Sydney Penny has played roles all her life. These days she is a Mom, a wife, a business owner, a member of the Wilmington community, and a performer. Sydney started playing roles at the tender age of three. Not just the role of a daughter. She began playing the professional role of actor. Her parents were both performers, and it seemed like a natural fit when Sydney started doing commercials while growing up around Los Angeles.
“When I was about three, my parents were performing in a club and my sister was babysitting me,” Sydney remembers. “It was a family friendly place, so she brought me there and I would watch their act. They took a coffee break, and so I somehow slipped away from her and went up on stage and started telling some of my dad’s jokes!”
The commercials led to opportunities in television series (Night Rider in 1979) and movies, including the role of Princess Ankelsen in one of Ron Howard’s earliest productions, Through the Magic Pyramid. She remembers the experience fondly because of the tone Howard set for the cast and crew on set. “It particularly stood out that he spoke to everyone when we began shooting to say ‘this is a family movie, there are a lot of children and their parents here, and we are all going to be very respectful to them, so I want to make sure there is not going to be any bad language, and I don’t want to see anything that you wouldn’t do in front of your Mom or your grandmother’. You know, that’s really nice, and setting that tone is really extraordinary,” Sydney said.
Sydney’s breakthrough role came at the age of 10, when she was chosen to play Young Meggie in ABC’s The Thorn Birds, the award-winning network mini-series featuring legendary performers including Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Stanwyck, Christopher Plummer and Rachel Ward. Sydney outlasted hundreds of others to land the role after what she recalls as an “arduous process” of at least seven auditions. You can hear Sydney talk about the experience and working with fellow actors on the production at 13:45 of the podcast.
“As you go through this meeting process, it goes from being casual and easy to almost like a Senate hearing,” she says. “It has a certain weight to it. The rooms get colder and colder, and somehow you’re getting into more air conditioned rooms. I’m not sure why that is!”
Sydney praised Chamberlain, who won a Golden Globe for “Best Actor in a TV Miniseries“, as “one of the dearest, most lovely people you will ever meet, just this terrific guy who liked to have fun on set. The scenes very much reflected just how much I really adored and appreciated him, and how very kind he was towards me and respectful as an actor.”
Sydney’s performance in The Thorn Birds was followed just two years later by a larger role in Pale Rider, a western produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred in the movie. She played Megan Wheeler, the daughter of a woman whose way of life is being threatened by a group of hired guns. Sydney says a reference from Burt Reynolds helped her land the role. You can hear her talk more about that at 11:30 of the podcast.
Sydney smiles when asked about Eastwood’s tough guy image. “I’m actually laughing because I really can’t think of Clint as a tough guy,” she says through the smile. “When I met him, I was 13, and I really hadn’t been exposed to his films. You couldn’t not know his name, but I didn’t see a lot of R-rated movies. I certainly hadn’t seen any Dirty Harry films, it was just off the scale for me at that time. He was just a wonderful person to work with, and again he set the same kind of tone on the set.”
It's not unusual for an actor to receive letters (or emails now) from fans complimenting them on a performance. But, not many can say they received a letter from a Pope, like Sydney did after her performances as Bernadette Soubirous in two films. Bernadette was the daughter of a miller in France in the mid-1800s, who was later venerated as a Saint in the Catholic Church. You can hear Sydney’s memories of those experiences at 21:15 of the podcast.
“The thing that was so awesome about Bernadette, and I think it was the point I rallied around, is that she wasn’t that different from me in a lot of ways,” Sydney says. “Well. I guess she was. I mean her period of time in which she lived, she didn’t have the benefit of going to school. She had major health issues, she had asthma that kept her from doing a lot of what the other kids did. But she was just this really simple girl. In fact, her main comment said, ‘whatever is said about me, the simplest will be the best’. She’d probably hate that anybody is talking about her now. She was just so easy to latch onto because there was just no baloney surrounding her. There were a lot of people around her that brought her a lot of baloney, but she was just trying to be a girl that wanted to succeed.”
Sydney received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Younger Actress in a Drama Series in 1993, for her work on the soap opera Santa Barbara. She was nominated again in 1995, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, for her role as Julia Santos on All My Children, which took Sydney from Los Angeles to New York City. She speaks about that change of scenery at 26:15 of the podcast.
“It was up every day, in studio by 7:00am,” she says about the work schedule. “In those days, we used to do a full dry dress rehearsal and blocking for cameras, then a full dress rehearsal, and then a full shoot. You would have at least a ten to twelve-hour day, memorizing 30 pages of dialogue, and then go back and do that, if you have a heavy storyline, you’re looking at four or five days a week of the same thing. So, by Friday your brains are scrambled.”
Sydney was asked to be the Queen of the North Carolina Azalea Festival in 1999, after her three-year contract had ended on All My Children. She had worked in Wilmington a few years earlier, on a film titled Enchanted. Sydney and her husband Rob Powers liked the experience here, setting the stage for what would become a permanent move to the city in 2005, just about the time of her second three-year contract on All My Children.
“We’re going to be in New York for another three years, we’re just going to enjoy New York,” Sydney says. “So, we got an apartment there, and said ‘well, we’ve got a house full of stuff and a garage full of stuff (from their old house in Los Angeles). Rob surfs, I like to garden. We play tennis. So, we need to find a place to put our stuff’. Rob said ‘I’ve been keeping my eye on this town. There also happens to be an airport. It’s one of the only coastal southern towns that has terrific infrastructure that not priced totally out of the ballgame, and has direct flights to New York’ So, we ended up buying a vintage house here to restore because we’re crazy that way.”
Sydney’s son Chasen was born in 2007, and the veteran performer took on another new role as Mom. “That for me was such an immediate flip of the switch, just everything changed overnight,” she says. “A total identity change. Total priority change. To use a really overused phrase, total “paradigm shift”. Everything I looked at looked different. Everything had a different meaning, different focus, different priorities.”
Sydney and Rob (a chef trained at Cordon Bleu in Paris) became business owners in 2016, buying Jester’s Café on Castle Street in Wilmington. “When we first came here Jester’s Café had just opened up in a tiny little space across the street from where we are now on Castle (Street),” Sydney says. “We didn’t know anybody here. So, we would go in while we were working on the house, just kind of sit there and see who came through, meet folks and drink coffee. Jamie (Thomason, the owner and creator) had created something special, where people felt like they could come in and participate in community, see each other and say “what’s this Castle Street thing about, what’s going on around here?’ Over the years, it became such a staple.”
Sydney has volunteered with several non-profit agencies, including Theater Now and Superstar Academy, and is active in her son’s school. She looks at it as her expression of gratitude for what she received early in her career, and when she moved full-time to Wilmington.
“There’s just something about being here for me,” she said. “The city is great, and the people are great. We received so much back in the form of friendship and support. I should say we received that first, before then we decided to become a more permanent part (of the community).”
You can listen to the entire interview with Sydney Penny on the free “1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast:
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