As GH's reluctant heartthrob, Tyler Christopher would rather be remembered for baring his soul than his chest
- by Robert Schork
In talking with Tyler Christopher, it is easy to see why General Hospital chose him to play an adolescent wise beyond his years, and old soul whose sophistication and maturity belie his youthful facade. Much like his character, Christopher is driven by a fierce yearning to be taken seriously -- in interviews and conversations as much as in his acting. ''I don't like to talk about just nothing when I do these interviews,'' Christopher ever so gently informs. ''I just like people to know those things about me so when -- especially down the line -- when somebody's like, 'Oh, I remember Tyler when he used to be all messed up outside a bar,' I can say, 'Yeah, well, I told everyone in the world that, too. It's no surprise!'' If you come off honest like that, I think people respect you more.''
To be sure, Christopher is an actor who'd much prefer to be remembered for baring his soul than his chest - in fact, he insists upon it. Now two years into the role of Niklolas Cassadine, Christopher has been shirtless only once on GH; a refreshing record in daytime, where many of Christopher's handsome young contemporaries debut sans shirt, and remain so. But for Christopher, one such scene was one too many. It called for Nikolas suddenly to go skinny-dipping off the docks of Spoon Island, with no obvious story point. The abject gratuitousness of such a contrivance was not lost on the actor. ''RIght then, that's when I chose not to do shirtless scenes anymore, because it wasn't justified, and I knew I was uncomfortable with it.''
The show quickly compensated for Christopher's modesty by dressing the actor in tight-fitting threads that leaves as little to the imagination as sartorially possible. But true to his convictions, Christopher has stood his ground. ''To tell a compelling story, you can't do it half-naked.'' Unless, of course, the storyline calls for it -- such as a love scene, which Christopher would welcome with an open shirt as well as open arms. ''Hopefully, it will go somewhere in that direction,'' Christopher sighs, a tinge of frustration detectable in his soft-spoken, genteel voice. ''Playing younger than my age is a growing frustration for me... to not be able to see the character grow even more into a man yet.'' To the extent possible within the limitations of the scripts, Christopher is ''trying to incorporate that into my scenes - like Nikolas being more of a man, taking more control.''
As Christopher attempts to nudge his alter ego into taking a firmer grasp of things, the actor freely admits that, after two very eventful years, he's eager to stop and smell the roses. ''I'm still in a tailspin. It's going to take far beyond these two years for me to absorb every way that my life has changed, both professionally and personally. So much has happened - and it's still happening,'' he says with a warm, disarming laugh. ''I can't believe that I'm in my last year [of my contract] already. I feel I have so much more to do. So, we'll see what happens. I'm hoping that things will start motoring again here pretty soon. Two writer changes in two years is a crazy thing to go through. It takes time to redevelop characters. But I think, by the end of the summer, it'll be going full blast again.''
While Christopher eagerly awaits storyline acceleration, his celebrity has been running on all eight cylinders since his GH debut -- rendering this boy from Ohio breathless. Luckily, he has still managed to elude the prickly downside of celebrity that has caught up with his fiancee, co-star Vanessa Marcil (Brenda). Despite Marcil's experiences, Christopher maintains he's liberated himself from such concerns. ''I used to freak out about what people would say, but you, know, I'm a good person. Most people don't listen to that sh--. And those who do -- who cares about them, anyway? I'm just so happy that I'm not worried about it anymore. I'd be worried if I was destructive. You know, the kind of person caught with a loaded 9-mm underneath my seat, with a kilo of coke.''
Christopher concedes that both he and Marcil have paid a price for sharing the spotlight, as they soon found their relationship competing for media attention with their professional work. Instead of concentrating on the fruits of their on-screen labor, much ado has been made of when they are planning to tie the knot. ''Everyone has had their own idea as to when we were [going to marry]; it was really funny. That part of it was rough, which is why we've chosen to step away from the spotlight as a couple. We choose to remain private, and probably always will. And since we've made that choice, it's been a lot easier on both of us.''
Christopher attributes his success to being controlled by the mixed blessing of a keenly honed competitive streak -- one that at first proved to be his undoing. ''It wasn't even that I was extremely focused, because I wasn't. To be focused is to have your mind clear of everything, and mine was cluttered with things from my past, mostly my competitiveness.'' At first, Christopher successfully applied that drive to baseball, which was his original career aspiration. ''I was always really good at it, to the point where I was one of the best.'' Christopher soon learned the lesson of relativity when he found himself the smaller fish in the bigger pond of collegiate athletics. ''All of a sudden, I wasn't the best anymore. I didn't know how to deal with it. So rather than lifting myself up and trying harder, I said, 'No, I've got to go do something else that's going to give me that kind of drive.' And so I lost interest in my studies, and quit school. Because I couldn't have that, then I didn't want to be anything else.''
