A native of Louisiana, Shelley Hennig first got public exposure in the beauty pageant circuit. She won Miss Teen USA 2004, and part of the prize was a scholarship to the School for Film and Television in New York. From there, she landed the role of Stephanie Johnson on NBC’s daytime drama Days of our Lives.
Shelley brings a fearlessness to her role as Stephanie, who just so happens to be a race car driver and has survived jumping out of an airplane and being raped by the campus predator. Shelley shared with BuddyTV the story of how she came be on Days of our Lives, what other TV shows she likes to watch and what some of her vices are. Below, you will find an audiofile and a complete transcript of the interview.
Hey everybody. This is Debbie at BuddyTV, and today I’m talking to Shelley Hennig, who plays Stephanie Johnson on Days of Our Lives. Hey Shelley, how’s it going?
Really good. How are you?
I’m good, I’m good. Let’s start with how you first got cast to be on Days of Our Lives.
Well, it’s kind of a different story from most people here. I was in an acting school in New York for two years. Almost two years. I had one month left and I was coming out to L.A. for spring break, just to get away from the freezing weather. I told the founder of my school that I was heading out to L.A. for about a week, and she said, “You know what, there’s someone I want you to meet over at Days of Our Lives. He’s a supervising producer, and you’ve been working very hard, so I feel like you won’t embarrass me. I really want you to meet with him.” So I called him and he said, “Alright, call me when you get here.” So that’s what I did, I called him the minute that I got here and he said, “Can you be in Burbank in about 30 minutes?” I was like, “I will try!” I got in a cab, and it was about 80 bucks to NBC Studios. I didn’t know what I was going for, he seemed kind of in a hurry.
I get there and they inform me that they’re screen testing for a part the next morning. They said that I really wasn’t what they were looking for, however, he just wanted to meet me and maybe just read the sides. So I did, I read it with him and he brings me to the producer and is like, “Look, I really think that she should do the screen test tomorrow.” So I read with the producer, and then he agrees, and they say, “Once again, you’re not what we’re looking for, but let’s just get you on camera. That way we can always have it if we ever cast for a part that will work for you in the future.” I’m like okay. They gave me the scene that night. I prepared that night, go in the next morning, had to work out the contract and all those details, talk as if I was getting the part, and talk about relocating from New York City, and working the next day. It was just a whole other world that we were talking about. It freaked me out. I got on set, I did the dry block in rehearsal, and I completely bombed. I can’t remember a word of anything, I can’t even speak. Then I go to my dressing room, have a nervous breakdown, and come back out. Mary Beth Evans, who I screen tested with, she plays my mother, Kayla. I did the screen test with her, but before we started she could tell I was really, really nervous. She squeezed my hand and she said, “You’re beautiful inside and out, now let’s show them what you have.”
We did the scene, and I have never been more satisfied and proud of a scene in my entire life. It was a really great feeling, and I left there thinking, if I don’t get this part — which I didn’t think I was going to anyway since they clearly weren’t looking for a brunette, they were looking for a redhead — if I don’t get it, it doesn’t matter. I showed them what I had, and I felt good about myself. So then I get a phone call the next day, and Steve Wyman, the producer, asks me if I wanted the part. I’m like, “Are you kidding? Are you going to ask me?” Of course I said yes, and I got off the phone and my friend Chelsea was like, “Aren’t you gonna scream?” I was like, “Ah!” I don’t know what to do right now. Yeah, that’s the story. I worked the next day, I relocated, and my school let me go back to them and graduate cause I was almost done. I couldn’t be happier and more lucky.
Wow, that’s a great story.
It’s an earful, I apologize about that. I’ve told it so many times that I kind of have it down. I speak kind of fast as well.
Still, that’s fantastic. It doesn’t often happen that way, I’m sure.
It doesn’t, which is why every morning I wake up and I thank my lucky stars. I promise you not a day goes by when I’m on set and I just, I have like an out of body experience, and I go, “Oh my gosh. I am here.” I know it sounds really cheesy and cliché, but because everything happened so fast and I was so fortunate, I just can’t get over it. Still, I’m not over it. I just know that I’m very lucky, and my co-stars are amazing, so I really have nothing to complain about.
What was it like taking over the role of Stephanie Johnson? Someone had portrayed it before you, and you’re relatively new to acting, so what was that like?
Well, I knew the basics of what the character was like before. Of course I had to know that to play this role, to see where she was coming from. However, they just did a complete 180 with the character, so I didn’t really have to use anything that Shayna Rose used. I brought Shelley to the character, because really it was a new character. They wanted a complete change for Stephanie, and I was able to do that for them. I really didn’t even think about. It just kind of happened, it just flowed. My acting teachers in New York were so amazing that they gave me the basics and the skills to do what I have to do day to day. Crying from 6am to 6pm, that’s not easy.
So how much of yourself do you put into the role?
I think it all stems from me, from Shelley. However, I use my imagination a lot. You have to, especially being on a soap opera. It’s so dramatic and so exaggerated that I think a lot of things stem from my gut, but I’m channeling people I’ve read about, people I know in my life. You use all kinds of things, but I really like to use my imagination.
What about more superficial things, like your wardrobe and your own style?
Oh, I love wardrobe! I am a bit obsessed with clothing, that is definitely my vice. That’s my favorite time in the morning. I do enjoy the wardrobe and they do a great job dressing us, but I do have a lot to say in that room. At first I started off like, “Yeah, anything, sure,” but the longer you’re there you just get more picky and picky. But it’s in a good way, because you know your character, you know what she would wear on that particular day in those scenes, you know how much makeup she’d be wearing. You know your character more than they ever will, because you feel it. They listen to us. Richard Bloore, he’s great, he gets me the style that I want, what I’m feeling comfortable in. When swimsuit season comes in, I’m particular about the swimsuit style and all that stuff. They’re very, very good with me, so I’m fortunate with that too.
