TORONTO—Eminent Toronto actress Nonnie Griffin says she has always adored, admired and identified with Marilyn Monroe.
“I was quite a knockout when I was younger, same kind of figure, and I got that kind of attention. I didn’t know how to handle it. I had to be good, I had to keep away,” the 80-year-old stage and screen veteran said in a recent interview.
“But I have some of her flaws. I don’t take the pills and stuff like this, but I did quit drinking. These things can ruin you. I identified with her sensitivity, with her love of people.”
Griffin channels those parallels and more in her own one-woman play, “Marilyn—After,” which runs this Friday through Sunday at Tallulah’s Cabaret at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. It plays there again from Oct. 16-19.
The show sees Monroe (Griffin) coming back 50 years after her death to tell a story of her life, from the time she lived in an orphanage to her status as a sex symbol of the cinema and her final day.
“You get a picture of her humour and her sad times,” said Griffin, wearing her Monroe costume: a flowing white pantsuit, pearls, red lipstick and her silver hair in a short, styled coif reminiscent of the screen siren.
“She had a tough life. I don’t think many would survive a life that she had. She was in 14 foster homes and was molested a few times, so how do you survive that? But she not only survived, she is the world’s most famous movie star, really.
“People love her to this day, it doesn’t matter what age.”
Griffin said she, too, had some hard times growing up around Ontario and Quebec. Though her father came from a wealthy family (his father was Sir William Mackenzie, the builder of the Canadian Northern Railway), he didn’t have much money himself.
“We were poor, so I understood people who are having tough times,” said Griffin. “I think that we share that, Marilyn and I. We have empathy for people who are down and out, or people who are being ignored and that sort of stuff. Empathy—I think that’s what makes a really good actor or actress.”
Also like Monroe, Griffin said she also didn’t have much confidence when she was young, but that changed when an acting teacher told her she was “tremendous.” Griffin went on to perform major roles in radio, TV and the theatre, both at home and abroad. She also wrote the play “Sister Annunciata’s Secret,” in which she played six different characters at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“Something within myself, just like (Monroe), said: ‘I am going to get somewhere. It may not be the top, but I’m going to stay with it. I have to,’” said Griffin. “It’s a feeling that you’ve got something special that you want to share. So lots of things kept me going. I was quite spiritual, so is she.”
Griffin wrote “Marilyn—After” and first staged it in May as part of the SpringWorks Indie Theatre and Arts Festival in Stratford, Ont. She said she embarked on the project on the suggestion of someone who saw her perform at the Edinburgh festival.
She’d long been compared to the late “Some Like It Hot” star, and had received many books on her from friends as gifts, so she went for it.
“To be compared to her is quite a compliment,” said Griffin, slipping in and out of Monroe’s dulcet, whispery tones throughout the interview. “I’m not exact copy, but close enough.”
Griffin said she read “tons” of books while writing the show, which runs an hour and 20 minutes. She includes some “shocking truths” as well as controversial rumours about Monroe’s life, and she admits she had to imagine some details.
If Monroe were alive to see it, “I hope she’d be pleased. I think she would be,” said Griffin, slipping into Monroe’s voice again.
“I think she’d say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for showing the real truth.’”