"Feeling Free to Be Myself"
Originally Published in Soap Opera Digest
(July 15, 1980)
Nikki is quite different from her serious soap characters. She has a great sense of humor -- it is in her eyes, her manner, and her way of pronouncing certain phrases. Getting straight to the point of our meeting, Nikki blew her cigarette's smoke into the air and said with a grin: "Okay, what do you want to know?" So, taking my cue from the actress, I asked if she thought of herself as a woman or as a kid, since Nikki is only twenty-three and portrays mature, established women on screen. "Are they anything like the real Nikki?" Nikki quickly volunteered: "Totally opposite my real person. In real life -- real life!" She paused to giggle at herself for using that phrase and continued, "You mean when the cameras aren't on, in other words? I see myself as everything; I can't pinpoint it. I'm a little girl sometimes. I think all women are. Right now I'm silly. I think we all should be able to take turns every day, depending on how you feel that day, and if you feel you can't cope, you say to people," Nikki changed the tone of her voice, "'Please, I'm feeling three years old, can you take care of me?'" She smiled, "And they usually will...it's nice."
On Ryan's Hope, Nikki played the role of Mary Ryan for almost two years. She had the difficult task of taking over from the first beloved Mary, Kate Mulgrew. Nikki remembered: "It was very hard taking over from Katie, although she had not been there since three Mary’s before. The writers never lost sight of Katie. When I first got there, the script was written as Katie would say it, and I had a tough time making it the way I wanted Mary to sound. After awhile, the writers began writing for me, and that was nice." The writers were not the only ones who missed Katie, there were also her many fans: "In the beginning it was disastrous. People would write and say, 'You're just as good as Kate Mulgrew!' and I would say, 'Thank you, thank you, but the name is Nikki and I'd like to be as good as myself.'
"One woman wrote to me," Nikki interrupted herself, "you know she was a real sweetheart; I should have written back to her. I'm very bad you know; I haven't written back to a lot of people and I feel awful. So please forgive me! One of these days I will write. I might be old and gray, but you will get a letter and your pictures." With that off her chest and with my promise to print her apology, Nikki went on to tell about a fan's letter: "She wrote, 'You know, I've wanted to write to you for a long time. When I first saw you on the show, I was prepared not to like you. I just decided I'm not going to like this one. But after I started watching you, I began to like you. I think you're very good and it's nice to have you on the show.' I really appreciated this because I'm an audience, too, and I'm worse than anybody when I see a new actor or actress playing a character. I yell, 'Who is this person?'" she laughed loudly, "'Get lost!' Yet both my roles on soaps have been replacements. I've yet to play my own character."
Sounding disappointed that she never originated a character, I asked Nikki what kind of person she would like to create. "I don't know; the two people I'm doing, done, are good people. Such good people! They’re so good. I love Marie Cheatham's character, Stephanie (on Search for Tomorrow). I don't know if I would want to be quite that conniving, but I'd like to have a meatier part."
Nikki enjoyed her time on Ryan’s Hope. She loved playing Mary, a woman she could easily identify with. Mary was a career woman often called away on business trips. Her career presented problems since she was also a wife and mother. Nikki related to Mary's anxiety over what should come first -- my family or my career? As of now, Nikki is still single, although she has a steady boyfriend, Paul. Her career is just beginning, and she does not have to worry about the conflicting interests Mary had. That's the present, but Nikki definitely sees a family, a very large family, in her future.
"It's a bit frightening in this day and age to think about having children...and all the women libbers will probably want to kill me, but that's one of the joys of being a woman. I'd like to have one or two of my own and adopt a horde." She continued, "A lot of women don't want a family, which I understand. That's good for them, but not for me. I want to have babies, lots and lots of babies."
Since Mary was away from home a lot, there really was not enough of a part to keep Nikki busy. Nikki sensed that her expiration date on the soap might be forthcoming and her suspicions were soon confirmed: "I had an inkling, because nothing was happening with the character for a long time. I had a feeling that either they were going to do something really big or my time was dwindling. So when the producers told me, I wasn't too terribly shocked. We talked about it for a bit and three weeks later I was lying a car."
Nikki became anxious about her next job. Her work schedule for the remaining three weeks was heavy, leaving little time for auditions. This alone made it difficult for Nikki to have a positive attitude towards her work, but the writers gave her more of a reason. Mary was killed in a planned car accident which broke her neck. Nikki recalled those "fun" moments during her first nationwide death scene:
"It was very painful to hold my neck in the same position for more than an hour at a time, in addition to not knowing when the camera was on me; it would cut back and forth. I had to say to them, 'Do you know how painful this is? Let me swallow -- once!" Nikki stiffened and pretended to choke. "Then to lie there and trying to be so dead, trying not to breathe, and having Helen Gallagher (Mary's mother, Maeve) come over and touch me and kiss me." Nikki imitated Maeve's sweet Irish brogue: "'Mary, Mary...don't be dead!' I was crying inside; I as devastated. Then when Jack (Mary's husband) said, 'Mary, Mary, are you dead, Mary?' Oh, that hurt me more than anything." Nikki really felt Maeve and Jack's pain when she had to die as Mary. Oh, how she wished she could comfort them and say: "Hey, I'm not really dead!"
