Soapstar Maurice Benard: This Rebel has a Cause
Reprinted with permission from bp Magazine, Fall 2007
When asked about Maurice Benard's performance last year on the long-running soap opera GeneralHospital, head writer Bob Guza doesn't hesitate: "It was the most courageous thing I'd ever seen," he says.
"Most actors," Guza continues, "take risks; good ones take a character as far as they can. But they also have a cushion—it's a role. Maurice wasn't just playing it, he was living it. And he went to some scary, scary places."
The route to those scary places was the 2006 GH story arc that chronicled a bipolar breakdown as experienced by a character who has bipolar—who, in turn, is being portrayed by an actor with bipolar. This is Benard, who in August celebrated 14 years of playing GH's complicated mobster (and Tony Soprano prototype) Sonny Corinthos, and who is also a spokesperson for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. His bipolarity has not just informed his life and work, it has also become a part of the daytime drama—something that's probably unique in the history of entertainment. As a dramatic technique, it might be dubbed "Extreme Method Acting."
"It was method acting without them knowing," says the 44-year-old Emmy-winning performer. "In my mind, I always said, 'I'll make this guy bipolar.' He started out being a bad guy, a really bad guy. And I thought to myself 'How can I make this guy come off in a way where it's justified, in his head, what he's doing?' I had always thought about the history of the character, what happened to him as a child. When I let it be known I was bipolar, we wrote it into the character."
"I had told Maurice, 'When you're ready, let me know,'" says Guza.
Benard's story is in some ways identical to that of others who have bipolar I. Following a major breakdown, he was diagnosed at 22, finally coming to terms with the condition that had plagued him since adolescence, without his knowing that the condition had a name, a diagnosis, and a treatment.
"If you think back, you see signs," Benard says, in his dressing room at the GH studio in east Hollywood. "I was brought up to never cry. I had to hold that in, because it's not macho, it's 'weak.' So I'm sure that didn't help. I was drinking a lot in my teens. I was fighting a lot. So you take the drinking, the self-medicating, and the fighting—to release whatever was inside of me—you add that up and I think I just blew up. I remember that, in the hospital, I was crying all the time, probably letting it all out."
And the incident that led to his hospitalization?
"Oh, man …" Benard begins, in a mock-sorrowful tone that makes this writer laugh, which in turn makes Benard laugh.
"It goes on forever," he says. "I pretty much attacked my mother one night and told my mom and dad I was the devil. They called the cops and it was crazy. I asked my mom, 'Who's that?'—I heard her on the phone downstairs—and she said, 'It's the doctor.' I replied, 'It better not be the cops …' and the doorbell rings. And it's the cops. I looked at her the way Sonny Corleone looked in The Godfather."
The police officers came into the house; one was an old friend of Benard's from high school. "There was nothing they could do because I wasn't violent at that time, so they just left. And the next morning, my mom and dad took me to the hospital."
Benard's parents—Humberto, from Nicaragua, and Martha, from El Salvador—were raising their two sons in Martinez, California, which is about 40 miles from San Francisco. It was there that the younger of their children, named Mauricio Jose Morales, at age 21 had become interested in acting—taking classes, acting in plays— yet was growing increasingly intemperate.
"I just became obsessed with being an actor," Benard says. "I was staying up all night, memorizing monologues, which led to me being sick with a 103, 104 degree temperature. After that came the thing I just talked about"—the clash with his parents.
Benard says he didn't really have a direction before acting. "I didn't know what I was going to be doing, or where I'd end up," he says. "I didn't think I had any talent, or anything else. This girl I was dating at the time, she suggested I be a model—and you have to understand something, man, I was this tough guy with a mustache, and I was like 'model? How much money do they make?'" She said, 'I don't know, maybe one hundred, two hundred dollars an hour.' I said, 'How do you do it?'"
Benard attended what he called a "stupid modeling school" and started getting work. His career, though, turned out to be "very unsuccessful."
"I was way too short, but I always tried to act like I wasn't," he says. "And that was really not good. But the modeling led to commercials, which led to more acting classes … and that's how [my career] started."
Frankly, Benard's choice of occupation seems fraught with peril. Given the impact of stress on the health of a person who has bipolar, working on a daytime drama would itself seem to be a flirtation with disaster. New scripts, script changes, the pressures of one-take shooting—all are daily occurrences. Within this already edgy atmosphere, Benard, in effect, barges up to the precipice, acting out symptoms of his own illness, almost daring them to come on. It's this virtual placing of his head in the lion's mouth that earned his head writer's admiration.
"It was above and beyond the call," Guza says.
