Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In Character: Kevin Dunn

Kevin Dunn is one of the most prominent Oh yeah that guy actors currently in the game. For the past few years, Dunn has done very well for himself on various HBO shows, putting in great work on some of the network’s most accomplished programs. But truth is, this guy has been stealing scenes from the best of them for nearly 30 years. Here’s a glimpse into the career of one of our best, most prolific working character actors.

Five Essential Roles
Dave (1993)
Alan Reed
After the President has a stroke while banging his secretary, two men hire a lookalike to fill the President’s shoes. The men, Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) and Communications Director Alan Reed (Dunn), are suspicious characters that the audience isn’t sure how to feel about. When they hire a guy named Dave (Kevin Kline) to act as President, both Bob and Alan treat him with an equal amount of quiet contempt and hesitant acceptance. They’re dangerous and disingenuous, but always to amusing results.

Dunn had delivered plenty of solid work prior to 1993 (his turn as J. Edgar Hoover in Chaplin is pretty interesting), but his work in Dave is arguably his first truly great performance. I love how believable Alan’s arc is.

Stir of Echoes (1999)
Frank McCarthy
Frank McCarthy is an everyman’s man, a suburban blue collar fella who doesn’t appear to have a bad bone in him. But there’s something else going on. Take, for example, the scene in which Frank’s buddy, Tom (Kevin Bacon), mentions a girl from the neighborhood who went missing a few months ago. “Oh, the retard?” Frank and Tom’s mutual friend drunkenly blurts out. When Frank hears this, he darts after the drunk friend, threatening to kick his ass. Why does Frank take this so personally? What secrets is he hiding? Who is he protecting?

Stir of Echoes is full of moments like this, which eventually culminate in a startling reveal. And it is during said reveal that Dunn delivers perhaps the single best scene of his career. Crying and screaming in a shitty cellar, begging for the ghosts to go away.

Warrior (2011)
Principal Zito
Not enough credit is given to actors who play real people so well. Dunn’s Principal Zito is just a guy. He has no agenda or secret, no heartbreaking speeches or big hero moments. He’s just a guy trying to do right by one of his teachers. When Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a physics teacher at Zito’s high school, shows up to school with bruises he received in a cage fight, Zito is forced to discipline Brendan, while also going to bat for him. It’s a tough balance to achieve – a sort of one-man good cop/bad cop all within the confines of the principal’s office. Zito has to prove he can be a hardass, while also letting Brendan known that he’s on his side, (which becomes all too clear later in the film, when Zito publically, amusingly supports Brendan’s MMA efforts.) Plus, “The guy hasn’t been inside a school since 9/11,” is a great, lighthearted moment in an otherwise dead serious film.

Luck (2011-2012)
Marcus Becker
The short-lived HBO series, Luck, was a fascinating multi-character study about the inner workings of horse racing. From the heavy betters to the railbirds, the jockeys to the bookies, Luck was a show that spared no grimy detail. One of Luck’s best characters was Marcus Becker, a miserable old degenerate gambler who spent his every waking moment hustling at the track. Just looking at Marcus, you could tell that the track was going to kill him. Oxygen mask always close by, unkempt hair, greasy face, shitty attitude – Marcus was barely pulling through, and Dunn explored the depths of the character’s depravity so very well. For personal reasons, I have to agree with HBO’s decision to cancel Luck prematurely, but if Luck had lived on, I’m certain it would be in the elite class of HBO’s finest dramas.

Veep (2013-present)
Ben Cafferty
Ben Cafferty is one of my favorite comedy characters on television right now. This guy is a living, breathing conundrum. As the President’s Chief of Staff, Cafferty is never seen consulting with the President, instead, he sits around and bitches about his worthless existence. (Context: Chief of Staff is the same position John Spencer had on The West Wing, and he was always by the President’s side. So the fact that Ben Cafferty is never near his President is as baffling as it is hilarious.) But despite being depressed and unemotional, Ben is actually rather respected in Washington, and even offers beneficial advice on occasion. Basically, on the surface, this guy doesn’t appear to be anything more than a sagging blowhard, but when we get to know him, we see that there’s actually some method to his sloppy madness. Dunn proved his comedy skills long ago, but on Veep, he’s simply never been funnier.

The Best of the Best
The Beach Boys: An American Family (2000)
Murry Wilson
Murry Wilson was an asshole. Anyone who’s done any kind of research on The Beach Boys can attest to this. As father to band members Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson (as well as uncle to Mike Love), Wilson was a tyrant who constantly demanded perfection. He beat, berated and terrorized his kids so badly, it’s actually amazing that they were ever able to make such lasting music.

