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New daytime column: ''Soap Watch''

EW.com’s new soap opera column debuts this week with a Q&A with ”All My Children” newbie Mario van Peebles, plus scoops on ”Young and the Restless,” ”Days of Our Lives,” ”General Hospital,” and more…

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All My Children, Mario Van Peebles, ...

We’re sure you have an excuse: ”Oh, I used to watch in college,” ”My roommate got me hooked,” ”There’s nothing else on when I’m home sick,” or, our personal favorite, ”They’re so ridiculous they’re funny.” Okay, fine. But the bottom line is you do watch soap operas — and so do we. That?s why, starting today, we?ll be bringing you ”Soap Watch,” a weekly mix of news and interviews from the world of daytime drama. (We’ll also be launching a soap opera component on our fansite, TVFan, in the near future.) So welcome to your newest guilty pleasure — which, of course, you’ll only read while eating lunch at your desk… or because your best friend keeps sending you links… or when you ”just need to zone out for a minute”… Yeah. We know.

THE Q&A: Mario Van Peebles (Samuel Woods, All My Children)

It was quite a coup for All My Children to land writer-director-actor Mario van Peebles. Since his first major direction project, New Jack City, made him a household name back in 1991, Van Peebles has been involved with a steady stream of projects, most recently directing two episodes of the FX series Damages, the upcoming sci-fi feature The Uniter, which he also wrote and will star in, and taking a role alongside Mira Sorvino and Timothy Hutton in the ensemble cast of Multiple Sarcasms, set for release later this year. It didn’t take long for Van Peebles to make waves in Pine Valley as the new district attorney, and we decided to check in and ask him about his turn as the latest man to fall victim to the charms of daytime’s ultimate diva, Erica Kane.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: People might not know this but you?re no stranger to daytime TV.
MARIO VAN PEEBLES: When I first started out, I did a lot of theater in New York and then I did One Life to Live with Agnes Nixon [creator of One Life and All My Children]. Her shows are pretty hip in terms of stuff that they?ve tackled. But when they approached me about this I didn?t feel that I?d do that again.

Why did you change your mind?
They came back with great things and kept upping the ante, and it was like an offer I couldn?t refuse. One thing was that I?m not on contract. So it was a great relationship. It?s not something that meant I couldn?t do the other things that I have going on. The second thing was I get to do this kind of character who is passionate about people and things green.

Have environmental issues always been a big deal for you?
When I graduated from Columbia University, I majored in economics and I worked for two years for the [former New York City Mayor Ed] Koch Administration in the Department of Environmental Protection. I had this idea that I could work on the environment. So I had to wear the suit and tie and I did that for a little while and quickly realized that government seemed like a lot of little interest groups pulling on a big rope like a huge tug of war, but there?s very little net movement of the actual rope itself. And my first love was film, so I wanted to get back into film.

I have this show [Equator TV series MVP’s Green House] where my family and I are building a sustainable house together. So when I talked to the folks at All My Children about this role, we talked about a character who was someone who cared about green issues. So they said that we?ll make this character a senator who is passionate about green issues. So no contract, a character that I really dig, and it?s from [Nixon], a woman who is way ahead of her time on so many fronts.

What?s it been like to work with Susan Lucci?
She?s really cool. She still has energy and sparkle for this. Still excited about her job. Still learning. And I think that has to do with how we age. And the fact that everything is not just a question of diet and working out, but it?s a question of intention and outlook. And she?s just got that sparkle.

What have been some of the challenges of going back to a soap?
It’s surprisingly fast. It?s a whole different rhythm. Going there and bam! You make it happen. The first couple of times when they go to the out — you know, the outs? When you have to look meaningfully at each other [at the end of a scene]? — I sort of looked like the lost RCA Victor dog. ”What the hell, they didn’t say cut!” And Susan’s still making it live and bubbly. And I’m watching her going, ”What is she doing?” And then I go, ”Oh! That’s that thing they do.” So I’m getting better at the out. This is just a sort of heightened reality.

People have made a big deal of the fact that if your character and Erica become romantic, it would be her first interracial relationship. What do you think about that?
I don’t know. My mom’s white. My dad’s black. We’ve always been able to paint with all the colors in my family. So I’m not so color focused. That would be more a viewer thing. Even in the climate that we’re in election-wise, I like to think that America is growing up. I like to think that we’re getting past all that stuff and looking at the people. But maybe that’s naive. The fact is it’s an interesting dynamic.

It sounds like you’re having a good time.
Having a blast. It’s a cool character and I really enjoy it. And I’m getting to say a lot of things I care about. And whenever they want to get rid of me or have my twin leave, they can do it. [Laughs]

NEXT: Writer shake-up at Y&R, and an old friend comes back to Days of Our Lives.

Salem Gets Pumped
American GladiatorsTitan (Mike O’Hearn) is stopping by the set of Days of Our Lives on Wednesday (Feb. 27) to tape a few scenes as a helpful bartender trying to sober up Chelsea Brady (Rachel Melvin), who’s drowning her sorrows about her family’s misfortunes. The 6’3”, 260-pound bodybuilding legend also tells Shawn and Belle where to find Chelsea when they come looking for her. His episode will air on March 14.

Trading Places
Insiders confirm that Josh Griffith — who served as head writer on CBS’ The Young and the Restless after executive producer Lynn Marie Latham went on strike with the Writers Guild of America — has earned the title of EP now that the strike is over. Meanwhile, Latham, whose contract expires soon, is expected to leave the show. “When the news broke, Y&R fans [on message boards] at Soap Opera Network started to celebrate because they’ve been very dissatisfied with the quality of the show for over a year now,” says SON co-founder Xavier Toups. ”A lot of fans are hoping that Y&R will return to its traditional and classic ways.” This appears to be the second of such big writer shakeup on daytime this month: the Internet has been flooded with rumors that most of the writers on NBC’s Days Our Lives have also been fired, though NBC declined repeated requests for comment. — Lynette Rice

Night and Daytime
General Hospital is bringing something from its SOAPnet spinoff Night Shift back to daytime: CGI. The conclusion of the ”Text Message Killer” storyline will incorporate a death-defying CGI’ed car scene that jeopardizes the lives of the two women important to both Lucky and Jason. ”The opportunity for us in daytime to break open the whole look of the show is very exciting,” said exec producer Jill Pharren Phelps. Also on GH, an ”In Loving Memory of Shell Kepler” graphic will air at the end of the episode that airs on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Kepler, who played nurse Amy Vining for 23 years, died of renal failure on Feb. 1.

Location, Location, Location
You may have also noticed something different about the look of Guiding Light lately. The longest running broadcast show has changed its whole production model, started using hand-held cameras, added 32 new sets, and is filming on location more. The changes can already be seen in some of the outdoor scenes currently airing, and the entire show will change format on Feb. 29.

Life in the Cast Lane
Emmy-nominated actress Patsy Pease will reprise her role as Kimberly Brady on Days of Our Lives for two days on Feb. 27-28, delivering a powerful eulogy at Grandpa Shawn’s funeral…. Soap Central is reporting that Jeff Branson (Jonathan Lavery) will leave All My Children in the next few weeks. Reps for the show deny that the portrayer of his character’s longtime love interest, Leven Ramblin (Lily Montgomery) is also leaving…. Tom Pelphrey is making it a short-lived return to Guiding Light, according to Soap Opera Digest. Pelphrey (Jonathan Randall) came back to GL just last month and will end his run in March.

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