I think I had a very active imagination when I was growing up from watching so many movies.
A new breed of talent has emerged from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in the past few years, and one recurring theme has been the presence of actress Trieste Kelly Dunn. Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather and Brett Haley’s The New Year were telltale snaps signaling her career’s impressive momentum—Filmmaker magazine named Dunn one of the 25 New Faces of Independent in 2010—and Zach Clark’s Vacation! was poised to do the same. Despite the very different directing styles of these UNCSA alums, Dunn serves as each film’s center, and she makes perfect sense in each inspired casting move. As is often the case in the topsy-turvy world of film, however, her leap into acting wasn’t the easiest of climbs, and took many trials and errors before she landed her first gig. Things really began to take off for Dunn on television with supporting roles on Canterbury’s Law, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Bored to Death and Fringe.
Now 32, Dunn is awaiting the release of SXSW hit Loves Her Gun and season 2 of Cinemax’s Banshee (from the creator of True Blood), both premiering on January 10.
Growing up in Utah, what was your approach to acting? It seems like such a pipe dream for anyone going into the industry, but I wonder how you viewed it in the earlier stages.
Totally. When I was growing up in Utah, I mainly wanted to do something outdoorsy for a living, like be a park ranger. But then when I was 15 and I moved to North Carolina, I just wanted to act and I don’t know why. It was like, “What do I have to lose?” sort of thing. I did some high school drama stuff and got obsessed with it from then on. Then I heard about North Carolina School of the Arts and auditioned for it a couple of times, and didn’t get in. I got in eventually. [Laughs]
What was it like back in school when you first started collaborating with Zach Clark, Brett Haley, Aaron Katz and Brendan McFadden? Were you all acquaintances at that point or different collaborators that came into prominence later on?
Definitely! We all were. It’s funny because Zach, Aaron, Brett, Brendan and I were all there together. I was a drama student there, but I lived with film students. So whenever they needed somebody, I just made myself available. You’re always rehearsing and playing someone who’s 55 years old. So we were definitely busy, but I just made time to work with those guys. I don’t think Aaron and I actually made any student films together, but we knew each other. I think I made one with Zach that was called Zombie Prom Date or something, but I can’t really remember. We just did silly stuff together.
Did anything have a significant impact on you early on like a memorable movie or a performance?
I’d have to say Marlon Brando. I know that sounds really cliché. [Laughs.] I think that’s what really sealed the deal in high school. I saw A Streetcar Named Desire and he just made it look easy. Not easy, but he made it look sexy. I just wanted to be able to do something like that. It’s a miracle how he found those words and I thought it would be an exciting challenge to take something like that on. I was watching movies over and over again as a kid. I think I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off like sixty times. What else did I watch over and over… Probably Pretty Woman? I think I had a very active imagination when I was growing up from watching so many movies. I tried, and I’m still trying now. I don’t think it gets any easier, you know?
What were the initial conversations that you had with Geoff [Marslett] in terms of the story, your character and the overall production of Loves Her Gun?
We didn’t have a whole lot of initial conversations, honestly. He sent me an outline and Geoff just wanted to get it done, which I totally respected. Obviously, we could’ve used two more months of pre-production and five times as much money for it. So we didn’t have a ton of conversations about it beforehand, but things definitely came up when we started working on it. There were definitely days where I was like, “I should just fucking quit acting.” [Laughs] Then there were those days that leave you feeling very satisfied because we were finding the scene and doing improv as we went along. There wasn’t a very specific outline there, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s exciting when something works right.
So how scripted was this film? How did the improv work between the cast and crew?
There was a basic outline and a script. For example, you have Allie [Trieste’s character in Loves Her Gun] walk from the apartment to the club to watch the band. Scene two: she watches the band. Scene three: she has a conversation with the band. There was a definite story there, but what wasn’t there was the dialogue. When we showed up, they already had twenty scenes there, but we had to discuss what happened before scene twenty just to know where we’re at. It’s so confusing just looking back at this because we shot everything out of order. Say the next day, we would have scene ten. It’s like, “Okay, so do I have to say something now that sets up what we did for scene twenty yesterday?” Then there was a black eye on my face that always had to change four times a day. It had to come off and then go back on, it had to be lighter and darker. There was a lot of algebra involved. How do we make this scene add up to that one scene we shot over a week ago? Those were scary moments. The improv gods are with you or you struggle until you find it.
When you’re drinking on screen, is it way more lax on indie features? What are you actually drinking?
It’s totally more relaxed, yes. Although Javier [Bonafont], our prop guy in the art department, actually made fake bottles and stuff. What scene did I actually drink in… I don’t think I actually drank on this film. There’s a scene with Francisco [Barreiro] and Ashley [Spillers] in a bar, and she was really drunk in that scene. [Laughs.] But I see actors on TV who have alcohol and they’re not supposed to be drunk at all in the scene. They’re just drinking because they’re frustrated. These are things actors sometimes get away with, more than a cameraman could.
