Ask Faye Dunaway whether she speculated about a movie career when she was a student at Boston University acting in dramas like Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape’’or when she started getting stage roles after graduation, and she delivers a multilayered answer that offers an intriguing glimpse into how one of the most celebrated film actresses of the past half-century sees herself.
At first, with hard-to-refute logic, Dunaway replies: “Yeah, sure. It’s a profession where you can make a lot of money, you can have fame, you can use your craft in the movies.’’
But she immediately adds: “I think it wasn’t something I was yearning for. I was doing what I needed to do at that moment: Learning my craft. You have to know what you’re doing. You can only do that, I think, by working in the theater. You are forced: You have to make the performance realer and deeper and as alive as it has ever been before. It’s an important — an essential — part of growing as an actress.’’
So has she relied on her stage technique during a career that has included unforgettable performances in landmark films like “Bonnie and Clyde’’ (1967), “Chinatown’’ (1974), and “Network’’ (1976), just to name a notable few? “Completely. Utterly,’’ Dunaway replies. “If I didn’t have a theater technique and a craft, and didn’t know to do all the things you need to do to make a performance alive and real, I couldn’t do movies. I brought that to [my] movies.’’
Well, you might say the twain are about to meet on a Boston stage, because starting June 22, Dunaway will portray Katharine Hepburn at the Huntington Avenue Theatre in a pre-Broadway engagement of Matthew Lombardo’s one-woman biographical play, “Tea at Five.’’
Dunaway as Hepburn: It’s a somewhat dizzying meta-mashup. How often does this happen, one famous movie star portraying another famous movie star live onstage, fusing nearly a century of motion-picture history in the process? In the city where one of them got her start, no less?
“I have great history with Boston. I love the city. I love all my experiences there,’’ says Dunaway, who still credits BU for enabling her to “connect with professional people.’’
Though their film careers overlapped to a degree, Dunaway did not know Hepburn. “I wish I had, but no,’’ Dunaway, 78, says in a phone interview. “She was one of the best. But I’m getting to know her now.’’ Does Dunaway think her own experience as a movie star helps when it comes to playing Hepburn? “Yes, of course. I can identify. It’s something that I’m kind of home free on. I know how to deal with those things and know how to dig into them. It’s an enormous help that I have been there before.’’
“Tea at Five’’ takes place in 1983 at Hepburn’s home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, Conn. While convalescing from a severe foot injury suffered in a car accident, the screen legend reflects upon her life and times, from the long-ago family tragedy that haunts her still to her bumpy rise to movie stardom to her turbulent, one-sided relationship with Spencer Tracy.
Dunaway says she admires Hepburn’s resilience in the face of tragedy and loss. “How she dealt with it was she went forward,’’ says Dunaway. “She went forward with great energy.’’ When it comes to general unstoppability, Dunaway concedes, “I have aspects of that as well,’’ though “I don’t think I’m as good as Hepburn was at it.’’
Lombardo revised the play into a vehicle for Dunaway. The original version — which premiered at Hartford Stage in 2002, was presented at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater that same year, off-Broadway in 2003, and at Boston’s Shubert Theatre in 2004, all starring Kate Mulgrew — unfolded in two parts, first in 1938, and the second in 1983. Following the Boston run of the newly revised version, “Tea at Five’’ is slated to transfer to the unforgiving crucible of Broadway, where Dunaway has not performed in 37 years.
Not much pressure there. Then again, this actress has dealt with plenty of pressure cookers in her life.
“There are always nerves,’’ Dunaway says. “They haven’t set in completely yet, but they will. It’s part of the thrill. The excitement and the nerves go together. It’s part of the process. Once you start doing what you’re doing, the nerves dissipate. Either the nerves go into the energy of the performance, or they’re no longer important.’’
What she seems to be feeling most acutely at the moment is anticipation. “I’ve been wanting to move back to the theater, which are my roots,’’ she says. “This play, ‘Tea at Five,’ is pretty amazing. The story of Katharine Hepburn and who she was and what she achieved, my Lord.’’
The story of Faye Dunaway and who she is and what she achieved is also a corker. Consider this trajectory: Less than a week after graduating with a BFA from BU in 1962, and only 21 years old, Dunaway made her Broadway debut opposite Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons.’’
Then consider the whirlwind year of 1964, when Dunaway performed on Broadway in fully three productions, all of them directed by the legendary Elia Kazan: Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall,’’ inspired by his marriage to Marilyn Monroe; “But For Whom Charlie’’; and “The Changeling.’’
