Hannah Dunne speaks with an easy, if uncanny, drawl that belies her upbringing around Union Square in Manhattan instead of say, the plains of West Texas. Or more aptly, Houston, which happens to be the primary setting for Terms of Endearment, the play she is now doing off-Broadway in the role of Emma, once made famous by Debra Winger in the beloved 1983 film by James L. Brooks.
“Yeah I have no idea what that’s about,” Dunne said recently of her quasi Southern – and permanent, by the way – manner of talk, adding that I was not the first to ask.
It is hard to overstate the fondness and tear-jerking recall anyone born before 1980 has for the film, which was adapted from the best-selling novel by Larry McMurtry. It gave us a doe-eyed but thorny Winger, Jack Nicholson as a skirt-chasing retired astronaut, and an immortal, and Academy Award-winning, performance by Shirley MacLaine as the inimitable Aurora “Give My Daughter the Shot!” Greenway.
In 59E59’s new stage version play, a reliably faithful adaption of the source material right down to the early ’80s florals and handbags, Dunne’s scene partner just happens to be another adored figure of the period, Molly Ringwald.
A couple of weeks after the show opened, Dunne, 26, was the picture of offstage nonchalance in a bright, collage-print twill jacket and psychedelic tube dress, a marked departure from the familial sturm und drang she acts out seven times a week until Dec. 11.
Over the course of two brisk acts, Emma and Aurora love and lacerate in kind through husbands, affairs and tragic loss: “I think that Emma is kind of a pebble in the river, being pushed inches and inches further with the way of the current. She’s really propelled from one moment to the next by the people around her, and is really selfless in that way,” said Dunne, in between bites of a turkey melt and soda at a diner a few blocks from the theatre.
Emma is buoyant, Dunne said, despite despite life with an aloof, philandering husband and breathtakingly narcissistic mother. Could she relate?
Minus the obvious, like a husband and three small children, there are a few touchstones. “Like Emma I kind of can’t help being honest, but also she keeps her cards close to her chest in a way,” Dunne said. “And I have the habit of thinking out loud like her. I think she’s just kind of figuring it out.”
In a way, Dunne is herself figuring things out like any other twentysomething. After a supporting role on Amazon’s classical music soap Mozart in the Jungle and a few indie films, Terms is her professional theatre debut, though she is not newly arrived to a life onstage and story-telling to be sure.
Her father is actor, producer and director Griffin Dunne – best known for that ’80s Madonna vehicle Who’s That Girl and recently seen in Jill Soloway‘s I Love Dick – and her mother is Carey Lowell, of Law & Order fame. An anecdote about her father accidentally group texting Winger—whose number happens to be in his contacts—and his plumber a random picture from his photo library post-iOS update around the time they announced the play (Dads! Technology!) is a clear illustration of the constellation around the young actress, if not some kind of cosmic coincidence.
In case you were wondering, Winger had heard about the play and sent her congrats. And of having her parents in the audience during – spoiler alert – a rather lengthy and emotionally wrought death scene, Dunne said, “I think it brought out a new level of vulnerability.”
Between curtains, Dunne is slowly settling into an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens and trying to find time to do her own writing as well as visual art, which usually involves mix-medium collage and “a lot of ladies!”
For these less performative pursuits in her creative life, she has another set of in-house role models to look to. One being her grandfather, the late Dominick Dunne, a Hollywood zelig turned modern day Herodotus of the rich and infamous, most notably O.J. Simpson, as well as her great aunt, Joan Didion, the celebrated writer and zeitgeist chronicler.
“They are hugely influential to me. But it’s really hard for me to connect it on some level. I really just see them as my own Aunt Joan and Poppy,” she shrugged lovingly. “When Poppy was alive we could be sitting at a table and we would talk abut what he was working on and you know, have the most fascinating, stimulating conversation you could ever have just as a little kid. And I think with Joan, most of the girls my age, or not even just my age are influenced by her in a way.” She said this confidently, but careful not to dwell.
I ask her about the printed jacket she is wearing.
“I got it at the Salvation Army, 20 bucks!” Dunne said. A closer look revealed it was actually vintage Fiorucci—the winged cherubs a dead giveaway— maybe one of the more stupefyingly lucky thrift store store finds I have ever encountered.
Perhaps, though, it’s just another ’80s moment Dunne is carrying off nimbly and making completely her own.
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