Back in the mid-’90s, when all my prepubescent male friends were raving about the latest episode of Power Rangers or Monday Night Raw at recess, I was biting my tongue. That’s because, thanks to no-fun gender norms, I couldn’t talk about what I really wanted to talk about: the wildest, weirdest, most grippingly addictive show on television. I’m talking Days of Our Lives.
My grandma was a gateway to soap operas. I remember sitting on the floor next to her, fiddling with my action figures while she tuned in religiously to her poveşti (that’s Romanian for “stories”) on weekday afternoons. It wasn’t long before I got hooked on them myself. From Y&R to Guiding Light, there were too many parallels to wrestling for me not to take notice — the heel turns, the revenge plots, the reunions! So invested in soaps did I become that I would often feign sickness so I could stay home from school and keep up with the storylines.
Still, none captivated me quite like Days. In the ’90s, when soaps were trying to out-crazy each other in a bid for daytime ratings supremacy, Days was by far the craziest. Their plot twists were literally out of this world. There were sexy, naked alien invaders, murder-happy doppelgängers, and the most extra story arc of all: when Marlena Evans (Deidre Hall), the show’s saintly heroine, got possessed by Lucifer himself, gaining the ability to levitate and projectile vomit pea soup all over her husband. Days’ writers were unafraid to test the limits of their audience, some of whom had been comfort-watching the show since the ’60s (my grams included). It was, dare I say, the ballsiest run on daytime TV. Hell, maybe all of TV.
Let’s talk Days of Our Lives: Beyond Salem in 2021
Well, I’m happy to report that, three decades later, Days is gloriously weird again. In the new limited series Days of Our Lives: Beyond Salem, characters from the past and present — like Billie Reed (Lisa Rinna), Ciara Brady (Victoria Konefal) and John Black (Drake Hogestyn) — assemble Avengers-style to cross the globe in search of some stolen jewels which, in the wrong hands, could have cataclysmic consequences. What’s more, this fall, Scary Marlena will return with a vengeance. The show’s producers have confirmed that, after 27 years, the devil is coming once again for Evans’ soul, bringing one of TV’s most batshit storylines back from the dead. You’ll want to book some sick days for this.
We caught up with Marlena herself, Diedre Hall, to talk Drake, getting repossessed by Satan, and how, like sands through the hourglass, so is the multi-generational fanbase of Days of Our Lives.
How’s it going, Diedre?
“Great. I’ve just dedicated my day to this and it’s for the most part going pretty smoothly. And what’s going on in Canada?”
Oh, big day for Canada. You know, Drake just dropped his album, so we’re all bumping it.
“Oh, my God, is that right?”
Are you not a Drake fan?
“Oh, I don’t know. If he woke me at midnight, I couldn’t even tell you who he is. So there you go. But don’t tell him that because I’m sure he watches Days of Our Lives and that would hurt his feelings.”
Well, I just want to say, I’ve been watching you basically all my life. My grandma watched Days of Our Lives back in Romania, overdubbed in Romanian. And then when she immigrated to Canada to raise me, she continued watching it and it helped her learn English. And so along the way, I got hooked on it myself as a child.
“That is amazing. That is amazing. I didn’t know we aired in Romania. I mean, that’s just lovely. But, you know, I have heard the part about learning English from watching the show. I have heard that before. Because we have such dynamic storylines, it’s not hard to watch and follow what’s going on and then follow what the words we’re saying are.”
I was going to ask, are you aware that you have this fanbase that spans, you know, generations and continents?
“I do know that, Alex, because when we do fan events, we have people come up for an autograph that are three generations. ‘This is my mom, this is my grandma, this is my daughter, and we all watched you together.’ And it really is a generational event, I think. It also gives people topics that they can discuss without getting invested too much. You know, you’ve got a gay storyline, so now we can talk about what gay means to people because it’s on television. ‘It’s not me, mom!’ We had a crib death that was just extraordinary many, many years ago because it had never been done on television. And at the moment when Marlena walked in and saw that crib and the baby and realized what had happened, phone lines lit up all over the country from women calling and saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, it happened to us. I’m watching the television. You’ve got to come home and watch with me, I don’t wanna do this alone.’ And we reflect what is in the world and what people are going through. And hopefully, in many cases, we help them deal with it and show them how we’re dealing with it.”
