“You have to be crazy. To be an actor, you have to be crazy. It’s like crossing a street every day and getting bit by the same dog. Are you out of your mind?!” The speaker laughs at himself and shrugs. “Yet you keep crossing that street.”
So states the 6’1”, hazel eyed Joseph Breen or, as he’s known on CBS TV's soap opera, Guiding Light, the psychopathic Dr. Will Jeffries. Billed as “a crazed psychiatrist,” the character is somewhat off-center.
But the real man is straight on the mark. Grounded in a strong sense of familial duty, the thirty year old actor, with a face almost boyish in person, is a devoted husband and father of three, in his proud terminology, “beautiful Irish girls.”
As he talks, as issues of commitment and responsibility repeatedly surface, it is starkly evident how little Joe Breen parallels Will Jeffries. No two people could be so emotionally different, yet both are housed in one body. Mustn’t they cross each other? Doesn’t one have to be part of the other?
“I think I have experiences in my life that I can bring to Will to make him seem real, and get empathy for him doing things very difficult to justify. It’s why I’m here.”
Does he get mail? “A lot, but no hate mail, which is surprising, you know, because in a part like this you judge the fan mail by the way people react to you. I’d think how I’m playing the character would be deserving of, ‘They’re (Sonni and Josh) good people, you’re supposed to be his best friend. . . . Never. Everybody understands Will, which is good.”
And what are his reasons for coming into Springfield to wreak a havoc that would chill the hearts of any unsuspecting person?
”When I screentested, I was told Will was ‘a psychiatrist with an edge.’ What’s that mean? There was no idea of the Sonni thing. I went into my dressing room, relaxed and thought about the character, what I wanted to do, how I wanted to present him.”
Needless to say, Joe presented Will Jeffries in such a way that the ‘psychiatrist with an edge’ was his part. “At first I kept asking (about the crazy element), ‘Can I do it now? Can I?’ and the directors would say, ‘No, not yet,’ until finally they told me I could do what I wanted and I went with it.”
Was Will meant to last?
“I don’t think so. The story line was bought before Pam (Pamela Long, head writer) came back. She did great things with it. Originally, it was a catalyst to Josh and Reva, but it was picked up and because of Michelle and my work, I guess, was well-received.”
Is he friendly with his leading lady offscreen?
“Michelle is great. We found we had a lot of friends in common, though we’d never met before. She’s a Chekovian actress trapped in a soap opera body.” He laughs. “She’s going to hit me for that.
“There was a time,” he continues, “when people thought Kim (Reva) would leave, which would’ve changed the Josh/Sonni/Will story because I think Josh and Reva’ll get back together—I don’t know that’s true . We got popular since Kim was in L.A. trying for a pilot—as was the girl that plays Mindy (Krista Tesreau); so Mindy went to Venezuela, Kim went into a coma, and then who?” Joe’s light New York accent fills with an explosive laugh. “They had to write for somebody, so they gave it to us.”
A lucky break?
”You never know what’ll work, who’ll get the work. People who’ve been on less than a year—like myself—have big story lines. Others who’ve been on a long time have very little. I don’t know where’s the justice, but that’s how it is.”
There’s another reality that keeps popping up. Joe Breen is a paradox. On one hand, every step of his career has been intentional. On the other hand, he can’t seem to believe he’s come so far. Growing up in Westchester County, New York, the fifth of six children, he fought for the love of his parents and drove his mother to distraction before finally accepting and returning to the deep ties of his family.
It appears Joe’s fairly finished with volleying against his increasing stability. With two years of a three-year contract still left, has his character been saved from what seemed certain death at the hands of his lover?
Joe’s answer, “Who knows for sure? There’s talk of real amnesia, there’s other talk of fake amnesia, with Will the same old person—which is what I hope happens. There’s also talk of a Mindy Lewis in Will’s future.” He laughs loudly. “Who knows?”
There’s a quick smile, broad, an impetuous grin one might imagine on a handsome leprechaun. His nose wrinkles a little and his eyes light up with a clichéd Irish twinkle. The look is utterly different, so out-of-character from what viewers are used to seeing and it’s startling. “I hope Will’s not too good.”
This part is, as Joe puts it, “a stretch from what I’ve been allowed to do. If there was a casting call, you’d get a lot of crazy character people going in, not an All-American like me.”
With a theatrical resume reading like a “What’s What In Theatre”—Jean Michel in La Cage Aux Folles, Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew, Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Riff in West Side Story, John the Baptist in Godspell . . . to name a few—and formal training at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the Julliard School, Joe breathes of the stark and sometimes naked realities of his business.
Is Joe Breen where he wants to be? “I’m grateful to soaps. You’re paid to learn. Sure, I want to sing. If I was single, I’d make the sacrifices. But,” he shrugs, “I had to decide what was best for us all. I refuse to put my family through hell for the sake of”—here he imitates a high brown snob, “ART!” He laughs. "Acting proved to be the viable way to make a living.”
If he could do anything in five years, what would it be? “Films and plays. Any art form should be used for public awareness. To be financially successful enough to work in a socially-motivated piece would be great. That’s what it’s really about. To have people see themselves, get empathy for a character doing things very difficult to justify.”
Joe, as he’ll readily agree, acts to affect people, not just to act. He finds daytime TV a challenging medium, one where learning is a daily process, where the performer is trusted to develop the heart of his character. “It’s a need to communicate. I’m a touchy, hands-on person. I need to be around people. Entertaining’s perfect for me.”
As he says this, it’s evident that, in his present role, Joe Breen is as secure as he’ll allow himself to be in this driving line of work. But as he mentions a planned camping trip, a possible sailboat purchase and a new house, it’s a given that acting is his calculated choice of communication and it’s a given, hearing his determined voice, that he’s in the field to stay.
Actors may be crazy. Will Jeffries may be crazy. But if Joe Breen is crazy, he’s crazy like a fox.
As briefly insinuated before the article, Joe Breen's life didn't go as he planned at the time of this article. As reporter, I sensed underlying dissatisfaction w/parts of his life, namely his marriage, but that wasn't something I was there to write about. This was Soap Opera Update, not True Confessions. One thing he wasn't ambivalent about, though, was his adoration for his children. THAT was obvious.
It's no secret anymore that Joe Breen contracted AIDS. It's possible he had it at the time of our interview. I look back on our chat & remember the day--he spent a lot of time w/me & our photographer, Joan Fries--& wasn't at all in a hurry to get rid of us. An engaging & genuinely nice man.
But from doing a lot of interviews w/actors over the years, I believe there really is no such thing as "typecasting." An actor plays a character well not necessarily because he/she is that type of person in real life . . . but because he/she has the requisite emotions at the forefront of their personality to easily understand such a characterization.
In Joe Breen's case, Will Jeffries' demons may have in many ways been his own. They were just displayed in a far different personification.
Congratulations, Joe, on your current life. My prayers for your health & happiness.