She’s modest about the role she played, but as spring turned into summer, Alexandra Breckenridge became the unsung hero of two wildly successful shows. In April, there was the surprise return of fan-favorite, Sophie, to This is Us as the show said good-bye in its final season. More recently, there was the latest drop of Netflix’s wildly popular Virgin River—at one point, it dominated ratings for all streamers combined—where she stars as Mel, a big-city nurse looking for a fresh start in a small town. (Spoiler alert: Breckenridge is speaking to us live from Season 5 production.)
Sure, success is nice, but for the 40-year-old working mom it’s also a job—and one she’s been working pretty hard at since she was a teenager and her family packed up from Connecticut and headed west to Los Angeles. “I can’t complain. I’m working on successful shows and that is all you can ask for in this industry,” she says. “But I do wish someone would tell me the secret to a little work-life balance!”
We recently interviewed Zibby Allen, your co-star, who said working on Virgin River is like summer camp. Do you enjoy it?
Ha! It’s fun. This season we have had the pleasure of starting earlier than we usually do. The weather has been absolutely amazing! I understand why people live in Vancouver now—it is absolutely stunning in the summertime. We’ve been shooting in the winter the last four seasons, but now we started to spend more time there in the summer; I got to experience a little bit more of the sites and amazing things to do in the city. Typically, it was so cold and wet. The winters could be so brutal…but now I’m like, “Oh wow. I get it now. I get this town.”
Your character, Mel, makes wet hair look good. What are some go-to glam items on-set?
The secret is the hair extensions. When we first did the haircut, I had blonde hair with dark roots. I saw the character as strawberry blond, with this long, flowing hair—like Amy Adams in Sharp Objects. I loved her hair so much in that show! Just gorgeous. That’s what we were going for originally, but I don’t have that kind of hair, so it’s hard to maintain it.
Typically, I get hair extensions and we keep doing the color over the season to get the right tone. It’s not easy. Sometimes, it just looks different even after post-production—the contrast is different, the root color can look heavy and dark. We’ve been working hard to dial that in as we get along. It’s funny how hair changes ever so slightly every now and then. I used Oribe products for styling and we use L’Oreal for my color. We use L’Oreal Professional between 9 and 9.3, which is strawberry blonde for my hair.
It sounds so minor, but I think it really does help get me into character—I had blonde hair over the break when I went to do This Is Us, so we had to change me back, and it felt like such a big transformation. I was like, “Oh, yes. This is Mel. I’m officially back into character from Sophie to Mel.” They’re both kind of similar characters, but they definitely have their differences. I think that the hair and the wardrobe help get all that across.
You’re also part of the original American Horror Story cast and you’ve always had very different characters. Are there any glam moments that really stuck with you?
Absolutely. When we were doing Dirt, I started that role as a blonde, but as the character evolved, she was trying to become like Lucy, Courteney Cox’s character. By the end of it, she had this dark hair. That never really went anywhere in the second season, but I thought it was an interesting story arc for the character. Hair is clearly big for me.
Then, obviously, American Horror Story [Breckenridge played Moira in Season 1 and then returned for two episodes in The Coven] was pretty different for me, I’d never done that color before. The hairstyle and the very sexualized maid outfit really brought together this character, which I didn’t totally envision for her. Actually, I saw her with this flowy hair and just a light, cotton, summer dress or something—but Ryan Murphy’s had a different vision for Moira!
I was like, “Oh, wow, this is the direction we’re going with. Great.” It was the show where I was introduced to Clé de Peau foundation—and I haven’t stopped using it since. I take it with me to every set now, even if I’m guest-starring on something! I always bring it with me because I love what it does. Clé de Peau is owned by Shiseido and I love all Shiseido products. I’ve been using their under-eye patches, brightening masks, eye creams, everything. I’m thinking of switching most of my products over to the Shiseido line because it’s just magic on my face. I love their sunscreens—I’m very sensitive and it’s one of the few sunscreens that doesn’t break me out. I still get pimples from a lot of skin care everyone else loves!
No one tells us when we turn 40, we still have to deal with that. How did you feel about hitting that milestone this year?
I’ve been anticipating 40 since I turned 37, I’ll tell you that! But it is what it is. I hate to say this because I wish that it wasn’t ingrained in me but, for whatever reason, I am scared of aging. I think that a lot of that comes from my job and this idea of a youthful woman being more desirable and, therefore, being cast more often. I think the climate is changing, for sure, because there are more women in higher roles in my industry now—and they’re not of that mindset. That’s obviously very helpful.
I hate to say this…but I am scared of aging.
At the end of the day, we’re just people. Actors are just people, and we age! There’s nothing we can do about it. But it’s been a big concern for me. Now that I’ve turned 40, I don’t know what happened…I sort of woke up and I was in this place of understanding, and I realized how far I’ve come in my life and how grateful I am for everything. I was not as scared of aging as I was the day before.
I am definitely doing a lot more now though to try to keep up with my skin, my fine lines and everything else—nothing crazy, but I want to keep my skin looking healthy and whatnot. I use the NuFace at home and I use it a lot while I’m working. I also have one of those LED lamps. I try to use that more frequently now. I’m basically just trying to take better care of my skin. I’m also very interested in lasers. I guess I’m looking forward to the point where I am not as concerned about aging, and I just kind of embrace it. I’m getting there; I don’t I have any other choice!
Either way, you are busier than ever with your success, and you have two young children. How do you balance it?
I wish somebody would tell me. It’s nearly impossible. It is really and truly nearly impossible. I wish we would talk about it more—in this day, women are working more than ever and having a family and “it all” is really difficult. I think when you work as much as I do, things inevitably get neglected—like my free time or spending enough time with my husband. I can either do all of that, and spend all my time with my family as much as I possibly can, but then I didn’t study for work the next day. I try to keep that balance, but there’s only so many hours in a day. It gets overwhelming. I think the trick is not to beat yourself up over all of the little things and just try to improve on what you can, right?
That’s all you can do. What are you excited for next…or are you still just enjoying the success of this year?
It’s weird because This is Us ended and then Virgin River did better than we could have imagined and it’s continuing to grow this audience…the only way I really experience “success” is, all of a sudden, more press and more people recognize me. I haven’t quite adjusted to that yet. All of that is still pretty new, and I find myself sometimes not wanting to go out because I feel kind of awkward about it.
I’m trying to enjoy work and, best of all, I’m working! I think this season has started out well and we’re getting into a few episodes soon that are pretty heavy. They’re really intense and I think that they’re some of the best episodes we’ve ever done. I never say that either! I think that there’s a high sense of drama that starts to come up this season that it’s going to leave people on the edge of their seats. At least, I hope. I’m excited to get into that.
How can I complain? I’m on a show that’s doing well. I’m successful. I’ve been an actor since I was 15 and I’ve been working since I was 15—that doesn’t always happen. You could be trying and trying for years and years, and a lot of people end up quitting because they aren’t lucky enough to get onto something that does well. I’m really grateful, and I’m happy to be here.
At least we’re not shooting Croatia or something. Not that Croatia isn’t lovely. I’m sure it’s lovely, but it’s really far away! Vancouver is in North America, at least—so I don’t have to go too far from my house to go to work. It’s still a flight, but it’s close enough to my family!
Photographer: Tiziano Lugli; Hair: Heather Weppler; Makeup: Agostina