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Fonda Henry

by Jennifer Lenhart
Soap Opera Digest, Summer 2000

Truthfully, Digest is not in the habit of doing features on non-contract actors who could disappear off the canvas with little or no notice.  But then again, there aren't many non-contract actors like As the World Turns's Trent Dawson (Henry).

With a snide, scene-stealing take on what could have been a cardboard-cutout villain, the immensely watchable Dawson has quickly become one of the show's best assets.  In fact, he's so good - and so obviously smart and wryly funny - that while relating some of his wilder stories about his life experiences, you have to wonder whether his facetious character is spilling over into real life and he's just pulling your leg.

It's also hard to imagine that about 10 years ago, Dawson was trying to distance himself - literally - from show business.  Though he had been performing since childhood, he spent several years hoping to get the acting bug out of his system.  "My mother had put me on the stage since I could walk, but I didn't really think that I could make a living at acting, even though I'd always done it," he explains.  "I wanted to do academics.  I was heavily into Eastern studies, took a lot of Chinese and Taoism [classes], things like that.  I had visions of working in that area somehow."  With that in mind, he attended Boston University for a year, but when that didn't work out, he left the country.

"I had been living such a high life of academic ambition, I just took off," says the actor, who flew to Paris in the middle of one of Europe's coldest winters in years.  The money ran out quickly, so the actor hitched his way down to the more southern climes of Greece and Crete.  There, with the Gulf War raging just across the Mediterranean Sea, Dawson became a migrant worker, picking oranges for "about 30,000 drachmas" a day.  "There are different systems, but mainly in Crete I would get on a bus with a bunch of alcoholics from the U.K. who were all running from some problems back home.  We'd start picking at 8 in the morning and pick all day and then they give you [what] ended up being like 30 bucks a day," he relates.  "And then you'd go back and blow it all on liquor that night because everyone's stuck in this job and living in this cheap, little town.  So it became a little cycle."

Truly surprised by the skepticism with which his account is being treated, Dawson insists it's true and continues: "It was horrible work, and eventually I made enough money to buy a guitar and I started being a street musician."  He mostly learned to sing "what the Europeans like to hear," which apparently includes selections by both Simon & Garfunkel and the Grateful Dead.  He also mad a lot of money off allied troops on furlough ("who hadn't seen women or booze in six months and would just tear the town to pieces") and lived on the street.  "I was a homeless busker for a long time, living as 'Zorba the Greek,' with no ambition, sleeping in abandoned, bombed-out craters of hospitals from World War II and stuff like that," he says.  After a while, Dawson says he went back to Athens, where, while camping in an unguarded ancient temple near the Parthenon, he met someone who "knew the same tunes" and caught a night showing of Mel Gibson's film version of Hamlet.  "It wasn't a particularly good Hamlet, but I just sort of had a wake-up call and said, 'I've done this.  It's time to get back into the swing of things,'" he explains.  It was appropriate that seeing Shakespeare is what snapped Dawson out of the aimless phase and finally put him on the right path, because his mother was an English teacher while he was growing up and had shown him Franco Zeffirelli's film, Romeo And Juliet, every semester.  It took him a few months to work and hitch his way back to Paris, where he immediately caught a flight home.

"Once I got back to the States, I really just hit the ground running," he recalls.  "I'd gotten all that out of my system and knew what I wanted to do."  At the University of Colorado (which he chose because he'd once taken a summer course there that he liked), Dawson plunged into theater studies.  During the summers, he performed in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and got so much training in stage fighting that he began teaching it.

After graduating, he moved to New York, where he never sang on the streets ("I didn't feel like New York subway commuters were as respectful of my art," he winks).  He worked "waiting tables, temping, the whole nine yards" - but before long, he landed his first gig, as Romeo in a national touring production.  He went on to do more Shakespeare in companies all over the country and has now performed in 18 plays out of the canon.  Stop right there.  You might wonder whether all that Shakespeare made him a snob - especially when it comes to daytime.  But Dawson's actually the kind of regular guy who likes to have a beer and watch the end of the Knicks game in his tux after the overwhelming experience of his first Daytime Emmys.  And besides, he grins, "I'm actually sick of it.  I think I'm the only actor I know who's sick of Shakespeare, but once you get enough of it on the resume you become 'the Shakespeare guy.'"

Still, it was while working on one of those productions in Wisconsin that he met Kim Rhodes (ex-Cindy, Another World), who became his roommate when they got back to New York.  She booked AW soon after and began telling him what great experience she was getting.  He instructed his new agent to look for soap work, and soon after meeting ATWT Casting Director Jimmy Bohr, Dawson won the role of Henry.  He was told the job would last a couple of months, then found out later he had only been scheduled for two weeks.  Thanks in no small part to his breakout performance as the conniving station manager, his run was extended, and rumors that he might turn out to be Katie's stalker proved wrong, as well.  Since then, the show has kept him busy about three days a week.  "It moves incredibly fast, and I'm lucky I have enough technique behind me to save me when I don't know what I'm supposed to say, where I'm supposed to go or why the hell I'm doing what I'm doing," he laughs.  "I am finding that a lot of people have baggage about daytime television.  Friends and family are like, 'Is it okay that you're doing this?'  But they don't realize that it's very hard, I'm working with very good people, and I'm learning a lot."

But he's hesitant to try to map out any long-term career plan.  "You can't really make an itinerary like that in this business," he points out.  "I do all the pilot season auditions, and when films come to town, I audition for them."  When pressed, he names Kevin Kline as someone whose career is closest to his ideal because of the actor's theater work both on-stage and behind-the-scenes, and his film roles.  But ultimately, Dawson has no illusions of success in the profession he's chose.

And despite what fans might be hoping, he knows he probably won't be put on-contract with ATWT (though he says he would stay if they asked).  "I have a feeling I'll be on at least through the summer, which is fine, and if it ends then, we're back into another season here."  Besides, he never expected to be around this long anyway.  "I had to make some adjustments [by staying]," he admits.  "But now I'm finding that it hasn't been that big of a deal.  I love being around there, and I'm having a good time."

 

Sexual Politics

Fans are ready for Henry to have a love interest, and suggestions include everyone from Katie ... to Holden.  "I kept telling them that Henry's gay," laughs Dawson.  "It's obvious, from the way they're writing him.  I'm quoting from The Wizard of Oz and saying things like, 'You go, girl!'  I had a line where I said, 'I don't know why but drinks just taste better with these little paper umbrellas in them'  So I went to Chris Goutman and said, 'Look, if the guy's gay, that's fine.  It's no big deal.  That would be progressive.'  And he goes, 'No, no, no.  He's straight!  Play the [subtext] with Katie.'"  But now that Katie really hates his guts, the chances of Henry getting lucky with her are slim to none.  "She's so disgusted b him," he grins.  "I can't really see them getting in the sack together unless they're really drunk, or he has some kind of blackmail on her.  I was telling Lesli [Kay, Molly] the other day, it would be great if Molly and Henry hooked up.  We could stumble out of the control room one day with cigarettes and her hair all mussed up.  He'll have gotten onto the enemy's camp - and into her pants, as well!"

 

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