What are your thoughts on how the film depicts violence against women? It’s very hard to watch, but it’s definitely something that occurs every day in real life.
It’s tough because I haven’t quite experienced anything like that. To have to internalize something like that was feeling like I was wronged or feeling bullied. You carry around that baggage. It’s really about the unfairness of it all. Not only do you get physically hurt, but you’re overwhelmed by fear and paranoia. It puts your guard up. My motivation with this film was to—I don’t want to say revenge, but—in a way, make somebody else take on that baggage who deserves it. They should be the ones carrying around the fear. It’s not one event or a one-time thing one would carry around. In terms of the gun thing, part of what we wanted to explore in the film was not to question if guns are good or bad, putting a value judgement on them. But are they a viable means of self-defense? Are they useful? Would you take a life in a situation where you feel like you might need to? Having been in Texas and having seen how easy it is to get a concealed permit, you could actually live a life like that if you wanted to. I then came to the realization that even if you’re carrying a gun around everywhere you go, there are still eight million different ways to die where a gun won’t help you. There are fears that we have that are rational and irrational.
What are some big differences you noticed shooting in Austin, Texas, in comparison to more film-centric places like Los Angeles and New York?
I don’t think we would’ve been able to shoot what we did in New York. When you have a bunch of Austin filmmakers, it’s such a tight community and they’re willing to help. The reason that Geoff was able to make this for the price he had was because people are willing to help out. For instance, we shot live ammo in the film. Whenever my character is on a shooting range or outside shooting cans, that was all real. You can’t do that in New York, I don’t think. Firearms obviously have more restrictive laws elsewhere. I think Geoff called in a lot of favors.
Was this the first time that you actually fired a gun?
It was definitely on this film. I think a couple of weeks before I made the film, I went to my step mom in Utah, who’s a certified shotgun instructor. She took me out to a shooting range. That was definitely different than shooting a pistol. We shot all kinds of things on this movie, but that was the first time I shot a pistol. It was intimidating. There’s a camera crew standing around and a few actresses holding guns. [Laughs.] We did it in a safe way, but it’s like, “Am I really doing this? It feels wrong.” It was exciting though.
When you’re moving from New York City to Austin in the film, was there an actual road trip involved?
There was definitely a road trip involved, and it was terrible. Do you remember that big RV? We had to drive that from Austin to New York and it could only go sixty miles per hour because it was so old. We also had a crew van, so we had to time it right. I think it took us something like two and a half days. We didn’t stop, sleep in hotels or take showers. We slept in cramped positions on the crew van or film equipment. It was so crazy. I think Geoff one time pulled over to the side of the road and said, “Let’s turn around and go back to Austin.” [Laughs.] But all of these nice kids from Austin were like, “No! We’re going to New York! We’re making this fucking movie!” And we did it. We made it to New York way later than we had planned and lost our location, I think at the Knitting Factory. We had to shoot in someone’s attic, which is way less impressive. It’s just funny though. You work with what you have.
If you were a groupie and you could tour with any band of your choice, who would you pick?
Well, my favorite band for the longest time has been Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But I think if I toured with them… I don’t think it would be a healthy choice. [Laughs.] I think it would definitely be the rock and roll choice. Geez… There are a lot of bands that I would love to do that with. They first come to mind though because I’ve loved them for so long. They look like they do a lot of drugs though. Don’t you think?
You shot this film in 2011 and the film is just coming out now in 2014. What is the waiting around like for you as a collaborator?
It’s crazy. Did we really shoot it that long ago? It was the end of 2011, so we kind of missed the festivals that year and we had to wait a bit to submit it the next year. You’re right, it has been a really long time. It doesn’t feel that long though. I just feel old. [Laughs.]
What do you enjoy most about working in TV as opposed to film? Do you prefer the steady workload that comes with Banshee or the one-off projects in independent film?
I love TV. I think it’s great. I think it’s a place where it’s possible for unknown actors to get hired. Working in mainstream films has been fucking impossible. Working in independent films has been about working with friends and people you meet at festivals. There’s a level of ease that comes with this. TV is obviously a steady gig, which is a hard thing to come by for an actor. It’s nice to be able to play a character for that long and you make so many discoveries along the way. TV has been fairly kind to me, so I’m grateful for it. Getting paid is nice too because you don’t get paid to do small indies. [Laughs.]
Did you know much going into Banshee?
I had only read the pilot when I signed on, so I didn’t really know anything. I was kind of nervous, to be honest. They sort of tell me stuff now because it’s become a family. You’re just waiting for the next script. I’m sure every TV show operates differently, but with Banshee, we just know what we’re getting with every new script. That’s one of the fun parts about it, not knowing. It’s definitely fun when you read that you’re going to be in some exciting action sequence and stuff like that.
Do you make New Year’s resolutions?
I’m just hoping for a miracle. [Laughs.] I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions. I sort of have mottos every year. My motto in 2013 was to be brave. I just want something good to happen.