See also: The 15 healthiest portrayals of sex on TV.
It’s true. It gives families an entryway to talk about certain issues that might otherwise be kind of too thorny to broach.
“Oh, good word. Thorny, I like that. Is that a Canadian word? I’m gonna use that! [laughs] Anyway, you watching Days with your grandma is not especially surprising to me. And kids would often have teenage babysitters during the day, so she just plops down to watch her show and the child watches it. So, yeah, we get more viewers that way. We like it!”
I remember when I was a child, I used to pretend to be sick so I could stay home from school and find out what happened on the next episode.
[laughs] “We had that a lot with certain episodes, like, wedding episodes. When Bill and Susan [Hayes, the real-life couple who played Doug and Julie on Days] got married on the show, I’m sure nobody went to school. Nobody went to their college classes. And the days before the VCR made it so easy? You betcha. I’m staying home. So, you were not the only one. Trust me.”
A lot of people tell me it’s odd that I’m a male and a fan of soap operas. Have you noticed that Days has a larger male fanbase than people realize?
“I’m not aware of what the [gender] breakdown is for Days. And typically, we think about women and their soaps. But I think with the advent of the VCR and also people watching with their grandmas, I think we’ve got probably a lot more men than we would’ve thought. Do you have guy friends that watch it?”
No, I’m the only one [laughs].
“Oh. But then do you talk about it?”
I do, you know, with female friends who grew up watching it. It’s something we can bond over.
“Oh! What a great way to meet women! That’s perfect.”
I suppose it’s paid dividends later in life.
[laughs] “There you have it.”
One of the appeals to me was I saw a lot of parallels between soap operas and wrestling, which I also grew up watching. You know, there was drama, there were allegiances, there was backstabbing. Is that something you’ve thought about yourself? The similarities between soap operas and wrestling?
“I think of it all the time, Alex! A day doesn’t go by that I don’t talk about, ‘Have you thought how much this love scene looked like that match Bruno and Harvey were having the other day’ — no I don’t. I don’t at all. I’ve never thought about it. But clearly you have! Maybe some of your wrestling pals will start watching soaps, since they’re so much alike.”
I honestly think there are some parallels! One of the big tropes in wrestling was you’d have good guys who would turn heel and become villains. And that happened a lot in soaps too. One Days storyline from the ’90s that particularly grabbed me — or rather scarred me — was when you were possessed by the devil. It was one of the most frightening things I had ever seen on TV.
“Oh my God. How old were you?”
I was like seven or eight.
“Oh, honey, you shouldn’t be watching that stuff [at that age]. That’s just not healthy for you [laughs]. I think it was especially frightening because Marlena is such a consistent and reliable character. So, when she goes around the bend, you’ve got to think, ‘Now the world has turned on its axis. Now there’s something seriously wrong.’ When we can’t even count on Marlena, what’s left of us?”
That’s the thing! Marlena was so caring and kind and such a good person. And then you see her go evil. It’s just like, oh no!
[laughs] “And your grandma still let you watch it. I gotta have a talk with her.”
Yeah, she was shocked herself.
“I bet she was.”
What went into preparing for that plot twist? What was it like getting into the headspace of someone inhabited by the devil?
“You know, we had begun many years ago, 25 years ago, in the storyline, having things happen around Salem that were unusual. Christmas trees burst into flames and gifts burst into flames and just supernatural things. And we, as the cast, had no idea what was going on. We didn’t know! So we were playing the stories as we got the script. And before we broke for Christmas that year, I was called upstairs to meet with the producer and the writer. And I went, ‘Oops, this can’t be a good meeting.’ And they told me at that point, ‘You’re going to be possessed by the devil. And that’s what’s been going on. The devil’s been making all these things happen and that’s going to be you.’ And my only concern was, is our audience going to buy devil possession? Maybe that’s not for a mainstream audience. But they reassured me [it would work]. And so, it wasn’t a surprise to me that we did it. I knew ahead of time. We were watching very closely to see how the audience would react, and they loved it. Having said that, at that point in time, the only real thing that we could do was put contact lenses in me so you knew that, ‘Oh yellow eyes, OK, she’s the devil.’ Now, 25 years later, fast forward and we have such great special effects, such great gimmicks, that this possession is really different. So if it scared you as a seven year old, it’s going to really finish you off now [laughs].”
