Griffin Dunne Climbed ‘The Other Side of the Mountain’ in Early Film Role

Griffin Dunne First Time in Variety
illustration: michael Hoeweler

Multi-hyphenate Griffin Dunne stars in the Amazon series “I Love Dick” and the Netflix movie “War Machine.” Dunne, who’s also a successful director and producer, grew up in Los Angeles in a showbiz family. His father was Dominick Dunne, a producer (“Play It as It Lays”) who became a writer of both fiction and nonfiction; his mother was activist Ellen Griffin Dunne; and his aunt and uncle were writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. Dunne was first mentioned in Variety on May 10, 1974, when he was cast in the tearjerker bio of Jill Kinmont, “The Other Side of the Mountain.” Since then, he has starred in “An American Werewolf in London” (1981) and Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (1985), among many others. His daughter is Hannah Dunne of “Mozart in the Jungle.”

Was “Mountain” your first professional job?

Yes. The film was directed by Larry Peerce. It’s the biography of Jill Kinmont, a teenager who was paralyzed in a skiing accident. I played Herbie, who’s based on a real person. He was in love with her best friend (Belinda Montgomery), who ended up in an iron lung. I was terribly earnest, working up real tears. And between the iron lung and the wheelchair, there was lots to cry about.

It sounds difficult.

No, it was really fun! The first job is the one that burns in your memory forever. The first job is fantastic and you always want to do it again, but that experience never repeats itself.

Did your family talk about the industry?

Relentlessly. I don’t know if there was ever one single comment at the dinner table about world affairs. It was all about movies, who’s in and out at what studio, and about opening weekends, and what was the greatest movie ever. It was all aspects, from the business to the art form. Uncle John was delighted in the art of the deal. I would hear about rolling points and soft profits; that was part of my early vocabulary. And my parents invited filmmakers like William Wyler, Billy Wilder, George Stevens. I was too young to know their work, but movies were serious business.

Did you know you wanted to be an actor?

Yes. When I was maybe 7 or 8, a director came to the house and saw me. He said, “Can Griffin come in and screen-test with Steve McQueen for ‘The Reivers’?” Having seen “The Great Escape” many times, I thought this was so great. My mother said, “Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to raise a child actor!” Years later, when my daughter expressed an interest at a very young age in being an actress, I had the same reaction as my mother: “Finish college! And then I’m all yours with support.”

Did you know you also wanted to produce and direct?

No, I was just thinking about acting. I wanted to be a theater actor. When “Other Side of the Mountain” came out, an agent at William Morris asked, “Can I start sending you around?” One of the first things he sent me out on was “Carrie,” the Sissy Spacek movie. And I got the part. But it conflicted with the start of the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where I’d been accepted. I told the agent I had to go to the Neighborhood Playhouse, no question, and he was so furious, he hung up on me. So I moved to New York. I ended up waiting a lot of tables and doing Off Off Off Broadway stuff, which led to other things, like a Wallace Shawn play.

As a young actor, did you turn down many roles?

When you’re starting out as an actor, it’s hard to choose the right thing. You have to create a narrative, with an arc and goal in your career — not many people have agents or managers to do that for you. You have to have the soul of an artist and the pragmatism of a CEO. When you’re starting, you think that everybody cares what job you’re doing, as if it’s going to ruin your career if you do the wrong one. I needlessly tortured myself by thinking about that.

Did you learn through osmosis?

Yes. As an actor, I always felt comfortable on a set, and that’s probably from sneaking on the set of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and ‘McHale’s Navy’ when I was a kid. When I became a producer, I was watching Sidney Lumet, John Sayles and Marty and watched these wonderful directors and how easy they made the job seem. Directing is overwhelming, but when I directed my first short, it was like I’d never left. First-time directors should be scared of what they don’t know; but for me, osmosis had set in. I embraced that.

Have your early lessons carried over to your current work?

The experience of starting out is still a very fresh and strong memory for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, from doing the series. In the morning on “I Love Dick,” we start with The Box. Whoever wants to, stands up and says whatever they’re feeling, for 20 minutes before the first shot. At first, Kevin (Bacon) & I looked at each other, “It’s like when we were starting out!” All that stuff you did in acting school, like rolling around on the floor or sharing your feelings. But it’s really about relationships and the attitude you bring to the set. And we are now surrounded by people who are starting out. When you have an open attitude, a lack of cynicism, all that stuff you did in acting school makes sense.

Do you give your daughter advice?

All the time. Sometimes she listens; sometimes she says, “Too much information.” It’s a tremendous thrill for a father to be asked for advice from his daughter.