Sunday, June 18, 2006

INTERVIEW – D. J. Sullivan

(EXTRA, EXTRA, READ ALL ABOUT IT: D. J. Sullivan’s students (Brian Stokes and Christian Hoff) appear on the Tony Awards Show 2006 and one (Christian/Best Featured Actor in a Musical) snags a big award for his part in Jersey Boys. Oh, what a night!)

D. J. Sullivan is one of San Diego’s living legends. In 2006, this actor/director/teacher will celebrate 50 years in the business. Many in the San Diego theatre community and elsewhere call her Mom. She remains passionate about theatre, passionate about family, and passionate about life.

“Mom” Sullivan graciously invited me to her residence for the interview and in a comfy part of the house that was once the patio and is now the kitchen, DJ served coffee and freshly baked muffins as we walked down several paths of her life that she’s taken without regret and without much fear. Her life philosophy may be a mantra that she recites to many of her actors: “just do it!”

Cuauhtémoc Q. Kish (CQK): Congratulations on your latest Sullivan Player’s production, Laughter on the 23rd Floor currently playing at the Swedenborgian Church. Would you mind sharing with us your process in getting script to the stage?

D. J. Sullivan (DJS): It takes about 18 rehearsals on the average. I read each script about fifty times and I break down each script into what I call units. Each unit is a change of subject. I mark them for the actors so we can get a better handle on the character’s motivation.

CQK: You are challenging your actors to look to the sub-text in discovering and then defining their role, correct?

DJS: Yes; the sub-text is where an actor finds out what is really going on, what is motivating his character. And much of that is what’s not being said by the playwright.

CQK: It appears that writing out subtext is a necessary ingredient that helps you to define your assigned role not only as an actor but also as director.

DJS: Absolutely. I remember fondly—in the early 70’s—when Craig Noel was directing me in an anti-war piece called Trial of the Catonsville Nine. Since he was aware of my process he asked me to rewrite my subtext for the part I was playing because he knew instinctively that I could find the heart and soul of the character if the written subtext was correctly identified.

CQK: Apart from teaching San Diego Junior Theatre for a mere 17 years and adults for a mere 29 years, you have always found the time to participate as an actor in your own right as well.

DJS: Yes, although I started off as a singer in the early years of youth. I loved opera and I had a very low contralto voice. I was quite successful in winning vocal contests as an adolescent. But the (acting) bug hit me after I got a lead role in the Senior a freshman. It was then that I discovered my life-long passion.

CQK: It’s my understanding that you actually raised three kids—on your own—with acting gigs actually paying the mortgage and utilities.

DJS: Before my husband died of lung cancer I made a decision to get acting jobs (commercials, TV, and movies) in Los Angeles. That’s where the money was. Since I never wanted to live in LA I drove up for interviews and acting jobs whenever necessary, sometimes as often as 3 to 5 visits per week. I shared an apartment with Lee Murphy who lived there.

CQK: Traveling to LA with such frequency must not have been an idyllic picnic.

DJS: Not at all. As a matter of fact I remember when I was working on the television show Eight is Enough and had gotten involved in the middle of a five-car crash. When I had gotten to the set I started saying my lines backwards due to the head injury I suffered.

CQK: Were you aware that you were doing this?

DJS: Not at all. The director thought it was a joke, however, when he asked me to say the lines for the third time and I kept reciting the lines backwards, he finally brought it to my attention and I knew there was definitely something wrong.

CQK: How did you handle the transition from working strictly in San Diego to LA?

DJS: Mary Crosby had been finding me commercial and industrial work in San Diego, but at some point she encouraged me to seek work in Los Angeles because that’s where the money was. She suggested that I take a course in voice and commercial with Mel Blanc. It was a phenomenal class offering a different director every hour. At that point I got an agent and the rest is written in our family history books.

CQK: The San Diego community lost Mary Crosby a few years ago; who’s your current manager?

DJS: Artist Management; Nanci Washburn.

CQK: Are you still able to handle the daily round trip to LA?

DJS: I had to give LA up about three years ago due to health considerations?

CQK: What was your very first job in Los Angeles?

DJS: It was a Smithsonian Special called The Curse of the Hope Diamond. It was based on a true story and it had major stars coming in from everywhere to play various parts; actors with pedigree like Joan Plowright. I think I was the only unknown.

CQK: Were you pre-cast or did you have to audition for the part?

DJS: I had to audition and every time you audition in that city it’s all a crap shot. For this particular audition I arrived about an hour early as is my custom and Delbert Mann (producer of the stage and movie version of Marty, among many others) told me immediately that I was wrong for the part. He said they were looking for a tall, thin, Swedish-looking actor. I asked him if I could read for the part anyways having driven all the way from San Diego and he reluctantly allowed me to read for the part. As luck would have it, three days later, Mann offered me the part.

CQK: It just goes to show that talent wins out.

DJS: Actually, I indebted to Delbert Mann’s wife for this acting opportunity. It seems that Delbert had a dream about me after my audition and he was telling his wife about the dream and she said that if this actor was actually in your dream, she was destined to have the part. That’s how I got my very first job in Los Angeles; through a dream.

CQK: How long did you work in Los Angeles?

DJS: Twenty-eight years.

CQK: You had some luck with commercials as well as films.

DJS: Luck does play a part. I remember that there was some luck involved in a Yamaha commercial that I got a while back. It was a Joe Sedelmaier commercial; he was one of the top directors in the business at the time. You have to realize that they generally herd (Yes, like in cattle) about 700 potential actors for most roles in commercials. I remember being somewhat disappointed as that they hadn’t even asked me to read; they just snapped a quick picture and you were on your way. Almost out the door they asked me if I could ride a motor cycle. I actually had to hop on and show them I could actually drive it. I maneuvered it in a few circles and was on my way again. That afternoon I got involved in another smash-up on the freeway and totaled my car. I called my agent—this was long before cell phones—and explained my circumstances and she advised me that I had gotten a call back for the Yamaha commercial. Since it was a national commercial my agent actually picked me up in the pouring rain and drove me to the call-back location, some three hours late. I got the job; my first national Settlemeyer commercial. It even won a Cleo Award.

