Merrin Dungey is the epitome of someone who knows her craft. Just off of one of the most talked about shows on television–HBO’s Big Little Lies–her career has been on hyperdrive. But this didn’t happen overnight.
Before television and film, she always had the passion to perform. From dance and piano when she was very young to figure skating in her teen years. Throughout high school she appeared in commercials and hosted her own talk show for teens. After graduating from UCLA she realized her dream to be an actor.
In our conversation at our studio, she brought a sense of comfort, confidence and honesty about her career path which is grounded in experience, hard work, and the ups-and-downs that happen when you passionately devote yourself to something. We’re excited to share her insight and story with you.
What originally drew you into acting? Was there a particular experience or personal calling?
I have always been a performer. Pianist at 5, ballet at 4, ice skating at 12… and started acting in 5th grade with plays. Performing is in my soul.
To what do you most attribute the development of your craft? Did you have a mentor or formal education?
Persistence. My dad hung a quote he laminated on our wall as kids:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”–Calvin Coolidge
This was on the wall between the Duran Duran posters! But it’s true. It’s the story of my career. I auditioned for some agents before I left for UCLA theater school and had memorized a Whoopi Goldberg monologue the night before from her one woman show. She’s one of my heroes, there is no one like her. I blew them away and they couldn’t believe how quickly I put that together. That monologue helped me be the youngest person to win the Acting Awards at UCLA.
I have always just kept going. I’ve been fired, I’ve had thousands of rejections, but you keep going. I have had enough success to know this is my right path and it’s a marathon not a sprint.
What kind of risks or challenges have you encountered over the years working as an actor? And did they change your path in any way?
To decide to be an actor or any artist is a risk. You are bravely saying to the world I have to do this for my soul. My dad wanted me to get a teaching degree before I left UCLA for something to fall back on, and I said I can’t. I have to be willing to fall forward. It’s a brave stupid statement of a young person who has to live her dream. I had a great teacher after UCLA Milton Katselas who taught us how to put our dreams into action.
And look, like I said, getting fired or replaced on a show is devastating, but the first time it happened, I sent the cast a muffin basket on tape night (it was a sitcom) to wish them luck. It’s never personal, and if you believe in yourself you get up in time and get back in the ring. You’re nothing in this town if you haven’t been fired. It’s a long career if you’re lucky.
When thinking about the future of your work, what are you most excited about?
All the possibilities! I’m just getting started! It’s only been 21 years so far. I would love to do some more movies and I’m really excited to be back doing some comedy.
Is there a television or film character that reflects your personality in real life? If so, who?
No, but my favorite characters are Liz Lemon, Leslie Knope, Phoebe Buffay, and anything Maya Rudolph does ever.
What piece of advice would you have loved to receive when first starting out in the entertainment industry?
Find out who you are, what is your character type. You have to have a realistic idea of what you should play. I had some disappointed friends who didn’t want to accept their type. Also, Hollywood is overloaded with the prettiest girl from everyone’s high school in America. What makes you special? And please don’t get into this for the money and fame. There’s 1000 better ways to do that. The Kardashians have no conceivable talent except to make money and take photos. That is not an actor nor an artist in anyway. That’s fleeting fame.
Is there anyone in the industry whose eyewear style stands out to you — in front of the camera, or behind the scenes?
Tina Fey/Liz Lemon. I’m obsessed, clearly!
When your not filming, how do you recharge and stay inspired in Los Angeles?
I have a real life here. Friends and family and children. I have a beautiful home in the Hills and I have hobbies; I bake, and knit, and play guitar and hike. I have a very happy full life that breathes on its own outside of my career. I’m never happier than when I’m working the school carnival with my friends or going to Salt and Straw with the kids after sushi in the Valley. I was lucky that I didn’t trade my happiness for my career. I’ve got both.
Merrin wears the Baldwin in Blackwood and Otto in Diamond, both with Transitions grey lenses. Photos by Stefan Junir.
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