio when you were young, Annette?
Annette O’Toole: She did. Yes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you, of course, took dance lessons.
Annette O’Toole: Oh, yes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So how did that evolve into acting?
Annette O’Toole: I came out to Los Angeles when I was 13. My Mom brought me out, and I started auditioning. My very first job was on The Danny Kaye Show dancing. I was a dancer, and I wanted to be Gwen Verdon, and Gwen Verdon was the guest on his show that I did. I got to meet her and her daughter. So that was my focus, and then I got an agent and started working a lot … not a lot but enough. Then my agent wanted me to go to an acting class. He said, “You really need to do this so that you’re more prepared for acting roles.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to be an actor. I like to be on stage singing and dancing.” He said, “Well, don’t close your mind to it.”
So I went to a few classes and just said, “Eh.” I really had a chip on my shoulder about it. So I said, “I don’t need this.” At 17 years old, I knew everything (laughs). So I walked into a class that was recommended to me run by a wonderful man named Robert Ellenstein who was a great character actor. He’s in North by Northwest. He’s one of the two guys who kidnap Cary Grant in the beginning. He’s the one without the hat. So it was his class.
I walked in, I’m not kidding you, with that big chip on my shoulder, and I walked out like a person who had fallen in love. It was like the world had opened up to me. I thought, “Oh, my God! I see what they’re talking about. This is a career that can last to the day I die if I’m healthy enough. I don’t have to stop if my knees give out or I’m too old to do chorus work.” I was never going to be a great dancer. So that’s how it happened.
He started sending me out on acting auditions, and I started really working hard at it and being very serious in class. The week I turned 18, I had been cast in Promises, Promises as one of the lead dancers. This was directed by Michael Bennett who went on to do A Chorus Line, and I was sent to an audition for Gunsmoke. I got both of them. I knew I had Promises, Promises, but he said, “Well, go on this audition anyway, and let the casting people get to know you.” And I got it. So I had to decide what I was going to do. I asked my Mother what I should do. I was not yet 18 so technically still a child. She said, “You really have to make this decision yourself. You’ve got two jobs, and you just figure out which one.”
I decided to do Gunsmoke. I had to buy out of my contract with David Merrick, and I did it. I learned so much on that first show. The camera people were so wonderful, or they were to me anyway. I had been studying acting and done some shows, but I hadn’t been in a part where I was featured and talking where the cameras were there, and they moved the cameras over there, and you’d have to do it again. Nobody told me. I just absorbed all this stuff. It was great.
I remember one time, I was sitting in this wagon. The actors playing my father and brother had witnessed a murder on this train, so I’m picking them up in this little cart and taking them home. I get in the back to talk to my brother, and the whole time I’m away from the camera. The camera operator came over and said, “I can’t see your face.” I said, “But I’m talking to my brother, and it’s so important I know what’s going on.” He said, “Yeah. But you have to find a way because we’re not going to cover this scene. We’ve got to move on, so we’re not going to move in for close-ups. You’ve got to be able to talk to him and find a way to get back to the camera so you’ll be seen.”
As the show goes along, of course, they shoot everything out of order. There’s one point where I’m standing in the scene with somebody, and they’re blocking me, and you can see my little head just go like this in order to come around and be seen. I was lucky. Once I turned 18, I just did episode after episode after episode of all these different shows like Mod Squad, The Partridge Family, Hawaii Five-0, S.W.A.T, The Rookies, Policewoman, all of these shows. In each one, I learned something so valuable. I was in a different class with Peggy Feury who was a wonderful teacher. So I was learning on the job and in a studio situation. It was wonderful. It was really an exciting time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’ve got to ask. Did you have a scene with James Arness?
Annette O’Toole: Yes, I did, and I never met him. He would come in for one day and do all of his scenes, and I was totally intimidated. I’m in this scene with him where I don’t talk to him directly, but the family’s all gathered on the porch. He comes riding in, and then stands there. I’m saying things to every other person, but I never had interaction with him. Then he was gone (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was there a point in your early career when you realized you could make a successful career from acting?