CQK: You’ve worked on Eight is Enough with some regularity. What were some of the other shows where you had a recurring role?

DJS: Baretta. I worked with Robert Blake, who was the worst person I ever had the pleasure of working with. Since he was 5’ 3” tall, Universal wouldn’t hire any woman over 5’ 1”, except in a few unique circumstances.

CQK: How about a favorite experience?

DJS: Murder She Wrote with Angela Landsbury. I played her best friend when she donned her red wig and played the English cousin. We spent most of our acting time holed up in a pub.

CQK: You’ve been very busy with your participation in SAG.

DJS: I was on the national SAG board for an extended period of time. Among other duties, part of my responsibility at the time was to nominate an individual for the annual SAG award. I pushed for various actors like Bette Davis and Sydney Potier to get the award for years. When Sydney finally won he kissed my hand in thanks and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

CQK: You’ve been instrumental in many an actor’s success.

DJS: It’s so comforting to turn on the TV and see so many students that have participated in my classes over the years. Brian Stokes Mitchell was a student of mine among many others.

CQK: How do you get your students?

DJS: Word of mouth.

CQK: What classes do you offer?

DJS: I offer film classes in the summer and in the fall I offer a serious theme theatre class. And in January/February I teach subtext with Michael Shurtleff’s guideposts.

CQK: Tell us something about Michael Shurtleff.

DJS: He was the author of “Audition” and remains my mentor and teacher. He was also David Merrick’s casting director. As a result of seeing him on a Dick Cavett Show I wrote him a 9-page letter that elicited a response from the author some ten months later. When he came to LA for health reasons and offered a class I auditioned and got accepted. As a result of his class I embraced many of his suggestions found in his book and audition philosophy and they remain a part of the classes that I continue to offer.

CQK: Do you instinctively know when one of your students will soar above the others?

DJS: Yes; there is a certain X-factor that is readily apparent to me; you feel their future stardom.

CQK: Those students would include individuals like Christian Hoff and Brian Stokes.

DJS: Yes; they seem to live, eat and sleep it.

CQK: How did you make the leap from your love of singing to your love of theatre?

[DJ has appeared in numerous TV shows: Pt. Pleasant, Without A Trace, Cover Me, Pensacola, Renegade, Murder She Wrote, Dallas, Baretta, Starsky & Hutch, Eight is Enough, and General Hospital. Movies: In the Deep Woods, Happy Hour, Raise the Titanic, Caught in Time, Going Ape, Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby and all four of the Killer Tomato movies. Reading: Collision With A Stranger.]

DJS: I never really loved singing; that was foisted upon my by my father. I was encouraged to audition for a part in the Senior class play when I was a freshman. I did it in large part to develop my stage presence as a singer. Well, I snagged the lead--which had never happened before—and things were never the same afterwards.

CQK: Why was that?

DJS: Well, I think part of it was that I never had to perform as a solo again. I had the support of an entire cast. As a singer I had always felt so alone.

CQK: Have you ever experienced any great disappointments in not getting a role?

DJS: I was invited for the final callbacks for a show called Divorce Judge with Robert Blake. NBC got a bit nervous after reportage of a “family problem” and cancelled their option for the show.

CQK: Tell me something about your family.

DJS: My daughter, Rene, the oldest, just got married for the second time in our theatre. She taught drama for 14 years in high school and she’s now preparing for a job as a librarian. Tim is the middle child with a brand new baby. And my youngest, Annie, has three kids and runs a nursery school.

CQK: Could you describe yourself in three words?

DJS: Love, Mom, passion.

[In case any of you are wondering, “DJ Sullivan” is her legal name, just as “Cuauhtémoc Quetzalcoatl Kish” is my legal name. DJ changed her name when she discovered that publishers were more inclined to publish male writers. After the name change—guess what?—she published several children’s plays. And no, I am not going to tell you what DJ stood for. I’ll take that secret to my grave unless the money is real darn good.]

CQK: Sounds like a perfect description to me. What’s the future hold for DJ Sullivan?

DJS: There’s a new project I’m involved in called “Agatha and Tillie.” It’s about two old ladies who don’t have enough money to pay the bills so they start a life robbery. It hasn’t been sold yet, but is winning over the comedy competitions in many festivals. One of my former students, Mickey Harrison, wrote and produced it. We’ve filmed two episodes already and there are several more that have been written.

CQK: Is there something out there that you are biting at the bit to do?

DJS: There’s a one-woman show I’d like to do about Mrs. Lincoln and there’s a book project that I’d like to complete about sub-text one day.

CQK: What’s a perfect day for you?

DJS: I start every day with a poem and I try to read a play each and every day. And, of course, I read the NY Times reviews.

CQK: What advice, if any, would you offer younger individuals thinking about a career in theatre and/or cinema?

DJS: Face your fear; face it and then just do it!

CQK: What’s your greatest accomplishment?

DJS: Just being alive.

[DJ celebrated a recent anniversary on June 13th of this year. It marked her 16th year without cancer after the doctors removed her entire lung, all three lobes. DJ gives credit to dear friends Dori and Robert Salerno for saving her life during this crisis.)

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical word?

DJS: Curtain up or down.

CQK: If you ran into the devil at the end of your life what would you say to him?

DJS: You should have come to the play.

CQK: Do you have any parting words for the San Diego Theatre community?

DJS: Just love what you do and do it well and don’t ever stop learning.


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