Maurice Benard sees his new movie project as another way to raise awareness and reach out to others with bipolar.
By Elizabeth Forbes, bp Magazine editor
When it comes to bipolar on the screen, actor Maurice Benard is in a unique position. He plays a TV character with bipolar disorder—and was himself diagnosed with it at age 22.
Maurice has spent two decades playing gangster Michael “Sonny” Corinthos Jr. on the daytime drama General Hospital. Early on, Sonny’s dark side was explained by a back story of physical abuse during a troubled childhood. In a 2006 storyline, the character’s moodiness and explosions of rage were revealed to be aspects of undiagnosed bipolar.
“There are times I come home, there’s still a little Sonny in me.
Speaking by phone from his home in southern California, Maurice says he “gave a ton of input” on how to work aspects of the illness into Sonny’s character and how a mood episode might play out. The show’s producers have known he has bipolar practically from Day 1, he says, because he had what he calls a “breakdown” within weeks of joining GH in 1993. (That was his third major manic episode, followed by a deep depression.)
On occasion he’ll push back against some particular portrayal, but he’s realistic about the dramatic extremes required in a melodrama.
“You gotta kinda pick your battles,” he explains. “I always felt they positively needed to show [Sonny] getting treatment, and they did. Every so often they show him taking pills. That, to me, is way important. It’s really Tic Tacs, but that’s alright.”
Maurice also consulted with the folks behind ABC’s controversial series Black Box, which features a neuroscientist heroine who has bipolar. Part of what they discussed was choosing not to take psychiatric medications, a route Benard tried a couple of times—with unfortunate results.
“Every time I stop my medication, it’s bad news,” the 51-year-old says.
It’s been good news for quite a while now. Maurice says in the past two decades, the closest he’s come to a full-blown mood episode was while filming The Ghost and the Whale last year. The project is a labor of love for Maurice and his wife, Paula, who is the executive producer.
Maurice has the lead role as Joseph Hawthorne, a man suspected of foul play after he and his wife go for a sail and she doesn’t come back. Joseph says a whale did it, and throughout the movie he goes to the beach and has conversations with a gray whale voiced by veteran actor Jonathan Pryce.
(Tippi Hedren, of Birds fame, also has a cameo. “She was a true classic, beautiful movie star,” Paula reports.)
Benard says he does get sent scripts where a character has bipolar, but usually “some guy killed someone.” With this project, indie filmmaker Anthony Gaudioso (known for Duke and Medium) had been struck by the idea of a man who talks to a whale, but he hadn’t figured out why. It was Paula who suggested that the character have bipolar.
Adding that element to the story fit smack into the Benards’ ongoing efforts to raise awareness—such as appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 2004 and 2007 and a 2007 cover story in bp Magazine.
“It’s the same reason we did Oprah,” Maurice says of making Ghost’s lead character someone with bipolar. “For me, if people can see this film or me talking about this in a magazine and it can really help one person, it’s worth it.”
Maurice channels personal experience with bipolar to play Sonny, and now Joseph. He can trace early signs of his illness to adolescence, when he dealt with oversize emotions by raising Cain.
“As a teen, we’d drink a little, go out and look for fights…. I was gung-ho, high on wanting to get that adrenaline rush. But there were times when I was the opposite. And I could never figure out why I could change so much, go from King Kong to so scared.”
Maurice and an older brother were raised in Martinez, California, by parents who emigrated from Central America. (His given name is Mauricio Jose Morales.) After high school, the darkly handsome young man dabbled in modeling and did a little work in commercials.
By age 21, he was taking acting classes and pursuing roles with near-manic intensity. He recalls staying up all night to memorize monologues shortly before his first major manic episode in 1985, which led to his hospitalization and diagnosis.
After the mania came a crash—“we’re talking triple depression,” he says—that persisted for months. He’s almost sheepish as he reveals that placing third in a contest for “the most watchable man” in Contra Costa County, then winning the next level of the competition in San Francisco, helped lift his spirits and restore his self-confidence.
Around that time he got together with Paula. They hadn’t been dating long when mania struck again. He remembers sitting in his car afterward having “the talk” with her.
“It’s one of those discussions you have: ‘I have bipolar. I was in a mental institution for two weeks. I really care about you, but do you really want this?’ … But here we are, nearly 30 years later. Love prevails.”
I follow the theory of forget the past, forget the future, stay in the present.
“I believe God put us on this path together,” says Paula, who had survived a difficult childhood in a family with drug and alcohol issues. “I feel like I came from craziness and I was prepared for him. That’s how we joke about it.”
In truth, Maurice and his family and friends had no way to be prepared. His disorder was little understood then, and less often discussed. When Maurice launched his soap opera career on All My Children in 1987, actress Patty Duke was just breaking barriers by revealing her diagnosis of “manic depression.”