It was then that Christopher substituted acting for baseball. ''It was never about becoming a famous actor, or making millions of dollars; it was all about being competitive against impossible odds. It started to overtake me to the point where I just couldn't stand it anymore. I actually became obsessed with reaching the unreachable goal.''
Although driven by such fierce ambition, Christopher was never in need of any ego deflating. but, as time permits, he has sought the external reality check found back in his native Ohio, where his cadre of friends remain largely uninterested in his celebrity. When asked if trips home also encompass quality time with his family, the youngest of four takes a long beat before continuing quietly. ''Uh, you know, ever since high school I've been just on my own. Kind of isolated, figuring out what I was and what I wanted to do in life. I'm really not as close [to my family] as I'd like to be, but I'm OK with it. But sometimes, it does get kind of lonely.'' Christopher pauses. ''You want your family around, but they're just not.''
Christopher's estrangement from his family was exacerbated by a general lack of support when he first decided to give acting a try. This revelation ameliorates the irony that Christopher's first foray to Hollywood was all planned out but ultimately proved a failure - while his second sojourn to Tinseltown done on impulse and without preparation, proved successful. ''No one I knew gave me the confidence that I needed to go out and do it. I had to do it completely on my own. When you don't have anyone in your corner pushing for you, it makes it difficult.''
Christopher accepts responsibility for his failures. ''If I came out here and gave it 100 percent for five years, I could have been OK with myself, saying, 'I really tried.' But that was the kind of battle I had with myself the first time: I came out here and was like: Ok, two months, nothing's happened bye! 'I was too young,'' he continues. ''I didn't believe in myself enough to handle rejection; I didn't know how. I got here and, once again, I'm not the best. I'm so far down, I can't even believe how far a hill I have to climb.'' Hitting a brick wall for the second time shook Christopher's confidence - and paralyzed his competitive streak. He pulled up the stakes and returned home. ''For about a year and a half, I didn't want to work. I didn't want to go to school. I didn't want to have a girlfriend, I didn't want to do anything.'"
In no mind-set to do much thinking, Christopher immersed himself in physically demanding ''laboring jobs that nobody on this planet would do,'' he laughs. ''I was a bricklayer's laborer, which is the guy who carries the bricks up 10 flights of scaffold all day long - and I worked in a stockyard because I wasn't educated and it was easy to get into. All you need to do is show up with your body. I needed to support myself because I didn't want to live at home.''
While Christopher's days were spent numbing his body with manual labor, his nights were spent numbing his mind with alcohol. ''I got into partying a lot. drinking with my friends numbed me, and that's how I lost my competitive edge. I was like the ringleader of the wholething. I didn't want to stop for one second, to be by myself. Because once I got by myself I'd get so depressed because, you know, God would start talking to me and telling me what I was doing to myself - and I would start to experience what it feels like to be lost. and right then I'd have to go a party.
''Finally, it just got to a very dangerous point - I will say that.'' Christopher adds, ''To where I could have done anything from kill myself to go to jail. But that's not me. I was always a smart person. I grew up in a good family, and that kind of thing shouldn't happen to a person like me - but it was. Thank god I saw it before it actually happened.'' Christopher's depressive state reached such depths that 'if somebody would have locked me in a room without anything to numb myself, and told me I had to stay there for three days, I would have gone out of my mind. Everything would have surfaced, and I would have started to feel again.'' Though he was never an alcoholic, ''you don't have to be to have a problem,'' he explains. ''And it was definitely becoming a problem.''
What pulled Christopher back from the edge of self-destruction could best be described as an epiphany borne of divine intervention. ''I was sitting there by myself, watching an Ohio State football game, when it just hit, like a lightning bolt. All of a sudden, I had my confidence back, and a drive to do something better. This voice from within said, 'this isn't the way you want to live your life - you've got to do something that feeds your soul'" So I called my cousin in L.A. and said, ''I hope you've got room for me because I'm on my way.''
For Christopher, going back to Hollywood was a chance to overcome the ghosts of failures of the past, but his second stint in LA was not without its own heaping dose of adversity. 'I had my tough times in that year and a half, not knowing where my next dollar was coming from,'' he says. But perseverance paid off and ultimately GH came knocking on his door.
Now that Christopher's career has reached cruising altitude, he reflects his successful battle against his own worst enemy: himself. ''I sometimes wonder, what if I were to have put the same amount of effort and energy into baseball as I did into this. Where would I be now? But I'm OK because without having gone through that I never would have learned the lessons I needed to help me succeed in this. So that helps me get past my regrets.
Today, his competitive streak has a healthier incarnation. ''Now it's like, wow, I believe in things and I have opinions that I never thought I had before. And I want to do something good with it. I want to help other people, who I know feel this way - that's the kind of competitive drive that I have back. This time around, I know that's it's not all about myself''
Soap Opera Weekly
August 25, 1998