Annette O'Toole Talks Everything Virgin River, Smallville, It, And More - Exclusive Interview

It goes without saying that Annette O'Toole has had an astounding career to date. Not only did she play Lana Lang in 1983's "Superman III" opposite Christopher Reeve, but she also took on the beloved role of Martha Kent in "Smallville" and played scream queen Beverly Marsh in the 1990 adaptation of Stephen King's "It." She's also a talented musician who was nominated for an Academy Award alongside her husband, Michael McKean, for writing "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" for 2003's "A Mighty Wind." But viewers all over the world are bound to recognize O'Toole as Hope McCrea, the unforgettable role she plays in Netflix's "Virgin River," which returns for a fourth season on July 20.

Hope quickly became both the heart of the show and one of its funniest characters. A local mayor and general busybody, she might seem tightly wound, but she always acts out of kindness. Plus, her on-and-off love story with Doc Mullins, the show's resident doctor, is completely beguiling and continually proves that romance on TV shouldn't be dictated by age.

The List caught up with Annette O'Toole to talk "Virgin River" Season 4 and what's next for Hope and Vernon, as well as her favorite memories from the sets of "Smallville" and Stephen King's "It."

Hope's 'difficult' journey in Virgin River Season 4

Hope has a major storyline in "Virgin River" Season 4 following her massive health crisis at the end of Season 3. What's it been like playing her this season?

It's been fun, actually. It's not fun for her, but it's fun for Annette because it's challenging to take a character who's so active and independent and to put the brakes on her, so that's been interesting to play. I've enjoyed it very much. I'm trying to get well pretty quickly though, because the show is ... As our showrunner, Sue Tenney, said about it, it's not a medical [show] ... It is kind of a medical show, but it's not really. There are medical issues and they have to be right.

But a TBI [traumatic brain injury]'s an interesting thing to play. I don't have very much personal experience with it, thank God. But reading about it, there's so many variations because the brain is infinitely variable depending on where the injury is, who the injury happens to, [and] where in your head [it is]. I'm erring towards the side of less because you want to see her get better and get out of it and deal with stuff. 

She's still Hope. She's still very impulsive and controlling, but now she's dealing with all these issues. A lot of it is directed inward, frustrated with herself — like, "Why can't I shuffle these cards? Why can't I ... ?" That's incredibly difficult for her and more so for Doc to have to deal with it. It's very stressful for him. That's good. [It] makes a lot of drama.

Acting is 'comforting' for Annette O'Toole

Your character had to deal with the loss of her best friend at the end of Season 3, so you've had these two massive challenges to act out. Was anything particularly difficult to film?

No, I love making movies and television. My greatest love is theater, but the thing I know the best and my fallback is always the routine we have on a set. It's very comforting to me because I've been doing it for so long and I know the process. I was doing a movie in Canada, in Toronto, many, many years ago with an actor named Richard Crenna, who was a brilliant actor. We were doing a scene together, a very emotional scene, and I spent the whole morning in torment, trying to be ready for when I had to have this big breakdown scene. He was, I could see, watching me from the sidelines.

Finally, I went through the whole thing and it was fine, but he came over and he said, "You know, you really have to learn when to prepare." It was the greatest advice because at the end of the day, I was a wreck. I was so exhausted from having been in this state all day. 

That is one of the hardest things about film acting when you have a big scene like that: knowing when and how to get there at the appropriate time. It's a little bit technical, but mostly not, and it changes each time. This is why actors have a hard time talking about acting, although I seem to be having an okay time today because it's interesting to me, the acting process. It has become more so the more I've done it. I find it endlessly fascinating.

Finding Hope's inner 'cowgirl'

We all love watching Hope's relationship with Vernon [Doc Mullins, played by Tim Matheson] in "Virgin River," and you have this whole love-hate thing going on that's been fascinating from the beginning. What's it been like creating that on screen?

It's been really fun. Hope in the books is hardly there. She's a very peripheral character. Usually when I'm playing a part in a book, like when I did Stephen King's "It," I read "It," [and it] was like a bible. It was all marked, and I was being true to what I thought was his vision. But in this, because Robyn Carr didn't write [Hope] as a major character, or even a good supporting character, I felt it was okay for me to take a little license there and do what I felt was right.

Our director of the first two episodes, she said ... Nobody had figured it out, who this character was, and I came into a scene with a lot of energy. It was the scene with Mel where I'm talking about — I don't remember what — but she said, "Oh, she's kind of a cowgirl." I said, "Yeah, she is kind of a cowgirl." Somehow that came out of me, and I ran with that. [Creator and producer] Sue Tenney was wonderful about making this person together. It'd be a little bit of her and a little bit of me, and I'd say, "How about this?"

I love that [Hope] is the age she is and she hasn't learned a lot. She knows a lot about some things, but in human interaction, she's stunted. I love that because so many people are. Just because you get to be in your late sixties doesn't mean you have all the answers, by any means. You've just lived a long time. You've gotten used to and you understand how things work, but I like that about her. I like that she's young in that way.

