Chloé Sullivan was one of the benchmark performers in the 2016 Toronto indie theatre season with three standout roles. She’s nominated for Outstanding Actress for her layered, emotional work in Unit 102 Actor’s Company’s stunning Red Light Winter, which she followed up with a gut-bustingly funny Dogberry in Unit 102/Leroy Street’s Much Ado About Nothing and a twisty sci-fi part in Paul van Dyck’s The Harvester at Toronto Fringe. “One to Watch” is such a reductive phrase but she’s one to watch.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yes, actually. Well, it depends on how you define theatre, I guess.
You can define it any way you want.
Okay. So in grade 3, in French class, part of what we would get to do is be in a little show. I liked the exercises in drama, in terms of learning a language, it’s like dialogue, how to write it, how to listen to it, respond. But it was just for the class, and then in grade 3, you got to perform it for all of your friends and family. So we did this play about these animals, and they see the reflection of the moon in the water, and they think that the moon has fallen into the water, so they’re really freaking out, and they’re gathering all their other animal friends around to deal with it. And I played the horse, because I was obsessed with horses, and I insisted that I play the horse. It’s weird to think back on it now because it didn’t occur to me as a performance. And now, of course, I can’t even come into this interview without thinking of it as a performance. But in the moment, it was easier because you weren’t thinking about it that way, and I said my one line, which was “La lune est tombée dans l’eau. Oh no!” And then I ran around in a circle, and everybody laughed. And it was that first moment of impacting an entire room of people, giving them something. But you didn’t think “I hope you find this funny, you better find this funny, I think this is very funny”, it was impulsive and it was sincere and it got this very awesome, powerful reaction, and that moment of the thrill of affecting that many people at once. Of having to wait while people laughed at something that you also enjoyed, that was the moment I was like “wow. There’s no going back from this. This is what I will do now forever.”
How did you get involved with Unit 102?
Well, I moved back to Toronto in 2011 after graduating from Dalhousie, and I got an agent pretty quickly, which was great. Bella Grundy, and she was fantastic. And she signed me up for this audition for a short film that Christian McKenna, who was working closely with Unit 102 at the time, had written. His friend Tom Sokalski was going to direct, and produce. I went in and I auditioned for it, and Luis [Fernandes] was the cameraman. I auditioned with Christian, and ended up being cast in the movie. I played the daughter of Scott Walker, and we’re in this post-apocalyptic, dystopic universe future, and religion owns this tiny town now, and the impression is that it’s a town set back in time, and you sort of learn through little secrets in the film that it’s actually way in the future. I loved the mystery. People in the town are getting sick, the only cure is through religion, and if you die, then you are a bad person who deserved it anyway. But my little sweet innocent sister is very, very sick, so I’m very upset, and I rebel, and I’m kicked out of the town. We never ended up making that movie, but I met all of those people. We had rehearsals a few times. And then after that it was- “we like you, would you like to come back and audition for this [other] thing?”
Luis had written I believe it was the third or the fourth episode of the P-dale series that Unit 102 was doing for a while. And he just asked if I wanted to be one of the characters. I said “yes, of course,” and then that was it, and from there it was like, “so this will be the next play we do. There’s a part in it you could have, do you want to audition?” Or in some cases I’ve been lucky enough- it’s Lobby Hero, and Jesse [Ryder Hughes] is like “I picked this because of you,” or Omar [Hady] is saying “I think you and Luis would be great as these people. I want to do this play, these are the people I want to work with”.
So just, I don’t know, coincidence, and just total luck, and happiness. Such a good group of earthy people, who are also interested in the same things that I am in terms of the craft of acting, which is developing actual, sincere connection without it infiltrating your personal life, and without it being indulgent. How do you not fake a fake relationship? So their whole direction, I liked it.
That last example with Omar saying you and Luis would be great in these roles- that was Red Light Winter, right?
That was the one.
So he brought the script to you?
Yes. He sent it to Luis and I, and said “Read it, tell me what you think.” The way it had worked before they’d lost the space was- they’d develop a whole season and bring in other groups, but Dave [Lafontaine], Scott, Jesse and Luis have their segments of time that they’d choose what will be put up, and it doesn’t have to be a play that they wrote, or they directed. They could even give their timeslot to something else. But for the most part, one of the benefits of working so hard to own this space is being able to do what you want, and work with the people that you want to. So that was Luis’ segment of time. He wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do with it, and Omar got to him, and was like, “I want this to be a part of the season,” and Luis said “well, I happen to be sitting on my time, and we could do it. I’m interested as well.” So the three of us started rehearsing, and working, before we had any director, or stage manager, or designer, of any kind. It was from there, interviewing people about what they would want to do with it, why they wanted to do it, and then picking a director from that group, and then putting a call out to set designers, and interviewing those people, and seeing what they were working on, and stuff, and eventually assembling this fantastic team, and I’m so pleased that everyone’s been so recognized for it, because it was such a labour of love. And it was just this little tiny unit of people doing it.