That’s really cool. What’s it like behind the scenes? Do you and your co-stars hang out?
Yeah, actually. Darin [Brooks], who plays Max, my love interest, he was actually my first friend on set. He took me under his wing, and he was more my age. I did get along great with Mary Beth and Steve [Stephen Nichols], I still do. They’re more like older best friend, mother-father figures. Well, I guess they could be old enough to be my parents, but they’re so young, oh my God, they’re ridiculous. They’re more like friends. I hang out with Rachel [Melvin], who plays Chelsea, and Kristen [Renton] and I get along great as well. She plays the Morgan character. We play enemies, but we’re actually close in real life. I’ve learned a lot from Rachel, I must say. She’s been really good to me. I enjoy everyone, really.
Other than Days of Our Lives, are you a fan of any other TV shows?
I like The Office, I like Gossip Girl, I like Medium, House. Grey’s Anatomy, I wish I had seen all the episodes. Whenever I do catch it I do love the show, but for some reason I haven’t been able to stick with it. But I do love it.
I really recommend getting the DVDs for the first and second season, because those are the best.
I know, that’s what I need to do. I haven’t been watching it since the first season, so I kind of feel left out. My roommate knows everything about it, so it’s kind of become her show. I do want to go back and get that, and Rachel keeps telling me to rent Weeds and watch all their seasons. She says it’s brilliant, so I’m going to do that as well. And So You Think You Can Dance. It’s not on right now, but I’m obsessed with that show. Oh, and Ellen! Ellen DeGeneres. Oh Ellen, Ellen, Ellen. We’re both from New Orleans, and I think she is just so extremely talented and funny, and she makes my day every day I watch her. I was on her show with a few other cast members from Days, and I pretty much was freaking out the entire time before, and after, and three days later. It was definitely an out of body experience, because I could not believe I was meeting her. It was ridiculous. One night, I was being really dumb and I drew a picture of her on a little bitty pumpkin. It was like Halloween season, and I had this autographed picture that Steve, who plays my dad, got for me from her. I was bored and I started drawing her on the pumpkin. When I found out I was going to be on the show, my roommate was like, “You have to bring her the pumpkin!” So I gave it to someone to give it to her, but I don’t know if she ever got it. She didn’t put it on set with her, but that’s okay, it’s the thought that counts.
It sounds like you get a little star struck when you meet people you admire, like Ellen. Do you ever find that fans of yours sort of recognize you on the street and are like, “Shelley!”?
It’s funny you say that, because it’s not “Shelley,” it’s “Stephanie.” I was at the gym yesterday and just really going at it on the treadmill. Swimsuit season coming up. I noticed this older woman comes up and gets on the treadmill right next to me. There’s like ten of them in a row, and I was the only one on one, and she gets on the one right next to me. After I was done, she was done. I kind of walked away and just smiled. It didn’t register at all that maybe she recognized me, but she finally stopped me and was like, “Are you Stephanie? Do you play Stephanie?” I was like, “Yes,” and we started talking, but she was a little shaky. She was like, “I was just telling my daughter yesterday that you’re my favorite character,” and all this great stuff that I needed to hear that particular morning. It was just one of those days, and she definitely made my day, and hopefully I made hers as well.
I really like the relationship that your character has with Steve, your dad. I think it’s just a great father-daughter relationship. Are there going to be any storylines that are interesting coming up for you? I know Steve’s character is kind of in this crazy mafia connection right now.
Right. What I do know is that the bottom line is that the writers do love writing for Steve and I. I’m sure there will be some more stuff coming up between us. I do also know that the whole Ava thing, I’m sure the family will be in some kind of turmoil or trouble, and I’m sure some things will come through that.
What about your love interest with Max?
Oh, love interest. Well, Stephanie is recovering from being raped, and Max is helping her through that. I think because of that, especially, now she’s more attached to him in every way. We’ll just see if she can become that independent woman again. I’m hoping that for her. I think she just needs her power and her strength back, and maybe even her sexuality. She’s been through a lot, so she’s taking her time, and Max is taking his time with her and being patient. Hopefully he’ll stick around.
Finally, I wanted to talk about some of the activities that you’re involved in off the set. I was reading up about you, and was impressed to find out that you’re a big advocate against underage drinking. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yes. Well, in 2001, one of my brothers passed away from a drinking and driving accident about two blocks from my house. He was 18, had just graduated high school, and I was just about to graduate my freshman year and this tragedy happens in my family. I was young, I went into high school and I lived my life, and I knew my brother wanted me to. I didn’t really process the feelings or emotions I had about his death. When I went to Louisiana, one of the first questions they asked me in the meeting the next morning was, “What is your platform? What do you work for? What do you believe in? What’s your passion?” Instantly, it was the idea that I believe in speaking out against drinking and driving. That’s where that whole idea came from, and the next five years of my life I was traveling the United States and speaking out against it, and telling people it’s just not worth it. So it all comes from my brother, and I needed to turn something negative into a positive. That was a great way for me to do that. To let everyone know that it’s not worth it, and this is what could happen if you get behind a wheel drunk.
It’s really refreshing to hear a young star like you really not going crazy, and encouraging people.
Yeah, I’m very grounded. I come from a good family, and I come from Louisiana, the South. I’m a dancer as well, and I was always teaching younger girls dancing, and I’ve always had so many younger girls look up to me. That’s also been my motivation. I just want everyone to be safe, and happy, and do the right things, and go for what they believe in, and shoot for the stars.
-Interview conducted by Debbie Chang
(Image courtesy of NBC)