Griffin Dunne is the star and producer of one of the definitive views of scary old New York: Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours,” from a pre-Giuliani 1985, in which he plays an office monkey who heads to SoHo for a date and winds up, among other disasters, almost being murdered by an angry mob. That would never happen today.
“You could lie down in the street and sleep there now,” Dunne says of the neighborhood, now permanently mobbed by clothes-hungry tourists. He says he was recently looking at a SoHo building only to belatedly realize it was one of the key sets in that film. “It’s changed so much. A spooky loft is now a Gap or a Timberland.”
“After Hours,” regrettably, has been one of the few times Dunne has played lead. He does it again in the serio-comic indie “The Discoverers,” in which he portrays a flustered historian forced to drag his two kids to a historical recreation camp to rescue his grieving father.
Dunne has done his share of supporting work; recently he was the below-the-border doctor who hips Matthew McConaughey to alternative drugs in “Dallas Buyers Club.” This was more than just a change of pace. “It’s great to have a sense of continuity with a character,” he says. “With [supporting roles], you do your part in four days or whatever it is. You’re a needle dropped into a production that’s already been moving before you and will go on after you leave.”
The role is unusual in a lot of way. “It’s especially nice to have a script with a character who carries a picture who’s my age. They’re usually younger guys,” he says. But it also brings him back to the “After Hours”-style role: the exasperated glutton for punishment, barely putting up with the eccentrics he’s forced to meet. He feels-this-one has more maturity, more wear and tear. This kind of performance feels even more lived-in than it did nearly 30 years ago.
“That comes from being alive longer,” he says. “And it comes from having a guy who’s an academic in that small world, who’s written a book that is intellectual and overly long in a culture where there’s popular history books. Being a filmmaker in a changing medium, that was not that far a leap for me. You strive to be relevant. I could draw on that fear of being older and out-of-date and having to reinvent yourself to keep moving forward.”
For Dunne, that’s meant always having his fingers in different pies. He moved to New York in the 1970s to become an actor. But he had such trouble getting jobs he and two out-of-work friends — Amy Robinson and Mark Metcalf, the latter known for Neidermeyer in “Animal House” — become producers, making 1979’s comedy “Chilly Scenes of Winter.” Dunne has remained a producer, as well as a director. His first short film, “The Duke of Groove,” was even nominated for an Oscar in 1995. He’s directed “Practical Magic,” “Addicted to Love” and currently helms episodes of “The Good Wife.”
He has a reason for why he can do so many jobs. “I’m wildly OCD,” he says. “But I’ve never been comfortable betting on one horse. I like to keep busy. This is the way I do it.”
Dunne’s producing work includes “After Hours,” which was famously nearly became the directorial debut of Tim Burton, who graciously stepped aside when Martin Scorsese announced he wanted to direct it instead. Dunne and Robinson had seen Burton’s “Frankenweenie.” “He still worked at the animation department at Disney,” he recalls. “He had shirt with a pen-set in the pocket. He had leaked ink on his shirt.”
Dunne says that “After Hours” may have exaggerated the danger of SoHo at the time, but only a little. “Not that much,” he says. He recalls shooting the scene where his character, at the end of his tether, drops to his knees and shouts to the heavens, “What do you want from me? I’m just a word processor!” A woman down the block threw open her window and screamed, “Shut the f— up! Just shut the f— up!” She was smoking a cigarette, and Scorsese is so allergic to smoke he won’t allow anyone to smoke on his sets. Without missing a beat, Marty said, “Tell that woman to put out her cigarette.”
Dunne also talks about his big follow-up to “After Hours,” the 1987, in which he played an (again) exasperated nerd, this time tortured by Madonna. Of his star, he maintains, “We had a lot of fun. She was hilarious and had an incredibly great take on the insanity around her.” In fact, it was unusual for him to be near the center of the mad, constant blitz on the pop icon during outside scenes. “At one point we were shooting on 5th Avenue the same day as the Marathon. We were near the finish line. And these people would be running it, be right at the finish line, and they’d give up to watch Madonna shooting a scene. I was like, ‘What are you doing? The finish line is right there! Finish and then you can come back!’”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge