I thought I was going to miss out on my chance to interview Maysoon Zayid. I called her at 3 p.m., five after 3, 10 after 3, and got no answer. Since we had first met on Twitter, I send her a frantic DM saying, “weren’t we supposed to talk today?!”
She called me and explained that she had turned her phone to silent during “General Hospital” and forgotten to turn the volume back up. I guess I can understand that since she is on “General Hospital,” playing Zahra Amir, the attorney representing cult leader Shiloh Archer.
Her fictional client is played by the mesmerizingly sexy Coby Ryan McLaughlin, but what made viewers take notice and light up the Twitterverse is the way she held her own in a confrontational scene with Maurice Benard, the man director David O. Russell called “the Brando of soaps.”
“So much greatness,” she says describing Benard.
Zayid still can’t believe she “crossed the barrier” from viewer to actually being on the show.
“I’m still in shock,” she says. “I can’t believe it wasn’t a dream.”
For three decades Zayid has dreamt of being on “General Hospital.”
She describes the experience as magical and gushes about what lovely people the cast and crew are to work with. She worried that being a cast member would ruin the experience of being a viewer, but it didn’t.
The only negative aspect of the whole experience has been the hate she has received on social media. Soap actors suffer the most withering social media comments in the business but some of the ones directed at her have been especially personal. Viewers questioned her speaking style, her walk, and why her hands shake in her scenes.
The answer: because she has cerebral palsy.
“We are a society that goes online with the desire to tear down other people,” Zayid says. “I have been called fat, I have been called retarded, I have been threatened with violence. We need to raise a society that realizes that even if you can’t be seen it’s not okay to be mean.”
I have been following Zayid on Twitter @maysoonzayid for years. I asked her how she made sense of it all.
“My first thought is what makes you take the time to type hate?," she said. “My very next thought was you ‘ain’t gonna rain on my parade!’ I will not let a stranger deflate my balloon!”
As a public figure (even on my infinitely much more local level) I know what it’s like to be targeted by social media hate, even by cyberstalkers. I have tried various methods of responding to this with varying degrees of success. I asked Maysoon what worked for her. I was surprised by her answer.
“I address them,” she declared emphatically. “The reason is because I am that strong.”
Zayid insists that she will not be a disabled person who goes on screen and have the hatred directed at her go unanswered.
“A lot of people write hateful things and never have people respond,” she points out. “I simply won’t allow hateful people to dim the light that I am shining.”
In an article in Glamour magazine in which they described her as “The Most Fearless Comic Alive,” she says of her refusing to hide from haters, “I made the decision, and my decision was, ‘I’ll take the punches for the disabled kids that come after me.’ I have the skin for it.”
She is astonishingly strong and has fought hard to accomplish all she has. Maysoon Zayid isn’t only an actress. She is a writer and producer currently developing a prime-time series about an immigration lawyer. She is a fierce proponent of human rights including the rights of Palestinian people living in Israel, she is a visible Muslim celebrity, a disabled rights activist, and an utter champion at public speaking.
One of her Ted Talks entitled “I got 99 problems…palsy is just one” has over 5.3 million views. She begins it by saying, “I’m not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was.” Her sense of humor is candid and penetrative.
In another Ted Talk called “The World is Broken” she asks, “How can you be happy when the world is so broken, and everything is going against you?”
She goes on to insist that “The first step to fixing this broken world is fixing yourself. In the words of Elsa from Disney ‘let it go.’ I know so many people who torture themselves because their body betrayed them, or their families abused them, or the love of their life left them, and the advice I give them is ‘get over it’. Don’t let your physical body or the treatment by others define you. Only you get to define you. Create the person you want to be and be that person.” If you are your number one fan others will join in the fun. My mantra is ‘Yes your Can-Can!’”
Zayid has ‘can can’d’ all the way around the world on tour as a speaker and a comedian, now into Port Charles, the fictional setting of “General Hospital.” I asked her what it was like on her first day working with Carolyn Hennesy, the Emmy winning powerhouse character actress who plays a fast-talking ferociously self-confident attorney on the show.
“My first scene was my looking up and going, ‘Diane Miller.’ She said referring to the name of the Hennesy’s character. “Such a fantastic experience! I got to be directed by (Executive Producer) Frank Valentini. My first episode featured not only “Diane”, but also “Alexis” [played by superstar actress Nancy Lee Grahn]!” That girl squad friendship is my ship!”
I wondered what the process of making a daytime drama was like. Instead of a paper script, she receives an email with a link to a secure server where she accesses her scripts with a password. She has a very short amount of time to memorize it. Then she shows up on set at a certain time, the studio crew does her hair, makeup, and wardrobe. They have been accommodating in allowing her to wear her own orthopedic footwear.
“I need shoes with extra supports specifically tailored to my foot so that I can walk,” she explains.
One of the striking things about the whole experience is that as a viewer she knows things her character doesn’t know. But she also knows a lot of things that I, as a viewer, does not.
“I’m not telling you anything!” she laughs when I try to pry upcoming plot revelations out of her. But she did tell me this fall she will be on Broadway and she has a book called “Hello Sunshine” coming out in November.
“I’ve been on CNN and MSNBC, but [General Hospital] made my career dreams come true” she marvels. The best part of all “There are no explanations or apologies for my cerebral palsy, and I get to say ‘I’m on General Hospital.’ That is huge.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.