Maybe it’s the slightly patrician demeanor, maybe it’s the hair. Whatever the case, Griffin Dunne has a visage and persona that seem built to entertainingly sustain heaped-upon indignity and exasperation. This trait was in rich evidence all the way back in 1985, in Martin Scorsese’s offbeat, underrated After Hours. And it’s on display again in writer-director Justin Schwarz’s debut feature, The Discoverers.
Dunne stars in the film as Lewis Birch, a divorcé and washed-up history professor whose opportunistic plans for a two-birds-with-one-stone vacation/academic conference getaway with his teenage children (Madeleine Martin and Devon Graye) are undone when his mother passes away suddenly and his estranged father, Stanley (Stuart Margolin), stops speaking and goes AWOL on a Lewis and Clark historical re-enactment trek. Grasping for reconnection, Lewis leads his kids into a world of play-acted discovery that ends up triggering some of the real thing.
On the film’s opening weekend, Paste had a chance to chat with Dunne about sibling rivalries, family frailties, starting fires, history and more.
The Discoverers digs pretty heartily into parent-child dynamics, and reminded me a lot of the difficulty of seeing your parents as actual people, and the awkwardness in transitioning into an adult, peer relationship with them. Sometimes that doesn’t happen in one’s 20s, or even 30s—and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, with one parent or child. Did that thematic element trigger any specific memories for you?
Griffin Dunne: Yeah, very much so. I remember very clearly the moment where my parents stopped being the stereotype of what authority was, or the last word in what behavior should be, and became vulnerable human beings, and people that would project a lot of the same problems that I would have, in terms of being grownup problems and vulnerabilities. My mother was very sick, she had MS, and she dealt with it very, very bravely, but it took a tremendous toll on her soul. When you’re a little kid, your role is to be the one being taken care of. It sort of transitioned where I realized that I would be the one having to take care of her. My dad, when I was a kid, was certainly a flawed person, and had drinking issues and all sorts of stuff, but while I knew he was my dad, I also knew at a certain point he was a guy having a lot of personal problems. It’s a rite of passage for every child to have (those realizations) about their parents. I have a daughter, and I’m sure she’s had the same thing. I’m just too scared to ask when that moment happened.
Paste: The film also addresses sibling dynamics, particularly in a couple scenes with John C. McGinley, who plays your brother. Parents aren’t supposed to play favorites, but of course sometimes they do. And sometimes they respectfully keep it on the down-low, until everyone’s adult and can handle it, and then sometimes they do it in inappropriate ways or at inappropriate ages. You’re an eldest child, if I’m not mistaken—did you have any experiences of that sort?
Dunne: Well, I kind of grew up feeling that by way of my brother, and apparently, it turns out, rightly so. My younger brother always felt that he was in second position or third, to me, his older brother, or his younger sister. I know he felt that way. And, you know, he was kind of right, in terms of behavior (from our parents), I even noticed it. It upset him a great deal. So it’s certainly a dynamic I’ve seen. Gratefully, I only have one child, so I don’t have that problem.
Paste: This is your first leading role in a while. Does that change your process any, when you have a different continuity and fuller arc, and you’re not just being air-dropped into a film to advance the story or pay off a certain relationship?
Dunne: Oh, without a doubt. When you’re in basically every scene you go into it with so much more confidence in terms of your timing and the continuity of where your character is going. I’ve been in Dallas Buyers Club and other things where I’ve been air-dropped, as you’ve said, into it, and you have to resist the temptation to show off or be really colorful. You have to be quite careful to read the room and read the tone of the film, where [here, as] the older and established guy who’s the central figure, you’re setting the tone. So it’s always better to be king than to be the supporting king, I guess?
Paste: Did the script just come your way through normal channels?
Dunne: Yeah, normal channels through my agent—the only thing unusual about it was that the central character was in his 50s. It was a really meaty role—funny and sweet and sad, and it had a lot of relatable situations. Plus he’s a history professor, and I’m a bit of a history nut. I was kind of drawn to it, and I knew immediately that I was going to do it, even though it was going to be a very low-budget, to-the-ground kind of thing. The part was too good to not do.
Paste: You’re a director yourself, for both television and film. When you’re taking a role as just an actor, how do you then look at and evaluate directors prior to working with them?
Dunne: I mean, it shouldn’t have an impact. Having been a director, Justin obviously knew my background, but it doesn’t do me any good as an actor to be second-guessing anything, or thinking about what his vision is and where he’s putting the camera or anything like that. That’s what you sign on for. It’s his first movie, and you’re supposed to support your director, and if I was looking at him with two different hats it would be nerve-wracking for him, and then he wouldn’t do his best work. So for me it was a privilege to worry about just that one part and let him do his thing, and work with some synchronicity.