How did you start rehearsing before you had a director?
Well, Luis has the key to the space, so we could just show up and say “meet today, noon?” And we’d just talk about these really, really interesting, mostly pretty fucked-up people, and start running lines, because there were a lot. And Omar would come to us with something that was intimidating, but kind of awesome. He says that in an interview of Adam Rapp [the playwright], that Adam Rapp said “I don’t want my actors to be word-perfect, I want them to be syllable-perfect.” Which means you have to say “don’t” instead of “do not”. You can’t have any extra anything. So knowing that, we were like “okay, we’ve got a task ahead of us.” But I felt lucky, too, because my character speaks the least in the whole play.
Once she came on board to direct, how did Anne van Leeuwen‘s vision of the play match with the already developing ideas between the three of you?
It would not have been the same thing without Anne. She’s a brilliant director, and she will always see things- once you’ve been working as a unit of 3 little people for so long, someone else comes in and they say “did you notice that you do this? Have you ever thought of it like that? Did you consider how you’re gonna block that sort of thing, if that’s what you’re thinking?” and you go “Ah, yes yes yes yes yes,” and almost sort of run away a little bit, put the cart before the horse sort of thing. So she can come back and say “this still has to be a fluid, dynamic, realistic story,” and we’ve just been mostly running lines. A lot of blocking, I think, does come from just understanding your character, your motivation, your story moment to moment, et cetera, your body will react in a way that it’s supposed to. But you can’t ever run the risk of becoming static, or doing something that is a bit contrived, because you kind of wanted to do it that way but couldn’t explain why. So the director will make sure you don’t fall into those sorts of things, and Anne just runs that perfect line of being tough enough that she gets the work done, and she will challenge you, and she will be the kind of person you want around, but is also not going to belittle you or feel like you’re not 100% able to speak up and say, “I’m really not comfortable with this, I’m not going to do that, I don’t understand why it’s this way, please explain.”
She also was a big help because she lived in Paris for a while, so painting the more European landscape of the first act, and helping me with my dialect, that was a huge thing that she did. And then even talking to Pascal [Labillois], who did our set,[she’d say] “these are the functions that I need- I need it to be able to be in the same room. I want it to be a simplistic change, making it function as one whole thing. It became more cohesive because we brought in this other person. And frankly just, as a girl- it was all boys, and it was all sex and nudity- it was wonderful to have someone go “I’m going to be up in that window with you, dressed a little scantily, and we’re going to dance together, and we’re going to get past this, the worry and the fear and the insecurity and stuff that can arise”. So yeah, I don’t know, she’s just, like, completely super important even though we just sort of ran off on our own right off the top.
When Omar initially brought the script to you, what was it about the character of Christina that made you say “yes, I want to play her?”
Well, admittedly, it was less to do with the character so much as the challenges that came up. Not just simulated sex and nudity. I had to sing a song, I had to compose my own music for that song. That, to me, is scarier than anything else that had to happen. Singing in public is second from stand-up comedy, in my mind. So the stuff that I would have to do as an actor- “can I do it, how do I do it, let’s finally do it”- so that if this stuff ever comes up again, I don’t have to worry about “can’t I, won’t I”.
But then on top of that, I thought Christina was so interesting because she’s so self-protective and thinks that makes her more powerful, yet her truth is that she is so desperate for validity and connection and love that her version of confidence is more self-abusive than anything else. And without trying to get too into detail, it does remind me of myself, because I have a protectiveness, or a persona that I can or cannot put on, but I am much more into connection, and people, and love, and I’m super romantic, and probably tell too much right off the top, whereas she just listens, and waits, and decides what she’s gonna show you.
The whole dialect in the play- spoiler alert- being phony, was so fascinating to me, but at the same time, I loved it because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I thought, how fun to really keep people guessing, to have a security in knowing that you’re playing them before they can play you. Which is kind of a negative outlook in a way, but I understood where it came from, in her – it’s just, she and I decided to do it a little differently. And then in the second act, when she really needs help, when she’s really fallen completely down, it’s “how do you overcome everything you’ve already established for yourself, and ask for that help?” and letting go of that self-protectiveness, and what you’ve already taught someone about you. And then having to say “okay, a lot of that was bullshit, actually, I really need this”. I just loved her, because she was so oddly secretive, but to make herself happy, she didn’t need to be or shouldn’t have been.
