Crazy like a fox

 By Janet Di Lauro, Soap Opera Weekly, 1990

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Christopher Norris' days of being cast in the classic good girl mold are over ! After her year-plus stint as the nasty Laura Asher on Santa Barbara and evolution into a splendiferous psycho, the industry is sure to look at the actress with the peaches and cream complexion in a whole new light. "People always look at my face and say, "Come on... that face is just not a bad girl's face"," says Norris. "A cheerleader who's gone a little bad, maybe, but definitely not nasty."

Norris notes that, prior to landing Santa Barbara , there was only one other time she ever got to play anyone remotely devious. "When I was about 10 or 11, I did a show on Broadway called Roar Like a Dove," she recalls. "Betsy Palmer was in it. She played my mother. I played a naughty girl. I wasn't like the bad seed or anything, just seriously precocious. That was the only other time in my career that I really got to play somebody mean."

But when the Santa Barbara writers put that challenge before her again, Norris rose to the occasion. In fact, these days she's a master at playing B-A-D ! "It's been such a roller-coaster ride," she says, "and so rewarding as an actress. Every couple of months, I've had a whole other challenge, a different chance to be creative. It's just been a trip. I've gotten to play so many different things - tackling an alcohol problem, playing drunk - which is something I've never done in my life, (playing) this whole manic-depressive thing that Laura's going through right now... I've never done any of it. It's so much fun."

"Generally, people in the business don't tend to think of soaps as being particularly rewarding, because there's little time in which to do in-depth work," continues Norris. "But with my character and with what I've experienced, it's been great. It's been a great learning and stretching exercise for me. I feel a lot more confident as an actress."

Since the role of Laura marks Norris' first attempt at portraying a character who's so fat over the edge, she sometimes worries about taking things too fat. "In some scenes where I'm really bent, it's very difficult for me to have any kind of perspective on it. It's so different from anything I've ever done, so I have nothing to compare it to," she notes. "I've never played an insane person before. So sometimes I wonder, "Am I really going over the top ? Am I just chewing up the scenery ?" At times Laura scares me. There's an occasional scene that will get under my skin. I'll walk away thinking, "Woooo ! This girl is in bad shape"."

Surprisingly, the actress does not see Laura as an all-out bad girl. "This is probably just an actor talking, but I don't think she is bad at her base," she says. "So many horrible things have happened to Laura during her lifetime and over the past year that she just lost it. At her base, I think Laura is a very upstanding woman. A girlfriend of mine is a psychiatrist back in New York ," she explains. "She recently took a vacation in Florida , and got the chance to watch the show. She called me last week and said, "It's very obvious to me that Laura is manic-depressive. If she took medication she'd be fine. She'd clear herself up in no time." The only problem is Laura doesn't take her medication. She gives it to Annie."

The introduction of actress Sharonlee McLean as Annie (Laura's mental hospital roommate) has provided the perfect foil for Norris' character. "She's terrific," boasts Norris, "a great actress and great to work with. They call us the Laverne and Shirley of Santa Barbara , because our scenes are so funny. You know you're doing a good job, if in camera block the crew comes around and watches you work," Norris continues. "Sharonlee and I get an audience every morning for all of our scenes. Everybody laughs and applauds. We're a real couple of nuts."

"I was reading an interview on Michael Caine recently," she notes. "He was promoting his new film in which he plays a mentally deranged killer. In it he said that all actors play good crazy people... That's in their nature. I think all actors look forward to doing something like this where they can really stretch. It's really up to the actor to decide how far to go. It's a great freedom to be fearless."

And Norris has taken this freedom to the hilt, much to the delight of fans. "I've noticed that people have really locked into this. They get a kick out of it for some reason. Fans will come up to me with a juicy look on their face and say, "When you did this, I couldn't wait for that to happen." It's something I've never experienced before with a character."

Does the actress ever thumb through scripts to find out what outrageous capers are next on Laura's agenda ? Does she get anxious to tackle them ? "Yes to both questions," she smiles. But sometimes it's scary like when I killed Leo Mitchell last summer. That was frightening. I had to tap into my imagination and think about what it would be like to kill another human being." Of course since then, Laura has knocked off victim #2 - Sasha Schmidt. "I'm a pro at it now, so that was a snap," she jokes. "Actually, it wasn't the same with Sasha. I didn't mean to kill her. It was rainy; it was dark; I had mascara in my eves and I was crazy. That was a whole different thing."

Does Norris ever worry about her longevity on the show ? "After I killed Leo, I thought it was curtains," she says. "But that was nine months ago. So who knows ? I did feel terrible when I learned I was going to bump off Sasha," Norris admits. "I found out a couple of weeks before and kept saying to everyone, "Please don't tell Michelle (NiCastro, who portrayed Sasha)." Then, I started joking about how I was going to be the most unpopular actor on the set, that everybody was going to look at the call sheet and say, "Oh no ! I've got a scene with Laura today"."

The only gripe Norris has had about her storyline of late has been the progression of Laura's plot to kill her husband, Ethan (Leigh McCloskey). "The way the whole thing started out pleased me a lot. Laura said in one scene with Ethan, "I would be fine, if you would just give me a divorce and get out of my life." But Ethan wouldn't do that," Norris explains. "Since Ethan wouldn't give her a divorce, Laura felt she had to get rid of him. But in the last couple of months things have gotten so convoluted that I don't know if the audience remembers that's why she's trying to kill him. It really isn't about revenge. It's about trying to survive. Laura thinks the only way she can survive is to get rid of Ethan."

With all the twists and turns in her storyline, it's no wonder Norris often can't wait to get home and share her action-packed day on Santa Barbara with her husband, businessman Walter Danley. "Every once in a while after I've had a particularly rewarding day, I'll say to my husband, "Do you mind if we talk about work for a couple of hours ?" And I bend his ear about what I did that day. He's constantly amazed."

Afterwards, she puts Laura Asher to rest and moves on to the business of being Christopher Norris. At a glance, Norris appears to be the embodiment of the girl-next-door, but she doesn't profess to be that type at all. "I'm not as much of a soft touch as Gloria Brancusi was on Trapper John," she notes, about the series she was on for six years. "I'm much more of a pragmatist, whether I like to admit it or not. I'm a businesswoman. Frankly if I had to categorize myself, I do a lot of business on my days off. I'm fascinated by that kind of work. I think I have the best of both worlds in that I can use that and also use my creativity in my acting."

And Norris is bursting with creativity. She did both interior and exterior design for the hillside home she shares with her husband and their golden retrievers, Sundance and Annie, and cat Ping ("There used to be Ping and Pong but, unfortunately, Pong is no longer with us."). Norris and Danley bought the land and built their dream house from the ground up - a process that took four years. "I'm pleased with the way things turned out. It's another accomplishment, something I could always do outside of acting," she says. "I picked the colors, the tiles for the bathroom, the hardware fixtures, the cabinetry woods..." Norris raves about her enormous kitchen, which she equipped with a commercial stove. "I'm having fun breaking that in. Nobody likes to cook dinner every day... but when you have a pretty space around you it helps your creativity."

While Norris' life is very full outside the walls of Santa Barbara ’s complex, she prefers an intermingling of all her sides - actress, wife and businesswoman. In fact, she readily admits that she's not happy unless she's working. And Laura makes her very happy indeed. "Absolutely," she smiles. "I'm having a ball. And my husband is happy when I'm happy. He's very supportive of me, thank goodness. With the kind of hours that you work in daytime, it's just gruelling. I'm very, very fortunate to have a husband that understands and occasionally has dinner waiting for me when I get home. I'm a very lucky girl."