“The Young and the Restless’” Gina Tognoni is having the time of her life. Just seven months after reporting to the CBS Television City studio, where the daytime drama series is filmed, Tognoni is grateful for the warm welcome she’s received from viewers and the daytime community as a whole. Fresh off a pre-nomination in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category, for her role as Phyllis Summers on “Y&R,” Tognoni shares with us what it’s like playing such an interesting and dynamic character, provides insight into the Phyllis, Jack (Peter Bergman) and Kelly (Cady McClain) triangle, and which actors and characters she’d love to share more screen time with.
This year marks 20 years since Gina Tognoni made her daytime television debut in the contract role of Kelly Cramer on ABC’s “One Life to Live.” Two decades later, she’s a Daytime Emmy Award winner (for her role as Dinah Marler on “Guiding Light”) and is currently taking names as she crosses their path in Genoa City. Have things changed that much since she started in daytime? “I was a younger woman and [my] first time doing a soap, and now you fast forward all of these years later at ‘Y&R,’ It’s just different. I have a deep appreciation for what we do. Not that I never did,” Tognoni clarifies. “I understand how hard it is at what we do, that we all do, and we have very little time with a lot of material and to make it work. Every department works so well together at ‘Y&R.’ It’s like a well oiled machine. I have immense respect and I love it. I love going to work everyday. I love my storyline. I love my character. She is just the epitome. [Executive producer] Jill Phelps said to me, ‘It doesn’t get better than this,’ [referring to Phyllis] and she really is a fabulous character. She gets to do so many things. She has so much leeway because of her past, and I love it. A simple answer… I absolutely am a very lucky girl.”
“[This week] is explosive and wonderful. I’m so proud of it,” says Tognoni of “Flirt with Disaster,” an umbrella storyline that kicked off Friday, February 13 on the CBS Daytime drama series. “It just has a lot going on in Genoa City, particularly The Underground,” says the actress of the on air promo hyping the disaster at Nicholas Newman’s (Joshua Morrow) club and the plane crash that has stranded several prominent citizens in the freezing cold, among other situations.
Back to the Underground: “Obviously, it collapses,” says Tognoni of what occurred during today’s episode. “We have Jack, Kelly and Phyllis in the same place at the bar. Usually that never ends well. And ‘Kelly is being persistent,’ and really starting to get under Phyllis’ skin. And we sort of see that. It’s just awesome. The whole month of February is a killer, so to speak [laughs].”
Speaking of Kelly, for months viewers have been left to ponder if the character, or Phyllis herself, had lost her marbles in her desire to keep Jack. Even though it seems to be a little more obvious now that Kelly has been shown to be off her rocker, it wasn’t always that way, reveals Tognoni. “The cool thing is, it’s meant to keep the audience guessing. And definitely as actors, we were not necessarily sat down and told anything so we very much were working from the hip and doing what the script was essentially telling us and that can happen. It doesn’t happen that often… that you don’t really know what’s happening. I actually kind of think that it’s kind of great when you don’t know every edge and turn because it’s actually not that exciting. We really have just been trusting this and going with it. It’s fun. It’s been fun to tape it. All put together, I know it’s going to look great.”
Not knowing what’s going to happen next is a hard thing to prevent in today’s spoiler world, but Tognoni does believe that the best way to watch something unfold is not knowing what will happen next in advance. It’s better to watch and learn. “You know, I think it’s okay to tease [viewers] in the sense that something’s going to happen, but the audience is very intuitive. They can see the story. It ‘s like reading a book. Why spoil it for them? We have the opportunity to come into their home every single day and we get to tell them a story and that’s what we get to do every day and we change it up. Obviously we’re telling new stories, new dialogue, and that’s what we do. So it’s like, ‘Let’s do it!’ And we do it well. So yeah, keep ’em guessing.”
While Jack and Phyllis have a huge fan following, so does Nicholas and Phyllis, better known as Phick. Will we be seeing the dynamic duo in less than friendly scenes, outside of their dealing with their daughter, Summer (Hunter King)? “Oh, Phyllis and Nicholas! So here’s the thing… I absolutely think that Phyllis and Nick have to have more scenes [laughs]. They share a child, Summer, [and] I just am looking forward to how we live in that place… what we’re going to do with that. There’s so much going on right now and really, from a practical standpoint, I love the time that I’ve had to find a relationship with Jack, to develop [the triangle]. I mean look, we have a lot of gold there and it’s been so well worked in building that in an organic way. I think with Nick it’ll be just as good. Whenever the writers decide to create the conflict, or whatever the story is, we have time. You certainly do not want to rush that. You don’t want to rush that kind of stuff. I hate rushing that stuff personally. I don’t like seeing it. Just two people in a room together for the sake of having them in the room together? It’s like, let it be story driven/character driven. I trust that it’ll happen. He’s [referring to Morrow] such a neat guy to work with. We haven’t had enough scenes, that’s for sure.”
