After being enthralled by Erica Sullivan’s performance as Vonda in Venus in Fur at the Studio Theatre, I set about trying to get her one-on-one for an interview. This was Erica’s first DC production, though she has a solid resume of New York and regional theater, as well as film (There Will Be Blood notable among them), and top honors from Yale’s School of Drama graduate program.
Still, nothing in her resume prepared me for her head-turning, sexy, beguiling, and ultimately terrifying star-turn in this extraordinary play. I mean no disrespect to Christian Conn, the man who plays opposite to Erica for the 93 minutes of the play, but it’s Vanda/Wonda/Erica I want to meet.
My first thought was to have her do the interview in character – either as Vanda, the young, lost New York actress who blows in with the rain and leaves at the beginning of the play – or as Wonda von Dunayew, the sexy, powerful Venus of Severin’s von Kusiemski’s dreams – or in some combination of the two.
On second thought, it would be too difficult, too stressful, too unnecessarily arch and contrived (Right? Right???) to do it that way. Best just to sit down with Ms. Sullivan and talk about her extraordinary performance in an extraordinary role – one that has led her predecessor as Vanda in New York to Broadway and a Tony nomination.
It’s a hot summer day as we sit down on the couch in the beautiful, wide-open space on the third floor of the Studio Theatre. Their press liaison is sitting in – probably to make sure that I don’t do anything untoward – but Erica is incredibly engaging, disarming, funny, witty, and completely humble and self-deprecating about her succès fou.
Are you DC-based or NYC based?
I’m New-York based, where I’ve lived for about a year, and then grad school before that.
How long have you been in DC for this production?
FOR-EVER…no, I’m joking. Two and half months – I came down April 26. They’ve done me well – I have a little girl, and they’ve provided housing for me and my mother – who’s helps out as the grandmother galore.
You’ve been in a couple of films and a host of plays; do you prefer stage or movies?
I like them for different reasons. I don’t have a preference. I love the stage because it’s absolutely an actor’s medium. Once you’ve been let loose and the show starts, it’s entirely yours. I love film because of the intimacy of it and because there’s no lying on film. It’s an incredible challenge – you can’t BS your way through a film.
Would you rather break through via a movie or a play?
What do you mean by break through?
Well, your predecessor as Vanda went from this play to a Tony nomination. Do you want your breakthrough to be in a play or a movie?
I’ll take either one! I suppose the success that comes with stage work is more ideal to me. The notoriety and fame of film is a little daunting. I would rather continue doing stage work, so, I guess if I had a choice as to what would bring me success, it would be a play.
Do you read your own press? Has anything affected you in the press? Parents/friends read it and have a hard time not sharing it with you/getting angry?
No, I don’t. I really try not to. To each their own, but if it’s good, you can get in your head about being good, and if it’s bad, you get in your head about being bad, so I try to steer clear until after the fact. It can be hard, because friends or family will call you or email you reviews to congratulate you or point something out, and you thank them and delete the email without reading it.
How did you hear about this role?
I didn’t see it in New York and didn’t know the play. I think I got the audition because David [Muse, the play’s director] knew me from my graduate school showcase, but it was new to me. When I got the audition, I got the play.
How involved was Ives in this production?
He was very involved in getting the rights to the Studio Theatre, but he was not here for the rehearsal process. He came to watch the play about two weeks ago and held an amazing talk-back where he held court. We were enraptured, and he was incredibly gracious and intelligent and really seemed to like the show, but that was the first time I’d ever met him.
One thing he mentioned was the pacing differences between New York and DC. The pacing of the play in New York was a little bit slower and he was worried at the beginning that the pacing in DC was too fast. Ultimately, he thought it drove to the end of the play in a wonderful way.
Also, where the audience laughed here versus in New York – he said it was very interesting seeing the difference in the two productions.
Did you do any preparation by reading the original source material – like Justine/Juliette by the Marquis de Sade or Mishima’s Madame de Sade?
I hadn’t read anything from that genre before – but once I got the part, I read Venus in Furs, of course. And, David Ives wrote the play-within-the-play – Thomas’ version of the play – and gave us that to read.
Was it difficult finding this character’s voices?
