Ilene Kristen must have a portrait in her closet that's aging, because there's not a sign of that natural process happening to the petite actress in the actual flesh. Really, she seems not to have changed an iota since we first laid eyes on her as the troubled, yet somehow endearing, Delia Reid Ryan 26 years ago on "Ryan's Hope." Her skin is unlined; her body is trim and fit. What is her secret, I beg to know? "Chinese herbs," she says simply. Chinatown, here I come!
Although I had met Ilene a couple of times over the years, I didn't really know her. But I knew she was a close friend of my own friend Nancy Addison, who originated the role of "RH's" Jillian Coleridge at the same time Ilene was introducing us to Delia. Any friend of Nancy's has to be someone I'd like, and Ilene turned out to be no exception. I wasn't surprised to discover that Ilene is highly intelligent, very funny and quite candid. I think all good actors have to be smart and intuitive. But what I hope also comes through in this interview is her serious, thoughtful side. Thanks to SoapNet's re-broadcasting of "Ryan's Hope," the landmark soap is enjoying a popular renaissance, even though it went off the air in 1989. I promised the show's fans an interview with Ilene (it's currently airing on SoapCenter, as well) and here it is. I hope you enjoy getting to know Ilene as much as I did.
Mimi: What have you been doing? We've been missing you.
Ilene: Oh, thank you. Well, I just finished doing an Off-Broadway show called "Blood Orange," that was at the Blue Heron Theater. It was a really very, very interesting show. Another show that I did with Chris Durham -- it was called "Save Me" -- where he played a 1940s detective.
Mimi: Was it ["Blood Orange"] a drama? Was it intense?
Ilene: It was very, very intense. It was about a group of kids in Orange County and their crazy mothers. I was one of the crazy mothers. It was quite…
Mimi: I can see that (laughs).
Ilene: Yeah, [the character of the mother was] kind of more concerned about her boyfriends than her daughter…
Mimi: Well, she must have been a young daughter; you look phenomenal.
Ilene: Thank you so much. Actually, she was Asian-American, which was really great. I thought it was really wonderful casting, actually.
Mimi: I can see that.
Ilene: It was wild. And then I just did a show with Chris Durham, called "Save Me."
Mimi: He's so cute. Is he still as good-looking as he always was?
Ilene: Oh, he's gorgeous, he's gorgeous, and he's great. He's just a wonderful guy.
Mimi: He's a darling guy.
Ilene: It's so nice to have that kind of history with somebody. Then you're up on stage with each other, and then when you screw up (laughs), you're looking at him like, "Save me," which was the name of the show. Every once in a while both of us would have to be saved because there were a lot of lines.
Mimi: [Was the pace of the lines] fast moving?
Ilene: [The pace was] very fast moving. You know that 1940s kind of detective talk.
Mimi: Do you know "Ryan's Hope" fans came to the show? Did they come backstage?
Ilene: Well, it was put out on one of the chat-rooms. So a couple people did show up. A lot of people made reservations and did not show up, which I thought was really strange… because I think there were about 20 reservations from fans… either that or they didn't come back.
Mimi: It's likely that maybe they didn't feel that they could come backstage. I don't think they would not show up, unless they were coming from out of town or something.
Ilene: Well, I don't know where they were coming from, but the word was out.
Mimi: Are you doing things with your music?
Ilene: Yes I am, actually. I don't really actually want to sing my music; I want other people to sing it.
Mimi: Do you have other people singing your songs?
Ilene: Yes. Right now I have a song on an album. The name of the album is called "In a Heartbeat" -- and that's the name of the song, "Heartbeat" -- and [it features] Chuck Loeb, who's a major jazz guitarist. And I believe the album is very high up on the smooth jazz record charts.
Mimi: Great, now what's it called again?
Ilene: "In a Heartbeat."
Mimi: "In a Heartbeat." Does it have lyrics?
Ilene: I wrote the lyrics.
Mimi: Is the song sung or is it played on the guitar?
Ilene: It's sung by another singer, someone he had hired, and he plays guitar on it. He's very well known in the business, so it was really quite an honor. It was a very unexpected honor. I've been writing with a group of people who are really out there in the music business.
Mimi: Well, you've been doing music for a long time; didn't you sing in a band?
