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Meet Stephanie Dunnam, freeFall’s feisty Eleanor of Aquitaine

Bill DeYoung



In freeFall's "The Lion in Winter": Stephanie Dunnam and Joe Lauck as Eleanor and Henry. Thee Photo Ninja.

Fame can be both fickle and fleeting, as actress Stephanie Dunnam knows well.

Dunnam, who’s playing the 12th Century British queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in freeFall Theatre’s production of The Lion in Winter, has an impressive, 25-year resume of regional and national stagework, including extensive tours of hit dramas that had just come off Broadway. She has been onstage in just about every one of America’s major theatrical centers.

The role of tart-tongued Eleanor in The Lion in Winter, opening Saturday, is a plum for any serious dramatic actress of a certain age. No less than Katherine Hepburn played her in the 1968 film version, winning an Academy Award for her efforts.

It’s a part that Stephanie Dunnam has earned the right to play. Hers was a hard-earned career.

During the 1983-84 television season, Dunnam was just another ingenue thrust into the works of an insatiable talent-eating machine. On Emerald Point, NAS, a prime-time drama cooked up by Dynasty creators Eleanor and Richard Shapiro, she starred as Kay Mallory, the lovelorn middle daughter of a career Navy man, played by Dennis Weaver.

Based in Dallas, Dunnam was herself part of a military family, and had been indoctrinated into community theater during visits to her father (weapons officer on the USS Midway) on an American air base in Japan.

Because she was tall and  … well-developed, Stephanie was often cast in adult roles. “I got to play Honey in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ when I was 14,” she says. During her senior year of high school in Texas, and in the years afterwards, she immersed herself in theater.

She’d been invited to audition in Los Angeles before. But nothing prepared her for the final round of  Emerald Point tryouts. Initially, she’d been up against 200 other similarly red-headed hopefuls.

Then it was down to three actresses. “When it gets to these stakes, there’s like 45 people in the room, and they’re all looking at you like you’re some kind of specimen,” she recalls. “It’s really blood-curdling. It’s not like anybody extends a warm hand.

“What I gathered later was that nobody wanted me. Not CBS, not the casting director. They had their favorites. But Esther Shapiro was my champion, because my dad was really Navy. She pushed me through, past the naysayers, and the next thing I knew I was doing the pilot with Dennis. I had my 24th birthday on set.”

Emerald Point ran for 22 episodes, just one season. Unlike Dynasty or The Colbys, the Shapiros’ other programs, it never really found an audience.

They were odd birds, those 1980s primetime soap operas.

According to Dunnam, the casts of Falcon Crest and Knots Landing, both on the same network as Emerald Point, were fond of sharing a joke about their shows’ writing: “If I say the lines twice as fast,” the actors would say, “they only hurt half as long.” Says Dunnam: “I thought that was the absolute best solution for getting through these scripts.

“None of it felt like the big time to me. The money was nice, but the truth is, I had come from a theater background where there’s a commitment to make it good. And because I was so green, it took me six months to understand the priorities: There’s so much money on the line. We were shooting $1 million an episode. So they assume you’re good. You wouldn’t be there if you weren’t good.”

The Shapiros, she remembers, rarely if ever visited the set, Out of the gate, Emerald Point felt like an orphan.

“They would print anything. I didn’t really know how to ask for another take, because in theater you just push through no matter what. They’d print it, and we’d move on, and I’d be like ‘But I really flubbed that second line.’ It would be ‘Moving on!’

“We were shooting 11 pages a day. I didn’t have time to go to the bathroom. I didn’t understand the priorities at first.”

Dunnam in “Mistral’s Daughter”

Next came the network miniseries adaptation of the Judith Krantz potboiler Mistral’s Daughter, in which Dunnam co-starred with TV stalwarts Stacy Keach, Lee Remick, Stephanie Powers and Robert Urich.

“That felt like the big time to me,” she confesses. “And it was fun to do, because it was a romance, rather than a soap. It was different. We were shooting in France: I die early, so had all this time to just explore France.”

It was around this time that Dunnam turned down a $10,000 paycheck for an episode of The Love Boat.

Although she continued to do guest-spot work – Magnum, P.I., Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Moonlighting;  she even had a recurring role on Dynasty itself – Dunnam hungered to work in the theater. “I was a snob when I was younger,” she laughs. “The rule was: Film people did not to TV, and theater people thought TV was BS.”

She continued to travel to New York City, frequently, for auditions. “Nothing on my resume, with the television stuff, meant anything to New York,” she remembers.

That all changed when she was offered the starring role in The Heidi Chronicles, replacing Broadway star Amy Irving, who’d just had a baby and didn’t want to tour the show. Dunnam took Heidi across the country for five months, finishing with a six-week stint at the Kennedy Center.

Next, she starred in the national tour of The Sisters Rosensweig, covering 25 cities over nine months.

She married, and at age 30 gave birth to a daughter. And that, Dunnam explains, is just about when the career momentum stopped dead. “I aged out of it,” she says flatly.

An ugly, drawn-out divorce kept her busy, and in a sour mood for much of the time. Raising her child became a priority.

And in La La Land, where you’re only as good as your last job, TV turned its back on her.

“By this time, I’m 35,” Dunnam recalls. “On TV, you’re in your 20s or you’re in your 40s. And if you have children in your 20s, you’re in your 40s. Because that’s L.A. People don’t have children at 18 in L.A. So even through the rest of the country can be 30-year-old parents of a teenager, that’s not how L.A. does it. I was right in the middle.”

It didn’t help, she knows, that she stopped coloring her hair, letting it go grey.

“I never did play the game in L.A., and that’s on me,” she explains. “Because I could’ve. I could’ve done The Love Boat. I could have hired a publicist – I was the only one on Emerald Point without a publicist. I didn’t play the game.

“But I built a theater career.”

That she did, although it wasn’t easy at first. There were a few lean years, living as a single mother in expensive Southern California, in order to keep her daughter in the private school she adored, with her longtime friends. Dunnam cleaned houses and worked as a housepainter. For a time, they lived without electricity, without a phone, without a car. They briefly resided in an RV.

She scraped together enough money to study acting under the legendary Milton Katselas, at the Beverly Hills Playhouse (spending seven years under his tutelage). Eventually, the guest-spot roles returned: ER, Frasier, The Practice, Boston Public.

And it took a decade, all told, but Dunnam earned an AA degree in graphic design from Santa Monica College’s Academy of Entertainment of Technology; currently a resident of Atlanta, she’s in the Film and Television program at the Savannah College of Arts and Design. And her daughter, also a college grad, is an aspiring screenwriter in the L.A. area.

Always, there is acting. Dunnam continues to perform in theaters all across the southeast – and elsewhere, when the opportunities arise.

Recently, she had a small role on the AMC series Preacher, as the Queen of England. That led, fortuitously, straight into the freeFall gig for Queen Eleanor in The Lion in Winter.

“Now,” Dunnam enthuses, “I have decades in of watching Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Claire Foy and even Olivia Coleman – watching women play the Queen of England. Cate Blanchett! Glenda Jackson!

“So there’s no way that I haven’t been contaminated by those actresses. Because I admire their work, across the board. That’s in my blood now.”

Tickets and info here.

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