Saturday, August 13, 2022

Q&A: In Dynamic Solo Show, Leah Sessa is Marilyn Monroe

It has all the ingredients for an evening of titillation: Marilyn Monroe, alone in a nightie and bathrobe, lying on a bed with black satin sheets, under mood lighting fit for a bordello. But in Boca Stage’s production of “The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe,” this is all part of a deliberate deconstruction of the Marilyn Monroe mythos.

The one-actor, one-act play, written by Elton Townshend Jones, is a meditation on the clash between the icon’s real self and her airbrushed image, and a condemnation of an entire media infrastructure—Hollywood at its most lecherous, a tabloid press bent on schadenfreude, a public that didn’t see past the billowing dress—that abetted her early demise.

Carbonell-winning actor Leah Sessa portrays Marilyn in the final hour of her life, overdosing on pills while sharing a life of loves and laments, grievances and vulnerabilities, miseries and objectifications, in a movie industry that, by and large, treated her as so much glamorous chattel. It’s a trove of Marilyn trivia and revelations, and it’s impossible to view her the same way by the end. Immersing herself in her character without succumbing to parody and mimicry, Sessa—blonde wig perfectly framing her face, iconic mole strategically attached—shows us both the bombshell and the emotional shrapnel underneath.

A few days after the show’s premiere at Boca Stage (you can still catch it through Dec. 19), Sessa sat down with Boca magazine to discuss her process on this illuminating production.

Now that you’re in the midst of your first solo show, can you talk about the mental stamina—the mental fitness—that goes along with memorizing, rehearsing and performing, compared to a multi-actor show?

The scariest thing that I realized was that it’s only you up there, so there’s no one to lean on. If something goes wrong, you don’t have that partner. And to me, it’s literally terrifying. The first preview, when I had an audience, the curtain closed and I literally just started sobbing. And then I went into the dressing room, and I was hysterical, because I was like, it’s a roller coaster that you get on, and it doesn’t stop. But you can’t let that get to you, or else you will really train-wreck out there.

I got cast in July, so when I got cast, I immediately started to learn the lines. … I re-typed the script, and I’m not a good typer. It was 33 pages, and when I retyped it, I got it down to 12. It was in size 9 font, so it was more of a mental thing to go, it’s only 12. When Keith [Garsson, director] cast me, I said, I can do this. I remember telling him, I know I can do this, I have faith in myself. But then you start doing it, and you’re like, I’m so scared.

The first week we blocked the show, I was like, I’m going to get up without my script. And the stage manager said, hahaha, sure you are. And she goes, every actor says that; they want to put it down so bad. And it was so much blocking that I had to hold it. And then you’re like, do I know these lines?

Is the solo show a mountain that every actor wants to climb, yourself included?

I do believe every actor, because I was like, someday I’ll do this, and it’ll be great, and be such a challenge. But the funny thing is, now that I’ve done it, I don’t need to do another one for a while. I was talking to Niki Fridh. She’s done a solo show. I said, this is the scariest thing I’ve ever done, in terms of theatre. I’ve never jumped out of a plane, but this is maybe scarier than that. You’re so alone. And she’s like, yeah, the craziest thing is when you’re in your dressing room alone. You’re so used to the cast camaraderie.

Did you have any affection for, or knowledge of, Marilyn Monroe prior to landing this part?

I grew up obsessed with her. I had tons of pictures; if you were to buy me a gift, buy me something Marilyn Monroe. And my whole family knew that. In school, whenever I’d have to do a biography report, I always did it on Marilyn Monroe. For Keith [Garsson], this was a long process for him. I came into it later in the process, and I said, I love her. I promise you I’ll work so hard. I’d seen all her movies and read biographies.

But the funny thing is, it’s good to have that, but I don’t think it was necessary for the piece. Yes, I want to pay tribute to her, but I’m not doing an impersonation of her. That was terrifying too, and I had to really be nice to myself. I was like, you’re not her. No one’s going to believe you’re her. You start being mean to yourself. No, I’m never going to be her, no one’s ever going to be her, but I can pay tribute and tell her story.

Did you grow up loving the surface—the image—of Marilyn?

I think so. That’s the thing with her; people loved this image of her. She’s so glamorous. I think it was that that first attracted me to her.

Did you rewatch her work in advance of this play?

Oh yeah. Once I had the lines under wraps, it was every night, watching a different movie. And I was reading a 500-page biography of her. It was so detailed, and I had it on audio, and I would just lay there and listen to it, and then read it, and then listen to it.

But I think what helped the most was watching other people’s portrayals of her; that got me out of my head. The most helpful was an old movie with Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino called “Marilyn and Norma Jean.” Ashley plays her as Norma Jean, and Mira Sorvino plays her as Marilyn, and they talk to each other. Both have brown eyes in the movie. Ashley Judd doesn’t put on any voice; she’s just Ashley Judd playing Norma Jean. It was interesting, because if I can buy her doing it, people can buy me doing it.

I had gotten blue contacts, and I was going to wear them, and Keith wanted me to cut my hair and dye it. I was willing to do all of that, but I was like, wait a minute. I’ve talked to some hairdressers. They’re really advising me not to cut my hair. And all the women were like, no, don’t do it. Also, the show is so darkly lit that I don’t think it needs it. I’ve never even worn contacts, so I’d probably be struggling onstage.

Did you transform yourself physically to look the part of Marilyn?

I definitely put on weight, but that was due to COVID. I do think it probably helped, because she was curvy. I definitely studied her movements, but I was trying to make them very natural. I had to give in to that. In this show, she should be sexy without trying to be sexy.

Do you look at Marilyn’s films differently now?

I do. It’s funny; the guy who wrote it is a huge Marilyn fan. But a lot of it is in his words. Yes, there’s factual stuff in here, but it’s in his words. I love her so much that I was like, ooh, I don’t like that part. But I had to let that go. … Everything surrounding her death, everyone has a theory. This gentleman believes that just, sadly, this remarkable and amazing person we all looked at and are fascinated by, had an unremarkable, accidental overdose. But I grew up saying, she was murdered!

I think she would have had an incredible career. I think she was so talented, so funny. Her comic timing is pretty incredible. I have such respect for her, and I think she could be even bigger. She wanted to be a serious actor. If she had lived, she would have started producing her own movies and putting herself into roles she wanted to be in. That’s what I think would have happened.

“The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe” runs through Dec. 19 at Boca Stage, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets run $40-$50. Call 561/447-8829 or visit bocastage.net.


For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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