On Lifetime’s provocative Mary Kills People, the touchy subject of euthanasia is wrapped in a dramedy that sees a doctor moonlight as a mercy killer.
One of her inner circle of confidantes is her own sister, played by Toronto-born actor Charlotte Sullivan.
The six-episode series, created by Tara Armstrong and from Rookie Blue showrunner Tassie Cameron, sees Caroline Dhavernas play Dr. Mary Harris — the doctor called upon by those who are at the end of life and want out with dignity.
Meanwhile Sullivan, who starred as the memorable character Gail Peck in ABC’s Rookie Blue and is currently in NBC’s Chicago Fire (as a love interest of Severide played by Taylor Kinney), was chosen as the complicated supporting character of Nicole Mitchell.
She makes her debut on tonight’s episode.
Nicole, we learn from Charlotte in our interview below, was a well-constructed look. She was designed to showcase a rebellious and outlier strength, not a forgettable side role, but an eye-catching ballsy Bettie Page toughie lil’ sister to the seemingly conservative Dr. Harris.
Although a Toronto-native and currently traveling back and forth from Montreal to Chicago, Sullivan likes to call Los Angeles her home, where she lives with her husband, fellow Canadian actor/director Peter Stebbings.
Her priority is raising her two year old daughter. Having overcome postpartum depression, Sullivan spends time as an advocate speaking about and spreading awareness about the condition.
Charlotte’s acting work spans a large swathe of American and Canadian film and television, and she can stretch her look and range.
Notably, she is one of a small group of actors to have been considered and cast as the iconic Marilyn Monroe, who she played in 2011 series The Kennedys.
We spoke to Charlotte about her twisty role in the upcoming episodes of Mary Kills People and some of her other on screen work:
Monsters and Critics: You are part of a small group of actors to have played Marilyn Monroe. You have such a classic beauty, can you talk about your experience playing her in The Kennedys?
Charlotte Sullivan: I played a drug addict for my husband in this one film, and it took me five minutes to get ready. But [hair and makeup for] Marilyn Monroe took like two and a half hours [laughs]!
The whole team of people who put me together for that…they are just the most insanely talented people.
They [the hair and makeup team of Colin Penman, Jordan Samuel and Jenny Arbour] can turn anybody into anything. Also, the thing with the Marilyn look was it’s such a contrived beauty, which is actually what I love about it.
This is something like what [burlesque performer] Dita von Teese does. I love her so much, she believes everybody can be glamorous.
So it doesn’t really matter truly what you look like, because it’s such a contrived makeup that it’s honestly like a paint-by-numbers type of thing.
That’s [the makeup and hair] the fun part…my most thrilling part for me. If it was exempt from my occupation, I don’t think I would do it.
[I love] sitting in the makeup and hair. It’s my favorite part, hands down. Especially when you are working with really talented people. They can blow you away.
But playing Marilyn…I got a lot of flack for that. I got a lot of hate for that. It’s a poison chalice.
First of all, the opportunity to play that kind of character is a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing. Especially being surrounded by such a cast, it was a spectacular opportunity.
I knew going into it I would be eviscerated because there are so many people obsessed with her [Marilyn], in love with her, and I can’t live up to that. You just have to be confident.
I think the thing with me during that particular time in my life was I didn’t have any confidence. I kind of harness that because Marilyn didn’t have any either.
What do I have in common with this woman? I know that she desperately wanted to be thought of as a good actress, and that’s something I have always wanted – to be great at what I do.
I struggled, there have been times I feel good about my work then I lose it. It’s a really strange art form.
I heard this quote from the Coen brothers, it just makes complete sense for actors — the only real power the actor has is to say ‘no’. Because everything else is out of their hands.
No matter even how you play it. You can be edited out. They can make you look good or bad [with the way they edit it]. It’s so out of your hands.
I worked with somebody recently who said, “Charlotte, you don’t get it, you are all about results, like ‘how did it turn out, how did it look?’ Whereas the real art form is the experience you have in that moment.”
And I am like, “That seems so simple” and now that’s what I want to try and live by. I had an amazing time, I felt connected on the day and you watch it, and you know. It’s not exactly how I thought it was going to be, but nobody can take away what I felt on that day.
M&C: Who is your favorite makeup artist?
CS: Well, Mary Kills People’s key makeup artist Stephen Lynch is insanely good. What I just adore so much are those little, itty bitty details that probably no one would even catch, but it just helps me get into it.
I play this character on Mary Kills People who is a hairdresser, and she has these crazy and elaborate hairstyles, covered in tattoos, and he was like, “Let’s put dye underneath your fingernails because you would be putting dye on people’s heads.”
So it’s those little things, I wouldn’t have thought of that, it’s wicked, just tiny things.
I also just love him as a human. Patricia Cuthbert did the hair on the same show, crazy good!
M&C: You have said there is a Thelma and Louise vibe to Mary Kills People with regards to your character Nicole. Can you elaborate?
CS: When I first saw Thelma and Louise, I was a little kid but I remember feeling that this was such a powerful thing for girls to see. Just a wonderful feminist narrative.
I just died to play those kind of roles. They were so strong, so badass, and free.
I think that [film] is sort of a reference for Nicole and Mary, they are very different, but the audience is not really sure whether or not if Nicole had a hand in…maybe murdering her mother? There’s a dark undertone there.
I think my character would definitely kill for her sister. Their love is incredibly strong. What I love so much about that kind of film is I know men are a part of that narrative.
They’re a part of the story, but it was so much more than that in that movie. With me and Caroline [Dhavernas] in Mary Kills People, we don’t talk about guys. I love that.
Normally in shows, two women together are either talking about men or fighting each other with jealousy.