Unfortunately, it's had its cost. "Let me tell you something right now," says Benard. "I've been doing this 14 years, with some pretty intense story lines, and there have been times where I thought maybe I'd taken it a little bit too far. But it was nothing like last year, when I played, for over two months, a guy losing his mind.
"Now, I'm not stupid enough to go off my medication," he continues. "I'm not that kind of method actor. Occasionally," he laughs, "a colleague will come up and say 'You go off your medication.' I say, 'I'm not that stupid.'"
Still, Benard admits that he crossed the line during a climactic scene in the GH plotline. "By the end of it—and I've told people this—literally, as I was in the scene, my mom and dad were on the set. I felt I was hearing my mom and dad speak as the actors were speaking.
"So now, I've taken it too far," he says, reflecting on the moment. "Then I had an anxiety attack at the end of it. I thought I was having my fourth breakdown. So that was like 'Oh no, what have I done?'"
Benard was asked regularly, either by his wife, Paula Smith, or by Guza, whether he wanted to stop, whether the performance was stressing him out. "And I was like, 'No let's go—I want to do it all.' But sometimes, you should just relax and not take it to an extreme."
Benard has been married for 17 years to Paula, with whom he has two daughters and a son. What really taxes his mental health is something that you don't need to have bipolar to understand. Just be a parent.
"Let me tell you something," he says. "There's a lot of stress to acting and it's very high here on a soap. You only get one take, etc., but I've been doing it for a while and it doesn't stress me out. But I had to stay up all night Saturday with my child because he was very sick and that .... that's almost too stressful for me. It's weird, you know, I can do a four-page monologue in one take and as quickly as you want. But for me to be with my kid [who is] sick and [have] that kind of stress? My nerves .... my wife is the opposite—she can do it every night. I do it one night, and I start to get a little frazzled."
Benard eases his tension by boxing, something he's done for 10 years. "There's nothing better than boxing—the exercise, the way it makes you feel. The art of boxing—it's amazing to me."
The other thing he does is to never miss his medication—lithium, which he says he's been on for 15 years.
And side effects? "The only side effect is, if I don't take it, I have a breakdown," he says. "I've been lucky, man."
For a two-year period, Benard says he went off his medication "and I shouldn't have." Lithium had been prescribed for him after he escaped during his initial hospitalization. "I ripped off these tennis shoes from another patient; they let me out for a walk and I never looked back."
Unhappy with his treatment there, Benard subsequently met a psychiatrist who sat him down and said, "You know, I think you're manic-depressive." "I said 'What's that?'" He said, 'Well, it's this and this and that,' and I said, 'I don't care what it is, as long as I know there's something.' He said, 'I'm going to put you on lithium.' And that was it."
Recently, Benard met with a group of fans in Los Angeles, who presented him with a poster that included his name among the many renowned artists who've been diagnosed with bipolar.
"I gotta tell you, I looked at it and saw my name there and was really moved," the actor says. "It had Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, a bunch of people and I saw my name and said, 'Wow.' I think it's all about emotions, you know. And the more emotional you tend to be, the better painter or whatever you tend to be, too. There's a cost, sure, but that's the give-and-take. I can just look at myself and know the pain I've had to endure because of being bipolar, but the payoff is how great my life is now. And I've also become a much better actor because of being bipolar."
Just imagine if Van Gogh had had lithium. He might have had a less exciting life.
"Absolutely," Benard laughs. "But his paintings wouldn't be worth as much."
Tips from Maurice
Medication: "Of course, I never skip it"
Exercise: "First thing in the morning, I work out, whether it's boxing, lifting weights, or running. I get up, eat breakfast, lounge around for a while, and then I go to the gym."
Caffeine: "I used to drink espresso, but I don't much anymore."
Sex: "I'm a very sexual person anyway and I don't know if being bipolar adds to that. But I guess you have to find a mate who's conducive to that. And thank God I have."
Marriage: "Oh yeah, I was on Oprah speaking about my third breakdown and how hard it was on my wife. Very, very difficult, because a lot of times you're dealing with rage and when you're dealing with rage it's scary—to yourself, and to the people around you who love you."
Sonny & ABC'sGeneralHospital
After early acting stints that included roles in the ABC daytime drama, All My Children and the title role of Desi, in the TV movie, Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter, Benard landed the part of mobster Sonny Corinthos on GeneralHospital in 1993. Since then he has become a fixture on the ABC soap, all the while coping with his bipolar disorder. Benard stopped taking his meds in 1997 and the following breakdown forced him off the show for a year to recuperate, with the support of show and network. "This role is what I do best," Benard says. "Sonny is unpredictable. You never know from one second to the next what he is thinking, feeling, or planning."
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