Like Nikki, Michael Levin, who plays Mary's husband, Jack Fenelli, was emotionally caught up in her death scene. When he looked at her, he did not think of her as an ac tress playing a port, or his friend dying. She was his wife: "We had a very nice relationship. It was very good working with Michael; he was easy to get along with." She added that their friendship made the death sequence even harder to portray, because they knew it would be their last scene together. "It hurt. When we were in the rehearsal room we held on to each other and started to cry."
But everything worked out well for Nikki. She went from ABC's Ryan's Hope to CBS' Search for Tomorrow. Nikki admitted that she was fortunate in getting another soap role so fast. She imaged it might be weeks, months, before the right part came along, but it all happened for her just as she said farewell to the RH cast. "I was supposed to audition for Search my last day of taping for Ryan's, but I couldn't because the cast was having a party for me. And I have a certain loyalty to my friends. They brought me little presents; they were so sweet." When she got home from the party, her mother had good news for her. The Search producers called and wanted her to screen-test next week. "Within six days I had another job...it was miracle time, believe me."
When Nikki won the role of Kathy Phillips, she did not realize how close the character's personality was to Mary Ryan. It's new surroundings for Nikkki, there are new faces and personalities to work with, but how different is the role she is now portraying? "Mary and Kathy are really very much the same kind of woman. I don't know very much about Kathy yet, but I do know that Mary had beliefs in things an would go out and do what she wanted, whatever it was. Mary was going to handle it, and it would be better for the world." Although she is still uncertain about Kathy’s total outlook on life, Nikki has learned enough about Kathy to say, "I don't think she is as dogmatic as Mary. She's more concerned with her family, but they're both working women, very independent, intelligent people who are vulnerable and needful." Nikki laughed when she considered what the type-casting might mean and said: "I'll be playing women like that for the rest of my life." She quickly added (so as not to turn off any past, present, or future producer), "which isn't bad."
If someone had told Nikki that she would be a soap opera actress several years ago, she would have laughed in their face. She admitted that her opinion of daytime dramas has dramatically changed. Not only is it her bread and butter, but it's a launching pad to wherever she wants to go: "I went to my agents and said to them: 'Okay, guys, I will do theatre, film, commercials -- within reason, but I will not do soap operas but if we really, really have to, I will do Ryan's Hope, All My Children and One Life to Live, because I've been watching them for years.' And my agent laughed, 'Listen to her; she's going to tell me what she wants, like I can help.' Then I got Ryan's Hope and I said, 'Ha, ha, ha, you see! I didn't want to do a soap and that was a mistake, because I think if anybody's going to go into the business and they can get on a soap, it is one of the best training grounds. You can do anything then."
Nikki had a life in show business long before she was Mr. and Mrs. Ryan's daughter, Mary. She appeared primarily in plays and nightclubs and was a song-and-dance person for a while. Nikki sang a little sample for me. IT was not surprising to learn that Nikki can carry a tune, since she is the daughter of singer-actor Robert Goulet. Both Nikki's parents were supportive of her career: "My mom's always been behind me one hundred percent. She tells me, 'Whatever you want to do is fine with me. I'm behind you and I love you.' My dad would say, 'What do you want to do? and I would answer, 'I want to be an actress.' Then he'd say, 'Okay, but what do you want to do?' and in turn I'd repeat: 'I WANT TO BE AN ACTRESS, DAD!' Then when I took acting classes and got my first job he said, 'Now you’re really an actress.' I did what I said I was going to do, which I think makes him proud."
Nikki's dad has now turned off Ryan's Hope so he can watch Search. No, he's not a soap opera addict, just a loyal father. Nikki smiled and said, "He watches Search and looks for me, which might sound rude. He said, 'Hey, Nikki, you weren't on today,' and I said, 'No.' 'Well, when are you on again? 'Cause I won't watch till then.' And I went, 'Daddy!'" Despite the fact that Nikki cannot get her father to watch every day, she appreciates what he does watch. "It's nice that he takes the time out."
Nikki has appeared with her father in a song-and-dance act, as a backup singer. The opportunity came as a last-minute solution. He needed a signer right away and all the people who were called were already working. Someone suggested that Robert's little girl could fit the bill and, being hardly timid, Nikki said, "Sure!" She was thrilled. "I figured he'd want me to start in six months, so I was being real cool. He said I had to leave immediately: 'What! I can't leave now!' I got real upset and scared. But I made up my mind to leave. It was Mother's Day and I said, 'Mommy, I love you, but I'm going to make my fame and fortunate.' That was on a Sunday and I opened on a Wednesday."
On the day of our interview Nikki was scheduled to audition for a very special revival. If she was nervous, it was easy to understand why. The revival stars Richard Burton, and the play’s name is Camelot. Camelot is special to Nikki because her father starred in the original Broadway hit with Burton and Julie Andrews. Julie played Guinevere, and Nikki was trying out for that role: "The play is absolutely marvelous; I hope I get it, 'cause I’d love to do a musical. I think it’s just so much fun to get up there and do a live show. There’s so much energy and excitement going on."
