Interview: Frances Thorburn - Trouble sleeping with Marilyn Monroe

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Her own experience of insomnia has helped Frances Thorburn get a better understanding of the screen idol's demons

YOU could pass Frances Thorburn in the street and not see any resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. Even with her brunette hair dyed platinum blonde, there's only a glancing resemblance. But then she giggles, tossing back her blonde curls, gives you a shy, girlish wink, and you'd wonder momentarily how it is that the Hollywood legend is alive and well and currently on stage at the Citizens' Theatre.

But playing Marilyn - as Thorburn is doing in Sue Glover's new play - is a complex proposition. It's about being blonde and curvy and singing a convincing "boo-boo-be-doo", but it's also about trying to bring to life an enigmatic, difficult figure. Even Monroe was playing a version of herself. The real woman is much more difficult to find.

"It's very hard to get a sense of the real Marilyn Monroe because most of what you see is a faade," says Thorburn, sitting in the bar at the Citizens'. "It's layered with so many other things, what she's been told to do, how she's been influenced. Also, a lot of people have contradictory ideas about her, everyone says different things, you never really get her own take."

Glover's new play, directed by Philip Howard, attempts to explore some of these complexities. Marilyn portrays a short period in 1960 when Monroe and her third husband Arthur Miller lived in a suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel opposite that of French actress Simone Signoret and her husband Yves Montand, who was Monroe's co-star in Let's Make Love. By focusing on the relationship of the Monroe and Signoret (Dominique Hollier) and their hair colourist, Patti (Pauline Knowles) Glover seeks to delve into the troubled heart of Hollywood's most famous sex symbol.

Thorburn is required to portray a woman of contradictions: a playful baby doll plagued with terrible insomnia, and frustration at being typecast as a dumb blonde (she was a natural brunette); a sex symbol whom the cameras adored but who suffered from lifelong debilitating stage fright; a woman who pursued fame, but whose search for lasting happiness in her personal life was unrequited.

Thorburn, 31, describes herself as "ecstatic but daunted" when cast in the role. A graduate of the The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, she worked as a theatre actress in Scotland and in London, including a season at The Globe and nine months on the West End in Fiddler on the Roof, and has spent the past 18 months concentrating on her career as a singer-songwriter. "I went out the next day and bought a box set of about 30 Marilyn films - that was my project for Christmas."

But nothing could prepare her for the shock of seeing herself as a platinum blonde. "I've never dyed my hair, I've never even had highlights. I was really excited about getting it done, but I don't think I realised how extremely different it would be. I still laugh at myself in the mirror every time I see myself - luckily I don't weep! Getting into the costume is a nightmare - it's so sculpted, and personally I'm not used to being able to see my breasts quite so much! Also, I'm wiggling a lot more. I just noticed that yesterday when I was walking for the bus. I think Marilyn is feeding into my hips." And she tosses her new blonde curls and laughs what I'm beginning to think of as her Marilyn laugh.Playing a real person, especially one whose image is still so ubiquitous, presented other challenges. "I have a print of her, films, books, cards of her. Eventually I had to cover them all up because I was waking up with her image in the morning, going to bed with her image at night, I felt like I was losing myself. Because I'm so blonde, I get a lot more looks when I'm walking down the street, from both men and women. Personally I'm not an exhibitionist, I don't really like that much attention. In my case, it's just a hair colour, I'm not well known, but I can't imagine how people cope with it, that euphoric, obsessive behaviour all the time, the cameras flashing. That must have been mental for her, I don't envy that in any way. I know it comes with the business, but no thanks!"

In 1960, Marilyn is 34 and is a household name after the huge success of films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, but longs to be taken seriously as an actress. Thorburn believes she was much more talented than she is given credit for.

"She's brilliant in Don't Forget to Knock, which is quite a dark film. Even her comic timing in How to Marry a Millionaire - she's exquisite in that. That doesn't come easily, you have to be quite gifted." Laurence Olivier, who directed her in The Prince and the Showgirl, described her as 'a brilliant comedienne', which to me means she is also an extremely skilled actress."

But she suffered from being typecast, and from the ageism which is so prevalent still in the movie business.

"I do think there has been a lot of progress since Marilyn, but there are things that are still with us," says Thorburn. "I've done mainly theatre, but I'm 31 and I'm in a transition period. I'm too old for most of the parts I used to be up for, but I'm not old enough for the older sister or the mother because I still look young-ish. I think a lot of actresses find that, and there are not many roles for women in their thirties, they just peter out.

"Marilyn certainly wanted to be taken seriously, I think she wanted to better herself all the time - there are so many pictures of her reading. I think she wanted to be a classical actress, she loved Shakespeare, she loved Chekhov, she was always working on her acting.

"I imagine she would have been a great theatre actress. If she had lived, she would have been able to do some beautiful theatre, in the way that Marlon Brando did as he got older."

But at the same time, her personal life was troubled, even self-destructive. By 1960, her relationship with Arthur Miller was ending (they divorced the following year) and she eventually began an affair with Yves Montand. Film directors found her increasingly difficult to work with, as she didn't turn up on set and refused to take instructions. She was fired from Something's Gotta Give, the last movie she worked on. "It's hard to get the balance because a lot of the things she does are very selfish," says Thorburn. "Although she's being selfish or unfair, at the same time she can be incredibly generous (including, as the play explores, protecting those closest to her who came under suspicion during the McCarthy witch trials]. It's about playing those things at the same time. I don't want her to be a bitch, it's much more complex than that."

The seeds were sown in a troubled upbringing: a mentally ill mother, a childhood shuttled between foster parents and children's homes where she may have been sexually abused, married off at 16, then catapulted to fame first as a model, then as a Hollywood starlet in the pay of the big studios. The celebrity-hungry showbiz press gorged on her rags-to-riches story and her flirtatious sexuality in a way which anticipates today's media, with little thought for the consequences (think Britney Spears, or the much-married Katie Price).

If her own insecurities made her behave in a childlike fashion, it suited the studios to treat her like a child. Her many promiscuous relationships begin to look like a lifelong quest for love.

"She never had any stability, from a very young age. If you don't know how the stable world works, how can you be stable in your adult life? You need a lot of help sorting that kind of thing out, but I don't think she as given the right kind of help."

She also suffered from long-term insomnia, for which she took a cocktail of prescription drugs, often laced with champagne, and often without effect. "I've only had a tiny experience of insomnia for a couple of weeks, it's horrendous," says Thorburn. "I really did think I was losing my mind. It's extremely debilitating, and to have that continually while you're under an immense amount of pressure to make a movie. I don't know how she coped."

Thorburn believes this might be what lay behind Monroe's death in 1962, which was described at the time as suicide.

"I don't think I believe that she killed herself. I don't think it's necessarily a conspiracy thing, that somebody murdered her, I think it was just an unfortunate event where she took the wrong kind of pills, or didn't know how one drug would react with another. Those things have been talked about in the case of people like Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson, we know it can be accidental, or someone's body can't cope any more."

She is determined to portray Monroe with respect and complexity, to "do right by her, play in an honourable way. It's an absolute delight and such an honour, it's a gift of a part. I talk to her, hope that I'm doing the right thing by her. When I go on stage I say, 'Help me out, be with me at some point'." And she gives me a shy, vulnerable, Marilyn-ish wink.

• Marilyn is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, until 12 March, and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 15 March to 2 April.