A few years ago Griffin Dunne was at a crossroads.
The actor-director-producer’s daughter Hannah, now 24, had moved out. His father, former Hollywood producer turned bestselling writer Dominick Dunne, had recently died. And two of the feature films he directed — 2006’s “Fierce People” and 2008’s “The Accidental Husband” — had been bitter disappointments.
“Fierce People,” which Dunne describes as a “movie I was very proud of,” had a “difficult” release. “Accidental Husband” didn’t even get a release.
“It tested extremely well,” the 58-year-old Dunne mused over a lunch at a downtown Los Angeles restaurant. But the distributor went belly up and the film went straight to DVD.
“When that happens as a director, you put so much energy in it, it’s like a loss in the family or something,” said Dunne. “Of course, it goes on your record and it’s tough to get the next thing going.”
In recent years, he directed such TV series as “The Good Wife” and was in L.A. on a “pitching frenzy” on two prospective TV series. But since the “Accidental Husband” debacle, Dunne has mainly returned to his first love — acting.
Dunne had made a big splash in John Landis’ 1981 werewolf thriller, “An American Werewolf in London,” and mostly notably in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 darkly comedic “After Hours.” In between acting gigs, he and Amy Robinson produced such films as Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama “Running on Empty.”
He moved to directing with 1996’s “The Duke of Groove,” which earned an Oscar nomination for short subject, and made his feature debut with 1997’s “Addicted to Love.”
Though Dunne notes that “nothing feels like it comes easy” in life, he discovered it has been “really easy” to return to acting. “My agent, who I had as a literary agent, was just like ‘fantastic. We can work with that.”’
Besides, he said, he feels like “I grew into my age. You settle into your skin and your skin is different than the person you were when you were starting out.”
In recent years Dunne’s appeared on the Showtime series “House of Lies,” and he had a memorable (if barely recognizable turn) as alternative medicine advocate Dr. Vass in “Dallas Buyers Club.” He’s also on Fox’s new fall series “Red Band Society” as a wealthy hypochondriac.
Now his starring role in the indie comedy-drama “The Discoverers” is garnering Dunne warm notices and a few festival awards. The film opens May 30 in Los Angeles.
In the film Dunne plays Lewis Birch, a divorced, washed-up history professor now working at a junior college and moonlighting as a security guard. He hopes that his mammoth study on York, a slave who accompanied explorers Lewis and Clark, will turn his career around.
He decides to take his estranged teenage children (Madeleine Martin, Devon Graye) on a road trip to a conference in Oregon. But then Birch’s mother dies and the trio end up taking a major detour with a group of Lewis and Clark reenactors, which includes his eccentric father (Stuart Margolin).
“Griffin had this wonderful ability to sort of straddle the humor and the pathos, which is so important to the tone of the film,” said the film’s writer-director Justin Schwarz. "The great thing about Griffin is he is this very sympathetic everyman.”
Dunne, who “really related” to the material, thought a lot about his father during the production, especially when he arrived on the Oregon coastal town of Sisters to shoot the finale. That was the same town where his father, then 50, taught himself to write.
“It was a really dark period in his life,” said Dunne of his father.
“He told a really bad joke, and it ended up in the Los Angeles Times, I think, in a gossip column. He was drunk when he said whatever it was. Somebody who ran Paramount then — not Bob Evans — said you’re over. That it’s for you. You’re out.”
A few years later, his father was broke and unemployed. “He sold everything,” said Dunne. “He had a fire sale. He got into the car that he had and directionlessly drove up the coast without any destination in mind. The car broke down in Sisters. There within eye distance was a motel, and that’s where he lived for almost a year.”
And now more than 30 years later, Dunne was in Sisters. “Here I am on the cliff where I am sure he was. It is one of the most stunning settings you can imagine.”
After Dunne left the motel and became a successful writer in New York, the owners named the cabin after him. “So I have the sign that says ‘The Dominick Dunne Cabin,’” said his son with a smile. “They sent it to me after he died.”