This was the first time — and that’s kind of sad, I’m going to be honest — somebody had brought it up to me, “They’re not talking about guys, they are having a real conversation.”
I was like “ooh, goddamn it!” [laughs] so that’s where I see the parallels of Thelma and Louise.
It’s because it’s dangerous, and its women busting out of that being held down sort of stance. It was definitely an inspiration for me.
M&C: Let’s talk about Nicole Mitchell. Tell your fans about your character, how does she interact with Mary?
CS: Originally I auditioned for Mary, I read the script and I remember, I was like “No, no no.”
I hate it, when I love something so much and then I think, “Oh crap, I’m not going to get this because I’m not right for…but I would love to do this so badly.”
The script was such a dangerous read. I just…there’s such a magnetism for the pilot episode. I know the showrunner which can also kind of be awkward You audition for the part, and she’s like, “You’re not right for it,” and I am like “No!”.
But she was kind enough to say “But…she has a sister.” Okay, I am listening!
The way she described Nicole I was like, I am so in! Esthetically on the page, the character Nicole was described in bare bones, “Nicole is a tattooed, cooler version of Mary.”
Not that Mary isn’t cool, but I saw that and I just started getting inspiration for her, like rockabilly, and I would send pictures of women of influence to our showrunner.
Then I had a hand on collaborating on my tattoos. All my tattoos are really personal to me, so it’s so cool, that goes back to the details people may or may not pick up on.
Just to have that kind of detail changes the way you walk and talk. So Cassie [the showrunner] said to me, “Would you like to play her [Mary’s] sister?” and I said, “I’m in, I’m in!”
It’s also such a controversial subject. Euthanasia — so many people are religious and are against that, which I respect.
I think every one of us has been on the end where we’ve held on to a loved one for far too long when they should have gone.
I certainly did that with my own grandmother, holding on for dear life when she couldn’t do anything [anymore], what was her purpose?
She couldn’t hear anymore so she could not listen to opera, she couldn’t see anymore so she couldn’t read her books she loved to read.
She had to be bathed…what was her purpose? I think it [Mary Kills People] does a really good job in examining past decisions and how would you like die if given the choice?
M&C: When you read this script and being an advocate for fighting postpartum depression, how did you react?
CS: Let me speak from my experience. I am not a doctor, I would never diagnose. But something happened to me after I had my child. I felt like this intense, “Oh my god, I’m not good enough.”
Everyone was expecting me to bounce back into shape, and I just felt horrible. I didn’t want to be in front of the camera. I didn’t want to be seen, really.
And that is the time everyone wants to come and meet your baby and I didn’t want to see anybody.
I was really nervous and feeling like I was letting people down, my agents, my manager, and I did not want to do anything. I made some really shitty choices that year.
Looking back as a learning experience, it was so vital for me to go through those really terrible moments. It provided this ammunition for my next move and creating quality control.
Because I made bad decisions that year, all based on fear…”No one likes me, I won’t work again…” So stupid. It doesn’t make any sense.
The thing I like about it now is that I can speak about that I have never felt better. I feel so much more confident.
I think it’s hormones leveling out, getting older, whatever it is…I think a big part of it for me is I really want my daughter to be confident and my husband snapped me out of it and said, “You need to lead by example.”
I was like, “Oh shit” [laughs], it comes from me. That really woke me up.
Now I feel so good. If I can share that story with anybody and if they glean anything from it knowing you can get out of that feeling…I felt like I was on the floor, worthless.
It’s a weird thing when you [work] in front of the camera because everyone is looking at you. And that’s why I didn’t want to act.
Then I felt pressure to do it because I felt like people would forget me. That’s the dumbest thing on the planet! It’s not rational.
M&C: Can you share your thoughts on electing euthanasia?
CS: For me, I know that my pride and dignity are important and I would like the right to choose.
It’s obviously such a horrible decision to make, but if you are there mentally but your body is failing you…oh God, it’s such a tough decision to make.
For me personally, I would want to leave with some class. I don’t want people bathing me. I wouldn’t want that.
M&C: Switching subjects…NBC’s Chicago Fire and playing Anna, a leukemia patient who finds out Severide (Taylor Kinney) is a bone marrow match. Severide becomes attached and falls in love with your character. Does Severide’s dad Benny (Treat Williams) have an impact on your relationship with Severide? Can you talk about that and working with Taylor and Treat?
CS: As far as Benny…I don’t think so. We had a scene together, he [Treat] was so funny, he’s such a good actor and he is so free. He does every take so dramatically different.
My only problem, I had to play a certain secret at that table with him. I had to be very emotional and I couldn’t laugh and that was such a challenge because he is so funny, so good and just a lovely person.
That was a really hard part for me. I don’t think he is going to have a hand in the relationship. I think Severide’s character is quite strong-willed, that even if his dad [Williams] said “She’s horrible, don’t date her!” I don’t think he would listen to be honest [laughs].
I love working on that show. There’s such a different vibe on that set [Chicago Fire]. I thought personally when I first walked on “Oh, I’m a newbie, it will be kind of awkward” and that you kind of have to get to know people…they’ve been doing it for so long, and they’ll be complacent.
So I went into it super negative but when I got there, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
They’re just beautiful people, the crew and the actors, they’re so embracing of me. I felt like I had been there since the pilot.
They just finished the season and on my last day of shooting, Eamonn [Walker], who plays the Chief [Boden], I’ve never even worked with him — this is a testament to who these people are — never worked with him, just saw him on set, but he came on his day off to say goodbye to me.
They are so lovely. Also they are great actors, holy cow. Taylor is a phenomenal actor, I love working with him, he is a really interesting artist. I’ve been really lucky.
Mary Kills People airs Sundays at 10/9c on Lifetime. Chicago Fire airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on NBC.