Ilene: Yes, a long time. Yes, I've sung in many bands.
You were like a rock-and-roll chick, weren't you?
Ilene: I still actually am, actually. In my truest part of myself, I think that's really what I am.
Mimi: Would you have liked to have had gone that route, given your druthers?
Ilene: Yes, to some… yeah, I think I should have tried it and really gone for it because I'm a really good writer and I'm a very good performer in that way. I'm not the world's greatest singer but I'm a very good stylist. And I think doing my own stuff… But I love doing it so much I never really did it because I wanted anything. You know, I didn't want to get reviewed. I just liked doing it.
Mimi: Do you think that maybe having that ENORMOUS success you had as Delia in "Ryan's Hope," [that] it held you back from maybe moving on to something else?
Ilene: Not held me back… Being in the rock business, really, you have to kind of devote yourself to that. Can it translate into that? It can. There is somewhat of a label that people do sometimes place on a soap opera actor. Especially since I was SO well-known, it's not like I passed, you know, very quietly through that genre.
Mimi: No! You don't pass quietly through any genre! (laughs)
Ilene: (Makes a funny face and laughs) Thank you, I think. I think people got to know me so well from that so that the music always became like this kind of crazy hobby that I had. Before I did the soap, I was on Broadway in "Grease," which was a rock-and-roll show and I had been in a bunch of bands and was always writing music. But now I really like hearing other people.
Mimi: Doing your songs?
Mimi: That's very exciting. You know "Ryan's Hope" was such a groundbreaking show. It broke a lot of rules; it was in the city, New York City. It had Catholics in it… it had Jews…
Ilene: Right, right, right…
Mimi: It was real life, but it really touched a chord -- a sympathetic chord -- with viewers. What do you think it was about the show that made them take it to their hearts in such enormous ways?
Ilene: First of all, I have to say I think it was because of Claire and Paul. I think the very essence of that show was Claire and Paul, and the very drive of that show, and even the way they cast it. I'm getting chills thinking about it; walking into the room and auditioning for them was unlike any other audition I've ever had because they really… they had such a heart and soul. Right there it really emanated from a kind of… two people who are very different, very eccentric in their own way, very bohemian really. They cast according to what they wanted, and I don't think they took a lot of guff from what the network might have wanted. So right there, even before day one, the Bible on the show was really beautiful… because I had no interest in doing a soap whatsoever. In fact, I said to my agent, "I really don't want to do this but I'm fascinated with the character." He said, "Ah, it'll last for six months; you'll be free." But the character was so intriguing to me, and it was like… I based it on someone that I knew.
Mimi: I was going to ask you that, because she was so childish, and so selfish, and so self-involved, and yet she was highly loveable.
Ilene: I based it on someone that I knew -- not very well -- but I had like a front row seat in watching the trials and tribulations of this particular woman, who ended up committing… Well, I don't know if she committed suicide; it's kind of sketchy actually.
Mimi: But she came to an untimely end.
Ilene: She came to an untimely end, yes. She was a child-woman, which really is what Delia was and probably still would be to this day.
Mimi: What do you think it was that drove Delia… that made her do the things… ?
Ilene: She needed love.
Mimi: Is that all?
Ilene: Yes, I think that was a lot of it. I don't think she had the right amount of attention. Her father was kind of a ne'er-do-well… died relatively young, alcoholic; and her mother used to sell tokens in the subway stations, and I think her mother had certain problems and I think her mother died very young. And then it was just her and her brother. Her brother Bobby was great, but he really couldn't give her what she needed. Growing up next to this family, this hard-working, driven, good-looking family, the Ryans…
Mimi: And they were such a family. They had everything that Delia wanted.
Ilene: Yes, they had everything. They had everything. They had a mother, a father; they had brothers and sisters who were… not that I didn't have a great brother, but it was somewhat of a dysfunctional background. And the Ryans… she aspired to be the Ryans, God knows.
Mimi: Well, everybody would aspire to be like a Ryan, really. Those kinds of families hardly exist in our world anymore.
Ilene: Right, right. So she married into it.
Mimi: Yes, that's the way we do things sometimes. Did you ever think that this character [Delia] would be what she would be identified with for your professional life?
Ilene: That I would be identified with it?
