In the quiet confines above the Drury Lane Theatre, actress Nora Dunn enjoys sweet solitude while preparing for her starring role in the comedy Boeing-Boeing. It’s a fun and lighthearted production, centered on a Parisian playboy pilot and his multiple fiancees, with Dunn as the harried housekeeper trying to keep her boss’s escapades in check.
The humor of the show is a perfect match for Dunn, known early in her career for her many character roles on Saturday Night Live. But she takes on stage and screen as a comic actress with a serious streak, admittedly more comfortable in roles where she receives direction, and has made a name in the industry for her outstanding strength as a supporting actress, opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
“You know I didn’t really take any of it seriously until I was about 25 years old,” Dunn says of acting. “I have an interesting family, and we all were funny, all told stories, we played in character.”
The Chicago native (she still maintains a home in the city) says was creating characters,at 8 years old, one which developed out of a favorite doll she received for Christmas.
“My mother tried to stop me from being this character, said it was getting out of hand,” Dunn recalls. “I guess it was.”
Yet even today, Dunn says she uses this “old friend” in her work.
“She’s in my life this character. She has a specific perspective on life that I can always relate to,” Dunn says. Her foray into television began with popular sketch comedy Saturday Night Live in 1985.
“It was a very interesting family,” she says of the SNL cast. “We created our own work every week, together with the writers, always working with different people on different sketches.”
Primarily a solo performer before taking the stage with the weekly comedy show, this group dynamic helped her grow as an artist, and learn to fight for her work.
“I learned a different work ethic. I used to work in improv, and improv is a lot of fun, but SNL wasn’t improv at all. We write it , we script it, and your success on has so much to do with the public’s perception of you.”
SNL held many firsts for Dunn. Her first time working as a member of a performance team, her first time facing weekly public scrutiny of her work, and her first time on camera.
“Luckily I only had 15 seconds in that show, Dunn recalls, because I don’t remember that moment.”
But experience came quickly for her and as the weeks passed by, she came to embrace the lens.
“I have become very good at working in front of the camera,” she says. “It’s smaller, it’s more intimate. I am very comfortable in that setting.”
No longer camera-shy, it opened the door to film, and Dunn’s career soared.
“I got to work with all these people that I never thought I would even meet – Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman George Clooney, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty,” she recalls. “And they’re all human beings, and I got over my phobias.”
Today, Dunn’s career moves between screen and stage. The last two years she has been developing a one-woman show, “Mythical Proportions,” which opens at the Theatre Wit in Chicago in August.
“I take that much time because I can’t just sit down with a piece of blank paper and write the character,” she says. “It has to come to me for a reason. I let it happen, I structure it and then I perform it.
But as part of a theater cast, typically, you don’t have the luxury of that kind of time, she said.
“Being in theater becomes a more powerful experiencebecause of the dependence you have on the other actors, which you never have on camera,” she explains. “[in film and television] you really come in with your own skill set, and your own way of rehearsing and working. You hope they do good off camera work, you hope that they connect with you, but you have got to rehearse on your own.
“But in theater, it’s everything that goes on behind the scenes, that discovery that takes place – and when you go onstage you hope its all still there,” she says.
In Boeing Boeing, Dunn will look to take her audience on a journey, as the put-upon employee of a womanizing and carefree boss. The role requires a French accent (“I’m not a linguist, I’m a mimic.”) and Dunn’s uncanny ability as a supporting to hoist her co-stars to new levels.
“I try to find a balance, to have a real character, who is also a bit of a caricature,” she says. “The more real that life onstage becomes, the more it becomes you and your character’s home and where she lives... the nuance of it comes to you.
“I am disciplined enough now to know I can’t wing it.”