Donna Mills Interview: "Queens of Drama" Matriarch on Her "Amazing" Year
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Chicago native Donna Mills is probably best known for her role as Abby Cunningham on the primetime soap opera Knots Landing (a spinoff of Dallas) that aired from 1979 until 1993 on CBS. She won the Soap Opera Digest Award for Outstanding Villainess three times during her stint on the show that lasted for nine years (1980-1989).
Other television appearances include The Secret Storm, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Gunsmoke, Police Woman, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Melrose Place, Cold Case, Dirty Sexy Money, Bare Essence, Nip/Tuck, GCB and many others. Films, including made-for-TV movies, are The Incident, Play Misty for Me, The Bait, Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, Alice in Wonderland, just to name a few.
"I’d never worked with Joan, but we knew each other because back in the 1980s when we were both doing our shows, we were at many functions together, and we were friendly. She would come to my parties, and I’d go to her parties, and we always talked a lot about our characters. Those kinds of characters we were playing were similar in many ways. Joan and I always got on really great. She’s really a fun person."
Mills can currently be seen in a recurring role as Madeline Reeves on the ABC daytime drama General Hospital and in Pop TV’s reality series Queens of Drama which features an all-female cast working in front of and behind the cameras as they develop, pitch and produce a new steamy series with the goal of landing a pilot deal by the end of the season. In addition to Mills, the cast of soap veterans who also star are Lindsay Hartley, Crystal Hunt, Vanessa Marcil, Chrystee Pharris and Hunter Tylo. The Queens of Drama hour-long, explosive season finale airs June 10, 2015, at eight p.m. eastern on Pop TV.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Donna, let’s talk first about Queens of Drama. How did you become involved with the show?
Donna Mills: An old friend, Leslie Greif, who’s the president of Thinkfactory Media, actually called me and said, “I have this reality show.” I went, “No, Leslie. I don’t want to do a reality show. No. No. No.” He said, “Listen to the concepts first.” I did, and Leslie told me that it was a show about these women who were trying to create a new show. I thought it was interesting because it’s a reality show, but it’s about something and has a goal. So I said, “Okay. I’ll do that.” It proceeded from there, and they put the whole thing together. They put everybody together, and it has been a fun experience.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you told to swoop in amongst these women and take charge of the project?
Donna Mills: We talked about what my role would be because I only wanted to do it if I could be a certain way in it. I said I wanted to be the leader of the group. That was the only way I could do it. I had produced a lot of things, so I thought that was a good starting point for me to have the power to do what I wanted to do.
We talked about it, and it evolved over time to discussions and talking with the producers. That’s how it evolved. The funny thing about this being a reality show … as everybody knows, everything is not absolutely real. They just don’t set a camera down and let you get on with your life (laughs). But as far as how this show evolved, it really did evolve pretty much through us women.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Had you worked with Joan Collins before she guest starred on the show?
Donna Mills: I’d never worked with Joan, but we knew each other because back in the 1980s when we were both doing our shows, we were at many functions together, and we were friendly. She would come to my parties, and I’d go to her parties, and we always talked a lot about our characters. Those kinds of characters we were playing were similar in many ways. Joan and I always got on really great. She’s really a fun person.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you heard from Hunter (Tylo), or will she be in the last episode?
Donna Mills: No, she won’t. She’s not in any more of the shows. Hunter’s very much on our minds all the time, and her presence will be felt in those last two shows, but she doesn’t actually appear. She’s a very private person, so we’re allowing her to have her privacy and not try to get in touch with her.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What can you say about the season finale?
Donna Mills: I think it’s surprising. I think how the whole thing ends really is surprising. Of course, I can’t give it away, but I think it’s surprising because we’ve been going in one direction for the whole ten episodes, and it takes a bit of a twist. Hopefully people will like that, and we’ll be able to go on to next season.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has there been confirmation of a second season?
Donna Mills: Not as far as I know right now. But I know Thinkfactory wants it to be another season. We all had a great time doing it, so I think all of the women would like to do it. They take their time, particularly in reality television, to pick things up. If it were an episodic series, they’d have to do it sooner because that takes longer to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve been an actor for nearly five decades and had your start on television with The Secret Storm in 1966. Wasn’t that show broadcast live back then?
Donna Mills: You know what? To tell you the truth, I don’t really remember. It might have been for a few episodes or something, but I don’t think it was the entire time. If it was, I should’ve had a nervous breakdown (laughs). In terms of live TV and millions of people seeing you at that moment, that’s very scary. But yeah, that was the first soap I did. I played a nightclub singer. Hello. I’m not a singer. I was a dancer. Why they chose me to be a nightclub singer, I have no idea, and I actually sang on the show. I have not yet seen a tape of that. I’ve seen some things on You Tube of The Secret Storm, but not of me singing. My character’s name was Rocket. Isn’t that the funniest character name ever? (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes it is (laughs). Congratulations on winning a Daytime Emmy! How did that feel?