At this point in our conversation, I wondered if this bouncy, bright-eyed actress was always so lively and talkative, or was she really shy and just coming out of her shell for Soap Opera Digest? "Are you really an extrovert, Nikki?"
"At times. But if I were to go to a party right now, I’d stand in a corner and say, 'I don’t like to be here.' Once I know the people, it's a lot easier. All my life when I've gone to parties -- say with my father -- or now with my boyfriend, I'll take their coat sleeves and just hang on. I’m not really hanging on, but I can touch them and I know that they are close by. I say, 'Please don't leave me.' They ask, surprised, 'Who’s leaving you?' And I always feel like I made a total fool of myself."
This bubbly, self-admitted-silly person can also be quite serious. She has a pet interest that often forces her happy-go-lucky personality to come down to Earth and witness cold reality. Nikki has been involved with the Humane Society. Her deep love for animals prodded her to visit the society. She had no intention of adopting any of their animals, but she just could not help herself.
"I got my kitty through them. My little black kitty cat, Fibber McGee Fenelli. I call him that because I was on Ryan's when I got him. Everyone told me that I was going to bring something home, but I explained I already had a cat and a dog, I couldn't get another animal." By now Nikki's mouth was forming a large grin as she revealed, "Next thing, I called up my mom. 'Hey, Mom!' 'Okay, what is it?' 'It's a kitty, Mommy.' 'No!' she said. I went on, 'But Ma, he's so sweet.' She said 'No!' again, but later when she held him, that was it. We’ve had him a year now.
"I'm appalled at the way people treat animals. I'm really mad about the thing with the dolphins in Japan," Nikki said with emotion, her face no longer smiling. "I listened to the news and I had to cry. Why? There's enough fish for everybody!" Her voice rose in anger. Nikki was referring to the large dolphin kill in Japan, claimed necessary by the Japanese fishermen because the mammals were eating their livelihood. Nikki continued, "I watched Lou Grant the other night, which I think is by far one of the best shows on television. Well, this week they had something on dog-fighting and I started to cry. Sometimes at the ending of a show I go, 'It's not supposed to end that way. It's supposed to have a nice, happy ending. Don't you know that this is television?'"
Nikki imagines what her life in the future might be like. With her love of children and animals, it is no surprised she sees a lot of each in her crystal ball. "I'd like to live in Toronto (Nikki's birthplace) or maybe the Midwest, where there are plenty of trees and rolling hills. I want to have lots of animals and children running around." She laughed and thought out loud, "Mother Nature! I'd love to have horses, a couple of chickens and one cow, 'cause I love cows. They're so cute; they're so cuddly," she said in a little girl voice.
Wherever Nikki decides to live, she probably had been there before. Her love of travel and of keeping busy keeps her on her toes. Just sitting in her chair, the young actress finds it hard to stay still. "Right now I'm itching to go someplace. This weekend I'm going to see my dad in Philadelphia; he's performing at Palumbo's. This year I would like to take my holiday down in the Caribbean -- to be near the white sands and clear waters." She paused, gave a little frown, and confided, "But I have to lose weight first, because I refuse to put on a bathing suit. It's kind of embarrassing to wear shorts and a tee shirt to the beach, while everyone is wearing bikinis."
At this point in the interview, Nikki was asked to pose for pictures. She would have preferred not to post, but agreed when she was assured she looked just fine, and said, "Be kind to me, please," and laughed. Since her hat was so attractive she was asked to pose with it on, and, being an actress, she gave us some good great looks. "I feel like I should be in one of those spy movies." She lit another cigarette, decided it would give a more dramatic effect. It worked; she looked like she just stepped out of a 1940's Humphrey Bogart movie. "Me and Lauren Bacall; I love it."
Appearing so happy and satisfied with her life, I asked Nikki: "What is Nicolette Goulet's recipe for a successful life?" Picking up on the word recipe she began, "Oh, a little dash of this; a little dash of that." Then, getting serious, she said thoughtfully, "I think really doing what you want to do and not hurting anybody. Feeling free enough to go out and do something totally silly, or getting dressed up one day and having a bizarre luncheon at the Palm Court (an expensive place to dine, located in New York's Plaza Hotel) and being very hoity-toity. And the next day putting on sneakers and jeans and going to Central Park to have an ice cream sundae." As an afterthought, she said, "Oh, oh! Don't mention ice cream, Nikki, you're on a diet." She then continued, "Not being stagnant; not allowing yourself to sit back. Being able to combine as many things as you can."
It was time to end the interview, since Nikki had to rush to her Camelot audition. I wished her luck and, after thanking me, she ran to the elevator. After she left, I realized how much I enjoyed getting to know the person behind the serious facades of Mary Ryan and Kathy Phillips -- an actress with the personality of a Fourth of July sparkler and the energy of a shooting star, bound for wherever her heart takes her.