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

LOS ANGELES — Annette O’Toole is reveling in her “Virgin River” role as the unpredictable mayor of a small town whose woodsy, peaceful setting belies its residents’ roller-coaster lives.

Her character is older but not always wiser, including in love. That goes against Hollywood’s tendency to view midlife-plus as past the sell-by date for nuanced storytelling, and O’Toole counts herself fortunate to play Hope McCrea.

Make that doubly lucky. When the actor chose to stay with her 97-year-old mom during the worst of the pandemic, that 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. You had a terrible car crash,” Tenney said of Hope’s in-limbo status. When O’Toole asked if Hope lives, Tenney let the actor decide: Did she want to return to the series, which stars Alexandra Breckenridge and is based on Robyn Carr’s novels?

“Are you kidding?” O’Toole replied. Such eagerness is characteristic, as proven by her resume that includes few gaps and some 100 film and TV credits (“Superman III,” “Nash Bridges” and “Smallville” among them). She earned an Emmy nomination for playing 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 theater work and, with husband Michael McKean, is a songwriter: several of their tunes were in “A Mighty Wind” — the film by McKean’s longtime friend and collaborator Christopher Guest — including the Oscar-nominated ballad “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow.” Then there’s her Spinal Tap back-up singer bragging rights, most notably at a London benefit concert including actor-writer McKean, Guest and others in the faux band of satiric movie fame.

O’Toole, 70, was breezily good-natured in a phone interview with The Associated Press during season-five filming in Vancouver, which stands in for Northern California on “Virgin River.” There’s more “emotionally at stake” than ever and the town is “really going to be unified,” she said of next season.

There were no spoilers dropped, but O’Toole candidly discussed how her character is portrayed, Hope’s relationship with Doc Mullins, played by Tim Matheson, and the luck in finding the right partner in McKean, her second husband. Remarks were edited for clarity and brevity.

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AP: ‘Virgin River’ isn’t sci-fi or fantasy, it’s simply human drama. Was that the appeal?

O’TOOLE: Exactly that. It’s about people and their issues and in a beautiful community. And Sue Tenney was so generous because this character is not really in the books very much, so we kind of had a blank slate to draw this person together. You don’t do it (a project) because you want it to be a big success. The chances of that happening are so slim. You do it because you want to, and you like the people. And at this point in my career it’s doing something that I haven’t quite done before. That’s why this character was attractive, because I could help form her into something a little more real than than a lot of the stuff I read for characters my age, grandmothers and the sweet kind of homebody. That’s boring, I’ve done that.

AP: What did you want to see in Hope instead?

O’TOOLE: I just wanted her to be complicated, a woman who even at her age doesn’t have the answers. She doesn’t have, at the beginning, a relationship that is steady. It’s very rocky. That’s interesting to me, somebody who has gone through most of her life and hasn’t figured it out yet. She’s impulsive and headstrong, and also very generous and can be very kind and loving. She’s just a person. I just wanted a full person.

AP: It’s a screen rarity for older characters to be shown other than in a long and loving marriage or widowed. Hope and Doc’s story isn’t the show’s central relationship, but it’s a focus.

O’TOOLE: How interesting that he was unfaithful early in their marriage and she cannot let him go. She never divorced him. She never said, well, that’s it. Tim is fantastic and we’ve come up with a whole full life that they’ve had together. It’s not been a normal marriage at all. The way we look at marriage, I love that marriage can be whatever you want it to be or not be.

AP: Hope is an attractive woman who doesn’t bother to hide her age behind hair dye or heavy makeup. Given the demands on women to be eternally youthful, how is to play a character who says, ‘Here I am world, an older woman?’

O’TOOLE: It’s wonderful. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had because when I started out, I was really young and I was sort of the ingenue, and then I was the leading lady in some things, and then you start to age. Now I just find it so freeing. I don’t worry about it, and that’s in life, too. So Hope and I feel the same way about it. It’s like, who are we trying to kid? Especially an actress, they can look you up (online) and see how old you are, see all the things you’ve done, look at all your pictures.

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

O’TOOLE: We’re really good buddies. He just left, he’s been over in London doing another Netflix series, ‘The Diplomat.’ COVID was so terrible, but we were very lucky because it was the most consecutive days we had ever been together in our marriage. I realize we’re always saying goodbye. It was very hard because we’d been together so much, and we talked about the first time we said goodbye, and we talked about luck. We both really lucked out finding one another. I cannot imagine what my life without him, and he says the same thing about me.

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