When I got the audition notes, it called for a “trans-Atlantic accent” for Wanda von Dunayew, which made me think of Kathryn Hepburn in “Bringing up Baby.” So, I had my best Hepburn ready, and David Muse [the director of the play] said, “I’m thinking maybe more of a European-esque accent…you know, like northern-European?” I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I came back with the totally wrong choice – I think I sounded like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice – and he was like, “Not exactly, but at least you can do accents! That’s good!”
For Vanda, the actress, I didn’t audition with an accent, but when I was working on it in Brooklyn, this voice came out, and it felt so right with the way the rhythms of the speech were, that it broke the character open for me.
How does this play rank, in terms of acting difficulty, against your other work?
Everything has its own challenges. The challenges of this play relate directly to the deliciousness of the scenario. The fact that there are only two actors means that you can only rely on yourself and your partner for the 93 minutes of the play.
I think the challenges have shifted through the process. The intricacy of the play-within-the-play and its subtlety in its storytelling makes it a challenge to pick up and leave off. Remembering where we left off – especially with Wanda being so bold physically and emotionally, contrasted with the gentility of Vanda – makes it hard to pick up the emotional thread after a fifteen minute aside in an argument as Vanda and Thomas. It was fun, but challenging.
Do you think the play is a nightmare or a fable?
Wow, I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t want to answer – I want people to figure that out for themselves, but that’s a great question. I’m glad that you’re thinking about that.
- Has the play affected your understanding of men or relationships?
Right, like, “now I understand my fiancé!” No, I can’t make a general statement that it’s changed the way I understand people. I think it does an amazing job of representing male versus female power in a variety of circumstances. I had a naiveté about walking into an audition room. This play taught me a lot about empowerment, and taking my own, and unapologetically being what I am and who I am and asking, boldly, for what I want. But it’s not necessarily about men and women; it’s about any two people.
- Would you star in a movie of the play?
I would love to, but I think Nina Arianda [Erica’s predecessor in the role] would scoop me on that.
- Who would you choose to direct – among the Hollywood greats?
I would have to say David Ives. Of the Hollywood directors, I think the director of Dogville – Lars von Trier. Dogville seems like it has the right idea for what Venus in Fur could be on film.
Who would you have play Thomas?
Alright, not Christian Conn.
No! You have to say that I said him first! Okay, if I couldn’t have Christian…who epitomizes Thomas…Ryan Gosling. I think he’s incredibly talented. And I have a crush on him. So, he’d be good in it, and he’s cute. There.
I had one friend say that Vonda actually is supernatural – she is Aphrodite – and that’s how she got a copy of the play, knew about Thomas’ girlfriend, etcetera. I disagreed strongly, and thought (and think) there is a perfectly rational, non-supernatural reason why Vanda does what she does during the play. What’s your take?
- No comment.
I love that this play causes people to think about that. I wonder what David Ives would say? In all honesty, I think Christian, David, and I all have different ideas about whether she’s Venus or just some crazy chick.
Do you think (in general) male writers have a difficult time communicating a character of that complexity and strength?
Not the good ones!
- Do you think Ives creates an authentic female voice in this play?
I think as far as plays go, once it’s written and given to the cast, the female role is in that woman’s hands – so she interprets that role and changes it to become an authentic voice.
Is there anything in the play you find hard to say or do – anything that you found hard to connect wit has an actor?
No. You put yourself in such extreme situations as an actor. The ickiest psychological parts of this play are delicious. Also, I try to never judge my character. She’s seemingly hare-brained, silly and frivolous, but I didn’t judge her.
Is the latest extension to the run a good thing, or are you reaching a point where you need to stop?
I was talking to Christian last week – we’re six weeks into the run – and only now do I feel like I’ve really gotten a handle on it. Now, I really understand the ins and outs and the flow and really let myself go into the character. It’s grown and changed throughout the run for the better. I love having a long run. I don’t get that very often. You get a few weeks here and a month there, but to be able to sit in this character for this long – it’s a gift!
Has this play opened any doors for you?
Well, I’ve gotten an incredible welcome to DC from the theater-going public. They keep telling me to come back, and I will! Just invite me back! Are you going to see the play again?
Well, now that I know that you’ve located a whole new level, I think I have to. Thanks for taking the time.