She’s a character who’s playing a character. How aware were you in any given moment of the play the level to which she was being sincere?
Well, hopefully you nailed it completely in your homework of “this is the moment I’m playing, and this is the moment I act”- sometimes it would change night to night based on the amount of attention or, if someone really needed something off of you really fast, you’d have to decide what’s more important right now, or have they done it in a certain way that’s enticing me to actually let my guard down a little more? So otherwise, though, it’s you listen and you pick your moments based on what you need more… A lot of her decisions come from her impressions of Matt, and particularly Davis, and how much she thinks he is into her. So if she feels that they’re on the same page, even if they don’t have to acknowledge it, then she can sit back a little bit more in that moment of sincerity, or lack thereof, and feel safe. But if she felt that she was losing him, then maybe she had to try a little bit something else. And also to use Matt, and flirt with him, in order to get Davis’s attention, it’s like, how sincere is that? It’s sincere, in what you want is Davis to maybe be jealous, that you’re giving his friend attention, or admire that you’re bringing this other person out of their shell. But your method of doing that is technically insincere towards Matt. There are just so many complicated dynamics the whole way through.
How did your relationships with Omar and Luis influence your dynamics onstage?
Well, it was a bit convenient to not really know Omar very well, because [Christina] didn’t know [Matt] at all. And meanwhile, what you don’t see is at the beginning of the play, she and Davis share this afternoon, presumably. Now the other thing I love about Christine is that, the rest of the time, you’re like, “is any of what you say true?” but I like to believe that Davis did come and find her, and is so enthralled by her that he takes advantage of the fact that she’s a sex worker, and spends an afternoon with her. In that way, people can be different people when they travel – Davis actually lets her see parts of him that Matt may not have ever seen, and when you get to Davis’ mom having cancer and Matt says “none of that’s true,” you still are wondering “maybe it is, Matt, and you just don’t know”. So already having a relationship with Luis, and being able to walk into the moment, and feel more established with this other person, that kind of existed- not in the horrible way that it does in the play- but when Davis turns his back on Christina, and leaves her with this other person, that sense of betrayal and abandonment and “oh, I guess we weren’t thinking the same thing this whole time,” was a little bit more palpable, just in the fact that these relationships had been decided on.
But Christina and Matt ultimately are, I think, better suited for each other, If Christina could drop some of her bullshit a little bit more, she would see. And so, by the time we get to the other side of it, Omar and I have had to do all of these things together that are very personal and very intense, and so there was, for the second act, more of a camaraderie, or more of an understanding of where this other person was coming from. And then when Davis comes back in, it’s now “you’ve ruined that dynamic,” and I can sit there and know how Omar might be working through a moment, or what he’s thinking, that is private to him, that I can use and hold and as Christina, even go, “this is a little glimmer of hope. This is a possibility of a new relationship” before it is destroyed.
Now, of course, that’s all within the play, now all of us are just better friends. But I guess, having Omar be more of a mystery all the way through but then coming to understand the things that we share in common that I didn’t know about, is exactly what happens in the play. I think that now [Christina] know[s] more about Davis than Matt does and then Davis doesn’t let me have that. He still takes it back and goes “no, Matt’s my best friend, and no one really understands me”. Although, Christina never found out, of course, that he was married. So then Davis becomes the one you question, how much of it is all true.
What were you hoping that audiences would take away from the production?
I hope that they didn’t find it dated, most of all. I hope that they still could see a lot of things that they could relate to, maybe help them understand people and their own lives, who they find very complicated and aren’t sure why they’re trying to hurt themselves, or hurt other people, or peacock when they don’t need to, and all of that stuff that you can encounter, and want to love someone for and understand it. But there was something about the play that I always found a bit far-fetched. It was almost too much. Even coming back and the end, and Christina has AIDS, I wonder if that’s even true for her. We decided that it was. But how she got it, and how long, and why this person, and why coming back here as a way to deal with it… I don’t know. I want to leave those questions with people, as well. What would I do? Is it true? And I hoped that they wouldn’t think it was just sort of too much, “oh, so dramatic. Oh, you’re going to throw all this stuff into one play.” Whereas it feels like a lot of plays are usually about just one of those many things.
Did you have a favourite moment in the show?
