Interview with Merrin Dungey of “Shining Vale” on Starz by Suzanne 2/7/22
I was delighted to speak with Merrin Dungey because she’s been in so many wonderful series, such as “Alias,” “Once Upon a Time,” “The Resident,” “Star Trek: Picard,” “Hollywood Heights,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Big Little Lies” and much more. I don’t know why she’s not starring in her own series by now. She has a fairly small role in this show (at least in the first season), but she’s great in it. I hope they give her more to do in the second season. It was wonderful to speak to her!
The first few questions were mine, and the rest are from the other reporters that were in our virtual room during this press junket. I put one of theirs in sooner so you could see that I was replying, in part, to what she had said when she was answering the other questions.
Suzanne: Hi! So, besides being Pat’s friend and editor, what else can you tell us about your character?
Merrin: Well, it’s not simply just that I’m her friend and her editor. I’m sort of the engine that keeps the story going, because without what I need from her, that’s what leads her to make the decisions that she makes along the way, and I feel that my character is her moral center and her life raft, like the one outside of everything else that’s happening that she clings to. She is like, this is the person that can help me move things forward. I feel like she’s also a little desperate to please. Where there is a sister like relationship that we have, I feel that it’s a long standing relationship. I was there for the beginning. I probably was the one who discovered her and brought her along and got the first book success, hence why I’ve been on this horse and stuck by her so long through her rehabs, through her ins and outs, and having children and all the whatnot, but my patience runs thin, and I have bosses to answer to at this point as well. So, there is a point at which the rubber meets the road, and I feel that without me, you don’t have the show. You don’t have that engine to keep her chasing what she’s chasing to finish the book.
Question: When you had the pleasure of auditioning for the show, did you actually read any of your character’s lines, or were the sides just totally random stuff in there and they were gauging your connectivity to it all that way?
Merrin: No, it’s all written. I mean, I believe that I added some stuff at the end. This is the thing I miss the most about in person auditions, because I’m great in a room, because I like people, and I like to have fun. I honestly, truly believe that some of my success and things have happened – I mean, like, at the end of the day, when you are auditioning for something for a series that could go for six years, you want to know, “Do I like this person? Do I want to spend time with this person?” That’s part of the game. But I believe I sent some stuff about what I was wearing in my audition. They have you do like the, “Hi, I’m Merrin Dungey, and I live in Los Angeles, and I am willing to -” you know, whatever you say, all the things, like “I’m five, nine,” or whatever your height is, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I made some stupid joke about my pants. Like, I was not wearing [pants]…and I think that that helps. Although I’m fully dressed today. I have high heels on; I do the whole thing.
Suzanne: You look very nice today, by the way. So, it’s been sixteen years since “Alias” went off the air, and I know that both of your characters died, but nobody really dies in those type of shows. Do you think that we’ll ever see a reunion series or movie, and would you do it?
Merrin: Yes. Hopefully. And yes. And yes. Look, Jennifer got us all back together for the most part, for a 20th anniversary. Yeah, it was super, super fun to see everyone and just connect and hang out, but I think that we are all game for that. And I would hope that – I feel that Bad Francie lives. She lives somewhere on, you know, life support somewhere or she’s T-2; she’s a robot. So, it would be great. I would love it very much. I would be wholly disappointed if they did do it, and I did not get to reprise any sort of – I don’t care even if it’s a flashback, but not a flashback to Good Francie, because, who cares?
Question: Merrin, I’ve been watching your acting for, it’s like twenty-ish years now. You’ve played every profession on the planet. And this one, we see you playing Pat’s oldest friend and book editor, but not the first time you’ve worked in the publishing industry on screen. One of my favorite shows ever, You’re the Worst, you were working at a publishing industry.
Merrin: I thought I was a PR agent in that. I was at a publishing agency, but as a PR agent for him, getting him all those interviews.
Question: Related to all that, I’m curious how much work goes into seeking the professions and learning the ins and outs before you’re appearing as that on screen?