Oh wait, so there’s another possession?!
“You know, some people have been asking about it, so I’m assuming the word is kind of out there, so I guess we’re OK to talk about it. So yes.”
Wow. So it’s happening again.
“It’s happening again. How do you feel?”
I’m terrified! Terrified all over again.
[laughs] “That’s funny. It’ll scare you even more this time.”
I can’t believe it! So then, what’s it like revisiting this, you know, Scary Marlena character?
“You know, she’s up to no good and I wasn’t sure what the goal was until I was told why we’re doing it. But more exciting to me is the special effects now because we were never able to do things like that before. At one point, my arm catches fire. Oh, there we have it! I don’t think I can tell you much more about it, but there are things that happen that make you think, ‘Ooo, how’d they do that? That’s really great!’”
Yeah, effects have advanced greatly! Can’t wait to see that. I know that your limited series Beyond Salem is sort of this international mystery caper featuring the old gang again. What I loved about Days growing up was it liked to dabble in other genres. You had that whole horror turn in the ’90s and once again now, and I remember there was this sci-fi, alien storyline back in the day. Can you talk about that? Why does Days like to play around with the soap genre like that?
“I think we have a comfort level with our audience. I think that they trust us to take them to a place that’s not unsafe, but maybe something new. And we did a lot of firsts! We did the first gay storyline. We did the first crib death. We did the first twin storyline. I myself did it! In soaps, it’s not possible to do [doppelgängers] without a lot of trick photography and there’s no time for that, so Ann Marcus, who was then writing the show, found out that I had an identical twin and said, ‘How fast can we get her here?’ And that was a storyline that lasted for about a year and a half. It was fabulous for people. And then she came back as Hattie the Evil Curmudgeon, and she was spectacular. So yeah, we have a lot of advantages in daytime.”
You may also like: Why we crush on celebrities and what it means, according to an expert.
You’ve played Marlena for a pretty long time now, so obviously you must like the character at least a little bit! It’s been a constant in many people’s lives, which is great. But I’m just wondering: what do you like about playing Marlena Evans?
“You know what? I do like playing Marlena. And if I were to say what I like about playing the devil, it’s I like being able to depart from that lovely woman, because it ain’t a whole lot of fun being nice all the time. Having said that, it’s what I love about her. I love that people trust her, that people want to be like her. I hear that all the time: ‘I want to be a therapist when I grow up, having watched you. I want to be somebody that people trust.’ And I think there must be a hunger in this country for people who are really, deeply trustworthy. If nothing else, on screen we get to have that. Do you agree?”
I agree. I think so.
“Role models. They need role models!”
We do! There’s not enough genuinely good, pure people on TV.
“Not to mention in politics too.”
[laughs] That’s a whole other conversation! Well, I just hope you don’t inspire people to break bad and channel their inner demons now.
[laughs] “I think our audience is smart enough not to think it’s real.”
It was real to me!
“But you were seven! C’mon, give us a break here.”
It’s just like wrestling! I thought that was real too.
“Oh Alex, you must be so disheartened. Well listen, say hello to everybody in Canada. We don’t get a lot of chances to talk to our fans in Canada, and we know they are ardent and supportive and we love them out there, so we want them to know that we care.”
I’ll tell Drake you said hi.
“Oh please do, because we’re now close personal friends. Thank you.” [laughs]
Days of Our Lives: Beyond Salem is available on STACKTV. The series will also premiere on W Network as a one-day marathon on Thanksgiving Monday (October 11). The marathon will take place between 2pm-7pm ET and repeat 8pm-1am ET.