My most favourite moment and least favourite moment was the song. Definitely, because- without sounding like an actor here – that was a huge moment for me. To get over a pretty big fear, and I think it went well, because part of Christina that makes her so different is that she loves to sing for people. Her whole lounge singer persona is one of her most favourite parts of herself. So she just decides to go into the bathroom and put on a dress and come back and sing a song. You could not pay me to do that, and it would not come out well, either, I’d be so nervous. But she sings beautifully, you know, and in the script, it’s mesmerizing- she falls into a world of her own, and seems to come out of a reverie at the end, and the men are speechless, and I’m like “yeah, there’s no pressure right there to make people that involved,” and you’re in your own little world, but it was wild fun, because it was so scary.
Then my other favourite moment was when Omar falls asleep on top of me, and having to sneak out of the room silently and get dressed. I hope this doesn’t give a bad impression of myself, but I’ve been in this situation like that a few times. The relatability and having fun with being able to do it so automatically, and know that you were doing it correctly, if that makes any sense, you’re portraying something very real. And we got quite a laugh a few times out of me just trying to slip my body out and then stay still, to make sure he doesn’t wake up, because the key is just to get out of there without him waking up. It was the most slapstick-y moment of the play. Otherwise Christina just seems very sort of reserved- the script is funny in itself, but these people aren’t trying to be funny, and there isn’t really a lot of physical gags, so I liked that part.
You were also in Much Ado About Nothing last year. Tell us about your version of Dogberry and the physical humour that was involved in that show.
Oh, my goodness. That was so much fun. I really like playing comedic people, despite how it may seem. And I went in for Dogberry, specifically to audition for that, because while it would be fun to play other characters in that, I just wanted to have this really fun, meaty part in a Shakespeare play over the summer, where we get to explore the possibility of gender roles in Shakespeare, which has obviously been prevalent since the beginning of Shakespeare. Getting to be the comedic relief is just so much fun.
The physicality of that came out of my private school days. We’d come into the rehearsal, and I’d be wearing this kilt, and suddenly all of the sort of queen bee mentality came out of that. Then James [Graham, the director] and I worked on that, having known so many people that we weren’t trying to mock but pull from to make this person just exactly that kind of almost misunderstood powerful girl. She’s not trying to be so condescending, especially to Verges, who she really loves and depends on, but the confidence as a way to cover the insecurity, just came across as that very obnoxious, asserting person. But making sure that it never got despicable, because then when Conrad turns on her and calls her an ass, you have to see the pain. And you have to see the reason why she seems so big and outlandish and all that stuff.
The physicality just sort of developed naturally. We wanted [Dogberry] to have a more cartoonish physicality than the rest of the characters, because it wasn’t just me playing a character, Dogberry’s constantly playing a character, and when she puts on that hat, and the whistle, suddenly she is the Sergeant, and so she sits up a bit straighter, and everything is bit more deliberate, and quick, and cut off. That was just a ton of fun. And then to show the vulnerability, that’s when you lose that physicality, so using it as an indicator of where she’s at mentally. It’s good to experiment with, and a lot of fun.
Then at Fringe you played a sentient robot in The Harvester. How did you approach bringing humanity to a non-human role with only your voice?
Well, luckily, I had to do it live, so I had to listen to Danny Pagett, and if he did something, what I did next had to be a bit based on that. Paul van Dyck, who wrote it, allowed for this sentient being to be smart enough to have a level of emotion, plus we figured out or decided that Danny’s character has based this robot on a real person. So he’s programmed them to have the kind of sentimentality and emotional reaction that he knows that person has. So I was allowed to play with a voice break a little bit, and was able to ride it, and not have to constantly think, no matter what’s being delivered out there, you can only speak in this monotone way. Being pre-recorded wouldn’t have had the same [effect] at all.
What are you doing now, or what’s your next project?
I actually am a totally free agent right now. And I don’t mind it- we wrapped on a play as part of Brick & Mortar’s 150 Stories Festival at the end of January, and I did a short film, and now it’s being able to take the time to re-organize. When you have so many things back-to-back, you lose the time or ability to focus on getting your marketing materials back, refiguring your goals, making sure that everything is being maintained- not just in a career sense for acting, but for myself as a person, and my other personal relationships. So I don’t mind that, because I am hoping that inevitably, something else will come up, and even getting to do something like this is kind of nice, as opposed to feeling like you’re constantly in rehearsal, or having to work on something else.
And is there anything you’d like to add?
I really love being here – this is an extremely new experience for me, being nominated for something like this, and being able to even do an interview, which is probably why I found it daunting, but I’m just really, really grateful. And I love this city, I love this scene, and I am so happy to be a part of the quality of the things that people are doing here, from really high to really low-budget. I feel like I’ve found a family, and that the family has so many branches and we’ll all be able to come together for this, this thing that we love more than anything.