Griffin Dunne's sister's murder provides the pulse of his family memoir

Griffin Dunne was born into privilege: a family that came from money and a home in Beverly Hills; his father, Dominick Dunne, was a Hollywood producer hosting the likes of Billy Wilder and Sean Connery at his parties while his uncle, John Gregory Dunne, and aunt, Joan Didion, were writers who had their own celebrity circles.

But Dunne has also endured his fair share of trauma and tragedy. His father was forced to repress his sexuality until his drinking and secret love life destroyed his marriage; his mother later developed multiple sclerosis; his brother, Alex, ricocheted between brilliance and empathy and crippling mental health crises; and his sister, Dominique, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend just as her own star was on the rise.

Dunne carved his own path, starring in the films “An American Werewolf in London,” “After Hours” and “Johnny Dangerously,” while producing movies that included “Running on Empty.” But his memoir, “The Friday Afternoon Club,” is purposely subtitled “A Family Memoir” — while it is filled with countless bold-faced names, it is less a behind-the-curtain showbiz tell-all and more an examination of the ties that bind and fray.

Even Dunne’s on-set scenes often return to that theme — the most memorable moment from filming “Johnny Dangerously” was the day that the verdict was handed down in the long and tumultuous trial for his sister’s killer. The movie’s star, Michael Keaton, had filming abruptly shut down so Dunne could leave to be with his family, a story that Dunne still gets choked up recounting during our interview.

This video interview, with Dunne in his New York City home, has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to write the book now?

Writing a book was on my bucket list, along with learning guitar and Spanish, both of which have lagged far behind. I grew up with dyslexia, which was a relatively new diagnosis then and I was treated like a lab rat. I literally went to a place after school where they wore white coats and held clipboards and watched me struggle through reading on these machines that would isolate word after word. I was also held back a year but was in a family of very literate, cultured people who read books. My fear was that I was stupid, so along the way I thought writing a book would be an incredible accomplishment.

I’ve been collecting stories about my life as well as my family’s going back to my great-grandparents and I was interested in how questionable behavior and certain kinds of addictions got passed along to my parents and me.

How much of the writing was about understanding your place in that lineage and your own story, and how much was preserving Dominique’s memory or coming to terms with the loss?

As time went by, I gained perspective on the loss and the way that affected my life. But I also needed the perspective to understand how extraordinary all my family members were, and my mother’s and father’s own difficulties. It just sort of broke my heart as I was going through it, looking back at my father’s struggles with his sexual identity and with alcohol.

Since I wrote chronologically I wasn’t sure how much Dominique’s murder and the story of the trial and judicial system would play into the book. But that turned out to be the pulse of the story, my sister’s presence was always there.

Writing in order as I remembered it, you actually see places and details in the courtroom and the district attorney’s office, things that you hadn’t thought about until you conjured them. At the end of every day’s work when writing about that, I was just amazed how much we went through. I almost became like a reader going, “I can’t believe that happened.”

You’ve lived in New York a long time but you were raised in Beverly Hills. How much did growing up there shape you?

L.A. is very much in my DNA. Before we had driver’s licenses, my friend Charlie and I would go to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and sit in the coffee shop and hang out with hookers and these old Hollywood has-beens or steal my mother’s car and drive around — we drove past the house where the Manson killings happened the night they’d found the bodies. And my aunt and uncle always included me in their social events and I was always the youngest kid in the room at these parties with all those filmmakers and I was taken around by Eve Babitz to all these interesting parties in Hollywood.

So that was a huge influence on me wanting to be an actor and a filmmaker and it could only have happened in L.A. But I needed New York — the weather, the danger of possibly getting mugged, working in the theater while waiting tables or working screwy jobs. I felt my life would be incomplete without that experience.

How old were you when you realized your charmed celebrity-filled life was not typical and how old were you when you began seeing the downside of it, to understand your father’s neediness and the impact that might’ve had on you?

I saw the downside first, and I saw it relatively young. My father was the first to talk about his superficiality, his social climbing, the importance he placed on getting invited to parties and having celebrities to his house for parties. I found the clinging to celebrity and the name-dropping uncomfortable and I found myself embarrassed for my father, which is a terrible feeling.

But in the early ‘90s, I looked at his scrapbooks, which I used to make fun of — they were leatherbound and must be 25 pages, with photos of Billy Wilder, David Niven, George Stevens, and a young Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper and Jane Fonda — and I was so thankful he kept this record.

Were you wary of dropping all those names in your book?

That’s the other great irony. I didn’t mean for it to be a name-dropping extravaganza but when it came time to tell my story, I’d be lying if I didn’t mention all those names. They just fell into the path of my life. I couldn’t tell the story of my childhood without all those people in our living room drinking our booze and dancing. Those were the memories that really affected me. And I didn’t know Carrie Fisher was going to be famous. I just knew she was my best friend when she was 15.

You’ve produced and directed in addition to acting. Are they all equally satisfying or do you feel you should have devoted more time to one or the other?

I wanted desperately to be an actor when I came to New York and I did everything but actually get acting jobs. And then at 23 I was able to produce “Chilly Scenes of Winter” for United Artists and thought it was great and immersive and I was learning so much. But the irony is I gave myself a small part and that launched my acting career. So I just thought I’d do both. At some point, I beat myself up for not just focusing on my acting but when I was writing the book, I realized I’d never looked at my actual career in total and realized how much I’d learned about movies and how many extraordinary people I met who I wouldn’t have if I was just an actor. So I came away quite proud of having so many diverse accomplishments.

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