How Lily Sullivan ‘descended into madness’, on screen and off

By Karl Quinn

Lily Sullivan photographed at The Old Clare Hotel in Sydney in October 2023.Credit: James Brickwood

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There are no small parts, only small actors, the great drama coach Konstantin Stanislavski famously said, giving succour to every bit player who has ever wondered when they might land a lead.

But there are certainly big parts – and it’s hard to imagine one bigger than Lily Sullivan’s in the inventively claustrophobic Monolith. For 94 minutes she’s the only person on screen.

Lily Sullivan stars alone in the new film Monolith.Credit: James Brickwood

“It was a nutty, nutty experience,” says Sullivan, whose film career began at the age of 17 in P. J. Hogan’s dark domestic comedy Mental (2012) and has continued with her starring in the TV mini-series Romper Stomper and Picnic at Hanging Rock. “Being shot for 12 hours a day and not being able to turn around to another actor, it was a descent into madness.”

In the film from South Australian writer Lucy Campbell and director Matt Vesely, Sullivan plays ‘the interviewer’, a disgraced journalist who has turned to podcasting in a desperate bid to resurrect her career and her reputation. Under pressure from her new employer to come up with a clickable conspiracy story, she feels certain she has found just the ticket: strange black objects, about the size of a bar of gold, that turn up out of nowhere seem to contain obscure messages hidden inside, and are possibly the work of an alien intelligence.

Though hard to peg – it’s not quite a thriller, it has the merest hint of sci-fi, and a good dollop of mystery – the film is all about that central performance. And with nothing more to aid her than a microphone, a variety of disembodied voices on the other end of the phone (canny viewers with sharp ears may recognise Erik Thomson, Damon Herriman and Kate Box among them) and a spectacular house in the Adelaide Hills, Sullivan absolutely nails it.

“It was the challenge of a lifetime, a one-woman show,” she says, with no risk of exaggeration. “I ended up approaching it like theatre, almost – having no physical scene partner, removing body language. I would just find myself lost in this echo chamber of my imagination and voice. I’ve never been more aware of my voice.”

The idea of being so exposed was, she admits, a little terrifying. “But I’m all about walking towards fear at the moment, which I find helps a lot.”

In 2019, artist Rone created an immersive exhibition at Burnham Beeches in the Yarra Ranges in which Sullivan’s image featured prominently.Credit: Peter Tarasiuk

For 15 days straight they shot, in chronological order. It was, says Sullivan, “deeply exhausting, and by the end of the movie it turned into insanity. Because of the isolation of doing this alone, and feeling like I’m just making sounds alone the whole time, and then descending into that hysteria and mania she finds herself in, I kind of felt like that by the end.

“We were shooting in the house, and my green room [for preparation and downtime] was the bedroom, and I was just, like, ‘what is real and what is not?’”

Back in 2019, Sullivan’s face was plastered all over multiple rooms in the art deco mansion Burnham Beeches by the artist Rone for the installation Empire. In making Monolith it was the house – a stunning modern masterpiece of concrete and glass – that played muse to her. “It was basically the other lead character,” she says. “It was pretty much all I had to work with.”

She could have stayed there, but she opted to sleep in a small cottage nearby instead. “I was, like, ‘I need some space’. I did not want to live on set, wake up there, and then have a film crew walk in. That was way too much immersion for me. I needed to go and light a fire, and cook myself dinner, and pretend what I do for a living isn’t weird as hell.”

Right now, the weirdness of Sullivan’s professional life has ratcheted up a notch. She starred in her first big Hollywood production, Evil Dead Rise, earlier this year, but because of the strike – which she thoroughly endorses – she can’t speak about it beyond saying: “I’m just so obsessed by the physicality of horror-action. It’s so fun, I want to do more.”

She had just booked a role in a big production for a streamer, but who knows where that project will sit when the dust settles. But she’s sanguine about the uncertainty, which is part and parcel of the working life of most actors even in normal times.


“There definitely was a momentum, which was really nice, from this past year,” she says. “But you have to just roll with it. It’s totally OK.”

As we talk, she’s ensconced in a friend’s property in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, trying to use the downtime productively. “I’ve just been chilling and taking a stab at writing, which has been really, really fun,” she says. “It’s been really good to take the acting hat off and kind of apply all the knowledge that you’ve gained over the years of being in the industry, and realise that the format of a script and the format of TV is actually burnt into my brain.”

She’s working on a “confrontational” comedy-drama, for a male lead. She might do a cameo, she might even try her hand at directing, but mostly she’s just focused on writing it and getting it made.

“It’s so nice to take control and be on that side of the creative process, instead of jumping on so late, once everything’s developed,” she says. “It’s so nice to be at the foundation point.”

It’s a move she was always destined to make, she thinks, but the strike has simply afforded her the time and space to have a crack. Eventually, she might just write roles for herself, too. “I like the idea that if your career goes one way you’re able to palate-cleanse and manoeuvre into another,” she says. “Just allowing myself the space to find my own voice, as opposed to fulfilling someone else’s voice, feels really exciting.”

Of course, she had plenty of time with her own voice while making Monolith. And that, she says, makes talking about it a little tricky. “It’s really hard to get behind something when you’re the only actor in it. You feel like a narcissist.”

For all its vicissitudes, she enjoyed the process of making of it, “but to promote it … it’s really hard when it’s your face; it’s only me. I’ve never been more aware of putting my physical body in view like that, and my sense of self.”

It’s not that she’s insecure, especially. “I’ve pushed through that now, it’s a waste of time,” she says. “Obviously, there’s always the niggly bits, the insecurities, the voices that are trying to trip you up. But once I’m on a job and I’m shooting, there’s none of that. I just sit in it and I feel it and I challenge myself and ride the anxiety, in a way. You’re in it, the race has already begun.”

It’s what comes after, when the film is out in the world and other people can praise or attack it, that’s really hard. “Shooting a film is such an intimate process that it really feels like you’re handcrafting something,” she says. “It’s the breaking it down and doing the press run for it that doesn’t feel natural.”

Monolith is in cinemas now.

Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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