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Closer to Home

Soap actress Martha Byrne talks about finding faith across the country before moving back home to be with her family.

Martha Byrne on being closer to home and family

Kidnapped five times, married five times. I’ve been tortured, had my children taken from me and in my late twenties I discovered my long-lost twin sister. No sooner did we meet than the two of us were trapped for days at the bottom of a well. Not long after that she was poisoned, and died on her wedding day. Not only did I mourn her death but I had to do the dying as well (I played both parts).

You see, I’ve done all these things as an actress on the daytime television drama As the World Turns, a career that’s given me enormous satisfaction. But much of it would never have happened if it weren’t for an important conversation I had a dozen years ago when the world felt very lonely to me.

The acting started when I was 10. My best friend, Allison Smith, had read about an open call for the Broadway musical Annie, and was excited about it. “Let’s go to the tryouts,” she said enthusiastically.

“I’ll ask my mom,” I told her.

We lived across the bridge in New Jersey, and Mom agreed to take Allison and me into the city just on a lark. She figured we’d do the audition and we would get it out of our systems. Then we could go out for a nice lunch afterward.

The huge theater was overrun with girls our age. All of them vying to be one of the orphans living “a hard knock life.” Girls singing “Tomorrow, tomorrow…” and practicing dance steps in the halls. A few even wore bright red wigs. Some of the girls had professional headshots, typeset résumés and mothers who pushed and bragged.

You know what? Of those 700 girls, only two were picked: Allison and me. We were in the show. Suddenly my mom was driving us to the city six days a week for shows. Allison and I were funny and cute and singing our lungs out. It was…fun. I was a professional actress!

From Annie I went on to make commercials and TV shows, and eventually I landed a long-running part on the soap opera As the World Turns. I loved acting, but I loved my life at home even more—playing Monopoly with my brother and sisters, renting videos or just making each other laugh. Sunday morning was really special. That’s when we all went together to the pretty little church down the street. At 17 I won an Emmy. My whole family came with me to the award ceremony at Radio City Music Hall.

“Now if you really want a career,” people said, “you’ll have to go to Hollywood. That’s where you need to be seen.” That’s where the prime-time television shows were cast and the big movies made. That’s where the big agents worked and the big studios were. That’s where the big breaks happened.

I had just recently graduated from Immaculate Heart Academy in New Jersey when I announced to my parents and siblings that I was California-bound. I said goodbye to my colleagues on As the World Turns and thanked them for the tremendous experience I had gotten. I said goodbye to the house and the pretty little church, and packed my bags. Hollywood, here I come!

I’d been in the business for almost 10 years. I had been in front of a camera day in and day out. I knew how to memorize a page of dialogue in a snap, take direction and work with other actors. I had tons of video clips. Finding an agent wasn’t hard. The work came my way, the way it had back when I lived in New Jersey.

You could see me as somebody’s younger sister in a made-for-TV movie, or I was someone else’s girlfriend in a feature film. I auditioned for commercials and got sent out for interviews for TV shows. I made a pilot and then another pilot.

But in between jobs I sat in my apartment and wondered why I wasn’t having fun auditioning anymore. I remembered how my mom used to sit backstage at the theater during Annie, talking with the other moms as she waited for me to finish the show. We laughed about things on the way home, and pretended that the Lincoln Tunnel would take us all the way to Florida. I still talked to Mom and everyone else all the time. Still, you can’t pop popcorn and play Monopoly over the telephone.

Allison Smith moved out to L.A. too, and I’d call her to have someone familiar to talk to. “You’re doing really well, Martha,” she said encouragingly.

“I guess so.”

But was I? I kept waiting for the one job that would make me happy. That one show, that one movie, that one big part. The next time the phone rings, I told myself, it’ll be the thing I’ve always wanted to do. That’s what I was here for. If I could just stick with it long enough. Go to auditions, go to interviews, meet people.

Not far from my apartment was a church with lovely stained glass windows, a little like the one back in Jersey. I went there on Sundays, just like at home, but it didn’t feel like home. I’d just drive back to my apartment where the phone never seemed to ring often enough and the videos stacked up of the pilots that never went anywhere.

One day my agent called with some disappointing news. A big part I was up for went to somebody else. I couldn’t sit in the apartment alone. I needed to talk to someone. Mom and Dad always said you could talk to God when you had to share your troubles. But I’d done my share of talking to God in my bedroom. Now I wanted to talk to another person. I drove down to the church. I went up the steps of the rectory and rang the bell. Soon a white-haired man answered the door. One of the priests.

“Please, I need to talk to someone.”

We sat in the back of the hushed, empty sanctuary. The stained glass windows seemed to slow the light as it filtered through the rich hues. I’d seen this priest on Sundays. We had shaken hands once or twice, but I’m sure he thought I was just another of the many actresses who come and go in Hollywood over the years. Now, though, he acted as though I were the most important person he’d ever met. His eyes almost never left mine.

I told him about the church I’d gone to at home and the school where I’d studied. I talked about my family and the way they would come to all my shows and watch all the things I did on TV. I had such a vivid memory of my sister Fran holding up a sign when I was a finalist for Annie. “Go, Martha!” it said, as though I were one of the top scorers on the field hockey team at school.

“You miss your family,” he said.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them,” I admitted.

“It sounds like you really want to go back to New Jersey to be with them.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks. My family. Just the word made me cry. That was exactly what I wanted more than anything else. I’d known it all along, of course. Funny that I needed to hear someone else say it. “But what about my career?” I asked. “I had some big dreams.…”

“God has a way of bringing us what we truly need when we follow our hearts’ desires,” the priest said.

I didn’t need to hear any more. A month later I was back home, living temporarily with Mom and Dad, going to our old church, catching up with my brother and sisters. It was like my life went from black-and-white to color again.

Within a month I met the man who became my husband and the father of my children. At almost the same time I got a call from the head scriptwriter of As the World Turns. “Martha,” he asked, “would you like to come back on the show?”

I had to explain to him that I didn’t come East to look for work. I came here to be closer to home. But since he’d made the offer.…Well, I haven’t been off the show since. Sure, there are times when the schedule is hectic. I mean, how many traumas can you have even if they are all made up? But my off-screen life is anything but traumatic. I have all the people I love most close by. It’s a beautiful reminder that as wonderful a job is, it’s still just a job.

Family? That’s forever. Family. There’s that word again.

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