David Sullivan takes grief on a road trip in ‘Monuments’

Photo credit: Doug Shineman
Photo credit: Doug Shineman

David Sullivan stars as the grief-stricken widower Ted in Jack C. Newell’s quirky adventure comedy, Monuments. I got the chance to talk with him via Zoom about the film, grief and the Field Museum in Chicago. Check out the interview below.

Monuments is written and directed by Jack C. Newell (Hope Springs Eternal, 42 Grams, Open Tables), and stars David Sullivan (“The Wilds,” “Sharp Objects,” “Flaked”), Marguerite Moreau (Wet Hot American Summer, The Mighty Ducks), Javier Muñoz (“Shadowhunters”) and Joel Murray (“Mad Men,” “Shameless”).

Synopsis: When Laura is killed in an accident, her estranged husband, Ted, wants to honor their time together by scattering her ashes where they first fell in love. But, he’s being chased by her family and the memory of the mistakes he made in life.

What in the script attracted you to playing the role of Ted?

David: I think just the journey. It’s kind of a fun road trip movie. I liked the humanity of Ted and I liked the journey that he goes on. I learned a lot about grief and how people deal with grief and how there’s not really one right way. Everybody has their own ways of dealing with loss, and I really liked Ted’s way. I liked the story that Jack created and in having meetings with him and understanding his vision and how he wanted this story to go, I was really attracted to that.

Photo credit: Doug Shineman
This film is an adventure comedy. That plus grief doesn’t really seem to mix, what can you say about that?

David: That’s the thing, everybody does it differently. I, in reading this script, funny enough, when I read the script I didn’t see it as funny as Jack saw it and even as like, some of the other actors saw it. And Ted, in all fairness, didn’t see it as funny either. So I think, maybe I’m giving myself a little too much credit, but when I read a script and I know the role that I’m going to be playing, I start reading the story through that character’s point of view, through his eyes and I honestly didn’t see all that humor. I’m so grateful that I had the time to meet Marguerite and meet Javier and discuss with Jack the different ideas and different tonalities that this movie was eventually going to be. I’m so grateful for that because I could have done a terrible job, I shouldn’t say terrible, I would have still done a truthful job but it would have been a much, much more boring movie.

Was it difficult to kind of find that humor?

David: It wasn’t because I had smart people around me. And if I think that you’re smarter than me then I’m probably going to listen to you more than I’d listen to my ideas. They’re just ideas and if you’re the one that wrote the script, and if you’re the one that can see this idea out of thin air, you know more about this story than I do. So, I’m going to use you as a tool and hopefully you’re going to give me the information I need in order for me to give you what it is that you’re wanting in this performance. I was just really lucky to have Jack there at my disposal to answer every question I had and give me all the tools that I needed to bring him to life.

Is this a personal story for Jack?

David: I think so. It’s kind of an interpretation of The Odyssey and, obviously, having that being required reading when I was much younger (I didn’t actually read it when I was younger), I had a good idea of what the journey was. But yeah, Jack had dealt with loss and his grieving process was way different than when I lost my father, six or seven years prior to that. And Marguerite, who plays my wife, she had dealt with her father passing, I want to say within two months of a shooting, so it helped me understand that we’re all different and we’re all just trying to do the best that we can. When playing a character who’s dealing with grief and loss, you just kind of do the best that you can and I think that’s what Ted did.

Photo credit: Doug Shineman
Did you bring any of your own experience with grief to playing Ted?

David: Yeah. Every actor experiences life and every story that we tell is a piece of life. So, consciously or unconsciously, we’re going to use the information and the data and the life that we’ve lived up to that point to affect our characters or our characters’ points of view. I mean, I’m obviously not Ted and I haven’t experienced Ted’s life but, it was so great to be able to read that story and do my best interpretation of what somebody like Ted would be like. So, it’s tricky being an actor because it’s just oddly personal, even though I’ve never done a lot of the things that he did, obviously, I’d bring my own personal life and history to it. 

