As published August 25 2005 - Eye Weekly
In the race to the top, actor-turned-playwright Robin Dunne adopts a long view
Written and performed by Robin Dunne. Directed by Carlo Rota. Presented by Alley Theatre Workshop. Aug 25-28. Thu-Sun 8pm.
$12. Alley Theatre Workshop, 12 Ossington. 416-419-7920.
By Gord McLaughlin
Robin Dunne has been a rising star. In 1999, the Toronto-born actor hit Hollywood at age 22, cast as the lead in a hot new sitcom on Fox. He went on to kiss Katie Holmes well before Tom Cruise ever did, playing her college boyfriend for several episodes of Dawson's Creek.
"That town, when you're hot, people love you," says Dunne, six years after his pinnacle-to-date gave way beneath him. His much-hyped series, Manchester Prep, was controversially cancelled by Fox and never went to air. It was reconfigured as the film Cruel Intentions II, one of four banished-to-video movie sequels that Dunne has appeared in during nearly six years in LA.
"I've been up and down and written off so many times by that city, it just makes me laugh now," says Dunne. "When you're hot, you have agents who would do anything, they'd drink your piss if you asked them to, excuse my language. But then when you're cold, when things aren't moving, they just have no time for you."
The youthful actor is sipping a Guinness in a pub on Queen West, back in Toronto, where people have time for him. His one-man show, Safe Place, opens Aug. 25 at the Alley Theatre Workshop. It's a comic monologue about a guy about to turn 30 who has lost his way. All inspirations from real life are openly acknowledged.
Dunne is only 28 -- he modestly jokes that he can play early 20s but they have to colour in his hairline. But he has already been through a roller-coaster career, not to mention a divorce from fellow actor Heidi Lenhart. They met about six years ago on the CTV series Little Men, although Lenhart is actually a child of Hollywood -- the daughter of Playboy-playmate-turned-screenwriter Cheryl Saban and stepdaughter of entertainment mogul Haim Saban.
"It was quite a heady time," says Dunne, recalling his introduction to Hollywood. "Living in a guesthouse in the hills and just having a crazy life. And I think that getting there and then getting divorced, all those things that are part of life, they keep these questions coming up: what are you doing with your life and why?"
These questions inform the existential crisis of Dunne's character in Safe Place. Cal is surrounded by empty liquor bottles as he gropes for direction and pines for a lost love named Jane.
"It's the loss of foundation, right, when you find yourself faceless and without essentially a safe place, whatever that may be for you," he says. "Certainly in my life I've found myself drifting at certain times, and had to reconnect to what was important to me. I think that's kind of a universal feeling."
There's also a generational angst attached to the story, as revealed through one of the lines. "I don't think we're born with original sin, I think we're born with original disappointment," says Cal. Dunne calls it a nod to the current generation's high expectations and lack of patience, and he lays the blame on unbridled consumer culture and even the vacuousness of some television. But it's not a downer or political screed. Dunne describes it as more comedy than dark comedy, as befits a life that hasn't been all that bad.
"I've been pretty lucky, I've been able to work steadily," says Dunne, who quit the Etobicoke School of the Arts high school at 17 because he was so busy during the mid-'90s Toronto film boom. He kept working in LA after the fall of Manchester Prep. "But there's a lot of stuff on my resumé that's, like, crap," he says. "I mean there are a lot of B movies. Hey, I took the work at the time. It wasn't like I was turning down calls from Jonathan Demme."
He came to Toronto in May to do a TV movie called Code Breakers with Scott Glenn. That ended in July, but Dunne decided to stick around. He met Alley Theatre's Mike Kash, who agreed to produce Safe Place. Dunne has also been developing his screenwriting skills. He says that indie Canuck icon Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Hard Core Logo), with whom he worked on Little Men, has just agreed to direct one of his scripts.
"That's one of the reasons I love being here in Canada," he says. "There are passionate people like that who get excited about things. The arts industry in Canada is more of a blue-collar industry, in a sense that nobody is really swinging from fences to try to become famous, because really there's not that infrastructure in Canada. There tends to be this atmosphere of people just doing interesting work for creative purposes."
The urge for creative control over his career is precisely why Dunne has branched out into writing. Asked to name an actor who might be a role model, Dunne mentions Michael Douglas, who branched out into producing quite early in his career.
Dunne began writing his play in earnest while he was waiting for his screenplay efforts to gel.
"What I didn't realize is how much more difficult it was, particularly a one-man show," he says. "If it's not done right, it's really a fantastic way to look like a complete asshole." Dunne's serial self-deprecation suggests that he didn't smuggle back any LA bullshit upon his return. His goal for Safe Place? "If it comes across moderately well, I'll be able to have it in my pocket and be able to do it at any point. If I have a show I can do in off-time in a number of places in the world, that would be great."
It's all part of building a career in a business that Dunne terms "goofy." He once thought he'd sprint to success but now is running a longer race. In fact, Dunne actually ran the LA Marathon earlier this year.
"That's the way this business is," he says. "You have to look at it as a marathon. Sometimes you're going to be way ahead, sometimes you're going to be way behind, but you have to look at the whole race."
Dunne adds that he didn't bother training and only entered a few days before the marathon. "I nearly killed myself, but I did finish the race."
As published September 1 2005 - Eye Weekly
Chances are, the producers of Dawson's Creek would have cut all references to "bacon stains" from a monologue about the importance of wearing clean underwear. Fortunately for television actor and former Dawson-ian Robin Dunne, theatre producers on Queen West offer a little more creative control than their more measured and less adventurous counterparts in Hollywood.
In his new one-act play, Safe Place, which premiered last weekend at the Alley Theatre Workshop, Dunne played Cal, a one-time No Frills employee who simply stops going to work one day. The way he sees it, there's just too much menace and peril and shit out there to deal with, so Cal retreats to the safety of his apartment.
Over the course of an hour, though, Cal realizes that even his tiny apartment -- a simple, effective little set incorporating a broken television and a claw-footed bathtub full of vodka -- offers him scarce protection from his anxious, paranoid and often quite funny thoughts.
Drawing from a bizarre handbag of gestures and mnemonics, Dunne (along with the director Carlo Rota, who has clearly done an excellent job of keeping things on track and trimming the fat from Cal's tirade) uses little more than a completely arresting stage presence and a strong understanding of his character's mind to bind together a series of seemingly unfocused ideas. It's this potent sense of character, and Dunne's complete dedication to the role, that pushes the action forward and captures the audience. Even if he doesn't quite communicate everything that he'd wish, Dunne's audience is still far better off having shared in the attempt.AB