How I think about her when I'm playing her a lot is Margaret O'Brien, the child actress. She's what I would imagine — not the real Margaret O'Brien, but Margaret O'Brien from "Meet Me in St. Louis," [her character] Tootie. [Hope is] that person grown up. "It's all about me and I can do whatever I want and there are no consequences, and everybody's going to love me. I'm the youngest child." [It's] that kind of thing. It's not like I look for it; it's in the writing. They get who she is and they write for that, and it's fun to do.

It was very exciting for me because normally I'm offered roles — or not even offered, you have to read for roles — that are the grandma now. It's not very interesting. I was so thrilled when this came along, and Sue was so receptive to my chiming in and being a part of the creation of the character.

Hope could focus on her political career next season

It's refreshing to see your love story on screen with Vernon because you don't always see these love stories. Women after a certain age don't seem to get offered interesting parts. They don't get the stories that we want to see. But "Virgin River" highlights them all. It's really intergenerational, isn't it?

It is. It's wonderful in that way ... I'm glad you brought that up because I think that's one of the reasons it's so popular. They don't shirk on any of it, and they're bringing more variety in the coming seasons.

At the end of Season 4, Hope's come a long way, but she's going to have to make some changes. What would you like to see happen to her going forward? Is there anything that you are hoping for your character?

I like the idea that she and Vernon are now a real team, that after all this very long, tempestuous relationship of theirs, they can finally be okay together. They haven't lived together except maybe the first couple of years of their marriage, and in a weird way, it's worked for them. It may be the only way they could have stayed together. I don't know, but it's interesting to think about. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

I would like to see her — and I believe this is going to happen — be more of a mayor, be more involved in her work. We see her walking around, showing up, and she can go anywhere. That's what she likes best about being mayor. "Well, I can go here and I get free coffee because I'm your mayor. I'm your mayor, okay?" 

I would like to see what she does. What is that like? On a local level, that political scene, especially in our country right now [with] what's going on, we have to start. The mayor, the legislators, the town council meeting — those things are hugely important, and that's where we have to focus a lot of our political energy. That's where she is. We have a good opportunity to go into that with Hope. That's my main hope.

[Hope] and Muriel [Teryl Rothery] can maybe have a nice friendship, as much of a friendship as Hope is able to have. That's interesting to me. I like this relationship she has with Denny, [played by] Kai Bradbury, who is a lovely young actor ... I really have embraced him as my grandson. I love that because I didn't have to go through all the raising of anybody. I just get to reap the benefits of this lovely young man who's shown up on our front doorstep. I like him a lot as an actor and as a person. He's a lovely guy.

Why Eddie Izzard would be the perfect guest star

Is there anyone you'd like to see guest star on "Virgin River"?

Wow, sure — all the people I love ... Out of the blue, Eddie Izzard came to mind. I love Eddie Izzard. In fact, last year it was the first concert or performance I'd been to after the pandemic. I was here by myself and bought a ticket. I remember it was the scene where, later in the season, Hope is at the eye doctor and is having her eyes looked at and checked and Vernon's there and everything. The whole scene, all I'm thinking about is, "I've got to get to the theater. Please let them finish on time so I get to see Eddie Izzard because I can't wait." I had never seen them in person and I wanted to experience it live. It was fantastic. They were wonderful.

Such a wonderful actor as well, a great choice for a guest star — she can do both things: stand up and acting.

Brilliant. My husband says that Eddie's performance in "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" is one of the most wonderful things he'd ever seen on Broadway. I unfortunately never got to see it, but yes, Eddie's a very wonderful actor.

Watching Tom Welling become a director

I'm a huge "Smallville" fan. What are some of your favorite memories from filming the show?

There are so many. I remember a lot when Tom Welling was directing how amazed I was that the first day he was like a deer in the headlights a little bit. He was absorbing because he hadn't done a lot of work before. Here he was, number one on the call sheet, in every scene, doing stunts, doing all this stuff. I was amazed to watch his progress. 

Then here he is, [a few] years later — he's directing and he's a wonderful director. He absorbed everything that was around him. He was interested in every department and what they were doing, and I was so taken with that. I thought, "Here's somebody who's using this experience for whatever he is going to do later." I remember being on the set and watching him do that, watching him direct the scenes and be so kind to everyone and have come so far.

In terms of scenes, I really like the episode [Season 4, Episode 18, "Spirit"] where somebody takes over my body and I do the Ashlee Simpson song and I get to dance and sing and act stupid. That was very fun. I enjoyed that very much because it wasn't the normal Martha Kent, "Here's your coffee, honey."

Collaborating with her husband Michael McKean

You're also a musician [Oscar-nominated, no less], and you often write with your husband, "Spinal Tap" icon Michael McKean. Are you working on anything at the moment?

We're always working on different things. I was working right now on a song that I thought I'd finished, but now I realize it needs a whole other section of lyrics. It's based on an old traditional song, so it's public domain and I love that. It's actually a jig. I've tried to play mandolin — I'm not great, but I worked at it. I came across this song and I thought, "Gosh, when you slow it down, it's the most beautiful melody." 

I slowed it down and I wrote lyrics to it and sent it off to my daughter's bandmate — she's in a band. They loved it and they're doing an arrangement of it, and they've actually performed it. It's called "Halfway Home." Then I realized suddenly, just in the last few days, it needs something else. I'm stuck because the first part of it went so quickly and sailed out of me, so now I'm having a bit of trouble with it. But it's got to have another verse.

But Michael and I work on stuff all the time. We were just in London. He was working on a new Netflix series called "The Diplomat," so I got to come for two weeks and we stayed in Camden. We were right over one of the canals and we would get to see the locks [and] how that whole system worked transporting the barges. It was fantastic, and we saw it every day. We had certain ones we loved that would come along [that] we'd look for. We saw one named Eggy and we never saw it again. When I came back I said, "Have you seen Eggy today?" He said, "No, I haven't seen Eggy." But it was really fun, and we got to know a lot of the waterfowl, and we named them all and we saw some babies hatch and it was cool.

Working on a musical adaptation

We're always working on stuff. We always play together and sing together. At one time, we were working hard on a musical, but I don't think that's ever going to happen because it's so much work. It's so hard, especially a musical, oh my God. It's impossible. We're taking different songs from it, and maybe eventually we'll put them in some kind of little — I don't know what you call it, even — for people to watch if they want to. Because you can, now — you can make really good-sounding things and put them out there.

We have a song I've always wanted to put out after we wrote "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" for "A Mighty Wind." Chris Guest didn't think it was the right song because he thought it was too good a song. He wanted it to be more of a comedic song. We went home and we wrote another song called "Closer Than Tomorrow," which is not more comedic, but it's a different feel. It's more of a "Leaving on a Jet Plane" song, a John Denver kind of song. I've always thought, "That's a good pop song. Somebody could use that and sing that." But we have a lot of songs.

Is there anything else you want people to know about "Virgin River" or any other projects you're working on at the moment?

You've really covered the waterfront. No, there's nothing else right now. "Virgin River" is what I do. That was sweet of you to touch on my music stuff because it's very important to me. It's personal. We have performed together, Michael and I, but we haven't done that for a while. I'd love to do that again. We have been working on another musical, which we are not writing. Some talented writers who do that for a living are writing it, based on a documentary film called "Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story," which is a beautiful documentary by Daniel Raim.

It's wonderful. It's about six or seven years old. Daniel Raim is the documentarian. We are doing a musical of that. The hardest thing about that is finding the time to all be together [and] get the elements together — the theater who wants to produce it, and the writers who also have other jobs as teachers in New York, and our schedules. That's been difficult, but we will come together and do it because it's a beautiful, beautiful story. That's next on the agenda, we hope.

Tim Curry is 'the nicest man on earth'

You're both so busy.

We are. It's amazing that [at] this time in our lives ... He's always been busy, but I'm more busy than I've ever been and it's wonderful. I love it. My kids are now in their thirties and they've got their own lives, and my mom is the one who needs me more than anybody. I'm the only child. She's back home. She lives on her own. She's amazing. But I miss her and she misses having me around. I'm the one she depends on most.

It must be tough traveling and being away.

It is hard, but it's part of our job. It's what we've always done. The pandemic was nice in one way because it was the longest Michael and I had ever been together in our whole marriage. We've been together 25 years. It was like, "Oh, we like each other. We really do. We'd rather be together than not." It is a good sign. We're apart right now, but I'm hoping he'll come up here very soon and we'll be able to run around Vancouver together.

I love you in "It." I know you touched on that and there's such a big revival of that because the new movies came out, and I see more and more people finding the original version. It must've been so exciting.

Yes. It was so much fun. Well, we did it in Vancouver — it was the first time I worked in Vancouver. My kids were really little, and they're in the movie too. They played kids at the movie theater when they're throwing popcorn at the screen ... Richard Thomas's triplets are in it. My girls, Nell and Anna, are in there in the back. I think Anna was in it ... Anna was awfully young. I don't know if Anna was in it, but Nell was definitely there. It was a dream. 

It was so much fun because I was the only girl in this group and they were brilliant, funny guys. It was a lovely, lovely time. We had an awfully fun time. Even Tim Curry — we'd go out to dinner sometimes, a whole group of us, and he would be part of it too. Playing our nemesis doesn't mean he can't have fun with us. "It" was a great time.

He's so scary in that movie, oh my goodness.

Oh my God, isn't he? It's petrifying. He's the nicest man on earth, so it's a feat of acting and some clown makeup.

"Virgin River" Season 4 is streaming globally on Netflix from July 20, 2022.

This interview was edited for clarity.