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Takes one to know one ...

Times Staff Writer

On a recent afternoon, Faye Dunaway found herself back at the Chateau Marmont. It was a setting that summoned her ‘70s marriage to singer Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, and the former rock-'n'-roll playground made her think, she said, of a “hip, slick, cool, black-jeans kind of Hollywood musical existence.”

But Dunaway, looking pretty as ever and dressed classically in black slacks, a beige silk blouse and a lavender jacket, wasn’t at the Chateau to reminisce. This Oscar winner, star of more than 70 films, was there to discuss her latest role: She will be a judge on the WB’s new reality competition “The Starlet,” which premieres next Sunday.

It’s a venture that the 64-year-old actress, who mesmerized audiences in the ‘60s and ‘70s with her performances in “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Chinatown” and “Network,” hopes will bring her as much success as her friend “Donald,” as in The Donald, the comb-over billionaire who presides over “The Apprentice” on NBC

“To set the show apart, we really needed legitimate judges,” said Jamie Kennedy, the creator of “The Starlet.” “And who was the original starlet? Who encompassed acting chops, with star-quality presence, the ‘it’ factor, and an amazing resume more than Faye Dunaway?”

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Nice props, but the actress begs to differ: “I don’t think I was a starlet. I think I moved to young leading lady really quickly.” Dunaway took a sip of her tea, which she was drinking without milk because she forgot her food scale. “At that time, the phrase was for a girl who did beach movies, who didn’t have a real craft or a real future as an artist, to do the intense work that gets you an Oscar. I don’t think I would have wanted to be called that at that time.”

“But this show,” she was quick to add, “is a different matter.”

The winner of “The Starlet” walks away with a one-year management contract with 3 Arts Entertainment, an overall talent deal with the WB and a guest role on “One Tree Hill,” whose audience has almost doubled in its second season.

Dunaway, who has been nominated three times for an Oscar and took the trophy home in 1977 for playing a heartless television executive in “Network,” the film that predicted just how trashy television could become, said she agreed to participate in “The Starlet” “for the fun of it, the finger-on-the-pulse of it.”

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“You are always looking to reinvent yourself. You’re always looking to stay alive, to stay inventive, to stay creative, to find what interests you,” she said. “There’s that wonderful thing that John Huston said about hell being the place where you’re not interested in anything. They say Capricorns do that, and I’m a Capricorn. I think the more you live, you ought to know more and stay interested.”

In what would ordinarily be considered a refreshing turn in Hollywood, Dunaway has no entourage -- no bodyguards protecting her, no publicist controlling her every word and move, no personal assistant.

An entourage, however, might be a godsend in the case of Dunaway, a notoriously high-maintenance interview subject. She has no qualms about calling several times over a weekend, even before sunrise, her voice growing ever more rattled, before settling on a congenial time to meet. Let’s not even go into her elaborate directives to a photographer who tried to shoot her even though “the light from God’s sky” was ruining everything.

And yet it’s also true that Dunaway, unlike many in Hollywood, is willing to admit when she’s wrong. In her case, the behavior many call “difficult” seems clearly linked more to passions than to ego.

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“You put yourself up to have people criticize you or take potshots or like you -- or not like you,” Dunaway said. “It’s an occupational hazard of the career. It still does hurt when people say things that are not fair. I’m trying the best I can to learn about my character flaws. I’m impatient. I get angry, not in a kind of vicious way, I trust, but I have passion about stuff and sometimes that comes off wrong. If it does, I try to look at it and learn from it and change it.”

And if Dunaway’s zeal for acting will now find its outlet on reality TV, well, stranger things have happened. She admits to enjoying “The Apprentice,” “American Idol” and “America’s Top Model,” reasoning that just as there are tawdry reality shows, there are plenty of schlock movies.

“A wild thought came to my mind early on when I was considering this,” she said. “What did Cecil B. DeMille say when film noir came along? It’s fantastic. It’s all these great films. But maybe he was saying, ‘What the heck is this? This is not a movie.’ So in a certain way, new genres evolve. They erupt. They come about. What I found so interesting in this particular show is that it actually takes real lives and turns it into art -- our acting thing, you know.

“Sometimes I feel about acting -- I don’t know if it’s true -- but I feel that I kind of know how to do it with my left hand almost. It’s something I’ve repeated so many times. I have done it so often, studied it so often, I have really investigated the art form and the craft.

