ack Stage West recently went backstage with Nora Dunn, who was in the midst of rehearsals for George Furth's reworked play Precious Sons. Dunn portrays a wife and mother of two in this darkly comic story set in the late 1940s. The play debuted on Broadway four years ago and is about to have its West Coast premiere with the Blank Theatre Company's production at the 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood.
Dunn, whose recent credits include the films Three Kings and What Planet Are You From? is best known for her hilarious sketch-comedy work on Saturday Night Live, for which she served as a cast member from 1985 to 1990. During that time, she created such memorable characters as talk show host Pat Stevens and cheesy lounge singer Liz Sweeney (part of a duo played with SNL's Jan Hooks).
After SNL, Dunn moved to Los Angeles, appearing in the drama series Sisters for three seasons, and in the films Working Girl, Miami Blues, Passion Fish, I Love Trouble, The Last Supper, Bulworth, and Drop Dead Gorgeous.
In 1997, Dunn channeled her acerbic wit into her acclaimed one-woman show, Small Prey, which opened at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica and later moved to the Coast Theatre in West Hollywood. She recently completed a screenplay she plans to direct, and she can also be seen in the upcoming films What's the Worst That Could Happen? opposite Danny DeVito, and Breakers, with Sigourney Weaver.
Dunn began acting in San Francisco and later moved back to her native Chicago, where she cut her teeth in cabaret theatre and improvisation. While working with defectors from the Second City Comedy Troupe, she was spotted by visiting SNL casting directors in 1984. The rest is history.
Back Stage West: I want to go back to your roots as an actor. I think most people think of you as a comedian, first and foremost, but your training is really as an actor. Tell me about your early days in San Francisco and how you learned your craft.
Nora Dunn: San Francisco just happened to be that place for me where I felt comfortable and I felt I could do what I wanted to do. I didn't know anybody there. I didn't know the lay of the land. I kind of just looked in the paper, and I started out with a couple of really bogus acting teachers, and then I found Anne Macey, who was with the Jean Shelton Acting Workshop. She's a brilliant woman, and we still correspond. She changed my life. She was tough. I turned myself over to it, and she would give various exercises to suit the various students that she had. Not everyone would be given the same [instruction], and what she wanted me to work on was to admit to myself that I was an artist and my art form was acting.
From there, I started doing comedy because I was creating my own characters; but I acted them, and I knew how to act, and I learned technique from her. I learned to play a scene over and over and over. If you did a scene brilliantly, she'd say, "Well, let's do it again. Let's do it again. Let's do it again."
And then my focus—I have really good focus—and that comes from having waited on tables for so long. People always ask, "What did you study to be so focused?" I go, "What did I study? I was a waitress!" You have to remember everything. You have to remember your orders. In a restaurant, you're trying to present this very calm, peaceful thing at the table, but then you go in the kitchen, and it's just utter chaos and out of control. So, I think that's really where my good focus comes from. Once I got on a film set, it was like being in a restaurant, because a restaurant is all show. So it didn't seem weird to me to be acting and have someone a couple of feet away crouched behind a dresser [with a microphone].
BSW: When we spoke three years ago, just prior to your one-woman show opening in Los Angeles, you told me that you felt like your best work was about to happen. Was your forecast accurate?
Dunn: Yeah. That show changed my life. After the show moved to the Coast Theatre, I met my husband and I got married. I had a deal to take the show to New York, and it was going to be a two-year commitment, but I didn't feel I wanted to commit two years to New York. I wanted to stay with this relationship. I didn't think it was realistic to be gone for two years. So I stayed.
I just think finishing that project meant that another door was going to open. It gave me a lot of confidence, and I think that people who came to see it [found out] what I knew about my work. I don't think that a lot of people knew that I was a writer and a performer, which amounts to performance art, even though that term's been overworked.
And as far as my working career, I started to get some good television parts and some good movie parts because of it.
BSW: So why are you doing this play? Certainly not for the money?
Dunn: No, though I can use $7 a day. You know, I knew that this part was waiting for me 20 years ago. I didn't start acting until I was 27, and I just knew this part was there. It was part of my subconscious. I don't know why, but it didn't surprise me at all that Daniel Henning [artistic director of the Blank Theatre Company and director of Precious Sons] called. He thought of me for this part, and he asked me out to lunch and handed me this play. When I read it, that was it.
This play is absolute perfection. I mean, so rarely do you get a movie script with good dialogue and good scenes. That's hard to come by. The dialogue in this is brilliant. It's extremely funny and dark and sad. I loved this play instantly, and I just decided to do it. But you don't go after a part like this; it has to come to you.
This kind of part defines why I chose acting, and I think you have to do something like this every now and then in your career to remind yourself why you studied acting, why you chose it, and why you love it. It is to reveal yourself and to reveal your emotions. This is what you live for.