Merrin: That’s a great question. Thank you very much. I think I don’t necessarily dive into [it] so heavily, unless it’s like detective work, because that’s so much more foreign to what I know. To play a publishing editor or book editor or even a CEO, there just is sort of like, what’s the gravitas? What is the nature of [how you are] presenting, as opposed to what is it you actually do? Because unless you really see me doing what it is that I have to do, like when I do detective stuff, it’s just kind of, there’s usually a different objective for my character. So, I don’t have to worry so much about what it is that I do as a therapist or any of those sorts of things.
Question: I love this world for you, and it’s such a beautiful relationship that the two of you share, that Pat shares with Kam. What does Kam particularly see in her? I mean, obviously, you mentioned that she probably discovered her, but is there something special that you feel like she initially saw in her, and what continues to have her stand by her side?
Merrin: You know, we all have that friend, don’t we? It’s just kind of like a little bit of a like sister relationship, the one that you kind of need to take care of and put under your wing, and she’s constantly effing up, and I have to [be] like, “Okay, how can we – ” I mean, I certainly have had those people in my life, and I think that that’s what Cam sees in her. There’s talent amongst the ruins, and she wants the best for her. She loves her. She also wants to get paid. You know what I’m saying? Sadly, [there’s] a financial component ultimately here, and there does come a point at which [it’s] like, my neck’s on the line. So, it is a two fold relationship.
Question: They do say “never mix business with pleasure.”
Question: So, she has some great dialogue. Talk about that and how it really plays into kind of like, what I love about her, that snarky side of her and all these great lines that she has.
Merrin: Well, thank you. We get to play. That’s the great thing about the show is that there is room to play, and Courtney’s always game. She’s such a great sparring partner as you can well imagine. She’s so witty and sharp and funny, and Jeff Astrof comes in with the zingers at all times. We played a lot with – you know, anytime you open the scene or you end the scene, there’s a lot of room to sort of have fun and improv and do some stuff. So, from that comes some of the zingers and the stuff…And the late night shoots. You get tired, and then you start saying stuff, and it just happens, and it’s fun.
Question: You do take on so wonderfully these dramatic roles. Is there something about this character or maybe about drama series in general that really draws you to that genre?
Merrin: Well, this is a horror comedy. So, it’s not really a drama, and this is my first time doing that. Although I guess American Horror Stories is sort of like a horror comedy. Look, I go where the goods are. I go where there’s some great fun and good people. I feel like, in my later years in particular, I have been able to work with some [outstanding] – Listen, my entire career I’ve worked with some great people: Aaron Sorkin, Sir Patrick Stewart, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon. I’ve been very, very lucky. It’s ridiculous, you know, Bryan Cranston. I mean, it’s crazy. So, I just feel like I fell out of the lucky tree, and I hit every branch on the way down. So, to continue that streak with Greg Kinnear and Mira Sorvino and Courtney Cox, again, it’s like, “Are you kidding?” This is a dream come true. It’s crazy.
Question: You do it so wonderfully.
Merrin: Thank you. Did I answer your question? Because I feel like maybe didn’t answer your question, but, yes, I’m happy to work with great people. I don’t care what they’re doing. I did an online thing with Con Man, I think was an online series with Nathan Fillion, because it was like, “Nathan Fillon, sure, yeah. Alan Tudyk, yep.”
Question: So, you checked a few boxes. You’re in the Star Trek arena, live action and animation, and horror, you’ve done Lucifer, of course. Now, you’re doing this, although you’re not in the horror aspect per se, at least not yet, but what’s it like to kind of play in those playgrounds and to visit those kind of worlds?
