There are very few true legends in this industry, and one of these legends happens to be on the phone with us from his study in New York City (from where he shot his performance via Skype in the film Alright Now, starring Cobie Smulders, who he deems to be a “fabulous actress”). Of course we’re talking about Griffin Dunne, who gave such a memorable performance as Jack’s brother Nicky (in the current timeline) on This Is Us. Recently, Dunne shot Wes Anderson’s upcoming film The French Dispatch in a small town near Paris, filmed an episode of Goliath, and attended the Academy Awards as a guest of childhood friend Charles Wessler (producer of Green Book).
Despite his very busy schedule, he was very generous with his time, and the following is an edited and condensed version of our thoughtful chat with the inimitable Griffin Dunne.
Brief Take: Your performance on This Is Us was so fascinating because you really captured Michael Angarano‘s movement so well.
Griffin Dunne: It was inspired casting because Michael and I didn’t have time to get together and work on our role and kind of come up with different things, it just sort of worked out that way. Years earlier he had played my son in a movie called Snow Angels with Sam Rockwell, directed by David Gordon Green, so we did already have some kind of DNA shared, movie DNA. But I heard that from so many people, you know how they felt we were kind of ‘doing’ each other, and I’m thrilled about that.
BT: Do you and Michael share a certain sensibility perhaps that goes into the character of Nicky?
Griffin Dunne: I think so. You know we’ve gotten to know each other, even though we don’t have any scenes together, obviously. We would hang out a bit afterwards and he definitely reminded me of me, in terms of sensibility and sense of humour, and he’s an actor who also chooses to direct as well, as do I, so we have a similar vibe going.
BT: The cast seems to have taken to you extremely well. Were you familiar with the show’s storylines prior to filming?
GD: I mean I had seen the show before and I was a fan of the show, but I had never met anyone in this cast before, from the creators to the actors. This was also kind of nice because we all sort of met each other on camera and had that tentative thing of trying to get to know somebody, so it worked well on camera.
BT: You seem to have a great relationship with Mandy Moore and I really liked Nicky’s interaction with Rebecca Pearson.
GD: I think that’s because I’m the closest thing that she has to Jack and I think that makes her more drawn to my character. And, you know, we both are missing the same man. I think that naturally creates a kind of bond which you don’t have to work for – it’s people reaching out for the same thing.
BT: How do you feel playing such a beaten and badly aged character but with a note of humanity in him?
GD: I like doing that—not too many people have asked me to play someone who is 15 years older than I am really, that’s sort of weathered and troubled and alcoholic and sickly. I don’t know where the character is going, but it definitely is a good place to start.
BT: How have you enjoyed being a part of the This Is Us family, so to speak, so far?
GD: It’s kind of great. The producers and writers have given me a lot of space to sort of create my own character in reality. They’ll tell me things about his backstory somewhat, but they really leave it to me to kind of fill in the blanks. And the experience, you know I’ve done other jobs, particularly in movies, in which a movie has been shooting for a while, you’re brought in for a couple of weeks and then you’re gone, and all the other actors have been working for months and months and already have their shorthand and everything. And it takes a day or two at least, or sometimes at most, to really settle into it. It’s like that ‘first day at school’ feeling. In this case, everybody made me feel extremely welcome, but I had the advantage of seeing all of the other actors and other characters doing the show, in an attempt at knowing them, and it wasn’t a first day of school feeling at all. I felt relaxed the moment that I walked on to the set.
BT: What have been some of your memorable experiences to date in terms of your projects?
GD: In the earlier part, working with (Martin) Scorsese and (John) Landis, I learned so much from them that I could apply as a director later on, and in terms of what we were talking about creating an atmosphere where actors really feel free. They do that. And my work with Jill Soloway, she does that as well, and it was a really fun atmosphere. And working with Wes Anderson, I don’t have a terribly large part, but I’m hoping that continues to repeat itself. It’s great when we work with directors who love what they’re doing and it’s infectious, all that joy makes the actors feel free. Even if your character is killing someone or your wife has been killed and you’re wailing in misery, when you love what you’re doing, it still feels good. Great directors share an ability to cast actors where they trust what they’re going to do and allow themselves to be surprised by what the actors are going to do, and follow the energy of the actors and let that dictate the scene. It’s kind of like creating an illusion that you aren’t controlling things, when you sort of are. But you are trusting the actors and letting them sort of surprise you, instead of telling them what to do before you even start shooting, you know?
BT: Where do you stand in the Netflix debate, having directed such a great movie for Netflix?
GD: You know, I don’t really know quite how I feel. I’ve been in a couple of films for Netflix as an actor as well. They generate such great material, and when you’re making them—between the time or the care or the budget that goes into it, they’re decidedly feature films, there’s no doubt about it. I did War Machine with Brad Pitt, Leonard Bernstein in Gore, and you go in to make a feature film. Technology is just such a moving target and the rules are constantly changing. I have a non-answer: I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s a new audience on so many levels. I still love to go to the movies and I’m glad I saw Roma on the big screen, but I also love that I can see Roma—which I loved—any time I want.
BT: Speaking of fantastic films, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold was really ahead of its time.
GD: Thank you. Yeah, I’m very proud of the movie as well. We were able to have a theatrical release in New York and L.A. for that one as well. But making that was an incredible experience. It was a film that I think that Joan really loved and appreciated that I had made it, and her fans and people who had never read her books before but saw this movie went out and bought her books. So for what I could have asked, it worked on every level.
BT: Practical Magic also has such a groundswell of support.
GD: I know. Every Halloween we get to hear about it. My friends who now have daughters freak out when they hear that I directed that—it’s the movie that keeps on giving.