Why has the celebrated actress who starred in such classic films as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Chinatown" and "Network" flipped over movie directing?
"I don't know!" she replies with a mix of astonishment and pleasure.
Alas, the delicious roles aren't as abundant as they once were, but Dunaway was facing that deficiency more than a decade ago. Much more recent is her plunge into directing and it's not just a fallback, she insists. "It's my big passion. I want this more than anything I've ever wanted in my life before."
Over lunch, she speaks lickety-split with numerous digressions, including the observation that when it comes to (1) being interviewed, (2) eating a salad and (3) wearing braces on your teeth, you should undertake only two at a time. Yet here she is, fully engaged in all three.
She talks of plans to direct a full-length screen version of the Terrence McNally play "Master Class," then lovingly reflects upon her warmup act, an 18-1/2-minute film of Tennessee Williams' short story "The Yellow Bird," which she produced, directed and scripted. (It airs 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10:40 p.m. EDT Sunday on the WE: Women's Entertainment cable channel.)
Reflecting a remarkably sure hand for a rookie, the film tells of Alma, a preacher's daughter who for too long has chafed under the restrictions of a 1950s Southern upbringing where cigarettes and rock 'n' roll are considered mortal sins.
Needless to say, Alma breaks free and takes flight into a world full of earthly possibilities, heeding the words of a liberated local boy: "Hold on to life with both hands, till your fingers are broken." This is a line Dunaway cribbed from Williams' play "Orpheus Descending." It's her favorite line, she says, in all of Williams' writings.
In the mid-1970s Dunaway met Tennessee Williams while starring as Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire," and it was then she first encountered his 1947 story "The Yellow Bird." It captured his voice, "so kicky and fun," she recalls.
She certainly captured Williams' voice in her film: Posthumously he serves as its narrator, courtesy of excerpts from his recorded reading of the story.
Dunaway not only wrote the script but also cast her film, recruiting James Coburn and Brenda Blethyn as the parents; Michael Pitt as the dreamy-eyed boy, Stuff; and Cynthia Watros, an Emmy winner for the daytime drama "Guiding Light," as Alma. Dunaway also makes a brief appearance.
She scouted locations around Los Angeles that could represent backwoods Arkansas and New Orleans.
"I found a church I really liked in San Pedro, on the Internet," she says. "And Warner Bros. - I used their back lot. I MADE them let me use it! I begged!"
Principal photography was finished in a matter of days, she says, with a budget "in the VERY low six figures. I knew I had to stay at the bone all the time in terms of what I was spending.
"It was all instinct," she sums up, "and self-education. I've had very close relationships with my directors" - masters including Arthur Penn, Roman Polanski and Sidney Lumet - "and mostly, I really adored them. I studied hard and learned from them. They got me here."
Now Dunaway is directing a waiter in how to properly brew the blend of tea she has called for. Hmmm. Could her newfound passion be explained by a love of control?
Maybe a little, she allows. "But if that were all that it is," she adds with a laugh, "I'd go out and direct traffic.
"There's something about this filmmaking that really I respond to," she says, the look of wonder returning to her face.
"It's not the same as acting. I find it difficult to watch my movies, because I'm still saying, `Well, you could have done better there ... and there ... and there.' It's not that I'm not self-critical as a director, but you just love it so much because it's all that you are."
Thus does Dunaway hit upon a new metaphor for film directing, which is usually likened to a general mobilizing an army. For Dunaway - the mother of a grown son, Liam O'Neill - her job as a filmmaker is the maternal role of creating and nurturing her film, then sending it out into the world.
"And you love it for all its flaws," she explains, "because it's your child."
Her next child, "Master Class," is a portrait of the opera legend Maria Callas. Dunaway, who toured with the play a few years ago, owns the film rights and plans to re-create her role as the tempestuous diva, along writing and directing her adaptation. She hopes to begin shooting this fall.
"I've got about 20 pages of the script in a final version that I think REALLY works. But I'm full of modesty and humility," she cautions, thinking again of "The Yellow Bird" and all she put into it. "You do the best that you can, then it is what it is.
"All I know is, when I'm watching it, I'm smiling."