Ilene: I didn't think it would continue to go on this amazingly long time, but I knew that the character had something that the audience wanted to see. I was very clear on what I wanted to do with it from the get-go. I felt like Delia's life was like going through a revolving door and I really wanted to try to bring that to the audience, because I felt like there hadn't been a character who could tear away at people like that. For the first week it wasn't easy; it wasn't easy because they'd follow me around -- my hair was in my face, my make-up was rolling down my face -- and they'd try and neaten me up all the time. I'd say, "Please don't. Please let this go on the air." I know Claire and Paul were all for it, but you have all these costumers and everybody going, "Fix this, fix that, fix that." You know, people were scared. People are scared on television sometimes [about] what they think the audience wants.
Mimi: It's not just television.
Ilene: You don't know what the audience wants, you know. I think you cannot condescend to an audience, and I think you can give them a lot. I think you can give them a lot of emotions to deal with, and complex emotions.
Mimi: Are you surprised that here the show is going again, and that there's still such a huge following?
Ilene: I'm not surprised that it's a big hit, if it is such.
Mimi: It is a big hit! The message boards are as viable and as wild?
Ilene: No, I'm not surprised. I'm kind of surprised that it's off the air, that the original show is off the air, because I think that's a show that might have had a pretty good survival.
Mimi: Absolutely, I think that people would have stayed with it.
Ilene: Yes, I think they would have. I think they would have. So that surprises me. The fact that people are, and a new audience is watching it, and engrossed in this? No, it doesn't surprise me one bit because -- I have to go back again to Claire and Paul.
Mimi: You worked with such an amazing group of actors. Who do you still keep up with?
Ilene: Oh, I see Nancy Addison Altman all the time.
Mimi: Now we know that Nancy is not well, and she had kept it quiet because she didn't want people to worry. "People Magazine" did a story on her and I know that her fans are [concerned about her]
Ilene: Yes, she's… Boy, she's really one of the strongest people, and one of the most elegant and one of the most graceful human beings and such an amazing friend. I've really learned about friendship. I have a lot of friends, but I've really learned the value of friendship. I have a lot of guy-friends and most of my friends are men, but this has really taught me about my female friends, and it's made a lot of my female friendships very, very strong. I see Nancy every couple of days and speak to her just about every day.
Mimi: She's very courageous, isn't she?
Ilene: [She's] courageous, and so lovely, and [has] such a wonderful sense of humor.
Mimi: She's so full of life, too.
Ilene: So full of life.
Mimi: It's a tragic irony that someone with her talent for living…
Ilene: Very ironic, very ironic. And who loves life, and loves life, and loves parties. So it's been… to some degree, it's still been a party. You know, my most favorite moments have been with Nancy over the last… well, it's almost been three years now…
Mimi: That she's been ill?
Ilene: Yes, but going with her to a restaurant is to me my favorite thing that I could possibly do. Or just sitting with her has been such an exquisite experience… to know somebody that well.
Mimi: Do you find also that she's sort of teaching you how to value your life and each moment of it?
Ilene: Yes, very much so. Sometimes when you see someone who's very ill it makes you scared about certain things -- things that you never thought of being scared of before. Sometimes you have to get over that. In some ways it's a very negative thing because you go, "Mmm, if it's not broken, don't fix it." But I so appreciate every moment and just the fact that I'm well, and my family is well, and [I] just pray for Nancy.
Mimi: Yeah, everybody does. Please tell her that I send my love and that I know that all of her fans ask about her all the time.
Ilene: Yeah, I hope she knows that people really do care. And I sent her something --somebody got something off of the Internet -- which was a magazine article about her from many years ago, and these beautiful pictures of her. I gave that to her; I just left it on the table. I didn't even show it to her. I just left it on the table and I just waited for her to find it. Finally she picked it up and goes, "What the hell is this? What the hell is this, my hair is down to here?" So it was just a really beautiful article.
Mimi: She's very beautiful and she's got a great husband.
Ilene: Oh, the best.
Mimi: Dan, he's a fabulous man.
Ilene: The best, the best. They're just a great couple. In fact, they're a very inspirational couple. I've tried to use them as an example when I'm talking to men about having relationships… about devotion to one another, without it being a strangle.