'General Hospital': Maurice Benard on Sonny's journey home to Brooklyn

Patrick Wymore/ABC

Thanksgiving may be over, but actor Maurice Benard still has something he’s thankful for: After 18 years playing mob boss Sonny Corinthos Jr. on General Hospital, the show’s writers still deliver new story lines that get him jazzed. “I’m very excited about the stuff I’ve done in the last month, when Sonny and Kate [Kelly Sullivan] go to Bensonhurst,” says Benard of episodes that kick off today and deal with Sonny’s childhood abuse at the hands of his stepfather. “You know what it is? It’s kind of bringing back the Sonny that used to be. And I think it’s needed. I’m having a blast.”

The Sonny he’s talking about is the charming one, with “the little boy side, the vulnerable side,” he says. A Sonny that’s much different from the volatile, brooding character who’s been lurking around Port Charles. “From right now on, you will see a much lighter side [of Sonny],” he says. “Almost bringing out more of who I am.”

Sonny and Kate leave their upstate New York town for the Brooklyn neighborhood they grew up in as part of an effort to help Sonny — who recently spiraled out of control after Brenda (Vanessa Marcil) left him — deal with his anger/abandonment issues. Indeed, Sonny confronts his inner demons when he revisits the house where his stepfather beat both Sonny and his mother, and the closet that he was frequently locked in as punishment.

Shooting has sometimes been intense, he says. “There’s a scene where Sonny sees himself as a little boy. And the young actor they got [Aramis Knight] was dead on. There was a point when he was bawling and it reminded me of my son crying. And I started crying.”

As serious as filming may be, Benard still manages to have fun on the set, thanks to the script itself. “It’s got kind of old-movie type of writing. We say the lines quicker. It’s fun,” he says. “And I’m working with an actress who, for me, is as good as it gets.”

Sullivan took over the role of Kate (originated by Megan Ward) this past September, and Benard says she was perfect from the start. “I had auditions with her and it was like, Whoa! My first day with her, we were feeling each other out. I knew she was good, but I didn’t quite know. But boy, in a matter of couple weeks we’re just clicking.”

But how definitively will Sonny close the door on the past, which has informed everything from his lust for power to his choice in women? “I know it changes Sonny and Kate’s relationship. That has to get stronger,” says Benard. “I would hope that he would just find happiness, and I think he’s starting to find it now. I know you can’t always be happy, but I think in writing him happier than he usually is, I would be happy with that.”

This story arc ranks up there with some of Benard’s favorites, which include the Sonny breakdown story in 2006. “[I was able] to learn a lot about myself and to educate people about bipolar disorder,” says Benard, who has been very public about the fact that he is also living with bipolar disorder. “It’s just that I felt it went too long. For my own sanity, it wasn’t good, and the audience didn’t want to see me in that state for that long. But I think for the most part, they had Sonny getting help and taking lithium, and that worked out good.”

Another favorite was the AIDS story line, which killed off Stone Cates (Michael Sutton) in 1995. “Soaps is the only medium where you can show it in real time,” Benard says. “So the kid gets AIDS one day and he dies a year later and we show the whole progression.”

As for the controversial storylines from the past (like the one that saw his then 10-year-old son being shot in the head), it’s all about showing the characters’ struggles, says Benard. “It’s fine as long as you play how the person feels about what happened, and I think they’ve done that well with Sonny. He’s not just some kind of one-dimensional character who’s bad and evil.”

And for those who think Sonny escapes any real repercussions for his actions? “I think this character has suffered immensely,” Benard says. “Do you want him to suffer more? Maybe. [He could go] to prison, but you can’t have a show where he’s just in prison.”

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