Terri Garber is the talented actress who first became known to audiences for her amazing portrayal of Ashton Main in the television miniseries North and South. She has appeared as Lesley Carrington in Dynasty.
She was also on several soaps. Terri made her acting debut as Allison in Texas, played Suzanne Collier in Santa Barbara, Victoria Parker in General Hospital and Iris Dumbroski in As the World Turns. Her nighttime roles include in Midnight Caller, Quantum Leap, Murder She Wrote and 7th Heaven.
I recently spoke with Terri about her experience on North and South, Dynasty and her feelings regarding acting in general. I found her to be open and honest with clear ideas on what it means to be an actress.
When did you first realize you wanted to become an actress?
“There were a couple of times that were really significant in my life and one of them I remember was I went to see FIDDLER ON THE ROOF . When I was watching FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, I wanted to become an Orthodox Jew, like they were. My family was not Orthodox. A few years later I realized that I didn’t want to be orthodox, I wanted to be one of the daughters in the movie. That’s when I realized I wanted to become an actress. So that was really the first time I think was really significant for me.”
You were incredible as Ashton Main in North and South. You breathed such life into Ashton and made her such a memorable character. What was your audition process like?
“(Laughs) That’s so funny because what happen was I lived in New York at the time so I was flown to California to test for a Joe Pesci pilot. We didn’t test until the night time where you did it with all the network executives and everything. And right then you find out if you got it. I didn’t get it and I was really bummed. My manager calls me on the phone and he says ‘Go to Warner Brothers there’s a script waiting for you, you have an audition tomorrow.’ And I was like ‘How am I going to possibly get it together for tomorrow?’ You know, you do a lot for an audition, a lot of process. So, I get this script the weighs about twenty pounds. I had no idea it was a miniseries. All I could do at that hour which was about 10:00pm was just look at my scenes and learn my scenes. And I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do, to be in the minute. And what I wanted to do was stick my hands on my breast and say ‘Look Billy, they’re ripe’ which was one of my audition scenes. And I did it. I was really free with the audition. I didn’t think never in a million years that I would get it. I thought it would definitely go to a movie star, so I did whatever I really wanted to do so I think that helped me get it.
So the audition process for me from that time, normally I would read the script straight through without putting anything on it. Just read it to learn information on what it’s about. Then I’d go back and read it a second time. But this time, I would start looking at the character I’m auditioning for and start putting her together and finding the areas where I’m going to have to look back into my life and pull out experiences from my life to really relate to that particular scene. But this time all I could do was read it, learn it and be free.”
Had you read any of John Jakes’ work prior to the audition?
“No, I had not. And I was really lucky because I met him. After Part 1 aired, there must have been a party of some sort. I was there and he wrote me a really lovely letter that I wish I could find. And he said I did more for the character than he ever dreamed that the character could be and it was one of the kindest things anyone could ever do for you when you’re playing their words. They have an image of what they wanted and you hoped that you fulfilled that.”
And you did, I read North and South. Usually when a book becomes a movie something is lost in the translation. But you got the nuances of the character to a tee. It was almost like you had your script in one hand and the book in the other because you were amazing.
“Thank you. It was one of those parts when I really didn’t have to work very hard. It came to me so naturally, the words were so easy for me to say. We had to learn an accent so I worked with someone on that. But it was really the first and only time that I can remember it being so easy to do something.”
You really got the accent down so well that I was surprised when I heard your real voice in Dynasty after North and South. I know you did Texas, but I hadn’t seen your work in that soap opera. Was Texas your first on screen role?
“Yes, Texas was my first really big, finally television thing. I did little scenes here and there on other stuff. But this was finally getting a really nice part. And I was taking over from someone who had been playing it thirteen weeks prior than me then they asked her to leave and I started.
At that time, it was the early 80s and everybody was doing drugs so it was a pretty crazy set.”
Can you share any memorable moments from the North and South set?
“There were so many memorable moments and they were usually off-screen. When Genie, Kirstie and I had our days off we played a game that Genie taught us. I think we called it malaria. We would pretend that we weren’t feeling well and had to get into our long white beautiful nightgown, lay in each other’s rooms and order room service, pretending that we were too ill to get dressed and go out. That was a lot of fun. Or we would play bang the boobs. Our bras were so padded that we could knock into a wall and not feel it. So Kirstie would yell out to me ‘Are you ready, girl’ and we’d run at each other and bump chests and fall on the ground, laughing hysterically because again, we didn’t feel a thing.”
Another one was when Jimmy Stewart came to work. It was the first day of shooting for Part 2. None of us had started work yet, only Patrick Swayze and Lesley-Anne because they had the scenes with him. But everybody in the film showed up and we set on these tables and we watched him work. And he was a complete professional, he knew all his lines, he had his wonderful Jimmy Stewart-isms. He was a much older man, he did a great job and he was so nice. He came by and he shook every one’s hand.”
As Leslie Carrington on Dynasty, your character was in an unholy alliance with Sean Rowan. While Leslie made mistakes, I wouldn’t consider her a villain. How would you describe her?
” She changed so much from the two seasons she was one the show. When we first saw her, she was so sweet and kind. But the best thing I can do was be a villain. So the second season they decided to do that. So Leslie was a bit of a confusion. But ultimately I believe she was like Joan Collins’ character. She wanted to have all that money. The Sean Rowan thing she just got mixed up with him. She wanted to take over Joan Collins’ empire, she wanted everything that was hers. There was this one time I actually had a scene with her before she comes in and I’m imitating her on a tape recorder. And she walks in and she listens to me as I continue on the recorder. To have to do her accent and imitate her in front of her was like so horrible (laughs). If I had continued on, if I had wanted to continue on, I think that was where they were heading.”
If the Terri Garber of today could give advice to her younger self just starting out in the entertainment business, what would you say?
I would say that it has to be in your blood, in your body. It has to be something that nothing can deter you from doing. You have to want it so badly that nothing else is as important.
My daughter is an actress and those were the things that I said to her. I told her that you’re very good but know it has to be your everything. She’s really good and got her first Broadway show.”
That’s good advice. I know a lot of actors start out with dreams of accolades and awards in their heads and for people to recognize them. But it’s important to know why you’re doing it and to do it for the right reasons.
“I never really thought about it. But one day back when I was in Dynasty, I went to the mall because I needed to get some lipstick and so I had the mirror in front of me and I was applying lipstick. And I saw like this crowd of people behind me. So, I turned and I thought ‘Who’s here? I wonder who here?’ But it was me. And that was really so incredible to have that happen.
I listened to you, Jane and Jennifer on Blog Talk Radio on August 9 and you guys were hilarious. Any plans to do more shows?
“Jane and I were talking about that the other day. It’s a little hard coordinating with everyone, so just she and I are going to do it. Our whole thing is that we’re woman over fifty years old and this is what life is like.”
I’ve noticed that in addition to acting you’ve done some writing, you’ve done some producing. What could you tell me about that, how do you feel about breaking away from acting into other areas of the industry?
“Well, I’ve done a few things on the other side of the industry. I was a development executive. I was a producer at Universal for a year, I was an assistant to a director for two years so I have done other things. I went to The French Culinary Institute for pastry. I go away from acting and I think I’m done, I think I’m really finished and then it creeps back in and it takes over and I have to do it.”
Any current projects that you’re working on that you could share?
“Because I left New York and California for three years, I have to start all over again. So, I’m starting auditioning and I have new head shots. And I’m hoping for something to hit. I’m really into doing soaps. That’s something that I really enjoyed very much.”