Melissa Sullivan was so shy growing up, she would stare at the ceiling to avoid looking at people. Eventually, realizing “ceilings weren’t going to get me anywhere in life,” she decided to make a change—and committed to talking to one stranger a day. That, plus an affinity for the stage, got Sullivan out of her shell and into a variety of performing arts: theatre, television, film, and music.
Sullivan, who teaches acting and is the musical director of the NYFA Glee Club, took some time to discuss her career as a multi-hyphenate and her upcoming album.
New York Film Academy (NYFA): How/when did you know you wanted to pursue the performing arts?
Melissa Sullivan (MS): In Naha, Okinawa, my mother put me in a ballet class. I remember a performance being back stage. I loved it. The smell of the stage, the curtains, the anticipation of the performance. I wasn’t the best dancer but the experience was informative and I knew I was at home in the theatre.
NYFA: You’ve performed in a variety of fields—theater, television, film, and music—and have also directed. As an artist, how do you see yourself and why?
MS: When I first moved to Los Angeles things were very different than they are now. I heard “Are you an actor, or a singer? You need to pick one.” Now it is much more fluid. Performers have more freedom to explore, perhaps because of technology and the access to it. The connection of artists globally through technology is amazing. I studied at California Institute of the Arts where all disciplines lived side by side. You would hear music in the hallway, walk by a piece of art, see dancers in the distance, artists in the gallery discussing someone’s work, and watch filmmakers editing in the graffitied sub-level. It was such a great environment. After I graduated, I never gave that spirit up.
NYFA: Speaking of, you have a long list of credits in various mediums. Of all the work you’ve done, what are you most proud of and why?
MS: Recording my album of original music and playing Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the Actors Studio, directed by Barbara Bain.
NYFA: Additionally, are there any others that stick out in your mind of being particularly memorable and why?
MS: Filming an episode of Shameless. I had been called into the casting office for Shameless for a few years and was happy to finally land a part. I’m really happy with the work that I did on that show. The experience was fast paced and yet enjoyable. It is a great production from the actors, directors, AD’s, scripts, grips and on.
NYFA: As a multi-hyphenate, what is the most challenging aspect about wearing different hats, project to project? How do you take on the challenge?
MS: Working on a few things at once suits my mind. I am very busy, so I write music while I walk my dogs or drive to work. I wrote some of my favorite songs in my car. I guess to be a multi-hyphenate you have to organize your time well and I have gotten better at this. Teaching has inspired me to take more risks. When you talk with students about their growth and how to facilitate it, you in turn have to follow suit with your own work.
NYFA: You’re the musical director of the NYFA Glee Club and have said that “music can transform people.” Can you elaborate on that?
MS: I have seen students petrified to sing in front of one person, but at the end of the semester they are performing in front of an audience of 90 people. Singing brings people confidence. It is a raw emotional expression. With the Glee Club I try to foster leadership and collaboration. We have student conductors and section leaders. I am blown away by their talent.
NYFA: Speaking of music, you have an album coming out in December. How would you describe your music?
MS: I am a trained jazz singer so my songs come from a jazz foundation, but it is an amalgam of genres: jazz, blues, and pop. I am almost finished! It’s been quite a journey.
NYFA: What’s your favorite thing about teaching at NYFA?
MS: I admire my colleagues. I appreciate the support that the acting and filmmaking teachers give to one another. I also love the fact that the students are from all over the world. I have so much respect for foreign students who open their hearts and act in a second language. I also really like working with the veterans. I appreciate the time they served for our country and I find most of them are highly disciplined at NYFA. They are brave and want to dive into the craft.