From being discovered as a model during her teen years, guest appearances on a slew of well-known shows like—CSI, Law & Order, NCIS, Ugly Betty, Castle and One Life to Live amongst many more—once a small town girl from Edinboro, Pennsylvania to Hollywood Los Angeles; Actress Allison McAtee plays the over-determined campaign manager on OWN’s highest rated show, Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and the Have Nots.” McAtee talks her crazy film schedule, why it was hard for her to play the character Maggie Day, and her experience with media mogul, Oprah!
When first starting out in the industry you had been modeling since the age of 14. How did you get discovered?
I was in a doctor’s office and a kid around my age just kept staring at me. It was clear he wasn’t interested in me. It wasn’t like a guy who is flirting with you when you’re a kid. He came over and gave me a card. He had a modeling agency in his small town in Erie, Pennsylvania. A few weeks later he asked if I wanted to drive to Toronto with a group to meet with an agency, and just pitch in $20 for gas. That’s how I got signed with my first agency, because I went to Toronto. Out of everyone I was with, I was the youngest, and I remembered thinking “I’m not pretty, they’re not going to like me, why am I going?” And I got there and they liked me, I was the one they wanted to stay. I realized your perception of things can sometimes be different from what others perceive.
How has your modeling background impacted your acting roles?
I think in the beginning it was a niche for me and that was good. I think this is important for every actor. It goes back to how people perceive you versus how you perceive yourself, and sometimes there can be a discrepancy between the two. It was clear that I was a model, I’m 5”11. I’m very tall, most actors aren’t tall. That’s been hard for me. There are a lot of short actors, so sometimes I’m too tall for the role because the guy that I’m playing opposite is 5’7. On camera, it will look really weird—and there are ways around it, like having someone stand on apple boxes. But, if the guy is incredibly famous and doesn’t want to upset him, they’ll cast a smaller actor.
In the beginning, a lot of my roles were model types. If you ask any actor, you’ll have to figure out what your type is and how people see you. That will be your way to break into the industry because you need to find a niche. When I was first starting, I was auditioning against a lot of girls who were just models. A lot of them weren’t actresses. I would get excited when I had model type auditions because I knew I would be the only actor of the group, even though we all looked like models.
As I’ve gotten older, roles have changed too. I’m in my thirties so I’m starting to play moms. I’ve always played older than I was, when I was 22 I was playing 30 because I’m tall and I have a certain bone structure. When I was 15 people thought I was 20. I’ve always played much older than I am. I think it’s finally starting to be in alignment. Now, I can play women who are actually in my age group versus women who are 10 years older than me. I’m pretty established as an actor, so amongst casting I don’t think they think of me as a model, but as a tall actress. I was a model—still sometimes maybe model—but I’m an actress.
Prior to being on The Haves and the Have Nots, you starred in Bloomington and a vast amount of guest appearances on TV shows like One Life To Live, NCIS, CSI and Californication. What’s your dream role?
I love television; I have had a great career in TV thus far. Ultimately, I would love to do film because you have richer characters and more complete stories. I like roles that are strong and empower women. Part of why I wanted to become an actor was to connect with people. For example, if someone felt alone, through the character I was playing I would be able to share an experience with them so they wouldn’t feel like they’re the only one going through it. I think that is why storytelling is so important in our culture, so that we can unite the human experience.
I think you do an excellent job as your character Maggie Day who plays the well connected, devious and overtly determined campaign manager on the HAHN. Initially, how did you get the role?
I had an audition in LA and only had four hours notice. The character talks a lot and I remember thinking “oh my gosh this is a lot of pages.” I went in and I read it. Maybe a week later I got a call from my agent that I had a call back for it. They wanted to fly me to Atlanta for the call back to meet with Mr. Perry. I was literally called out on a Wednesday night to fly out Friday morning, it was a little over 24-hour notice. I flew in on a redeye, stayed in the hotel for three hours and then we went to the audition at the studio.
Medina was there, who was casted as Quincy and a girl who is on If Loving You Is Wrong. He was reading a bunch of roles and from that, cast several people. We all sat in this big conference room and there were about 30 people, at least. One by one we went in and read for him and some of the other producers. My friend Eva, who plays Celine on the HAHN was in the room at one point. She and a few of the cast sat in on some of the auditions.
I didn’t read very much of the scene because Mr. Perry stopped me and said, “Ok. That was great.” That happens as an actor; sometimes you may only read three lines and you’ll feel defeated. But, I could tell that was all he needed and he really like me. They actually told me before I left the studio they were offering me that role. But, I couldn’t tell anyone because I was getting on a bus with all these people to go back to the airport. I was so excited but I had to contain my composure.
How long was the duration from the time you knew you were casted till the time you actually started filming?
