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Dateline: Los Angeles, May 2, 2007. The
voice on the telephone is familiar—one that
should strike terror in the heart of the
average Anna and Duke fan, or at least make
one a bit nervous—but no, this time, the voice
is bright, cheerful, warm and unaccompanied
by a creepy lullabye. It is Tonja Walker—the
actress, producer, singer, and impossibly
beautiful daytime diva who gave life and fire to
the legendary Olivia St. John/Jerome, General
Hospital's uber-villainess of the eighties. I
spoke with her about her work on General
Hospital as well as her current endeavors, in a
conversation that was candid, enlightening,
hilarious and downright fun—so un-Olivia, and
so very Tonja.
We begin at the beginning, and I quickly learn that Tonja is a study in
transformation. Although her life goals were always clear, the path wasn't. "I knew in
my spirit since I was a child that I was drawn to television especially and theater. I
had no idea how I was going to manifest that in my life and I knew from a very, very
young age, it's kind of uncanny. My mother would take me to see shows from time
to time, not very often, but from time to time when I was younger and I would just
cry afterwards, saying 'How am I ever going to get to do that?'"
Her origins certainly did not foretell a life in show business. She was born in
Huntington, West Virginia—"not the entertainment capital of the world"—to
perfectionist parents. "They basically just wanted me to be the very best at
everything, so that I would be successful, but somehow or other I ended up stuffing
my face with food during this time. So, I got great grades and I got the solos in the
choir, but I also got quite heavy."
She spent her early childhood in the one
stoplight town of Hanover, Ohio, and then
moved to Kingsville, Maryland—another tiny burg
outside of Baltimore. She continued to excel
academically, and at the age of fourteen, was
chosen by the English department at Johns
Hopkins University to study creative writing for
four years. Despite her successes, her life was
not without its share of heartache and struggle.
Because of her weight, she was subjected to the
cruel teasing of her peers. "I went on diet after
diet and doctors and everything. Finally, I
started to lose a little bit of weight. Slowly but
surely it started to come off."
The changes were apparent to everyone. "The people I babysat for had entered
me, unbeknownst to me in the Miss Maryland Teenager Pageant. So, I got this
acceptance letter in the mail, and I was like, 'How the heck did this happen?'" She
went on to win the titles of Miss Teen All-American and Miss Maryland USA before
she was discovered by one of the judges, Richard Kline of Three’s Company
"It was a real change in the way people perceived me. From being '10 Ton Tonja'
and '2000 Ton Tonja' to 'Miss Whatever'. I don't think I have ever taken that for
granted. I think that’s the kind of thing that is in your mind for the rest of your
life, but I did have to learn from a very early age that it's what's inside that
counts and that people can be kind and people can be cruel. It's really not about
what's on the outside." She learned another lesson along the way: "It is easier to
be more successful in life when the outside looks like everybody wants it to.
That's when all the doors started opening for me, but I never forgot what was
really important. So, I guess that's why God has that as a part of my past."
She took this hard-learned lesson to Hollywood, and quickly got to work learning her
craft and making a name for herself in television and film. Almost immediately, she
was cast in Liar's Moon with Matt Dillon, and (auspiciously enough) in the mini series
The Gangster Chronicles. She went on to do a number of guest appearances on
television shows, and tells a funny story about her experience auditioning for Starr
Knight, the pilot for The Powers of Matthew Starr. "The other day I ran into Tom
Cruise at a benefit and I said, 'You're never going to remember this…' but one time I
was watching television—it was 60 Minutes or Dateline or something like that—they
were giving Brandon Tartikoff a hard time about the stars that he had let slip
through his fingers. Well, I'm watching this television show, and there I am, sleeping
with Tom Cruise. They cast Peter Barton, but Tom Cruise was auditioning with me,
right there on TV and I didn't even know that this had ever happened. So, when I
mentioned it to Tom last week, he said, 'That was February, 1981,' and I said, 'Do
you remember all the times they didn't hire you because there were so few?'"
She took the opportunity and ran with it, turning what was supposed to be a very
short-term character into the stuff of soap legend. The beautiful and devious mob
princess quickly became the arch-nemesis of beloved supercouple Anna and Duke
Lavery. "This was really important to me, you know, to make it work, so I kept trying
to find a soft spot in her that would make people compelled to feel for her even
though she was selfish, self-centered, evil. I wanted her to be misunderstood, and
not evil. I kept finding these ways to do this, and at the very, very, very, last minute,
right when I was just getting ready to pack up my room, they would come and say,
'Would you like to stay another six weeks? Would you like to stay another 13
weeks? Would you like to stay another 13 weeks?' and that continued for three
During the writers' strike of 1988, she became even more involved in the direction of
her character. "I began to work with the executive producer on this idea or that
idea. Most of it was him, not me, but I did have a little input there. You always have
a little bit once you've earned your stripes, but because of the writers' strike I think I
might have had a little bit extra. Just a little bit of extra input, because they needed
all the help they could get considering that the writers weren't there." Not that she
didn't thoroughly enjoy the direction the writers had already given Olivia. "The writers
had created something so—oh gosh, it was just a blast! I still look back at those
tapes and I just go 'God, what a blast!'"
She relished the role and the work day. "I loved it. I thought it was perfect. I didn't
have a complaint in the world. Every script I got, I couldn't wait to open." One of her
most beloved scenes is the one in which Anna has Olivia trapped in an elevator,
threatening to cut the cable unless Olivia confesses to her crimes. "The 58 pages
that Anna and I had in the elevator. We had 58 pages in a day. It's still on my reel.
She was so good and it just was amazing. It was some of the best work I've ever
done in my life. It was fabulous." (View Anna's Revenge, Parts 1 and 2)
She went on to be cast as Lizbeth Bachman on
the daytime series Capitol, and when her run
there ended, she fell on some tough times. "I
had been in a relationship that was really
dysfunctional and unhealthy and terrible for me
during that period of time. Work wasn't so
good, and I really needed something wonderful
to come along, and that is what General Hospital
was for me."
But getting cast on the show wasn't a simple
matter. "I was like the screen-test queen of
General Hospital. I mean I was in for everything
down to the wire—between you and someone
else, between you and someone else—until
finally, when Wes Kenney was the producer, I
got Olivia St. John."