This is a character who is so interesting, and she's a painful character. She has a lot of emotional problems. She's very repressed. She doesn't understand herself. It's 1949. It's not a time when you went to a shrink. You didn't go outside of your family to say, "Gee, I have these feelings about myself and my childhood," or, "I feel powerless," or "I have low self-esteem." There wasn't a language for it, for middle-class people who [felt like this]. We were just coming out of World War II. So it's a chance for me to play out all of those feelings—my insecurities. Choosing to act means that you really want to confront yourself. That's really what it's about. So she's going to give me that.
BSW: What do you find you enjoy about working in theatre that you don't necessarily get from film or television?
Dunn: Before I go onstage, I'm always so terrified. I feel ill. I don't know why I'm doing this. Why am I putting myself through this, when it's so much easier to step up in front of a camera, knowing that if you screw up you can do it again? You do it many, many different ways when you're doing a film: Let's try it this way, let's try it that way. And it's fun.
But in a play, all the decisions and all the analysis are done beforehand. When you're [performing onstage], it's a very, very intimate exchange between you and the audience, and you can't describe that feeling. I guess it's the same reason why so many people like to ride roller coasters. I don't like amusement park rides, and maybe that's why I like this. This is my entertainment. This, to me, is the most interesting and fun thing I could possibly do, and it's also the most terrifying.
BSW: Does it ever get comfortable for you onstage?
Dunn: No. I think that there are certain points in a play or in a performance that you look forward to. If your technique is there, and you've done your homework, and you've prepared for all of the emotional points that you're reaching in the play—when you have that set, you can have so much fun. But you don't ever go out there and think, Oh. Whatever happens, happens. Gee, I hope I feel this moment when it happens. It has to be plotted, and then you can live it out. But I love the plotting, and I love the analysis of it, and when you do TV and movies, you don't get enough of that.
BSW: Was there a similar feeling you got from doing standup that is comparable to theatre?
Dunn: Yeah, but I think the problem I had with standup was always the audience. I never knew what kind of yahoos were going to be out there. I never knew if I was going to connect with an audience, even if the club I was playing in was reputable. I'd feel this pressure of going into a club and thinking, Gee. Do I have enough sex jokes? What do they want? Drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll? I never relaxed with that at all. What people think is funny is sometimes so stupid, especially if they're drinking.
But what a great feeling when you connect with an audience. It was just so hit or miss. I think when I left the clubs and went into cabaret and started doing more performance [work], I lost that fear, because the audience I drew in was more predictable. I always feel more akin to a theatre audience. But I love performing comedy. I just don't think that traditional standup was ever my venue.
BSW: What about Saturday Night Live? Did you feel like you were in your element then?
Dunn: Very much so. Before I was cast on the show, that was what I was doing. I was doing characters, and I was doing a lot of improvisation at that time. I was into writing sketches. I loved writing sketches. So that was very timely for me and really fun. To have something work on that show was so much fun.
Everyone says this once they leave [SNL], and I think people who are working on the show are aware of it, too—that there's not going to be another place where you can go and write whatever you want. No one ever told you, "You can't write this. You can't do that." You wrote a sketch. It was read at read-through. It was selected or not, and obviously there was a lot politics going on about what got selected and what didn't. But you were free to write what you wanted to write and what you thought was funny.
And when you enter into a world of sitcom, you see how the work gets watered down. I don't find most sitcoms to be funny. No wonder writers are frustrated.
BSW: I must admit that I really miss your work on Saturday Night Live. Do you feel like you can ever go back to that time in your life?
Dunn: I think you naturally go forward. I don't ever want to do another sketch. I don't want to do sketch comedy, and I've kind of stopped creating my own characters for now, which I never thought I would do. I've started really enjoying interpreting other people's work. It was rare for me to read a script and go, I've got to play this character. I was never like that. It would be in life, and I'd see a person—someone who I thought was very weird or eccentric or wonderful or whatever—and I'd go, I've got to create this character. Now, I'm more into playing parts—other people's parts.
BSW: You wrote a book that came out in 1991 called Nobody's Rib. Was that a reaction to your experience on Saturday Night Live?
Dunn: I wrote that my last year on Saturday Night Live. I felt like I was living in a world that was very much dominated by the men, and I really felt like feminine comedy or the female point of view was sort of pooh-poohed there as not valid or not as funny. It was called "girl humor." I was real tired of that whole scene, and that's where that title came from.
BSW: Do you think things have improved at all for female comedians since you were on SNL?
Dunn: I think they have. I can only speak for myself. I feel like once I got out of the environment of Saturday Night Live and I started to shed that experience, I felt like my sense of humor came back. I didn't have to pitch my work to anybody or have anybody say, "I don't get that." I could see my characters and my work as political and satirical again. I enjoyed writing jokes again. I started writing and putting that one-woman show together, and once I put that up, I felt like I clearly defined myself to myself again. This is what I think is funny. This is pure me. This is my vision, and this is how I want to say it.
I think I'll probably get back into that someday. I'd like to do another one-woman show when I'm like in my 70s, because our stories don't disappear with our age, and there are different stories as you get older that ought to be out there. So 20 years from now, I'll start working on another one-woman show. This way, I can play characters I can't play right now.