It was probably one-week total.
On the show, you had a reoccurring role and now you seem to be a series regular. When you initially got hired to be Maggie Day, were you hired to play that role for a few episodes? If so, how did it turn into you being a regular cast member?
Originally my character was only eight episodes. When I got there he started to write and change things—I think that’s how Mr. Perry works. I think I did something in one of our first days of filming when I followed Peter [who plays David Harrington] off camera to check on him. He asked, “Why are you so concerned about him?” And I said, “I don’t know, I felt I should check in with him to make sure he’s OK.” I think that started a whole different thought for him [laughs].
As you know, I interviewed Angela [who plays Veronica Harrington] in the past and she mentioned when filming there’s no practice or retakes. So you pretty much have to be ready?
I’ve done a lot of TV and most one-hour dramas shoot 60 pages in seven days. That’s pretty much the standard shoot time. We shoot 60 pages in one day. Everything about the studio is fast. It’s really great in a lot of ways because it prepares you as an actor. With this show, you’re probably only going to do two takes. You kind of have to come in with your performance because you know you’re not going to have a lot of chances to redo it. We shoot with four cameras simultaneously. A lot of shows don’t use as many cameras because they have to set up the shots differently. Mr. Perry uses multiple cameras and that cuts down the shooting time exponentially.
The pacing that we shoot at is similar to a soap opera, even though we’re considered a primetime nighttime show. Usually, those other shows we would be in the same time slot as shoot in a seven-day period. There is no rehearsal which has led to our cast being really unified and having each other’s backs. We know when we get to set we have to be on point because Mr. Perry has a tight schedule. I’ve never shot a scene without meeting in a dressing room prior to rehearsing it a couple times and playing with it on our own. We have such an awesome group of people that there’s not a single person I don’t love on our show.
What is the filming schedule like?
Usually, Monday-Wednesday is our interiors and Thursdays are the exteriors of the three episodes. We end up having Friday-Sunday off, so those three days are the prep to learn three new episodes. During my time in Atlanta, there would be one night during the weekend where we would all meet up and go out, but most of the other nights it’s like, “No, I’m working on scripts.”
Since there are no retakes, I assume many of the actors/actresses may adlib and throw in some lines that may not have originally been there before?
Sometimes, but it’s actually pretty rare. There are some studios that are very word perfect of their scripts, but Mr. Perry is a little less word perfect. But you’re pretty much sticking to what’s written. That’s your job as an actor, I’m not the writer. I can’t change the material. A lot of times, I get scripts and I’ll say, “Oh, do I have to say this?” but it’s not my job to decide.
During the duration of filming, what is an average day like for you once you get to the studio?
Everyone has different call times based on when their scene is going up. Mr. Perry built a soul cycle this year at the studio, which is really cool. So if you have an early call, you can take a spinning class in the morning, shower there since there is a gym, then go to hair and makeup. I would go to hair first. They’ll put my hair in rollers, then I’ll go to makeup and then I’ll go back to hair. They’ll take out my rollers and do it. The character inspiration for Maggie is Erin Burnett, the correspondent. So there’s a lot of hairspray and teasing involved. Then I’ll go to my dressing room and change, get wired for sound and then I’ll go to set. If you’re shooting first and shooting last [which is rare], you’re there all day. If you’re working at noon, you may not get called until 10 am. Ultimately, it depends on the call time. One day it could be 6 am and the next day it could be 2 pm.
Soap operas do this, but other primetimes usually don’t––but while we’re filming, because it’s all on the lot, there’s a live feed of all the scenes in our dressing room, so you can watch the scenes that are filming before yours.
Super cool. You get to gain some context before filming your scene.
Yea, you get to be in the story. It’s cool though because when I’m watching the show now on TV, I remember when it was filmed and how they may or may not have used certain scenes from when we were filming.
You live in Los Angeles and the show films in Atlanta, how long are you away filming?
We usually film for two-three months at a time. We sometimes take breaks in between. It varies. We shoot with other shows. Originally we shot with Love Thy Neighbor, but we haven’t shot with them in two years or so. I heard we may go back to filming with them, though.
Is he shooting at the same time? Can you clarify when you say he’s shooting with Love Thy Neighbor?
Yea, he’s pretty impressive. When I think I have so much work, I have to tell myself, “Come on Allison, look at what Mr. Perry is doing. Relax.” We shoot Monday-Wednesday all day, then Thursday is a half day schedule. He shoots the one hour and half hour together because the half hour requires less. So for the half hour, Love Thy Neighbor will shoot half a day on Thursday and all day on Friday. I think when we do three a week, they do two on Thursday and three to four on Friday. So they’ll shoot between five and six episodes a week, or in two days. It’s really intense.