Annette O’Toole: Oh, yeah. Early on. I don’t think I ever felt, “No. This is not for me.” It was like I had blinders on. It’s all I wanted to do. I just switched the focus from musical theater to acting. But the drive was always the same, and I still feel it. I feel it more than ever. I love what I do. I find it endlessly fascinating because everybody’s situation is so different. It’s like a detective novel. You get the script and think, “Why is she doing this? Why is she saying this?” I just get giddy thinking about it and working on it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you enjoy working more on television, in films or on the stage?
Annette O’Toole: It’s funny. I do enjoy theater very much, and I’ve been doing a lot of theater. The last play I did was in 2019, but that’s going to change soon. But I’m best suited with television because I started really young. I like going fast, and that’s what a lot of people don’t like about it. I’m really prepared. I work really hard before I come in, and then I just let it go and try to have a good time. Television is conducive to that way of work.
I like films, too, but it just seems to take a long time. I like independent films because they’re more like TV. The theater is wonderful, but I don’t like waiting all day and have to go do it at eight o’clock at night. I love rehearsal because it’s during the day. But when you have to keep your energy and your focus all day long, and then at eight or whenever the curtain’s up, there you are. But the excitement of an audience and the excitement of what can happen today in this performance that didn’t happen yesterday is always fresh, and it’s your work. Nobody’s cutting it or directing it while you’re doing it or telling you how to do it. You’re in charge of it with your fellow actors.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I was thinking about your husband recently when Cindy Williams passed away.
Annette O’Toole: Yeah. It’s very sad.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe he’s the last surviving member of the main cast of Laverne & Shirley.
Annette O’Toole: I guess so. I hadn’t realized that. But yeah. I think you’re right.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’re both actors and have been married about 24 years. How does it work?
Annette O’Toole: It’s kind of wonderful. We’ve never had any big issues about anything. He’s been completely supportive of me and I of him. That’s the key, I think. We’ve both been married before and had children, so we came to this with no starry eyes. We knew what we were in for, and it’s been really wonderful. The hardest part of what I do when I’m working in Vancouver is to be away from him.
I love to be alone. I’m an only child, and I’ve spent a lot of time alone. Then after a while, you think, “Come on! What’s the point of this? I have this amazing person. Why are we not together?” But he works, too. He lived in London a lot of this last year. I did get to go, which was great. But yeah. We’re a really good team, and we sing together. We still write a lot of music. This last weekend singing together in San Francisco, I said, “We should really do our act again.” We had a little act, a cabaret thing (laughs). It’s all our own music because we’ve written a lot of stuff. Well, it’s a couple of covers, but mostly our own stuff. So I don’t know. We’re thinking about that again.
Next month, we’re going to New York to do a workshop of a musical we’ve been working on for three years. We’re doing a second workshop of it in New York.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You have almost 60 years in show business!
Annette O’Toole: Oh, God! That’s true.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: True and remarkable. What’s the role that’s the most memorable?
Annette O’Toole: You know, it depends on the day. When you just said that, I thought about Lola in Copacabana with Barry Manilow. That one popped in my head, and I don’t know why. When you said, “memorable role,” that one came to mind. I loved doing that. That’s the thing. I’ve been concentrating on acting all these years, but there are those roles I’m called upon to use the musical stuff, which is great.
So that one and certainly playing Tammy Wynette in Stand by Your Man. I loved doing Cross My Heart, a movie I did with Martin Short, because it was kind of like a play. It was mainly just the two of us. There were other people, but a lot of days, it was just me and Marty with my face aching from laughing. I’d just be beside myself with laughter some days. So it was great.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Other than the musical, anything else coming up?
Annette O’Toole: Just the musical we’re working on, and that’s all that’s going on right now. It’s kind of an easy time, and that’s just fine with me. I’m actually not wanting anybody to offer me work right now. I’ve been offered a few things and turned them down. It has to be something I’ve not done before or to work with a director or actor I really want to work with or something to get me to do it.
I’ve pretty much done everything I wanted to do. I wanted to keep working. All that mattered to me was just to keep working, and I’ve been able to do this. So I’m just going to keep on.
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