People seem to underestimate Juliet Dunn. Before winning the starring role in her break out movie, she was eliminated during a meet-and-greet by a casting director without having the opportunity to audition. Before starring as both an actor and singer in Niagara’s nationally-renowned Shaw Festival, she was again refused an audition. In both cases, a little serendipity and determination earned her a chance to show her stuff. And the thing you have to know about Juliet Dunn is that when she’s given that opportunity to show what she’s got, people walk away convinced that she can conquer the world.
I caught this actor and singer on her cell phone, while she was finding supplies for her garden. “I’ve never been so excited,” she proclaims to me after telling her husband Peter Shea to go on without her. “Right now we’re at Home Depot picking up gardening stuff. On the ship, for the last few days, we were just so excited about renovating our garden.”
While gardening is one of this woman’s many hobbies, jazz is her new passion. The ship she’s referring to is a world cruise that she and Peter have been performing on for the last five months. While she’s not a big fan of cruise ships, she’s even less a fan of the cold and has spent the last four winters travelling. Her first show back on land was for the Music Niagara Festival on July 25th and was called Twelve O’Clock Jump.
A long history of performance went into this show. The chain of events that made Juliet Dunn such a prolific performer in the region is incredible. I am as spell bound listening to Juliet outlining her journey from French au pair to disco star to movie star and beyond as I was while listening to her jazz vocals hours before on You Tube.
When Juliet was 18 she decided to move to Paris to learn French. She got a job as an au pair, moved to the city knowing no one, and spent five months cooking for three children and looking after the youngest. While it was hard to be away from her family, she grew increasingly passionate about the city and the arts, which she had recently discovered. She eventually took jobs waitressing and checking coats to pay for her passion, and began to dress up as Diana Ross and lip-synching to her songs. With a new taste for performing, she jumped at the opportunity when her friend suggested she be one of two back-up singers for Groove Allegiance, a band that had scheduled a one-time, 600 seat concert.
She loved the month of rehearsals and rambles for only a short time as she tries to articulate the pure pleasure that this show brought her: “I mean, it was exhilarating. I was on a natural high for days. It was just so much fun. The connection with the other band members and the other singer. It just felt right…. it doesn’t feel like work, you know? It’s fun. And also the joy you’re bringing to the audience. They’re there and they’re happy and you’re helping them have a good night.”
This show led to more work when the lead singer, Privat, suggested they write a few songs together. She got a singing coach and the pair started jamming. The result was Flowing Downstream. When record company Air Play Records heard it they signed on and the single went to number five in clubs. This was one of two disco singles that the pair created, which shot up the charts.
Around the same time, she attended a meet-and-greet for potential actors to play in TV movie ‘L’Amerloque’ (The Yankee). They were looking for an 18 year-old, but always honest Juliet told the casting-director that, while she didn’t look it she was 26. “That must have stuck with her because she never called me in and I never met the director,” Juliet explains.
Two months later she was spotted at a restaurant by the casting director and was called over. She was finally introduced to the director, Jean-Claude Sussfeld, but the role had already been filled by Dee Dee Bridgewater’s daughter; however when two weeks later the young actress backed out, Sussfeld remembered Juliet from the restaurant. They called her back in and she got the part.
Such odd coincidences seem to happen often to Juliet. “The day the movie came out, I thought ‘I can’t really take the night off to watch the movie because I just got a new job waitressing in a jazz club.’ That night, who do I serve, but Dee Dee Bridgewater!”
After thirteen years in Paris, she moved back to Vancouver with her then-husband. She began to star in award-winning performances of Me and My Girl and Little Shop of Horrors. Other actors began suggesting that she send her material to the Shaw Festival. Months went by without her hearing anything back and she eventually called in January. They had indeed received her stuff, but she didn’t have an audition. They suggested if she show up the artistic director may have time for her.
“I had nothing else going, being in Vancouver at the time auditioning for film and TV, so I decided to go,” she tells me. “I took some knitting and sat there for two and a half hours and he auditioned me. I was the very last person. Ten days later I got a call.” They gave her an 8 month contract and she moved to the region. She hasn’t looked back.
“As much as I’d love to live in Vancouver because my family’s there I just love being part of the Niagara region,” she exclaims. “I think it’s fantastic. There’s just so much diversity. I love the wineries. Wine and jazz go together so well.”
She performed for two years in the Shaw Festival and then did two tours with the Carousel Players. She met now-husband Peter Shea in the region and the two got married this January. With musically-gifted hubby in tow, Juliet is singing in festivals and at events throughout the region. The pair forms the back bone of the Shea D Duo, Trio Parisienne, Juliet Dunn Quartet, and Kit Kat Collective. The two are performing for Friends of Crystal Beach on August 1 and for the 2nd annual Passion in Morrie Gardens on August 21.
At the end of our conversation, Juliet returns to her shopping and I contemplate what would have happened if people’s incorrect first impressions of Juliet had of stuck. Given the opportunity, Juliet shined to those who underestimated what she was capable of. And, if you’re so inclined to give Juliet a chance at one of her many upcoming performances, I’m sure she’ll shine for you too.
Editor’s Note: For more information about Juliet Dunn and her upcoming performances check out her website at http://www.julietdunn.ca. If you want to know more about Music Niagara visit http://www.musicniagara.org.