Paste: You said you were a bit of a history buff, and Lewis seems a character out of time—he has this sprawling historical manifesto that he wants to get published. It’s almost incidental to the film, but one of the things it casts light on is the different way that history is valued and processed today. The History Channel, for instance, is now the realm of speculative, fanciful fiction.
Dunne: That’s true, and it’s really become very broadened in scope. I don’t know if David McCulloch started it, but I think people are so interested in the past, and rather than the events, people are looking at the characters who had a part in these major events—what their lives were like before, their character flaws, their loves, their personal struggles and then how their lives were changed after these moments of significance. The way it was taught in school—here’s a map and this is where these two guys walked and they wore coonskin caps and that’s all you need to know—wasn’t interesting. I think some academics … well, there are certain kinds of people who teach a subject and pride themselves in not being popular—just like people who find underground music and discover it and then hate the band as soon as they become more popular. There’s a populist movement that’s taking place in history, particularly American history, that the character I play hasn’t gotten on board with, yet. He’s still writing 2,000-page opuses with minutiae and footnotes and millions of references instead of actually allowing himself to make it entertaining. I think that’s one of the things that I hope I got across—that kind of struggle—because it definitely interests me. I always equate it to people who have been making movies for a while on film, and they’re never going to change their Steenbeck or Moviola (editing machines), but everything is digital and everybody can make a damn movie now. It might not be any damn good, but pretty much anyone can physically make a movie; that’s just the reality. But there are some people who resent that.
Paste: The means of production have shifted, which engenders a certain bitterness.
Dunne: Exactly, and now history isn’t just something that’s crammed down your throat in school, it’s something that is right there for everyone, because of an increased anecdotal focus. I’ve been fascinated, talking to people who’ve seen the movie, just how many people have rediscovered history on their own: “Wait, you read that Winston Churchill biography? I did, too—I just finished it!” And it’s not like everybody is just sitting around tooting their horn about it. It just seems like a personal interest that is out there that so many people I know have.
Paste: I grew up in the American South, so I had a little familiarity with the historical re-enactment society stuff. But did you have a window at all into the subculture of historical re-enactors?
Dunne: Yeah, I was familiar with the Civil War re-enactors and to a certain extent American Revolution re-enactors, too, but not Lewis and Clark re-enactors—I think that’s a subculture of a subculture. I didn’t do research where I went on one of these things or anything like that, but I find that the people who do [this] are kind of no different than the weekend warriors who work in investment companies but then dress head-to-toe in leather and drive their Harley Davidsons across the country and then go back to work. Everybody has their own obsessions, and there’s something kind of sweet and empathetic about it. It’s too easy to put down.
Paste: We get to see Lewis start a fire in the woods, so I have to ask—are you able to start your own fire?
Dunne: Not unless I have a lighter. No, I cannot, not in a million years, and I’ve thought about that. Knowing how to start a fire and being able to perform CPR are two things I think we should all have in our back pocket. I can’t think of anything worse than actually freezing to death—[where] you have all the tools, all the wood shavings and the pick and you can’t get it going and you freeze. I can’t think of a more humiliating death.
Paste: The film may trip memories of After Hours for some—both of your characters are men who are put upon, and thrust into crazy circumstances. Does that comparison seem too far-fetched for you?
Dunne: No, I think you could sort of say, in terms of things going horribly wrong, if Paul Hackett, the guy I played in After Hours was thirtysomething years older and had children, he could be in this situation. He was a computer programmer but could have just as easily have been a mid-level academic who’s fallen short of his dreams; it’s just a different set of circumstances of life not going the way you planned—as it never does, by the way.
Paste: I know you had a recurring role on House of Lies, but what’s next for you?
Dunne: Yeah, I don’t know what they’re planning for me on that. In the meantime I’m doing a show for Fox called Red Band Society, a series that’s been picked up and is going to start in late summer, with Octavia Spencer and a bunch of wonderful kids. So I’m developing stuff for television as well as movies, and then still directing for The Good Wife, too. They scratch different itches, but there’s a pragmatic reason as well, because there’s ups and downs in all of them. Each one inspires me in different ways. They’re all creative to me, and I don’t think being really good at one doesn’t mean you’re not going to be good at the other—I think they all support each other.
The Discoverers is in theaters now. For more information, visit the film’s website.