Ed Grisamore

Gris: Actress, Macon native Natalia Livingston ready for the role of her life

ATLANTA -- She still gets recognized. People stop her on the sidewalk or at the market. They are convinced they know her face. Or the sound of her voice.

“You look familiar,” they say.

Many times, Natalia Livingston does not immediately tell them that she is who they think she is.

Actress. Soap opera star. Winner of a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in 2005. Cover girl for Good Housekeeping magazine. Pride of Macon, Georgia.

It was what she dreamed about as a little girl -- a star on her dressing room door.

Still, she has never let celebrity define her. And she does not assume they remember her from the soaps.

“I don’t always know where they saw me,” she said. “Maybe it was at church or something.”

Most of the time, though, they recall her character, Emily Quartermaine, from ABC’s “General Hospital,” the longest-running soap opera in current production. She appeared in 1,069 episodes. She was on 51 episodes of NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.”

She was recognized last week, while having lunch at Steel restaurant in midtown Atlanta. Steel is accustomed to having celebrities. The night before, former Atlanta Hawks basketball player Dikembe Mutombo -- kind of hard to miss at 7-foot-2 -- dined there.

The waitress gave Natalia (pronounced Nah-tahl-yah) a sideways glance and whispered in a friend’s ear. Wasn’t she on the “General Hospital” soap? The waitress left with a photograph, an autograph and a big smile.

Natalia has remarkable staying power for someone whose character was killed off seven years ago. She was strangled, and the murder remains a mystery.

She laughs about it. It happens all the time on the soaps. Death isn’t always the final curtain call. The show keep bringing her back as a ghost. Her most recent haunt was in February.

At 38, she is looking ahead to other challenges and opportunities. She is behind the stage, not on it. She is making things happen.

She remembers hearing veteran actress Jessica Lange once make the claim she “didn’t want to be on display any more.”

“I was in that world, the one where you are the product, and it’s all about you,” Natalia said. “It was a beautiful time in my life, but there are so many other beautiful things I want to experience. I want to do something outside of myself that helps others.”

After leaving California, she traveled to Europe for three months for what she called her “eat, pray, love” experience. She studied photography in Florence, Italy, then lived in New York.

She made eight trips to Nikolaevsk, Alaska, as a producer for National Geographic Channel. Her documentary on Russian fisherman and boat builders was called “Red Alaska.”

She moved to Atlanta in May and opened her new business, Actor Boutique (www.actorboutique.com), six weeks ago. She offers classes in acting, auditioning, producing, image development, resume building and private coaching.

“I feel like I’ve found a new purpose,” she said. “It’s basically everything I wish I had when I was starting out and even 10 or 15 years into the business.”

She is poised in the right place at the right time. Last week, she and others met with Jim Jacoby of Jacoby Development and Georgia Production Partnership entertainment professionals. Jacoby is building a $1 billion dollar television and movie studio in Atlanta. It will be largest outside of Los Angeles, with the prospects of bringing 10,000 jobs to the state.

She is as close to home as she has been in a long time. Her parents, James and Martha Livingston, live in the north Macon home where Natalia and her younger brother, Jimmy, grew up. Her friends and family still call her “Naty.”

Her father is a longtime family physician in Byron. Her mother is a native of Mexico. Their worlds came together when he attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Martha Echabarria was his Spanish teacher at the local university.

Martha failed him three times. He has always said it was because she enjoyed having him in her class. She has always said it was because he was lousy in Spanish.

Natalia attended her high school reunion this past summer for Mount de Sales Academy, where she was homecoming queen her senior year in 1994.

It was a chance to reflect on how much has happened in those 20 years and how she now has “turned the page to a new chapter in my life.”

She was once a tiny dancer on stage for Macon’s annual “The Nutcracker,” where she “had almost every role but Clara.” She performed in several musicals at Macon Little Theatre.

After graduating from Emory University with a degree in sociology, she came back to Macon and spent a year in social work at The Medical Center of Central Georgia, now Medical Center, Navicent Health.

“It was a wonderful experience, but it was something I knew I could do later in life,” she said. “I was 23 years old. If I wanted to make my dream come true, I would need to do it now.”

She loaded that dream into her Jeep Cherokee and moved to California. Her mom rode with her and stayed a few weeks to help her get settled. She applied for a job in the garden department at a Home Depot.

Natalia had incredible faith that one day her script would come in.

She landscaped the yard of a man who became her manager. Because she was fluent in Spanish, she was hired for a national McDonald’s commercial that aired in Hispanic communities.

While home for Christmas in Macon, she got a call about an audition tape for “General Hospital.” She was offered a part following a screen test.

Her family always found it amusing that, with her medical background, she would end up on that hospital soap opera.

There is a serious note, too.

A month before she received her casting call for “General Hospital” in 2003, she was watching Oprah on television. A guest was talking about breast cancer and the importance of early detection.

Natalia later found a lump in her breast. Fortunately, it was benign. After that scary experience, she became involved with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in California. She participated in walks and benefits to raise money and awareness for the foundation.

She spent three days filming scenes for episodes of “General Hospital” with members of a breast cancer support group. Instead of using actors, the show’s producers had actual cancer survivors fill the roles.

In 2010, Martha Livingston was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She went through radiation and chemotherapy. She lost her hair. She had a mastectomy.

Natalia is happy to report her mother is now cancer-free and has been in remission for the past two years.

She prays that her mom “brings hope to women out there who are fighting breast cancer She is a true example of courage and hope.”

Natalia also is very proud of her father’s medical research. For the past 14 years, James Livingston has been working on a cure for cancer. With the help of The National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, he received a patent this year.

Natalia had hoped to take Martha to the Susan G. Komen Central Georgia Race for the Cure on Saturday at North Peach Park in Byron.

But her mom said she’s not feeling quite up to it this time. Maybe next year. It is a walk they will make together.

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.