But it was in 1965 that Dunaway landed her true breakout role, playing a politician’s wife with a big secret to keep in the off-Broadway production of “Hogan’s Goat,’’ by William Alfred, Dunaway’s mentor and friend, who taught playwriting at Harvard. “That meant everything,’’ Dunaway says of the “Hogan’s Goat’’ role. “It possibly led to the film career.’’
Ah yes, the film career. In 1967, Dunaway starred opposite Warren Beatty in “Bonnie and Clyde,’’ a highly romanticized portrait of Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. (Fifty years later, Dunaway and Beatty would team up in less salutary fashion at the Academy Awards. By coincidence, Beatty is an offstage character in “Tea at Five.’’ More meta.)
To the role of Bonnie Parker, Dunaway brought the combination of avidity, glamour, and sheer presence that would become her trademarks. The movie was a hit, and suddenly, at age 26, Dunaway was world-famous. “It was quite tumultuous,’’ recalls Dunaway. “It turns your head around in a way. I was very young.’’
The years that followed would be eventful ones for Dunaway, highlighted by her portrayal of the mysterious, troubled Evelyn Mulwray, opposite Jack Nicholson, in “Chinatown’’ — “The most classic film,’’ exclaims Dunaway. “ ‘Chinatown’ is my favorite’’ — and her Oscar-winning turn as ruthless TV programming executive Diana Christensen in “Network.’’ (Also during that decade: Dunaway was married from 1974-1979 to Peter Wolf, frontman of the Boston-based J. Geils Band.)
Dunaway is tactful when asked about “Orphan Black’’ star Tatiana Maslany, whose uninspired performance as Diana in the recent Broadway production of “Network’’ pales next to Dunaway’s icy brilliance in the role. Dunaway says that Bryan Cranston, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of unhinged news anchor Howard Beale, was “amazing’’ at the performance she saw, then adds carefully, “The wonderful actress (Maslany) didn’t quite get the edge’’ of Diana.
It could seldom be said of Dunaway that she lacked an edge, from 1968’s “The Thomas Crown Affair’’ (much of which was filmed in Boston and other Massachusetts locations) opposite Steve McQueen to the 1975 political thriller “Three Days of the Condor’’ opposite Robert Redford to 1987’s “Barfly’’ opposite Mickey Rourke. She played Serena Joy in the 1990 film version of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,’’ and costarred with a young Angelina Jolie in the 1998 HBO film “Gia.’’
Then there is 1981’s infamous “Mommie Dearest,’’ in which Dunaway played an abusive Joan Crawford. While the film is widely viewed as camp, the fault is not Dunaway’s. Watch it again; her portrait of Crawford is mesmerizing.
In 2017 Dunaway had what she later called “one of the worst moments I’ve ever had” at the Oscars, when she and Beatty were handed the wrong envelope and she mistakenly announced that the Best Picture award had gone to “La La Land.” The winner was actually “Moonlight.” Dunaway and Beatty got a do-over – and a standing ovation for being good sports — when they returned at last year’s Oscars to again present the Best Picture award. “As they say, presenting is lovelier the second time around,’’ Dunaway quipped to the Oscar crowd.
There was a time earlier in her career when Dunaway tried to take a stage role every two years. “Going back renewed the craft, got me back to where I was when I started,’’ she says. “In films, you use up technique, in a certain way.’’ In 1973, she played Blanche DuBois opposite Jon Voight’s Stanley Kowalski in a Los Angeles production of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.’’ The Los Angeles Times praised her “riveting, original interpretation of Blanche.’’ In the mid-1990s, Dunaway won acclaim for her stage portrayal of Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,’’ the national tour of which came to Boston.
Now she’s heading back to Boston once again (where, by coincidence, a new adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s “Yerma,’’ which Dunaway performed in while at BU, is being presented by the Huntington Theatre Company) and back again to the stage. To hear her talk about it is to hear a great actress describing a return home, by way of a door she never tires of walking through.
“I had a major film career, and that was very important to me,’’ Dunaway says, then cites another movie star who has recently made a much-publicized return to the stage: Glenda Jackson, who just wrapped up a Broadway run in the title role of “King Lear’’ and won a Tony Award last year for Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women.’’
“I’d love to be playing what Glenda Jackson is playing,’’ says Dunaway. “This is the time for those roles.’’ She adds, “Stretching is important: Being able to find new things, being able to expand your abilities if the part calls for something that you maybe haven’t done before — and you’re able to achieve it.’’
TEA AT FIVE
At the Huntington Avenue Theatre, June 22-July 14. Tickets: From $69, www.bostontheatrescene.com/season/tea-at-five/
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin