Nora Dunn: Journeys with Comedy’s Eclectic Wonder!

Published September 12, 2013 by biggayhorrorfan

nora die
While she may not be known for her genre work, eclectic comedian-actress-writer Nora Dunn has worked with such amazing alternative talents as Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) in Southland Tales and Charles Busch (Psycho Beach Party) in Die, Mommie, Die. Here, the compassionate performer talks with Big Gay Horror Fan about those projects (and others) and the state of ‘gay’ in the film world today.

BGHF: Hey, Nora! Can you talk a bit about working with Charles Busch in Die, Mommie, Die!

Nora: There’s a guy! That guy is amazing! That was really fun. When you’re on a movie, you don’t really get to work with everybody. I did get to talk to him quite a bit and also the woman who played the maid in that, Frances Conroy, she was also the mother in Six Feet Under. She was a brilliant actor. She’s great. I didn’t actually get to work with so many people on that. With Charles, when you work with him, it’s not a caricature, it’s a character. She (Angela Arden) just appeared. This other person comes out. It’s kind of scary. It’s great, it’s funny. He is a great actor. And — the end result of that was really fun. I loved seeing the movie. When I was there, I missed so much of it. I didn’t know what was going on.

BGHF: Going in kind of the opposite direction, what kind of energy to do you find when working with Seth Rogen on projects like Pineapple Express?

Nora_Dunn pineapple expressNora: Well, it’s kind of overwhelming for me because I can only take so much of that kind of comedy. I feel like a lot of their comedy is adolescent. They’re men who are not men. And we’re starting to get some of that back in the movies, having grown-ups – having men in the movies. I do think they’re funny. I think Seth Rogen is really funny. I appreciate him in more serious roles, though. I did The Guilt Trip with him. He’s such a really likeable, normal and truly smart guy. He’s wheedled himself into playing serious roles. I mean, he’s playing opposite Barbra Streisand. Quite a feat! But I want him not to be a boy. I want him to be a grown-up and a lot of those comedies play to that element. I don’t need to see The Hangover. I don’t need to see The Hangover 1, 2 and 3! Then you see that actor (Bradley Cooper) in a David Russell movie – The Silver Linings Notebook – and you see a completely different talent there. I thought that was a great movie. I think it’s kind of a waste, a lot of those movies. How much of this stuff are we gonna see, this wastepaper? They’re all kind of jumbled together. It’s not even a genre to me.

BGHF: I went to go see This is the End and while I can’t say I was offended, I was surprised about the amount of humor that revolved around gay themes. Every single major male character wound up in a gay situation of some sort, almost gladly. It’s confusing, in a way. I don’t know what they’re trying to say exactly about homosexuality.

Nora: It’s because their characters are stuck in a time when they are uncomfortable with it. When you are in your adolescence, you don’t know whether you are gay or straight. Like 12, 13, 14. Girls, you know, get crushes on girls. You’re kind of working your way through that. So, their comedy comes from that part of their life. By the time you’re 18, that’s over. You know who you are. Those jokes come out of uncomfortability with it. They’re dealing with it, on some level, and its better that they’re dealing with it in a humorous way…I am very impressed, by the way, with people in their 20’s, now-a-days. They have gay and straight friends. My age group, never in a million years! That was not the way it was. Obviously, everything has improved as far as people understanding that we are who we are. Not only is it a social issue but it’s a constitutional issue. And, you know, let’s move on! But I see so much of that in the movies – that “You’re gay”, “I’m not gay!” stuff. The portrayals of gays are really still stereotyped. But The Hangover does the stereotype of the big, macho guys – so maybe it’s just Hollywood.

BGHF: Exactly!

