Brendan Dunphy is an actor. And an entomologist. And a producer of eclectic Irish plays. People keep telling him to move to Hollywood, but he stays stubbornly rooted in Iowa. So what makes Brendan Dunphy tick?
Brendan Dunphy is not a household name. Yet.
But the 29-year-old is already well known in two very diverse circles: Des Moines theatre-goers and scientists who follow the mosquito and tick populations in the Midwest.
If that sounds crazy, it’s not. Dunphy, a 2007 ISU graduate with a degree in animal ecology, entomology, and zoology, is a research associate in Iowa State’s Medical Entomology Laboratory. You might say being an entomologist is his day job. He runs the university insectary and oversees the surveillance program of mosquitoes and ticks in Iowa. He even documented the arrival and establishment of an exotic mosquito species in the state: Aedes japonicas.
Dunphy’s alter-ego is an actor and producer of both stage and film. You may have seen him in Iowa State’s “Choose Your Adventure” television commercials. He’s the long-haired narrator with the friendly smile.
On the professional stage, he’s played characters ranging from deranged killers and a psycho hotel clerk to a priest and a crippled Irish boy. He may be best known locally for his dogged persistence in producing the complete series of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s stage plays in a central Iowa market that likely never heard of McDonagh (although his plays have garnered Tony Award nominations and his indy film In Bruges received critical acclaim). Dunphy’s production company, Mooncoin, named after the Irish village in which his grandfather lived, is the only production company in the world to stage McDonagh’s complete series.
Dunphy might attribute his tenacity – and his perfectionist nature – to the advice given to him by a Tae Kwon Do instructor he had growing up in eastern Iowa: “Don’t ever settle for second best at anything you do.”
Brendan Dunphy was born in 1983 in Oxford, Ohio. He spent his preschool years in Zachary, La., but moved with his parents and two brothers to eastern Iowa when he was 8 years old.
His love of hot summers followed him from Louisiana, where he played baseball year-round. He liked to hunt for frogs, snakes, and crawfish.
By the time he moved to Wilton, Iowa, where he went to high school, Dunphy’s family had moved around a lot. Dunphy was a loner.
“I didn’t have a large network of friends,” he says. “I had a wiener dog named Moose. He was my best friend.”
But Dunphy was athletic, and he developed into a good student. He was active in martial arts and played football. He became a bank teller at age 16 at the Wilton Savings Bank. His supervisors trusted him to lock the safes and arm the security system.
He graduated from high school with nearly a 4.0 grade point average.
Dunphy collects samples of mosquito larvae as part of the mosquito surveillance program he conducts in the state of Iowa.
The lure of the stage
After attending Muscatine Community College for two years, Dunphy arrived at Iowa State. He wanted to be a veterinarian, but not for long.
“I didn’t love the idea of vet school once I got here,” he says. “I thought I had a clear idea, but then I had to change my plan. I liked animals in a wild setting, so I wanted to study them in their natural habitat, not in a clinical setting.” He became a zoology major.
He studied for a semester at Humboldt State University in northern California in wildlife biology.
“I wanted to learn about the world around me,” he says. “I did not view college as a vehicle for employment. I had a natural, genuine curiosity. I was a sponge.”
Dunphy added majors in animal ecology and entomology. At the encouragement of his father, he also took acting classes.
“My dad was shy. He regretted not having done theatre himself. He said, ‘Maybe you should give it a try.’ He thought I’d be good at it.”
Dunphy auditioned for the ISU Theatre Department’s production of James and the Giant Peach. He was cast in the lead role.
“I’ve been doing theatre ever since,” he says. “It became an addiction.”
And he was good at it, too. One of his theatre professors was the late Patrick Gouran, who went on to become one of Dunphy’s mentors.
“Brendan’s special quality as an actor rests in the fact that he creates people
on stage and screen,” Gouran said this fall. “Not personalities, not characters, not entertainment ‘stars.’ This is a rare quality in an actor, and Brendan Dunphy has it.” (Gouran passed away in December.)
Dunphy went on to perform in ISU productions of A Christmas Carol, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Intimate Apparel. He spent a semester at the
University of Massachusetts Amherst and stayed for the summer, both working
with turtles and performing in Hamlet with the Hampshire Shakespeare Company.
He graduated from Iowa State with a triple major and a 4.0 grade point average.
In a rehearsal for Martin McDonough’s A Behanding in Spokane, Dunphy as Mervyn is threatened at gunpoint by actor Dan Chase as Carmichael.
Dunphy found himself acting on camera for the first time in 2007. He did all the usual first-time-actor work: commercials, industrials, short films. He wasn’t very selective.
Then he got an agent and “learned what not to do.” He was cast in his first of several Iowa State commercials in 2008 from an open audition pool.
“I’m proud of those commercials,” he says. “That was a feel-good project.”
He made his first feature-length film, “Sugar,” about a minor-league baseball player. Dunphy was an extra. He played Jordan, a teenage hustler, in the film “16 to Life.”
After that, he briefly considered moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting.
