Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan plays scary grandma in ‘The Visit’
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“If I have a strength as an actress, it’s that I am versatile,” Deanna Dunagan said Tuesday as she prepared to attend the New York premiere of her new film “The Visit.” “Because of that, I’ve gotten to play so many different kinds of roles over the years.”
A good example: The Lincoln Park-based actress plays the seemingly sweet but really dark and twisted grandmother in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” — being released Friday, just weeks before the actress will open in a new Shattered Globe Theatre production of “Marvin’s Room” at Theater Wit here, portraying the totally lovely and funny Aunt Ruth.
Perhaps Dunagan’s most acclaimed role was as the diabolical Violet Weston in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” which the actress played in the original Steppenwolf production — and then on Broadway, earning the Tony Award for best actress in a play.
As for her Nana character in “The Visit,” Dunagan said she truly enjoyed working with Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) and delving into the development of her role as Nana. “Night is such a wonderful director. He loves making movies and he loves actors. When you do something he likes, he just giggles.”
Dunagan said it is intriguing to her that such a “gentle guy can make films with such dark themes and horror,” though she added that “this movie, to me, is sort of more like a fairy tale, with elements of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. … After all it does have that fairy tale element from ‘Hansel and Gretel’ with the child getting into the oven,” said Dunagan with a chuckle.
Among the aspects of shooting “The Visit” Dunagan enjoyed the most was working with the two young actors who play her frightened grandchildren. “Those kids were dolls,” said Dunagan. “Plus on top of working so hard on their characters, they had to try and get American dialects at the same time,” noting that Olivia DeJonge is from Perth, Australia, and Ed Oxenbould hales from Sydney.
“Those kids have strong Aussie accents in real life, but they did a great job playing Americans. … Listen, the Australians are generally much better at mimicking us than we are at mimicking them!”
Speaking about her Nana character as being “not exactly what you first think, when you initially see her in the movie,” Dunagan made an interesting comparison. “I don’t want this to sound very grand and all, but I think it’s true that I thought of Nana the same way I do about [Eugene] O’Neill’s characters.
“O’Neill’s characters often turn quickly from one mood to another — they turn on a dime. That was also true of Nana in ‘The Visit.’ So, that was what was so great about playing her.”
Now in rehearsals for the Oct. 1 opening of “Marvin’s Room,” Dunagan made a point of saying how delighted she was to be in the production — plus assistant directing for director Sandy Shinner, “who is one of my best friends. … I haven’t done that for a long time, and I’m learning so much for her.”
As for playing Aunt Ruth? “It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to do a purely sweet person. She is so dear. She doesn’t have a dark side like Nana or Violet Weston. She’s really funny. I love that about her.”