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Annette O’Toole savors ‘Virgin River’ role as real, freeing

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LOS ANGELES (Associated Press) – Annette O’Toole enjoys her “Virgin River” role as the unpredictable mayor of a small town whose rough and tumultuous atmosphere contrasts with the life of its savage residents.

Her character is older but not always wiser, including in love. This goes against Hollywood’s tendency to see excess middle age as outdated for accurate storytelling, and O’Toole considers herself fortunate to play Hope McCrea.

Make this doubly lucky. When the actress chose to stay with her 97-year-old mother during the worst of the pandemic, it meant Hope was largely absent last season. The fourth and current season is a comeback for both, thanks to series creator Sue Tenney.

She called me and said, ‘You’re in the hospital.’ Tenney said of Hope’s forgotten condition. When O’Toole asked if Hope was living, Tenney let the actor decide: Did she want to return to the series starring Alexandra Breckenridge which is based on Robyn’s novels Carr?

“are you kidding?” O’Toole’s response. This passion is characteristic, as demonstrated by her autobiography which includes a few gaps and nearly 100 TV movies (Superman 3, Nash Bridges, Smallville). She earned an Emmy Award nomination for her role as Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy in the 1990 miniseries “The Kennedys of Massachusetts,” a role she took on shortly after the birth of her second daughter.

She’s also emphasized theatrical work, and is a songwriter, with her husband Michael McCain: many of their tunes were on “A Mighty Wind”—the movie of McCain’s longtime friend and collaborator Christopher Guest—including the Academy Award-nominated song A Kiss at the Academy Award-nominated “A Kiss.” at the end of the rainbow.” Then there are the bragging rights to her backup singer on Spinal Tap, most notably at a concert in London featuring actor and writer McKean, Guest and others in the fake band of satirical movie fame.

O’Toole, 70, was adorably sweet in a phone interview with The Associated Press during the fifth season of filming in Vancouver, which represents Northern California on the Virgin River. There is “more emotional risk” than ever, she said of the upcoming season, and the city is “really going to unite.”

No spoilers were dropped, but O’Toole frankly discussed how her character is portrayed, Hope’s relationship with Doc Mullins, played by Tim Matheson, and luck finding the right partner in McCain, her second husband. Notes have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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AP: ‘Virgin River’ isn’t science fiction or fantasy, it’s just a human drama. Was this the call?

O’Toole: That’s exactly. It’s about people and their issues and in a beautiful community. And Sue Teni was very gracious because this character isn’t in the books much, so we kind of had a blank page to draw this person together. You’re not doing it (a project) because you want it to be a hit. The chances of that happening are very slim. You do it because you want to, and you love people. And at this point in my career, I’m doing something I’ve never done before. That’s why this character was so appealing, because I could help mold it into something more realistic than a lot of things I’d read of characters my age, my grandmothers, and the nicer kind of people in the house. That’s boring, I did it.

AP: What would you like to see in Hope instead?

O’Toole: I just wanted it to be complicated, a woman who doesn’t have the answers even at her age. She does not, at first, have an established relationship. It is very rocky. This is interesting to me, someone who has lived most of her life and has yet to discover it. She is impulsive and stubborn, and she is also very generous and can be very gentle and loving. She is just a person. I just wanted a whole person.

AP: It is rare for older characters to appear in a long, loving or widowed marriage. Hope and Doc’s story isn’t the show’s central relationship, but it is a focus.

O’Toole: How interesting it is that he was unfaithful early in their marriage and she can’t let him go. You never fired it. She never said, well, that’s it. Tim is great and we’ve come up with an entire life they’ve lived together. It was not an ordinary marriage at all. The way we look at marriage, I love that marriage can be whatever you want it to be or not.

AP: Hope is an attractive woman who doesn’t bother hiding her age behind hair dye or heavy makeup. Given the demands that women be forever young, how can she play the character who says, “Here I am a scientist, an older woman?”

O’Toole: It’s wonderful. It’s the most fun I had because when I started, I was really young and I was kind of a genius, then I became the lead lady at some things, and then I started getting older. Now I just find it very liberating. I don’t worry about it, and that’s in life too. So hopefully, I feel the same way about it. It’s like, who are we trying to babysit? Especially the actress, they can search for you (online) and see your age, see all the things you’ve done, and look at all your pictures.

AP: You and Michael have been married for more than two decades, which is impressive for any couple and considered so especially in the entertainment industry.

O’Toole: We’re really good friends. He just left, he ended up in London doing another series on Netflix, “The Diplomat”. COVID was so terrible, but we were so lucky because it was the most consecutive day we had been together in our marriage. Realize that we always say goodbye. It was so hard because we were together a lot, and we talked about the first time we said goodbye, and we talked about luck. We are both really lucky to find each other. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without him, and he says the same about me.

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