Marinez's Sexy Soap Star
General Hospital Heartthrob Maurice Bernard weighs in on his family, his Emmy, and the future
Stand in line at any supermarket, and chances are you’ll see Maurice Benard gazing back at you from the cover of a soap opera magazine. With his soulful brown eyes and megawatt smile, Benard, who portrays mobster Sonny Corinthos on ABC’s General Hospital, has become one of the most recognized actors on daytime television. >>>
Many remember Benard as Mauricio Morales, a boy who grew up in Martinez, adopted his grandma’s surname, and moved to Hollywood to pursue fame and fortune.
So how does a nice guy from the East Bay become a TV heartthrob? For Emmy award-winning actor Benard, 41, the road to fame hasn’t always been easy. Recently, he spoke to Diablo about his hometown memories, his public battle with bipolar disorder, and Sonny’s future on the popular drama.
DIABLO: When you were first cast on General Hospital (GH) in 1993, your character, Sonny, owned a strip club and was knee-deep in organized crime. In the ensuing years, fans have seen a kinder, gentler Sonny. Why the change?
Maurice Benard: When I first appeared on GH, I had a six-month contract, and we emphasized Sonny’s past. He had been abused and abandoned by his father, and had done what he needed to do to survive. Over the years, we’ve started to show more of Sonny’s vulnerable side and the intense love he has for his wife and children. The writers have let Sonny become more relaxed. I’m able to smile and laugh a lot more now.
D: You received three Emmy nominations, and then won Best Actor in a Daytime Drama in 2003. Last year, you lost to costar Anthony Geary (Luke). How does it feel to win? And is it hard to lose to a colleague?
MB: It took me 10 years to win the award. And when I won, it was a great! Each year, nominees submit two complete shows for voter consideration. I really felt Tony had better entries this year, although he said at the ceremony that I was robbed. That was the most gracious and incredible thing a colleague could say.
D: You have a zillion fan sites all across the Internet that claim it’s Sonny’s role as a lover, not a fighter, that has been key to your popularity. Do you agree?
MB: I’ve worked with a bevy of beauties over the years, and fans definitely have very strong feelings about Sonny’s relationships with Brenda (Vanessa Marcil), Alexis (Nancy Lee Grahn), and Carly (Tamara Braun). I get a lot of fan mail dictating who should be my on-screen love interest, but that’s decided by the writers, not me. The intensity of my fans continues to amaze me. When I won the Emmy last year for Best Actor in a Daytime Drama, the fans went absolutely crazy. It’s incredible to have such loyal fans.
D: Are you a lover or a fighter in real life?
MB: Probably a combination. I love my wife and children. My family is the best thing that ever happened to me, and Paula is truly my best friend and my savior. The only fighting I do is boxing at the gym with my costars Tyler Christopher (Nikolas), M’fundo Morrison (Justus), and Steve Burton (Jason). We get together and spar after work. It’s fun—and a great way to relieve stress.
D: So who’s the best boxer?
MB: I think we’re all pretty good, but M’fundo is a natural. He could have gone pro.
D: How much do you have in common with Sonny?
MB: I was kind of a troublemaker as a teen. Sonny reminds me of how I acted at high school parties after a few drinks.
D: You’re somewhat of an enigma around Martinez. A lot of people grew up with you and are now Sonny fans.
MB: Martinez was a nice place to grow up. I come from a close-knit family. My dad, Humberto, is originally from Nicaragua, and my mom, Martha, is from San Salvador. I went all through local schools (Hidden Valley, Valley View, and College Park), and as a teenager, I hung out at Sunvalley Mall. That’s where I met my future wife, Paula. She worked at the Merry-Go-Round store in Concord. One day I asked her for a date … and the rest is history. We’ve been together more than 20 years.
D: Do you ever return to Martinez? Been to any high school reunions?
MB: My parents still live in Martinez, so I visit once or twice a year. They’re retired, so it’s easier for them to come and spend time with my family at our home in the Hollywood hills. I have mixed feelings about attending a reunion. There are some people I’d love to see, but there were also those who ridiculed me when I decided to pursue a modeling and acting career right out of high school. Some people didn’t understand that acting has always been my passion.
D: So when you’re not charming actresses or ordering mob hits on GH, what do you do for fun?
MB: I like to spend time with my family. Paula and I have two daughters, Cailey, 10, and Cassidy, 5, and a newborn son, Joshua.We do typical family things like going to Disneyland or to the movies. Other than that, I lead a fairly quiet life. In the evening, when I’m reading scripts for the week, I’ll watch television.
D: I imagine you’re a Sopranos fan.
MB: (laughs) I’ve watched The Sopranos, but my vice is [watching] a lot of the reality shows. I saw Extreme Makeover, Home Edition the other night, and it was phenomenal.
D: What would you like to see happening with Sonny in the future?
MB: I just signed a new four-year contract that gives me a lot of creative freedom, so Sonny will definitely be around. I’ve tried to convince the writers to include a story line where Sonny evolves into a manic-depressive.
D: You’ve spoken publicly about your own struggle with bipolar disorder, appearing on Oprah last year, and serving as a spokesperson for the National Mental Health Association. Do you hope sharing your experiences will help others?
MB: I certainly hope to bring more awareness to the condition. I was first hospitalized with a nervous breakdown when I was 22, and no one really knew what it was. They thought it was drugs or alcohol. I finally met a psychiatrist who said, "You’re manic-depressive," and put me on lithium.
D: How has being manic-depressive changed you?
MB: Even when I was going through the bad times, I knew it was all for a reason. I think being bipolar has helped me in my portrayal of Sonny, who comes from a place of rage and pain. Someone asked me recently if I’d go through the breakdowns again to be where I am today, and I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I have a terrific wife and children, great parents and a brother, good friends, and a career I love. Life doesn’t get much better. n
Martinez’s Linda Childers was pleased to discover that Maurice
Benard went to the same elementary school her six-year-old son attends.