Photo credit: Doug Shineman
Along with the heavy subject of grief, there are some really interesting scenes. The dancing scene is the first thing that comes to mind. So what was it like bringing those elements into the story?

David: So fun! So fun because as an artist, it’s just another tool. We, as artists, have to find different ways to express ourselves through our work, you know, be it a comedy or drama or you play a serial killer or you play a preacher. Or you play a guy who loses his wife but he sees her, but is it really her, is she really standing there, does he feel her touch his hand? You try to allow yourself to just experience these things that may be weird or unconventional or whatever. Yeah, you just bring as much of yourself to it as you can and when I saw the dancing scene, I didn’t know that it was going to be a whole three minute dance with the entire song. I thought that it was just going to be a couple eight counts and then we’re out. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I got a dance teacher, we’re good.’ But then it’s like, ‘oh, we’re still going. I have to memorize, not only do I have to memorize all my lines in this movie, I also have to memorize all these dance moves?’ It was stressful at first but like with anything, if you work your way through it, you’re going to be so much happier on the other side and I really was. I was so happy once we finished that day and then I was even happier seeing it on the screen. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, don’t look like an absolute idiot.’

The acting in this film feels very organic, is that due to improv or do you all just work that well off of each other?

David: The thing about shooting on location is everybody’s there. If there’s only one hotel in that town, the whole cast and crew is staying at that one hotel. So, we just got to know each other on a personal level, and when you get to know people like that and you actually like them, you have a lot of faith in that person. And when I get to know people on such a close, personal, intimate level like that, I feel like I’m in good hands. I mean, I’m not going to be the one who’s going to screw this up because they’re not going to let me. Like if I do a bad take or if I have a bad read on something, they’re gonna make me look so much better because they’re good at what they do. Yeah, I think shooting on location and being enclosed in such close quarters with each other just made me better because it’s like, ‘Oh, I feel like I know these people. I feel like I know exactly who these people are now.’

Speaking of location, did you get a chance to check out Field Museum when you weren’t filming?

David: Oh, it was amazing. When I was reading the script I was like, ‘well, there’s no way we’re actually going to be able to shoot in there.’ And then they gave us access to the whole museum. It was pretty phenomenal. We had a little room way off in the back, that was kind of our base camp, where we could sit and change clothes and get ready to go out. But oftentimes, if I didn’t have somebody right next to me, I would get lost. The place is massive. When I wasn’t shooting, I was able to walk around and explore. It is a beautiful museum. Yeah, just the fact that we got to shoot in there was just unreal. I mean, we’re right up next to a dinosaur, like unreal. These are real dinosaur bones that we’re right up next to, like I could have tripped and fell when I was dancing with Marguerite. I could have tripped and fell and erased millions of years in history. Is it millions of years or like hundreds of thousands? See Ted would know the answer. David, no clue.

Photo credit: Doug Shineman
Is the Mold- A- Rama an actual thing in the museum?

David: Oh yeah, it’s an actual thing and I actually kept one. Yeah, it’s an actual thing there. I love that he included that in the script because again, when you lose somebody, it’s the little things that you’re reminded of that really kind of hit you. It’s the things that you don’t think of in your day to day interactions with them and all of a sudden you’re just kind of gut punched by what this thing actually means. And the Mold- A- Rama was just the thing that they did and Ted didn’t think anything of it in his real life or when Laura was alive, but afterwards it’s like, I have to do this. And that’s a great scene where it tells such a great story with very little dialogue. It’s just really tempting when you have a comedy legend like that, right next to you and he’s, you know, throwing things out at you, you want to kind of keep up as an actor, like, I got improv chops. But, you know, as a person going through that, there’s nothing about this moment that you would crack up about or laugh about. So, yeah, that was well scripted and a real thing.

Photo credit: Doug Shineman
Monuments will be available On Demand and Digital on August 3rd.