On the note of story driven, or particularly character driven stories, viewers loved the recent interactions between characters that just fit the scene. For example: Nikki Newman (Melody Thomas Scott) and Neil Winters (Kristoff St. John) became drinking buddies while discussing their mutual problems. That doesn’t happen very often in daytime. “That’s what it should be. I think that we love seeing these characters exist and then exist within a situation. ‘Oh, my gosh. What are they doing? What are they doing with this? What are they doing with that?’ Ultimately, it comes down to the characters and people falling in love with their favorite characters. I’m not a writer, but I have this faith that we’ll see more of Phyllis and Nick in the coming months.”
Outside of a possible dabble in the road of Phyllis and Nicholas, who else would Tognoni like to share more screen time with? Or in this case, a scene or two to start? As she correlated her thoughts, Tognoni noted, “We have a gigantic cast [laughs]. Who have I not worked with? My goodness. I have not worked with Noah [Robert Adamson]. I have not worked that much at all with Mariah [Camryn Grimes]. A little of bit of Nikki, I just love that. [Melody] cracks me up. I really like working with her. It feels very comfortable. It’s weird. Noah, yeah, that Newman side. I really haven’t done much with Sage [Kelly Sullivan]. That’ll be interesting.” And speaking of that Newman side, “I’ll tell you who I definitely would love to have fun with is Adam [Justin Hartley]. Definitely Adam. I ‘d love to check that one out. I mean, he’s too funny. I like the dynamic of his character, so I could definitely see that. He’s a hoot. He’s hilarious.” On the possibility of Phyllis and Adam in scenes together, Tognoni notes, “We’re definitely the antagonists.”
Outside of romance, one of Phyllis’ greatest relationships is that of which she shares with her sister, Avery Clark (Jessica Collins). Recently Phyllis fired her as her lawyer, but it happened in a funny way. During their conversation at the Newman ranch, Phyllis noted to Avery it’s her job to do “bug removal,” referring to Phyllis’ history with Christine Blair (Lauralee Bell), and told Avery, “I don’t need any help going to prison,” as Avery doesn’t appear to believe in Phyllis’ innocence. While those scenes may have come across adlibbed to some, “Those were definitely scripted. Some of what made it nice is that Jessica is so easy to work with. I love that relationship personally because the one relationship that is very different for Phyllis is her blood relationship with her sister. That’s family. It has a different tone than any other relationship on the canvas.” She adds, “I think that the writers are very much aware that it’s a good thing and I think that we’re fostering that, at least with this Phyllis, we’re really fostering that relationship and how precious it is. It’s a good one. She’s just terrific. A lot of these scenes are taped in one take. That was a one take scene. We’re just so proud of them. I mean, I am. Not everyday is it like this, but nine out of ten, a lot of the stuff you see is all in one take and it’s amazing. It just goes to show everybody just brings a really great energy.”
Going back to family for a moment, currently Summer is dealing with the possible loss of her husband, Austin (Matthew Atkinson), although mommy doesn’t know about it just yet. Can we expect Phyllis to be there for her child? “Oh wow, there’s some information that comes out in February in her storyline that I imagine we will have some scenes about and I’m looking forward to that. I look forward to being a mother to her and it’s a really funny line because Phyllis is certainly not the pillar of the community. She has her issues. But by God, when it comes to your daughter, when it comes to your children, you want the best of them. You see the best in them, and she is a shining star. Phyllis wants that for her. She wants her to shine and be her best self, and I want Phyllis to find that in Summer and always encourage that in Summer. For her to be her best self. I look forward to that.”
As for working with her on screen daughter, Tognoni says, “I love having scenes with Hunter. She’s incredibly pleasant and soft and all of those things that I just love in the present moment. It’s sort of that other side of Phyllis that we don’t see… the softer side, you know that relationship being where she’s my daughter and we have all those issues. I love it. She makes it a lot of fun and she’s just the nicest human being.”
Earlier this month, pre-nomations for the 42nd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards were announced. Tognoni is pre-nominated for the first time in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role on “Y&R.” How does she feel to be recognized for her work, especially since it covered just the latter half of 2014? Tognoni says she’s just very grateful that her peers took notice of her. “I think it’s terrific and I’m totally grateful. I’m very proud of the scenes we submitted. It was a Jack and Phyllis scene at the Abbott mansion over Kelly and it was very real. I was really proud of those scenes. We did those in the first few items of the day at about 8:30 in the morning and I believe we got them all in one take. I think we were both really psyched that we got through that. I believe it was also a 6 page scene – one of our last scenes, second to last page – and we’re really proud of that too. A lot of material. So that kind of stuff I like and I’m proud of. We’ll see!” she says of possibly receiving an actual nomination when the final list of nominees is revealed in the coming weeks.
As for playing Phyllis, Tognoni says, “I’m really, really grateful that the audience has accepted me so much. I guess it could go any way, but I do really feel that they’re happy and they’re entertained and things are going well. I just want to do a shout out back to them and say, ‘Thank you for watching.’ I love doing it for them. It means a lot to me.”