BSW: Judging by what you just said, I can't imagine you'll ever stop acting by choice.
Dunn: I would never stop doing it. How could I ever stop? It's just so much fun. I work, and I love it when my work feels like work, but it's never been a job.
At some point, I think anybody doing this has to decide, How long am I just going to go on auditions? I never did that. I always created my own work, so I was lucky that way. It doesn't matter what's going on in the business or what my age is or what this or that trend is. I have no patience with anybody who goes, "Aren't you worried 'cause you're getting old?" That isn't even in my vocabulary. I never think about that. It's not a consideration to me. If that's a consideration in the business or the industry, fine, but it has nothing to do with me. I've always been able to make a living at this. I've made a living at this for years. I don't think that it will dry up.
I don't read the trades. People can't believe that. I go, "Why should I read the trades? What does that have to do with anything I do?" I don't want to know. I don't care to know. I see films, and I see theatre, and I know actors, but who's getting a big deal and all that? I don't care about that. I hire people to do that. I have people who read the trades, and they know everything that's going on, but that doesn't have anything to do with my craft.
I know people who have wasted a lot of energy worrying about, Who else is auditioning for this, and who's up for that, and what deal so-and-so got? What does that have to do with your art form? I don't compete with anybody. I know they say how competitive this business is, and, obviously, other people are trying to get these parts, but I don't compete, because you're just setting yourself up. I rarely know who else is up for a part I'm auditioning for. My agent and my manager are very good about that. They never say who else is up for a part. Who cares? They're not against me, and I'm not against them.
Maybe my career has suffered because of that. I don't know. But I don't think about it too much. I have a life that's very separate from show business.
BSW: That's something many actors forget when they're trying to make it in this business. They forget to live the rest of their lives.
Dunn: You've got to have a real life. I draw. I read. I also have a garden. I'm planting things, and I love that. I love keeping my garden alive and putting new soil in and being completely wrapped up in that. I've learned so much from my garden. I can just see that in print. [In a droll voice], "Oh, God. You've learned so much from your garden." But I have another life.
Somehow I've never been a celebrity. That's not appealing to me. No one cares about what I do, except a very few people.
BSW: Have you made it a point not to bring so much public attention to yourself?
Dunn: I'd have to say yes. But I like the kind of fame that I have. It's perfect for me. Everybody wants some kind of notoriety for what they do, on whatever level. You can't deny that. You don't become an actor because you don't like to be seen. But I think everybody has issues around success and embracing success and dealing with jealousy or people being jealous of you. The times in my life when I've been going to a shrink regularly, those have definitely been issues.
I think with my one-woman show, I did change that. I felt like, What are you waiting for? Why don't you get out and do your work and show people what you can do?
I was raised by a mother who was very English and a father who was very Irish. My mother had a just total disdain for trying to get too much attention on to yourself. You never talked about yourself or bragged about yourself. That wasn't done.
BSW: What did she think about your choice of profession?
Dunn: I don't think she was crazy about it. My brother [Kevin Dunn] is an actor, too. She would always say, "Look out for the phonies. That business is full of phonies." I think the way I went about it was a little objectionable to her, because my parents weren't into comedy clubs and that kind of stuff. My brother was a legit actor in the theatre, while I was playing clubs, and I think they just thought that was weird.
My dad was actually a community-theatre actor. They would rehearse at our house, the actors. There was an older actor who came to the house and was part of that group, and he was very interesting and intellectual and very passionate and kind of mysterious. This guy had had quite a history in theatre, I guess. And he committed suicide. I never knew why.
He left a box, his makeup kit, at our house, and my mother put in the closet after he died. She never threw it away, and I used to go in the closet and open it up and smell it. It was like greasepaint. I'll just never forget that. I started going in that little closet when I was 10 and opening it up and looking and thinking, He was a man, and here he's got rouge and all these different colors and brushes and powders. I thought it was a very mysterious and romantic thing. I would close it up and put it back in the closet.
I look back now and think, God, how symbolic that was. I wish I still had his makeup kit. That would be something to carry around.
BSW: What are you most proud of?
Dunn: I keep thinking that what I will be most proud of hasn't happened yet. I think as far as my career goes, so far, it would be the work I did in my one-woman show, and also what led me up to it and how hard it was for me to get the money together. I dropped everything else for a whole year to do that show. It was about finishing the work that I started before Saturday Night Live. But I don't think anybody knows what they're most proud of.
George Furth came to the reading [of Precious Sons], and he was saying, "When you look at your life, it's not about your accomplishments. The thing that you're the most proud of is what you overcame." And that makes sense to me. Going back to Bee—this character that I'm going to play in Precious Sons—people are going to see this, and they're going to think I'm crazy. I am crazy. Bee is me, and when I am playing Bee, I'm going to be using myself. That's why I had to play this. So, in a sense, I think that's going to be something that I overcome. I've learned that it's OK to expose this. BSW