According to Dunn, he was cast as Murry Wilson in the four hour made-for-TV drama, The Beach Boys: An American Family, the day before filming began. Another actor dropped out at the last minute, so Dunn had to scramble to find the character. Luckily for Dunn (though, certainly not for the ‘Boys themselves), he discovered hours of recorded arguments between Murry and The Beach Boys, many of which appear in the film itself. The tapes, which you can find easily on YouTube, show Murry in his true, maniacal light. This was a big guy with an explosive personality, and I remain wholly impressed by the fact that Dunn played him so remorselessly. In the film, Murry is rarely given a chance for redemption, instead, he always reminds us how much of a jerk he is. The Beach Boys: An American Family isn’t a particularly great film, but Dunn is great in it. If you can ever find the movie, I highly recommend you give it a go. Dunn’s performance alone elevates the movie beyond mere made-for-TV status.

Other Notable Roles
in True Detective
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Blue Steel (1989)
Ghostbusters II (1989)
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Hot Shots! (1991)
1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Chaplin (1992)
Little Big League (1994)
Nixon (1995)
Chain Reaction (1996)
The Sixth Man (1997)
Snake Eyes (1998)
Godzilla (1998)
Small Soldiers (1998)
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
The Path to 9/11 (2006)
All the King’s Men (2006)
Transformers (2007)
Samantha Who? (2007-2009)
Lions for Lambs (2007)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Jobs (2013)
True Detective (2014)


  1. Oh man, I love that guy. He was great as Murry Wilson. A total asshole to the fullest. I knew they took some liberties with the true story but Dunn got it right.

    I also love him in Dave because of the character arc as I also loved him in Hot Shots!. He is also great in Veep as he is just part of that special ingredient into why that show is so fucking great.

    1. Of COURSE you've seen that Beach Boys film. I was hoping at least one other person had seen it, and I'm not at all surprised that it's you. So happy you dig Dunn's work in it. What an asshole he was.

    2. Yeah, I'm a sucker for bio-pics about music. This one was better than the other where they had Bruce Greenwood as Dennis Wilson but still, it was just a run-of-the-mill TV mini-series w/ the obligatory cameo by John Stamos who is a lifelong member of the Mike Love suck-my-dick club.

    3. Oh shit, Bruce Greenwood as Dennis Wilson, I would love to see that. Greenwood is such a great actor. Also, that last bit of your paragraph made me laugh my ass off.

  2. I'm not sure how odd this tidbit is, but I always think of Dunn and Stephen Root as basically the same person, because of the characters that they play. Just throwing that out there!

    Whether you know it or not, I am a huge sucker for Transformers (save the most recent film). So, he will always be remembered as Mr. Witwicky to me!

    1. Man, I've been trying to cover Root for a while now, but he has so many credits. His filmography is so damn stacked haha.

      Dunn is easily my favorite part of that first Transformers movie.

  3. I LOVE this guy on Veep. He's definitely a scene stealer.

    1. Absolutely. I mean, that damn coffee mug alone is just priceless.

  4. He was great as Burt Drucker, the nutcase, on Roseanne. I also LOVE seeing your acknowledgement of his work in Stir of Echoes.

    1. Ahh I must have missed his stint on Roseanne, but I love hearing that he's great in it. Also appreciate your love for him in Stir of Echoes. A great role there.

  5. God, he is just slaying in Veep -

    I don't remember seeing him in anything else than this and True Detective but even in his short TD appearance he was hilarious

    Great post!

    1. I thought you might appreciate me highlighting his work in Veep ;)

      Seriously he might be my favorite part of that show. Hard choice to make though, everyone on it is fucking priceless.

    2. I am rewatching the show constantly and I'm slowly making my favorite characters list - he is obviously number 1 - his complete lack of enthusiasm for work is something I relate to - but man all the other ones are such close call

    3. Ha, you're so right, his total lack of enthusiasm is hilarious. He inhabits that role so perfectly.

  6. Oh yeah, what's his face. I've seen him in lots of stuff, but never learned his name. He usually cracks me up. Great actor to spotlight.

    1. So glad you like him. He's definitely one of the best What's his face actors working right now.

  7. Oddly enough, I haven't seen most of these movies -- or watched them so long ago I've forgotten them. I do remember his character in Stir of Echoes, though. The final revelation in that movie was not too hard to guess, but damn, it was still intense. I've never forgotten that assault scene. :-( Good movie.

    1. That assault scene is brutal, isn't it? But everyone involved handled it as well as they could, I thought. And I just love Dunn's intensity in that final scene. He really brings it.

  8. Love this guy. He's so good in Warrior, but I haven't seen any of the other performances you mentioned. I really need to track down that Beach Boys movie.

    1. It's a shame that Beach Boys film isn't more accessible. Because as far as made-for-TV biopics go, it's actually pretty solid. And Dunn is fantastic in it.