Nora: Hopefully, that will eventually go away. My best friend’s young son is awesome. He comes to the dinner table as a mermaid. He loves mermaids. He’s always looking for mermaids – and he is gonna be fine because he is never gonna waver. He will never waver. I was shopping with him in this store in LA. We were going to the beach, and he was looking at the dresses. This salesgirl comes up to him and asks him, “Why are you looking at these?!” I was like, oh here she goes, and she was like – “These are evening gowns! Come over here!” She shows him the dresses that are meant to be worn to the beach! And I was like, “Thank you so much!” Because he has a lot of trouble with bullying – the kids his own age don’t see that – but it’s the adults. Some of the parents titter behind the scenes. Then when he goes to the Disney Store, he wants to buy his Disney dolls: the Barbie’s and stuff. The salespeople go, “Oh-h-h! Are we wrapping this for a gift?” I say, “No! It’s for him. We want to open it up!” He visited the toy store in my neighborhood and he got this really cool doll there. They just knew it was for him. They acted totally normal about it. And he said, “I’d like that wrapped up please! I’m gonna open it!” (Laughs) They wrapped it up and he opened it! He went “Oh!” He acted all surprised and he was totally happy!

BGHF: It seems like a sexuality thing is being thrown onto it. That may be the case, but he could be just exploring stuff that interests him.

Nora: Yeah! He’s just being a kid and doing what he wants. All this came together for me because I was looking at my niece’s little girl. She was wearing a Hawks shirt and acting like a bruiser and everyone loved it. She’s very feisty and not a girly girl and they think that is just great. No one is saying, ” I think she needs to go to therapy!” (Throaty laugh), you know. So, when I look back, I realize that is why when I performed in clubs, they didn’t get me. It was Seinfeld back in those days and Dennis Miller. I didn’t know them – but I was around them and I just felt like my style was different. Ellen DeGeneres started around the same time I did at this club called The Other and she used to do piano songs and Doris Day –and she just left the scene. She went into the alternative scene. She does a traditional style of comedy but it’s not like those guys. Whoopi Goldberg was performing at Berkeley at the time. I realized you have to find your own way. You have to go into a different realm. You can’t go to the clubs and be the guy who starts out with a bang and then goes boom, boom, boom! That’s not what I do. I think I apologized to myself for a long time for that.

BGHF: Well, you’re making up for lost time, now! Is there work of yours that you are especially proud of that you would like viewers to take a second look at?nora southland_tales

Nora: I’m always getting character parts and so forth. There have been a few movies that didn’t make it that gave me something different to do. I thought LOL had a really good part in that for me and it was really fun. That’s the thing when you do films, though. I don’t know why it didn’t come out. I don’t think it was in the theaters. If it was, it was a week and now it’s on Netflix! I think I have a series of those kinds of roles that certainly could have meant more to me if the movies were successful. I think Southland Tales was an example of that. A lot of my work got cut out. That character — ah, was very hard to play. She was so — she smoked crack, she drank, she made porn movies. All that got cut out – but that was – – ah-h-h – dark. She was working on a documentary of the treatment of women in Iraq and the Middle East and so forth. To support that, she was directing porno movies. So many scenes in that weren’t in the movie and they were hard to do. I do think that what was left in the movie was good. I had a really, really good scene with John Larroquette and that’s where I shoot him with a taser under the table.

BGHF: Yeah! I love that scene. I liked Southland Tales.

Nora: But that was hard to do. It was hard to be in that dark world. I think probably the best part that I ever had in a movie was Three Kings. And the movie was successful and I had such a good role. After that, I had a really nice part in Runaway Jury. I loved that character! I worked with Dustin Hoffman, but he was mad at me. He didn’t know who I was and he was looking at me during a scene. He said, “I don’t get it, this character. You are really distracting me a lot!” I said, “Well this woman is not from New Orleans, she’s from Lafayette and she doesn’t like Jews.” It was true. I played her like a real racist. She was an alcoholic; she got kicked off the jury. But, she didn’t like him because he was Jewish and from New York. Not him, not Dustin Hoffman, just his character! So, they didn’t use me. They had other characters that they could focus on in the jury. (Laughs, hysterically) So they decided not to focus on me.

Nora_Dunn runaway jury

BGHF: I would think, as a New York stage actor, he would appreciate that.

Nora: Oh, I think that was just a period in time for him. He’s a great actor. But every actor has their moments. I remember on Three Kings, we had to shoot so far away and we were at this really remote, horrible location. Then we would have to go even farther to make it look really flat and desert-like. Then we would have to get in a van and drive all the way back to this other crummy place we were shooting at. There were all these extras in the movie. I didn’t realize most of them had been in Iraq and most of them escaped through Jordan. Many of them lost all their family members before they eventually made it to the United States. I didn’t know that. At the end of the day, myself, Cliff Curtis and Jamie Kennedy, we had our own van to drive back to where we were staying. But these extras ran along the side of the van and jumped in. They were piling in, crushing together inside the van. I got mad. I told the driver, “We have to get these people out of here! I can’t travel like this! We have an hour long journey!” Well, then on that hour long journey I find out that these people had been through hell to get out of Iraq. They had businesses, they had lives. They were killed in Jordan. They were killed in Saudi Arabia. They finally came to the United States. They chose Arizona because it was more like their country. I just felt terrible by the time we got back to the hotel. I said to Cliff, “I am ashamed of myself. I feel like I was acting like an asshole”. He said, “Nope. You were acting like an actor.” (Laughs, wildly) I’ll never forget that.

BGHF: That’s an amazing story.

nora_dunn_three_kings_001Nora: They would do everything they were told while acting on the set. They were sitting in the sun for ages. So, after that day, I would tell them, “Go over there!” and I would make the crew get them an umbrella and a tent. They weren’t being treated very well. Eventually we had to work together so much that I realized the movie was about their exit. How they got out and got into Jordan. That was the story. So they were reliving their real lives. To this day I still know some of them. They are on Facebook with me. We took a lot of pictures. That exodus took us many, many days. So, I guess if you were going to imagine being in a war, that movie was pretty close. I had a scene where they blew things up. I remember they set up for like 10 hours and they told me, you just stand here. This building is going to blow up in front of you, the whole thing! But it’s gonna end 20 feet from you. The director (David Russell) tells me to continue recording, no matter what. That is what the scene is. It doesn’t frazzle you one bit. The only had two cameras on the scene. So they took hours and hours and hours to rehearse it. They didn’t tell me that all this other stuff was going to happen, though. So, they call action. I stand there recording. But — not only did the building blow up but, these tanks came – and they blew up! This guy got out and his back was on fire. Then I see Mark Walberg getting dragged by and he’s all bloody! They didn’t say any of that other stuff was gonna happen. (Laughs) I just started screaming because I thought things had gone wrong. I thought the guy’s back really was on fire. I ran away and I was screaming, “Help, Help!” (Cackling with laughter) And the director was screaming at me, “Get back there! Get back there!” So, then I ran back, but I was such a mess. They couldn’t use that shot. I said, “Yeah, but my character could have run away.” He goes, “No. You weren’t a character at all. You were a complete — (Breaks into loud laughter). It was then I realized, “Nora, you would be terrible at war!” He would tell those guys, try to get that camera from Nora in a scene. They really did work. And I was kicking them and beating them – going what is wrong with you? He used it because it was real. And the scene where the guy puts a gun to my head? The director did not tell me that he was gonna put a gun to my head. The actor they used didn’t speak English and I kept trying to get the video tape. He kept telling me no – then he put the gun to my head and I said “Fuck it!” Hilarious! But I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Then I started screaming for Jamie to get over there! I said, “This guy is taking this way too seriously. He just pulled a gun on me!” (Laughs, loudly).

BGHF: Adventures in filmmaking, my friend! And – what a life!!! Thank you!

Dunn’s one woman show Mythical Proportions is currently running in Chicago until September 22nd, 2013. More information can be obtained at http://www.theaterwit.org.

Big Gay Horror Fan, meanwhile, continually adores the passionately intelligent woman at http://www.facebook.com/biggayhorrorfan.

Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!

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