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Sunny Thompson on Channeling Marilyn Monroe

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Guess who: if you guessed Marilyn Monroe, you’re not alone . . . but you’re also incorrect. It’s actress Sunny Thompson in the title role of Marilyn Forever Blonde!
Guess who: if you guessed Marilyn Monroe, you’re not alone . . . but you’re also incorrect. It’s actress Sunny Thompson in the title role of Marilyn Forever Blonde!

A Moment with Marilyn
by Barrett White
Photo by Howard Petrella

For seven years, Sunny Thompson has been touring internationally, portraying one of the most iconic women in the history of entertainment—Marilyn Monroe. Men loved her and women wanted to be her. To this day, the iconic image of Monroe atop a subway vent in The Seven Year Itch hangs on the walls of countless vintage poster shops. We had the opportunity to speak with Thompson about her starring role in Marilyn Forever Blonde! After salutations, the fun began as Thompson prepared for her three-night Houston run later this month.

Barrett White: We’re looking forward to seeing you in Houston!
Sunny Thompson: I’m really looking forward to it, too! I made my initial voyage to Texas to do the play in Dallas, and it was lovely. I’m very excited to come back down to Texas and experience Houston; I’ve heard nothing but great things.

I’d love to hear how you created the show. It’s all pulled from actual interviews and quotes?
Right! It’s the Marilyn you’d hope to find in her living room, where you’d sit down and have a conversation with her. It took a long time to really research this. Using only her words really makes you stay true to her actual story. This is Marilyn telling you how she feels about fame and love, how she got into show business, what it meant to be a star, and what it took to rise through the ranks—which was by sleeping around. And she makes no apologies about it. I think that’s why we like her so much.

So what was it that initially inspired you to create this show?
My husband is a producer and a writer, and he wrote it in the ’80s, long before he knew me. He had seen a one-person play about Groucho Marx on Broadway. It really moved him, and he came out of there thinking [he wanted to write] a one-person play that has this sort of impact. Well, he had a fascination with Marilyn—as I think all men of that era still do—so he just took all the quotes he could find at that time and organized them by subject and had someone type them up on index cards. Then he [organized] the songs she sang in her movies by subject matter, and then it basically went up on a shelf for years. He was producing his own shows, keeping up with his career, [so this project] was kind of a labor of love.

I’ve seen several pictures of you as Marilyn, and the resemblance is really striking.
Oh, yay! Well, Jimmy James, the makeup designer, is really, really meticulous about it. He came and helped me when I had been in research and rehearsal for four months. We also hired a Shakespearian director, Stephanie Shine, who’s quite brilliant, and I’m really excited that she’s Shakespearian because she’s not afraid of the grit and the sexuality and humor that is life. I mean, I don’t want to sanitize Marilyn—she’s perfect the way she is! You become so attached; you just care so much. She just takes you in.

You have some serious channeling going on!
Well, you know, that’s the goal! The first thing you see is the set—an all-white photographer’s studio. In the middle of it is a bed with white satin sheets, because the play starts in 1962, the year she died, and it’s the final photo session that she had with Bert Stern, or it was inspired by An Evening with Marilyn by Douglas Kirkland. You see me in the sheets as Marilyn, and you see flash, flash! Hopefully, if I’ve done my work right, there will be that first flash and the audience will gasp and go, “It’s her, she’s here!” which is what I need, what I strive so hard for. And then we’re right on to her story. We’ve got some ground to cover and it’s a roller-coaster ride; it’s great fun—she’s tremendously witty, and so there’s great giggles and fun to be had along the way, even in her tragic, tumultuous story.

I’m certain I’ll be taking my mom to see this; we’ve shared a fascination with her story, from the glamorous life she lived to the supposed JFK scandals.
I hope I live up to everything, and hope you’re transported and have your minute with her. We’re lucky because the Marilyn fans—the big fan clubs, the devout fans—have endorsed this as the only thing that’s on target as being [true] to her story. I meet the fans all the time, and it’s funny because Marilyn doesn’t have a demographic. Male, female, [all ages and nationalities]. We went to New Zealand, and I thought, “Do they know Marilyn in New Zealand? I mean, they speak English, but really?” [Laughs] They were just crazy for Marilyn.

So was this show an immediate success, or was it something that started small and grew over time?
We started in a really tiny little black-box theater in Hollywood. The president of a Marilyn fan club, Greg Schreiner, came the first night, and his first comment to my husband, who was at the door, was, “I hate everything done on Marilyn.” Thanks for comin’! [Laughs] But he is now a friend, and he wound up loving it. He said, “Oh, this is fantastic! I have to bring my fan club.” The whole fan club came the second or third night I performed. I told Greg to have them come with pen and paper and take notes; I want to know what I missed, I want to know if I didn’t get something right! Cast members from Some Like It Hot—they’re still around—came to the play a few times. They’re so cute! They’re all dressed up and they have the eyelashes on, their hair done, and they’re smilin’! They came to see me when I first started this play and they were so giving with their stories about Marilyn. You can’t know what it means to spend time with people who have shared her space, who have first-hand stories. It really adds a whole other dimension on all that work I did prior to the show.

Do you think she would she enjoy what you’ve done with this show?
That’s the goal, [to create] a show that is truthful and loving. I hope we’re doing her proud.

What: Marilyn Forever Blonde! The Marilyn Monroe Story in Her Own Words and Music, presented in partnership with the Brilliant Lecture Series
When: August 21–23 at 8 p.m.
Where: Cullen Theater, Wortham Center
Tickets: 832/487-7041 or brilliantlectures.org.

Barrett White also writes about Roy Halim in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Barrett White

Barrett White is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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