“With Love, Marilyn” Full Interview with Erin Sullivan

By: Taylor Gates

When and how did your fascination with Marilyn Monroe begin?

I always admired Marilyn Monroe as a teen. I was an Elvis girl for awhile but was very aware of her films as a young child. It wasn’t until I was being compared to and cast as the stereotypical “sex pot” roles in musical theater in my early 20s that I then discovered my own sexuality and confidence on stage. My true study of her didn’t really begin until 2016 when I was selected by Tony award-winning and Oscar-nominated playwright Mark Medoff to portray Marilyn in a new piece he had penned (Marilee & Baby Lamb). It opened up a world of research and knowledge. I fell in love with her all over again but in another way. I fell in love with the person we didn’t know. I wanted to know more.

What inspired you to pay tribute to Marilyn with a solo show?

It was the encouragement from my producers that saw me do Mark Medoff’s play Marilee & Baby Lamb. My hope was that the next step for that show would be Broadway, but given that journey is a slow one, I was driven and supported to develop my own work that showcased my dedication to this woman.

Why do you think Marilyn is still so iconic to this day?

She is a pioneer. She’s still an unsolved mystery. She’s a sexual icon. She’s a talent, and she’s a legend. Someone with all that will never die and will always remain iconic.

Do you feel pressure playing such a famous figure? If so, how do you overcome that fear?

It’s quite daunting to even fathom taking on trying to emulate her. Sometimes I think I’m crazy. I feel I’ve been given a theatrical gift. I am not an impersonator. I am an actor. The pressure I put on myself to portray her truthfully is exhausting because I want to tell her story to the best of my ability. I overcome the fear by taking a deep breath and just being me. I try to tap into the me that relates to her, connects with her circumstances, and bring that to the stage. If I accomplish that, I know I’ll give a great show.

Many people have embodied Marilyn before. How do you make your performance original?

I would say hundreds of women attempt to ‘be’ her. It’s to what extreme. I might not look like her as much as others, but I focus on other qualities of her as a person. I think I’m more of the Norma Jean. In my own way, I look like Marilyn without any work done to my face or body. I studied her voice and mannerisms. What’s original about my performance is the knowledge and research I put into it to discover the reasons why this amazing woman has been kept alive. I love the Marilyn behind the closed door. I love the sadness that inspired the greatness.

How do you get into character, and what kind of research did you do on Marilyn?

It’s really hard to do that breathy voice, especially when you’re a trained singer. It’s not natural, and it’s not healthy. So I spend the days prior to the show focusing on my vocal placement. I spend about an hour and change doing my Marilyn makeup that was designed by the amazing Jennifer Bishop. Learning how to transform my face was so amazing. I spend a solid 20 minutes alone creating those eyebrows! My research came from the years and time I spent in (Mark) Medoff’s work (Marilee & Baby Lamb) and beyond. Samantha McLaughlin, co-founder of the ALL ABOUT MARILYN Organization, has been a key player in the creation of the script. Her knowledge and insight into Marilyn really helped shape my piece, and I am grateful for her support.

Who designed your wig and costume, and why did you want them to be custom-made?

Tera Willis, Head Makeup and Wig Coordinator of the Metropolitan Opera Theater in New York City, designed my custom made my wig. The first thing I always look at with Marilyn ‘artists’ is the hair. I worked with Tera on the Broadway national tour of GREASE, and she knew what I needed, and knows my face. She handmade my wig with human hair and then fitted and cut it to my face in Marilyn’s style. Ryan Moller is an acclaimed regional award-winning costume designer who researched, drew, cut, fitted, styled, and crafted my gown. When deciding my dress, I knew I wanted something not common to the public eye. Because my show is cabaret style, and I’m a dancer, I wanted something I could move in and showcase Marilyn’s choreography style.  My producers and I bounced around so many of Marilyn Monroe’s looks. I always loved this press stock photo image of Monroe in black velvet covered in bling. It’s a photo people would know but not from what. Ryan did extensive research on the dress and masterminded my own version. 

What’s a common misconception about Marilyn or something people may not know about her?

You know the saying, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover?’ Well, Marilyn was a beauty and a smart one. I think she played a game—like a chess match. She made a lot of moves to get ahead but lost.  She was more than just a pretty face. She was a fighter, a survivor, a victim, and a talent in a time in which women had barely any power, strength, or voice. She wanted to scream in so many ways! Marilyn wanted to be heard; by her work, by her behavior, and by her untimely death. You don’t just become a legend or icon. You are remembered because you made a difference.

What other famous historical icons would you love to play?

No one. This is my lady.

What’s the most important lesson playing Marilyn has taught you?

She’s taught me that being pretty doesn’t define you: humanity and hard work does. She’s taught me that I can do anything, and so as an artist, I love going against the grain and creating my own way because I don’t want others to define my future on stage or off.  Marilyn didn’t want that either, and I will strive to tell her truth with class, grace, humor, hurt, elegance and charm.