“When I was diagnosed, no one knew what this was…. I just kind of had to fight my way through the pain,” he says.
Shaking off Sonny
For Maurice, mania mainly brings racing thoughts and grandiosity, “feeling like I could do anything.” Hallucinations and delusions have never been part of his symptom set, though, so during his beach soliloquies in The Ghost and the Whale he imagined talking to “God or a psychiatrist, depending on what hit me, how I felt.”
Playing Joseph was unsettling. “I had to live in this guy’s inside and he’s really messed up…. He’s carrying a lot of guilt and grief and this and that, and he wasn’t taking his medications. We showed the darker side of it.”
Digging deep to act out Sonny’s bipolar break on General Hospital had a different effect: Maurice’s first anxiety attack.
“I did it for too long,” he recalls of the three-month plot arc. “Every week they would call Paula, ‘Is he OK?’ They would ask me and I would say, ‘I’m fine.’… By the end of it, I was gone.”
Luckily, GH’s daily filming schedule and the quick rewrites typical of daytime drama meant Sonny—and Maurice—could retreat quickly from the edge.
As Maurice tells it, “I had the anxiety attack on a Saturday. On Monday, the character is going to a psychiatrist. That’s the beauty of a soap opera.”
He’s had two panic attacks since then, including one on a plane that cut short a family trip. He hasn’t been up in the air since.
“Eventually I’m going to have to fly again, especially if the movie takes off. I’m going to have to get help for that,” he concedes.
Even on a good day, it can be tough for Maurice to leave his work at the office, so to speak.
“There are times I come home, there’s still a little Sonny in me. I can be kind of aggravating. I’ll be a little short. I want to be by myself,” he explains.
“But I’m a lot better at it now…. Now after a scene, I listen to music. I go box, walk my dog. I’ll try to laugh, watch something fun on TV.”
Perhaps there’s an echo of his teenage rowdiness in Maurice’s love of boxing. He likes to start the day by working out for an hour—maybe running, doing push-ups and pull-ups, or pummeling a punching bag. A couple times a week, though, “I get in the ring and spar with someone…. There’s nothing better for me.”
What helps him the most, though, is “trying not to think.” A few years ago a friend recommended Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. It inspired him to try to still his mind through meditation and prayer.
“I follow the theory of forget the past, forget the future, stay in the present. I think when I have a breakdown, I’m not in the present. I’m in my head.”
Maurice’s commitment to self-care makes all the difference in their marriage, Paula says. She talks about how even during his “very dark” manic episode just after starting General Hospital, Maurice was willing to accept a sedative she got through his doctor.
“The thing about Maurice, he’s always had the desire to fix this, even in a state like that,” she says. And as long as someone uses medication and other tools to keep the illness under control, “you can be there, you can deal with the moodiness.”
When Maurice gets edgy and irritable, she says, “I’ve learned when he wants me to talk with him and when he wants me to back off and give him space.”
I’m proud of it because I know it’s made me the actor I am and the person I am.
Their children understand the drill, too. The family includes four children, ranging in age from 9 to 20 years old.
“They’ve heard from a very young age, ‘This is what your dad deals with. He’s not in a good place right now and we need to give him some time,’” Paula says.
“We’re at a point now where my children are able to joke about it when it’s not too bad—‘Here you go again, dad’—or other times to just walk away from it.”
Although bipolar has a strong hereditary link, Maurice is philosophical about the possibility that one of his children will develop the illness. He knows first-hand that it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker.
“I’ve lived a productive life having bipolar. I’ve talked to people who don’t want to talk about [having bipolar] because it’s embarrassing. I’m proud of it because I know it’s made me the actor I am and the person I am.
“It’s given me strength. If I can go through being in a mental hospital and that kind of pain and that kind of fear, I can do anything.”
* * * * *
After nearly 30 years of loving and living with someone who has bipolar, Maurice Benard’s wife has the wisdom of experience. Her advice:
Know your limits. You can encourage, support, and stand by someone with bipolar, but “you can’t make that person do what they need to do for themselves.” It’s a heart-breaking lesson she’s learned trying to help relatives with drug and alcohol addictions.
Set boundaries. If the person you love isn’t willing to help himself or herself, think about what you need to do to protect yourself. “If they won’t take the medication and just want you to stand by while they abuse you emotionally, you can’t do it,” she says.
Don’t take it personally. When her husband gets “more manic, moodier, angrier,” Paula says, it’s not always easy to put up with. She reminds herself that it’s the illness, not the person, and that the behavior will pass. “You need to get out of yourself, thinking it’s selfish, thinking it’s not right,” she explains. “You have to step away and just let them go through it.”
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