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“And that’s something I can give. It seems less altruistic than a natural evolution.”

As difficult as it might be to imagine Dunaway, who hopes to direct her first feature film this year, competing in a reality show for a job, she probably would have jumped at the opportunity, she said, had it presented itself in the ‘60s when she was just starting out in the business. “I would have been willing to do anything to get a certain platform and people looking at you, definitely,” she said.

“Every time you can get a bat in your hands to swing it, you better try to hit a home run. The only thing I ever turned down were soaps, and I don’t think necessarily one needs to turn those down. I was afraid I’d get bad habits. All those lines, those massive amounts you had to do each day, and fast.”

“The Starlet” places 10 young actress-hopefuls in a house to live together and compete for the role on “One Tree Hill.” For six weeks, the starlets audition in front of three judges: actress Vivica A. Fox of “Kill Bill: Vol. 1" and “Independence Day”; casting director Joseph Middleton (“Legally Blonde,” “The Bourne Supremacy”); and Dunaway, who delivers the bad news to those who get cut with a line she hopes will become as part of the popular lexicon as “You’re fired.”

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Dunaway’s version of the zinger is “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

“Just to see the girls tremble whenever she spoke -- here was a true legend,” said “The Starlet’s” executive producer, Mike Fleiss, best known for “The Bachelor” and “Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire?”

The trembling was not always in simple awe. “Oh, Faye could be mean,” Fleiss continued. “For sure. She doesn’t suffer fools.... The thing is, she’s really smart about it. She really understands her craft.

“She has spent her life thinking about this stuff, what makes a moment work, what makes a character memorable. That’s what she’s all about.”

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Learning the hard way

Dunaway used a line from “Master Class,” the Broadway hit she starred in and is now developing into a film, to guide her in judging the starlets, ages 18 to 25, on their weekly screen tests: “If you’re any easier on them, you’ll make them mediocre.”

“Life is not going to coddle them, and this town and this business is certainly not going to coddle them, and you really have to have a lot of strength of mind,” Dunaway said. “If anything can stop you, let it -- because you should be stopped. Because you’re going to need every ounce of resolve. It’s a tricky profession. Many are called and few serve. It’s a combination of a lot of stuff that creates success -- not just talent, not just craft, not just attitude -- but all of that together somehow.”

For the other judges as well as the contestants, “watching Faye is like watching a good movie,” Middleton said.

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“Oh, my God -- that woman is incredibly smart,” he said. “The breadth of her knowledge, the extent of her knowledge, is sort of mind-blowing,” Middleton said. “I think Faye saw an opportunity to show the public what happens when you’re an ingenue and you turn into the leading lady and you decide as a gracious star to give back to your community. Now, how she goes about that, listen, it’s not always easy for everyone around.”

On the set of “The Starlet” in a Hollywood estate, Dunaway, who admires actors from Michael Chiklis to Betty White and musicians such as Alicia Keyes and Celine Dion, learned from her fellow judges as well. From Fox, whom Dunaway calls “so incredibly delicious because she’s got so much pizazz and style,” the actress picked up a new expression, “Strange!” which originated in the 1992 Eddie Murphy flick “Boomerang.”

“I told her by the time this is over, you’re going to be so hip, you’re not going to know what’s up,” Fox said. “Eddie Murphy says that to Grace Jones in ‘Boomerang,’ and ‘strange’ became my compliment to the girls if they did something really good. At first, Faye, was like, ‘What?’ But then she liked it.”

When Kennedy described the show’s contestants at a gathering of television critics in January as “banging,” Dunaway was perplexed until Kennedy explained it meant that the women were hot. “Oh, yes, they are very hot,” Dunaway replied. “I’ll have to use that. Banging is good.”

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After production wrapped in December, Dunaway said she was not surprised by which actress won, though that secret won’t be revealed until the show’s finale April 3.

“There was something that one noticed immediately about the winner, but I was surprised as we went along to see her keep on delivering and keep on delivering and keep on delivering with craft and various aspects of performance,” she said. “She had a kind of hunger. I hope that this show is like those other shows and even the ones that didn’t win are helped in their careers.”

So did the WB find its ideal starlet?

“Yeah, we did,” Fleiss said. “And she’s still Faye Dunaway.”

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