Three-time Emmy Award-winning actress Cady McClain needs no introduction. She's been a beloved part of the soap opera community for many years, playing the roles of All My Children's Dixie Cooney, As the World Turns' Rosanna Cabot, The Young and the Restless' Kelly Andrews, and Days of our Lives' Jennifer Horton (a role she on-again, off-again shares with longtime portrayer Melissa Reeves).
However, what might need an introduction is the new work that McClain has taken on in recent years. In addition to acting, the California native has given serious attention to her career as a director, and in January of 2022, she signed on as the artistic director of the Axial Theatre in Pleasantville, New York.
For those who might not know what an artistic director does, McClain enthuses to Soap Central that it's pretty much everything!
"Basically any shows that you see, casting, how things are presented, where we do them, what the programming is, where it is, where it's done, and what we choose to do and when we choose to do it -- that's all my decision, and then I take that to the board, and the board approves it or weighs in with some of their thoughts," she explains. "But it's generally conceived of and mostly executed by me or with my oversight."
It sounds exhausting, and while McClain agrees that it is, she says it's also an extremely rewarding position. She hit the ground running by choosing the very dark and complex John Logan play Never the Sinner as the first production under her watch, and the show was a huge hit.
"People really, really enjoyed it. We had great turnout, and I'm just so happy about that. The actors were wonderful, and we had a beautiful place to do the show, and that was great," she says of the play, which examines the real-life 1924 case of two young, intelligent millionaires (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) who abducted and killed a fourteen-year-old named Bobby Franks.
"The issue of violence in teens is something that I've wanted to address for some time, and I think it was somewhat instinctual to choose that play," McClain shares. "First of all, it's excellently written -- John Logan is an incredible writer, and this is his first play, which he wrote in the 80s, and I always find it interesting to go back to the early works of writers who are very accomplished and see where they started out and what they wanted to talk about then. And the conversation about what to do with these kids that have been very violent and have killed another child four years younger than one of them, and the reason why they did, you try to ferret that out in some way, and then to see how as adults, we respond, and what is the best way to respond to that? That's what's addressed in this play."
She continues, "There is a wonderful speech by the character that is based on the real life Clarence Darrow... who talks about mercy in such a way that I just found it to be an important message to put out into the world, some way to address, if we don't respond better than the actions of the people that we're trying to judge, if we take the position of an eye for an eye, then how do we ever really stop the problem, if we really aren't merciful? So, the play really acted as a platform and a jumping-off point for some very interesting conversations, and that's part of what theater making is."
McClain will be following up Never the Sinner with Cactus Flowers, a series of short plays that will be on stage in April.
"I definitely have an eye for social impact-type of material... the human part of it is what I'm really interested in, the human impact of the plays, of these things that we live with, whether it's disease or teen isolation or the insurrection or gun control or abortion," she shares. "We've touched on a lot of these issues in a lot of the pieces, and [it's nice to explore] who are the human beings inside these issues? What are their experiences on both sides of the conversation and everywhere in between? That's what a wonderful piece of writing can illuminate, and for the audience, it helps them drop into the conversation and to an understanding rather than just pushing it away from themselves."
That ethos should sound familiar to soap opera fans, as it's almost exactly the view shared by All My Children creator Agnes Nixon, who was famous for bringing social issue storylines to television screens.
"That was one of the most exciting things about being on that show, when they wrote social issue storylines and when Agnes allowed us to explore the company of an ensemble," McClain enthuses. "The first one that pops into mind is when Cindy [Ellen Wheeler] had AIDS, and there were people who were afraid of her and people who accepted and loved her. I thought that story did a great service to the community. There was also a character in the late 90s, a teacher who was gay, and there were people who didn't like that when he came out, 'A gay man teaching my children? I don't like that!' And other people were like, 'What are you talking about?' Dixie was his friend, and she was able to play that part of, 'Why would you be afraid of this person, and why would you not want him to teach your children? His personal identification has nothing to do with whether or not he can teach history!' So, yeah, I just loved that she did that; it was my favorite part of the show, other than the holidays, which were always wonderful."
As AMC fans may recall, the soap liked to feature Christmas miracle storylines during the holiday period. "Those episodes were so great," McClain enthuses. "I really liked the story when Natalie [Kate Collins] got her sight back. It was very, very well done. I remember that in particular. And I remember a certain Thanksgiving of the whole Martin family sitting around the table, Ruth [Mary Fickett/Lee Meriwether] and Joe [Ray MacDonnell] and Joey [Michael Scaleri/Michael Brainard/Michael Lowry] and Tad [Michael E. Knight], and that particular one, I have a great memory of that and how sweet it was."
Though AMC fans would love nothing more than to see additional holiday moments with Dixie and the Pine Valley gang, they'll have to settle for seeing McClain on Days of our Lives, where she occasionally fills in for Melissa Reeves as Jennifer Horton. The actress says that even though she's quite busy with the Axial Theatre, she is definitely still open to appearing in Salem whenever they need her.
"Of course, I would! I've had a wonderful time there. They've been very good to me. If Missy is busy and has things that she needs to attend to, they just have to give me a call, and I'll come," she shares, adding that she has some episodes in the pipeline. "There is some stuff coming up, just a few little bits here and there that I've shot. It was very sweet, and I enjoy coming back when they need me."
McClain and Reeves haven't had a conversation in person about quasi-sharing the role of Jennifer (which came about during COVID, when Reeves chose not to travel to Los Angeles), but McClain reports that they have chatted on Instagram, and Reeves could not have been sweeter.
