On the set of ABC's venerable soap opera General Hospital one day this winter, everything seemed normal: fictional Port Charles citizens blackmailed and kidnapped each other; in the break room, grizzled crewmembers game planned over donuts. But in the make-up room, stylists gave blowouts to muscled men with pearly white teeth, petite starlets and…a NASCAR driver?
Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy Impala for Richard Childress Racing, is here to make his debut as a soap star, and Daytime TV may never be the same.
"My initial reaction was, why do they want me?" Burton said. "Because I'm certainly not a good actor, and I don't have a Hollywood face by any means. When I go to the beach, whales gather around."
When Burton woke up this morning, he was NASCAR's unofficial posterboy—a good ole Carolina boy, mature, level-headed, soft-spoken and kind, a seasoned veteran respected by all. If recent texts from his fellow drivers are any indication, he can kiss that rep goodbye. One, from Daytona 500 champ Matt Kenseth, isn't clean enough to share. Mostly the drivers asked "whether I'm in a sex scene," Burton says. "Unfortunately, I'm not. Probably fortunately for the actress."
Burton's lines were faxed to him last week, and he swears, "I've looked at them." But his wife, Kim, shakes her head, as if to say: No, he hasn't looked at them, and I'm fairly certain he's about to ruin our family name.
"She's concerned because she knows my short term memory is crap," Burton explains. "I'm sure they don't have high expectations."
Besides, he adds, "What's the worst that could happen?"
"You'll never be asked to do this again," Kim says.
This seems to scare the hell out of Burton, so he cozies up with a script on a couch. The GH publicist asks if he can help.
"I'm a little confused about my lines," Burton says.
"I can't find 'em."
His private rehearsal is short lived. Burton is rushed to the stage, running into cast member Rebecca Herbst ("Elizabeth Webber") along the way. She endeavors to calm his nerves.
"You ready?" Herbst asks.
"We'll find out."
"Have you been watching?"
"No," Burton says. "Probably should have."
"Well, I hope you have fun. This is a very different experience."
Burton arrives at the set for Jake's Bar, where he'll spend the next hour. The gist of the scene: Burton, playing himself, is sitting at the counter with bar proprietor Mitchell Coleman (Blake Gibbons) when in walks Patrick Drake (Jason Thompson), a hotshot doctor who fancies himself a "semi-pro" driver. Dr. Drake is having marriage problems, so he's downing Tequila, pondering a trip to Atlanta Motor Speedway and boasting of his driving skills, unaware that he's yapping to Jeff Burton. Pretty funny, and pretty simple, even for a rookie thespian.
"Whenever you have someone on who's not an actor, you wonder how they'll do," says director Phideaux Xavier. "But the pressure in the car is way more than the pressure on the set."
Maybe not. As cameras move into position, Burton is mumbling his lines to himself like a crazy person. Though he's comfortable with the setting ("I've spent a few days in a bar in my time"), he's hardly confident. "I just hope I don't screw these guys up," he says. "I'm a little nervous."
Burton isn't alone. Seems today's NASCAR-infused storyline is flummoxing a few people.
"You go by a nickname?" Gibbons asks Burton.
"Plain old simple Jeff."
"Mind if I call you JB? To give the scene a sense of familiarity?"
"That's cool," Burton replies.
Thompson, meanwhile, is Canadian, which means he knows more about moose than he does motor sports—or the script's driving jargon.
"Hug the tires," Thompson says aloud. "What do I do with my tires? "
"You can hug 'em," Burton responds.
"It's a sexual term."
With that out of the way, they tackle a few more lines, which include terms like "drifting" and "carrying speed," but it's unclear whether they're talking about racing or rowboating.
"I'm changing the lines," Burton declares.
Actor and teacher continue the read-through, doctoring the lines as they go. Drake reads the tweaked final product: "Atlanta's a sweet track. But it's deceptive. You gotta carry enough speed through the turns and let yourself drift to the wall."
"There you go," Burton says. "That sounds better."
Finally, they're ready to shoot, and then a funny thing happens when the visitor becomes visiting director: Burton, emboldened, nails his lines like a natural. He even picks up a few tricks along the way, like placing his script on the counter, out of camera view. After a few takes, they're done.
"Jeff was awesome, man," Gibbons says. "A seasoned pro."
"It's like he's been doing this for years," Thompson offers.
Burton couldn't agree more.
"There's no question there's Emmy potential," he says. "I sat very well. I walked out very well. I didn't forget my jacket. It's the little things, paying attention to details, that's how you get an Emmy."
Minutes later, Jeff and Kim are safely in the parking lot. Their ride is a no-frills, American-made compact jalopy. No town car, no driver, no agent. Just a Carolina dude and his girl, heading into the sunset, toward the track and far, far away from Hollywood.