When filming, are you all filming an entire season?
Yea we are.
I’m so confused as to what season we are actually on. Why do you think Tyler Perry films the way he does?
When we talk to anyone on the production side, for example, it’s like season three, cycle four. It’s confusing for me too, I don’t know, I don’t understand. I’m sure there is absolutely a reason, I’m just not sure if it has to with airing, the schedule with the network or other kinds of contracts.
In the show, you hired a Private Investigator to have Veronica followed. With the many opportunities that you could have told and showed David the pictures, you didn’t. I think we were all virtually yelling at Maggie through our TV screens. How do you think it would have turned out if you did indeed showed David the photos?
I don’t know because the story would be different. But hypothetically: I think Maggie’s intention for not doing it was because she wanted David to discover it on his own so she wasn’t coloring that, there was nothing of Maggie on that, even though she had Veronica followed. I think it was more like if it’s David’s discovery it was him forming his own opinion about what his wife is doing. I think that’s why Mr. Perry wrote her that way because he wanted her to have the intention that she wasn’t doing that.
Initially, it was your idea that Veronica gets Quincy out of jail to handle the situation with Candace. I’m wondering if that will somehow come back to bite you later on?
I think that it could and I think that Mr. Perry is really interesting to watch as he plants seeds. He uses them so that way he can come back to the situations, story wise. The best example is Erica. We saw her in one episode when she sold the car to Benny. That seed is planted and then from that, a huge thing was able to be created when she resurfaced. I think he does that in his writing which is really smart for a show like this. He creates a possibility for himself, he leaves a lot of open doors so that way he can always go back to one of them if he’s inspired too. He’s a really great storyteller.
“I love that I’m hated because it feels like I’m fulfilling my role of how this character is written and what her intentions are.”
Whether it be live tweeting or in person, what are some reactions from your fans and fans of the show?
At first, it was hard because a lot of people hated my character so much. I think people are very clear now that they don’t hate me, Allison, but Maggie, the character. And I’m cool now because I totally get that. I love that I’m hated because it feels like I’m fulfilling my role of how this character is written and what her intentions are. I’m not like any of the characters. I’m sure I have elements of my personality that could play certain roles, but most of the time the actor isn’t like the character. When I get a script I have to ask myself how I am going to justify some of the things she says.
It’s so much fun live tweeting on Tuesdays during the show, and as terrible as it sounds, I’m glad you and David finally hooked up. Many people are suggesting that you will not buy and take Plan B and will end up pregnant after your one-night stand with David. As this season is coming towards an end, how would you like to see Maggie develop for seasons to come?
You’re right, I don’t know if she’ll take the Plan B because that is a legitimate question to have out there. I’d like her to find a little self-love again. I feel like when she first met this group of people she was a really determined and successful career woman. I think there was a part of her life that was missing, which was love and she put everything into David.
I’d like her to find that in herself. Whether she has a child or doesn’t, I’d like her to move on and to start standing up for herself a little bit more. I feel like, over the past season, that became difficult for me, because as seasons change, characters change and initially she was written so very strong but has become very emotional. In doing so, she sacrificed herself for someone else. I’d like to see her honor and respect herself again.
Agreed. Unlike “Use me again David, use me again.”
I mean, when I got the script and saw that line, I was like, “How do I say that without…” It was hard for me as an actor to recite some of the dialogue from this past season. She had a strong backbone and I’d like her to find that again because she is a very strong woman. I’d like to see her find her strength. If she can get David elected, phenomenal. If not, I don’t know. Find another guy, someone who loves her back and doesn’t continuously say, “I love my wife.” [laughs]
March is Women’s History Month. What is it like for you working with the media mogul, Oprah Winfrey?
Oh my God, she’s amazing. She’s so inspirational-––it’s ridiculous. She’s kind, funny and phenomenal. The very first time I met her was at Mr. Perry’s house during a party for our show and she was talking with her friend Gayle. Midway through the night, I decided to go over, say hi and to introduce myself. She says, “Oh what, you want advice on something right now?” My jaw dropped, I thought I was being reprimanded. But then I realized Oprah knows who I am, she’s talked to me as the character. It’s amazing. I literally was like, “what?” It took me a second to understand, then she started laughing; she’s so cool.
What other projects are you working on?
Everything is moving online and it is really awesome how technology is allowing people to create their own content and put it out there. I’ve started working on a web series, Over Easy: The Dish on Dating with Sausage on the Side, with a friend of mine who is a phenomenal writer. It’s based on two stepsisters and their dating adventures in LA. It’s really funny. We have a mid-summer release for it. It’ll be on a channel called AK47 Presents with a couple of other projects lined up after that.
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