"She's always been one hundred percent delightful to me... and said if anybody was going to fill in for her, she was glad it was going to be me, and I was very grateful for her saying that; it was really, really sweet. She's a lovely, sweet person."
In addition to enjoying the company at DAYS, McClain says she's enjoyed diving into the history of Jennifer, who has been a part of the soap since the mid-70s.
"[Filling in for Reeves] gave me the opportunity to come in and watch a bunch of her early stuff, because I think sometimes the character is born in the early days -- that's when the heart of it is, when it connects with the audience -- so, it's nice to circle back to those times in some way, and she was just so wonderful. She had such a great energy and was so much fun to watch. What she and Matt [Ashford] got up to was so hilarious. In a way, they were like the West Coast Tad and Dixie, or we were like an East Coast Jack and Jennifer. So, it wasn't such a stretch. I was like, 'Oh, I can see how this dynamic works.' But she's a little tougher; Jennifer has a tougher side than Dixie ever did, because Dixie was never really a businessperson. She could hold a job, but she was a patient advocate or a teacher, not something like a journalist. She wasn't confronted in any way."
McClain's success as Jennifer was probably helped by the fact that the role wasn't the first recast McClain had taken on in soaps. In fact, all four of her daytime characters were previously played by other actresses.
"If anyone wants to know how to be a recast, they should call me!" she says with a laugh. "But really, the trick of it is you don't try to compare yourself or look at the success or the behaviors of the actress [before you]. All actresses are unique in their own ways, and there is no mimicking. The only thing you can really do is try to understand the character, and the character is on the page, as is the history of what the writers have been writing. So, it's just my version of that pre-written character, and there's something really cool about that. I really like that -- it's fun. And it's not to say that the people who played them before weren't wonderful. I also got to be in the lucky position of having excellent storyline to play, so, that part of it has been the right time, right place."
And, of course, as fans would say, it's also talent, which McClain has in spades. In fact, she recently made history when she became the first actress to win three different Emmy Award categories for playing three different characters (Outstanding Younger Actress for AMC's Dixie in 1990, Outstanding Supporting Actress for ATWT's Rosanna in 2004, and Outstanding Guest Actress for DAYS' Jennifer in 2021).
"I had no idea when it happened that it was history -- someone had to tell me that it was history making," she says with a laugh. "To be a glass ceiling breaker, if you will, is great because now it means the ceiling is broken, and it means that other people can come up and do it, as well, which I really encourage. I really encourage women to jump around to different shows, to play different characters, to not stay stuck in one role -- unless they want to, of course! There are some characters that are iconic and wonderful to play and written well, with great storyline that is deep and interesting and takes you on rich journeys as a character. But I'm just proud. I'm proud to have made a difference and hopefully have made a difference for others. It's exciting. I've always wanted to be that!"
She's come a long way, that's for sure. Especially considering she was extremely nervous to take on the role of AMC's Dixie back in 1988 -- despite having been a child star who appeared in numerous commercials.
"When I was 17, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and my father wasn't around, and so, part of [my nervousness] was just pure survival -- I felt like if I wasn't going to make it as this character or if I wasn't really a good actress, then I should really find something else to do for a living, because it's a very hard industry, and I needed to make a living; I needed to provide for my mom. So, there was a lot of weight on my shoulders at a very young age," she explains. "So, it was a great thrill to be able to step up to the plate and hit the ball and make contact with the ball, if you will -- a baseball metaphor -- and get on base and keep staying in the game. And it's kind of been that way ever since."
She continues, "The funny thing is, I tell a lot of actresses, 'You never stop proving yourself.' It's a weird industry. Even though you may have 'made it,' and you've got awards, and you've got a history of work and all of that, you still have to audition, you still have to do the job well. There is no resting on your laurels, so to speak, because anyone can be replaced, basically at any time. It's one of the most difficult parts of it. And of course, if you get a nice contract job, and you're running for a very long time, sometimes I think those actors, and myself included, you begin to miss the risk, you begin to miss having something at stake like that, so it's a very odd industry. I don't think I ever have been comfortable with any of that! [Laughs] Comfort is not at all achievable as an actor -- it's not a comfortable job."
Being the artistic director of a theater isn't necessarily comfortable, either, but McClain reports that there is one aspect of it that is: this job has, in some ways, brought her full circle back to the feelings she had while starring on AMC.
"One of the things that is so lovely is to have that opportunity to build a version of what I had at All My Children and what I was a part of then, when the ensemble was tight, when all of the actors were there, playing their parts, doing their job," she explains. "The writing was good, the directing was good, the lighting and everything was just coming together beautifully. It was very much a team effort, and [now I] understand what makes a team effort work and what kind of attitudes and what kind of people, and how you need to manage all of that. I observed a lot over the years, and it's been wonderful to implement that and make some magic like that, and I hope to continue to be able to keep that going. Fingers crossed I can keep that magic happening! That's the goal."
To learn more about the Axial Theatre, click here. You can also donate to the theater via its Winter Facebook Fundraiser. Facebook (now known as Meta) will be matching recurring donations up to $100 until December 31.
What do you think about our interview with Cady McClain? How do you feel about her being the artistic director of the Axial Theatre? What are your favorite moments from her time as AMC's Dixie? How do you feel about her work as DAYS' Jennifer? We want to hear from you -- and there are many ways you can share your thoughts.