Merrin: Awesome. I mean, it’s such a gift. It’s complicated when you do something like a Picard, because doing that is much like doing an ER in an OR kind of thing, because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know what I’m talking about. You know what I’m saying? Like, I’m not in space. I’m not with the Romulans. I don’t understand what we’re talking about. So, it took me a long time to sort of pull in what I know about what I know and being a television interviewer, and then how does that work? What points am I trying to hit? We had so much rehearsal for that, because it was six big pages with him, with Sir Patrick Stewart, and we had a blast. It was the longest, hardest day of my life, except for when I did the fight with Jennifer, but in terms of concentration and what it is and having to do, you know, I’m like spinning a sphere or something. You’re dealing with things that are CGI that don’t exist. That is complicated. At least when I was doing Once Upon a Time, even though there was CGI in that, it’s still more grounded in terms of what you’re saying. I think that’s the hardest part. It’s harder to play in those playgrounds, because they’re fantastical, so you are trying to pull in what you know about the real world and attribute it to something that doesn’t exist. But for other people, this is really real, and I’m very proud of myself, particularly for Picard, because people are mad at me…I was like, “Good. I did what I was supposed to.” I had no idea what I was talking about! [laughs]
Here is the audio version of it.
Interview Transcribed by Jamie of http://www.scifivision.com
“Shining Vale” is a horror comedy about a dysfunctional family that moves from the city to a small town into a house in which terrible atrocities have taken place. But no one seems to notice except for Pat, who’s convinced she’s either depressed or possessed – turns out, the symptoms are exactly the same. Patricia “Pat” Phelps (Courteney Cox) is a former “wild child” who rose to fame by writing a raunchy, drug-and-alcohol-soaked women’s empowerment novel (a.k.a. lady porn). Fast forward 17 years later, Pat is clean and sober but totally unfulfilled. She still hasn’t written her second novel, she can’t remember the last time she had sex with her husband (Greg Kinnear), and her teenage kids are at that stage where they want you dead. She was a faithful wife until her one slip-up: she had a torrid affair with the hot, young handyman who came over to fix the sink while Terry was at work. In a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, she and Terry cash in all their savings and move the family from the “crazy” of the city to a large, old house in the suburbs that has a storied past of its own. Everyone has their demons, but for Pat Phelps, they may be real. Cox plays the lead role of Patricia “Pat” Phelps, with Kinnear playing her ever-optimistic husband, Terry Phelps, whose patience and self-control will be tested like never before. Mira Sorvino plays Rosemary, who is either Pat’s alter ego, a split personality, her id, her muse, or a demon trying to possess her. Dungey plays Kam, Pat’s oldest friend and book editor. Gus Birney and Dylan Gage also star as Pat and Terry’s teenage kids, Gaynor and Jake.
In addition to “Shining Vale”, Merrin Dungey will be seen in a recurring role on the up- coming season of “Lucifer”. Fresh from her strong turn as CJ Emerson on ABC’s limited series “The Fix”, Dungey returned to the critically lauded Emmy winning HBO series “Big Little Lies” as Detective Quinlan, appearing on screen with Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and the legendary Meryl Streep; all nominated for a SAG Award for Best Ensemble. She co-starred as CEO Claire Thorpe on Fox’s “The Resident”, and on a number of ABC hits including “Once Upon A Time” and “Conviction”. Guest star roles range from the groundbreaking turn as Francie Calfo/Alison Doren in the critically acclaimed award-winning “Alias”, and as a Queen of Darkness, Ursula, in “Once Upon A Time”. Other guest appearances include hit shows including “Seinfeld”, “Friends”, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, “Episodes”, “The West Wing” and “Shameless”. Recurring roles include “Chasing Life”, “Brooklyn 99”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, “Revenge” and over 35 episodes of “The King of Queens”. Dungey is an accomplished stand-up comedian, and has performed in Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival, as well as on “Premium Blend” on Comedy Central. She has appeared on the big screen opposite Pierce Brosnan in Some Kind of Beautiful and the Warner Bros comedy CHiPs opposite Dax Shepard. She is a UCLA Theater School Graduate and the youngest recipient of the UCLA Annual Acting Award, as well as the Natalie Wood Prize
Proofread and Edited by Brenda