“People told me, ‘Go to Hollywood,’” he said. “I thought about it, but a director told me, ‘You have a good thing going here, so why leave?’ I decided I didn’t want to be a cliché. I want to show people you can have a life for yourself in show business and still live in Iowa.”
At the same time he was starting his film career, he discovered the plays of
Martin McDonagh. He was cast in a 2008 StageWest Theatre Company production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore in Des Moines. The play about Irish terrorists was the funniest thing Dunphy had ever read.
“I thought, ‘This is the theatre I’ve yearned for for years – it appeals to 40-year-old construction workers,’” Dunphy said. “I wanted to be in all these plays. I wanted to do all these roles. I wanted to do them NOW.”
So he formed his own production company, Mooncoin Entertainment, building his first set in his garage. He traveled on his own to Ireland for research and to learn the native dialect. (“I needed to get a feel for the place,” he said.
“I wanted to know how to build a cottage.”) He partnered with the Des Moines Social Club and recruited a talented pool of local actors and technicians.
He produced and acted in one play after another: A Skull in Connemara in 2009; The Lonesome West, The Pillowman, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 2010; The Lieutenant of Inishmore and A Behanding in Spokane in 2011; and, finally, The Cripple of Inishmaan in 2012.
Zachary Mannheimer, founder and executive director of the Des Moines Social Club, said about Dunphy, “He is a great example of what the theatre scene in Des Moines needs: people not afraid to take risks.”
Dunphy is Flynn Fitzpatrick in the Iowa Filmmakers’ comedy series “Marooned.”
In the summer of 2008, Dunphy began working on a film, The Yin of Gary Fischer’s Life, with Paul David Benedict and Scott Siepker (’05 psychology). The trio eventually launched Iowa Filmmakers, a production company formed to create high-quality long- and short-format films in Iowa. (You may be familiar with “Iowa Nice,” a YouTube sensation with more than 1.2 million views. That’s an Iowa Filmmakers production.)
The team has worked on a number of projects since 2010. Central among them is Valentine Road, a dramatic web serial that takes place in prohibition-era Iowa. Two components of the series are complete: “Eye of the Storm,” a short clip about two hit men (Dunphy is “The Man in Black”); and “A Kidnapping at Castelle Manor,” a prologue to season one. Filming for the rest of the series is currently on hold as the group secures additional funding.
“Our budget has increased from five digits to half a million dollars,” Dunphy explained. “Valentine Road is a complex production.”
Valentine Road is a period piece, with a need for historically accurate costumes, guns, cars, and locations. The show has a large cast and complex technical requirements.
“This is the ultimate project [for us], but the painful realization is that we have to put it off for awhile,” he says.
Meanwhile, the team is working on other projects. Currently in the works is a comedy series called “Marooned.” It’s the story of a pair of actors who find themselves stuck in Iowa with nothing to do after a scandal shuts down the state’s film office. Dunphy plays Flynn Fitzpatrick, a soap star from L.A.; Siepker is Liam, an actor from New York. A pilot episode has been shot; the next step is selling the series.
“We’re hoping Hulu or Netflix will pick it up,” Dunphy said. “They are looking for original content. We would love to help Des Moines become a player in the industry of online production and prove you can do film and theatre from Iowa.”
Dunphy is the narrator in Iowa State’s “Choose Your Adventure” television commercials; this one features Nicole Edmond, ’04 biology, who went on to study at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
On location in Story City, Iowa, Dunphy is the producer of the Valentine Road prologue to season one, “A Kidnapping at Castelle Manor.”
Coming full circle
Brendan Dunphy is always working.
“I want to do it all,” he says. “To have as many adventures as possible. On my death bed I want to say, ‘That was a really, really great ride.’”
He continues to trap and survey ticks and mosquitoes in the state of Iowa, tracking the spread of Lyme Disease, West Nile, and other viruses and bacteria transmitted by the insects. He oversees the department’s insectary and supervises a staff of undergraduate students.
“Like everything else he does, Brendan throws himself into his lab work with tremendous passion,” says Lyric Bartholomay, ISU associate professor of medical entomology. “He’s talented enough that he can do exactly what he wants to do. No one can compare to him in terms of what he knows about
mosquitoes in Iowa.”
Even as his show business career expands, Dunphy says, “I can’t see myself ever giving up science. I love working in academia. I can see myself doing more research.”
Right now, Dunphy is in the midst of accomplishing one of his lifelong dreams of having his own television show educating people about animals and the natural world. He is hosting television programs on the topic of insects for the Science Channel (also known as Discovery Science) and the BBC.
He’s also actively pursuing another of his loves: rock’n’roll music. Just this fall Dunphy had his first experience in the recording studio. He’s a singer and lyricist, and he says he’s hoping to eventually form a band, perform live shows, record songs in the studio, and make music videos.
Oh, and then there’s Broadway. That’s another one of his professional goals.
“I never relax,” Dunphy says. “I’m never satisfied.”
About this story | By Carole Gieseke, editor of VISIONS. Originally published in the winter 2013 issue.