Donna Mills: Thank you. It was my first time ever nominated, so I was just thrilled. Absolutely thrilled and had no idea about it because I didn’t submit myself. The show submitted me. They asked me to submit myself, and I said, “No. I can’t do that.” But they did it. When the nominations came out, I thought, ”Oh my God! Really?” It was so wonderful and so nice. It’s such a nice show to be working on. The producers, writers and actors are all really wonderful to work with, so it has been a fun experience. I have that Emmy sitting on my mantle, and I just love it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I hear that General Hospital’s head writer, Ron Carlivati, has been obsessed with you his entire life (laughs).
Donna Mills: (laughs) Yeah. I know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And that he patterned your character, Madeline Reeves, after Abby Cunningham (Knots Landing).
Donna Mills: I think Madeline’s got qualities that Abby doesn’t have and maybe goes a couple of steps further than Abby would ever go. But it’s a different medium. It’s a different way of thinking about characters than we had on Knots. Ron is so sweet. I love him. The first time I met him he was a wreck (laughs). And it was after I was on the show already. It was at the Daytime Emmys last year. He was just so funny. I really like him a lot.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you know how long you will recur on General Hospital?
Donna Mills: I do these arcs, and then I’m off for a little while. I come back and do an arc. They asked, “Do you like that? Does that work for you?” Actually it really does because it’s hard, and I wouldn’t like to be doing it all the time. It really works nicely. I can do it for several months or whatever, and then be off for a couple of months, and then be on again. I think it will probably continue like that.
It’s a character that they can always bring back in to stir stuff up, you know. So I think it will just continue. I’m not under contract with them, so we just kind of take it as it comes. They seem to be pleased with the way this works, and I am, too, so it’s a very nice situation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The work for actors is very different for daytime as compared to primetime.
Donna Mills: Oh God yes! Very. They do 150 pages a day sometimes on daytime. If I did 10 pages a day, it would be a lot when I was doing Knots. It’s one camera as opposed to three or four cameras. It’s a very different kettle of fish, a very different way of working, and it’s hard. I give the actors on soap operas all the credit in the world. It’s hard.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Knots Landing still has a huge fan base. To what do you attribute its endurance?
Donna Mills: I know. Isn’t that wild? I think it was an extremely well written show, and the characters that were created were characters that stayed with people. Maybe they could identify with them. I think they could identify with many of the situations because it never got over the top.
My character had a big business, but then all the other characters kind of stayed in the cul-de-sac and had family and work problems. So I think it had both worlds, and it did it like no other show has ever done. I really attribute it to the writing. I think it was a well-written, well-produced show, and it was an ensemble cast. Everyone really loved working together and worked well together.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you make lifelong friendships?
Donna Mills: Oh yeah. Joan (Van Ark), Michele (Lee) and I still see each other, also Ted (Shackelford) and Kevin (Dobson). Even Bill. I talk to Bill Devane now and then. Bill kind of stays to himself and has always been like that, but I love him. I loved working with him. He’s a doll.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have been cast in Joy, a David O. Russell film?
Donna Mills: Right, but I can’t say anything about it. He is so secretive as you probably know. How I’m involved in this movie he just doesn’t want me to talk about, so I’m not going to because I don’t want to piss David O. Russell off (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What keeps you so vibrant and beautiful, Donna?
Donna Mills: Oh gosh. Well, thank you, first of all. I exercise every day. I eat well. I play tennis several times a week. I’ve never gone over the edge and gotten into anything that would play havoc with my looks …
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Like illegal substances?
Donna Mills: Right (laughs). Exactly, and some of them are legal. I don’t know (laughs). But I think I live a pretty healthy lifestyle, and I think that keeps me going, keeps me trying to achieve.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you writing a book?
Donna Mills: Yes I am. Someone convinced me … a person that wanted me to write a book a long time ago. I said at that time, “No. What do I have to say?” They came back to me and said, “Now you might have something to say.” Well, maybe so because they had encouraged me to create a website, which I did, and in doing that, I had to go back through all my publicity and everything I had done and thought, “I have done quite a bit.”
When you’re doing it, you don’t think of it that way, but looking at it as a whole, I went, “Oh my God! I did do quite a bit!” Then this past year has just been amazing for me with everything I’ve been doing with General Hospital, Queens of Drama, the film, the Emmy. It all kind of snowballed. This might be the time I’m going to try and tell the story.
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