He'd Love Another
by Kathy Henderson
Such a *nice* boy, that Charlie Brent. So respectful of his elders. So loyal (except for one slip) to his girlfriend Julie. So dull.
"It's hard to make a nice guy interesting day after day," admits Robert Duncan McNeill, the sandy-haired twenty-three-year-old actor who's now in his third year as Charlie on All My Children. "I think he needs to get into trouble, have some kind of responsibility that would make him grow up...his one-night stand with Cecily [Rosa Langschwadt] helped him a lot," laughs McNeill. "He needs to do more things like that."
Before settling down for a lunchtime interview, McNeill - everyone calls him Robbie - had been rehearsing a scene in which Charlie overhears Julie (Lauren Holly) declare her love for Nico (Maurice Benard). "The character has really changed," he notes of Charlie's romantic entanglements. "The girl who played Julie when I started was fifteen, and Charlie was supposed to be young and goofy, sort of like Anthony Michael Hall. It was almost like a sitcom sometimes with Michael Knight [ex-Tad]. I loved that."
Yes, but Charlie was such a wimp in those days. "He was," McNeill acknowledges. "He still is a wimp, and that's a problem. Charlie's in transition now. He needs a storyline of his own."
Whatever quibbles he may have about Saint Charlie, McNeil clearly loves working with the AMC "family." He travels frequently with Mark LaMura (Mark), and spends a lot of off-the-set time with friends like Robert Gentry (Ross) and Lauren Holly. "He's like my brother, I love him," says the bubbly Holly. "In fact, people tell us we look alike. We're best friends on and off the set. My boyfriend is always out of town, so he likes it that I have someone I can go around with."
Robbie met Lauren when the two were waiters in the same New York restaurant during their pre-AMC days. He's known Carmen Thomas (Hillary) even longer, since they attended Atlanta's Briarlake Baptist Church together as kids. The McNeill family settled in Atlanta when Robbie was in the seventh grade, and he began acting in community theater productions (sometimes with his friend Carmen) soon afterward.
"He saw a poster on a telephone pole for The Wizard Of Oz, and it cost $25 to audition," remembers his father, Larry, "I told him that I didn't mind spending the money, but he had to be willing to put in the days and nights of hard work. He'd been through drums and guitars and wrestling and all these activities that kids think they want to do, and acting was the first thing he really stuck with." Mr. McNeill says he recognized his son's talent when Robbie starred in a student production of Jesus Christ Superstar. "He was so good, he amazed me," the proud father recalls. "I knew then that he could at least give acting a shot."
Having skipped a grade, Robbie moved to Manhattan the summer he was seventeen. As he tells it, "I arrived by train on a Wednesday, bought a copy of Backstage [a theatrical trade paper] that night, auditioned for a tour of The Fantasticks on Friday and was in rehearsals the following Tuesday." His quick taste of success was followed by several years as a busboy and waiter, and he studied for a year at the prestigious Juilliard School before winning the role of Charlie.
McNeill expresses few regrets that the demands of AMC forced him to give up his studies. "I wouldn't have gone to Nepal and hiked the Himalayas if I'd [decided to stay at] Juilliard," he reflects. Indeed, thanks to AMC, McNeill regularly indulges his love of travel. He and LaMura have gone skiing together in Aspen and shared a three-week trip last fall with stops in Singapore, Bangkok, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and London. "He and I are perfect travel buddies because we go off and do our own thing," Robbie says.
The young actor remains close to his dad and sixteen-year-old sister Kathi (his mother died four years ago.) "He's always been a very kind and thoughtful brother," Mr McNeill brags. "When he was about ten, we were out shopping after Christmas, and he used his Christmas money to buy a stuffed bear for his little sister. I remember getting so mad, but he looked at me and said, 'Dad, I *wanted* to give it to her.'" Robbie hopes to give Kathi an even better gift someday soon: the chance to be an extra on All My Children.
After living in nine different apartments in five years, McNeill bought a two-bedroom place last year not far from AMC's West Side studios. Romantically, he's currently unattached, having ended a six-year relationship with his childhood sweetheart. "We came to New York at the same time and struggled together," he explains. "When the soap came through and other things started happening for me, it was very hard on her. Out of convenience, and because we were broke, we lived together for three of the six years, which was a mistake. You're kind of halfway playing house, and it doesn't work. I'll never do it again unless there's a date set to get married."
Now that he's playing the field for the first time, McNeil notes, "It's easy to meet people through the show, but it's hard to know whether they're being nice to you just because you're on a soap. After a while, you learn, but it was a shock at first when people would stop me on the street." His teen following grew last summer when he starred in the feature film Masters Of The Universe. "I had fun," he says, "but it's hard to do a special-effects movie because you really have to use your imagination," since the lasers and other eye-popping effects are added after the actors have gone.
His experience waiting tables and the influence of his family seem to have given Robbie McNeill a realistic view of show business. "It's a real roller coaster," he says. "You can go from making no money to making a lot of money and back again. Unless you have some kind of stability inside yourself, your life is going to be like the jobs - up and down. You can't connect your life with how your career is going."