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June 04, 2014

Sister, Sister

One sibling is on screen, and one’s an ABC executive.

Valerie J. Nelson
  • Merrin (left) and Channing Dungey

The bonds of sisterhood are intertwined with television for Channing and Merrin Dungey, who shared an obsession with the medium throughout their Sacramento, California, childhood.

Both turned toward Hollywood while attending UCLA, where younger sister Merrin won a top acting prize as a sophomore.

She is best known for portraying Francie Calfo and her evil doppelgänger Allison Doren on ABC’s Alias. While enmeshed in Alias, she had recurring roles on two sitcoms, The King of Queens and Malcolm in the Middle, then returned to drama with Revenge, Hollywood Heights and Betrayal.

Channing pursued a career behind the cameras as a story editor and film producer before joining ABC’s drama team in 2003. By 2009 she was overseeing the development and acquisition of dramas. Last year the network named her executive vice-president, drama development, movies and miniseries.

Among the many programs she’s helped launch: Scandal, Revenge, Nashville and Once Upon a Time.

In a joint interview with Valerie J. Nelson, it’s clear who is used to being on stage. While Merrin is fast with an answer, both speak quickly — as if trying to fit the conversation in during a commercial break.

How did your fascination with TV start?

Merrin: We have always been super TV nerds. When the fall preview TV Guide came out, that was a big day for us. We would pore over it.

Channing: We each would have our own copy. We would make schedules of what we were going to watch.

Merrin: Before VCRs, we would audiotape Charlie’s Angels and Remington Steele and listen to them multiple times. We like movies — movies are fine. But TV was everything.

Channing: I spent 10 years in the feature film business, and when I got a job in television, it did feel like coming home.

Did you always plan for careers in entertainment?

Channing: No. At UCLA, I started out as a political science major, took a couple of film and TV classes as electives and then thought, “I can do this.”

Merrin: I grew up performing and always secretly wanted to be an actor. I was an English major, but I kept appearing in plays at UCLA, and then I got that acting award.

Channing: Denzel Washington gives her this award. Our parents come to see me graduate and all anybody can talk about is, “Your sister won this award.”

Merrin: Sorry. I still owe you for that.

Channing: I was super-proud.

Merrin: I totally eclipsed your thunder, but we survived and are still friends.

Channing: Even now, we still have long conversations about TV shows like Scandal or True Detective. We each have busy lives with kids, so we will get into these long text-message exchanges. 

Has Merrin benefited as an actor from having a sister who’s a network executive?

Merrin: Nope. It doesn’t help in any way. If Channing were a writer or a producer, and she was just in charge of making the best show possible, then maybe it could help. Sometimes the stars align, and I end up working on something she’s had something to do with.

Channing: Obviously it’s a small town. We’ll be casting all these pilots and people walk in and say, “You are related to Merrin.” I don’t do the casting, so it’s not me at the network saying, “This is who we have to cast.” I found out Merrin was cast on Betrayal after she got the role.

Thoughts about the randomness of career paths in the industry?

Channing: Our parents instilled a great work ethic in us. Mom was a teacher until we came along, and Dad worked for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. He had this long quote about persistence.

Merrin: He laminated it and put it on the wall.

Channing: It started out, “Nothing in the world will take the place of persistence.” We never shied away from hard work. When I was offered a job at ABC after I went in to make a pitch, you could say that was random, but I had worked in the feature business with the person I was meeting. That meeting was the intersection of preparedness and opportunity.

Merrin: As an actor, you have a lot less control. I earned a degree in theater at UCLA and spent 6 more years studying technique. For me, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve had some peaks, being on such series as King of Queens, Alias, Summerland. I’ve also been replaced on a show, a spinoff of Grey’s Anatomy. But it’s about persisting through that.

You’re talking about being replaced after shooting the Private Practice pilot?

Merrin: I had gone to New York, did the upfronts for the show, went away and got married. Then I found out I was being replaced. Honestly, it was the greatest gift. It was a lesson in “I don’t have control.” It all worked out for the best. Three months later I was pregnant with my first daughter. You are no actor if you’ve never been replaced or fired.

Channing: I was an executive at ABC when they said, “We need to give you a head’s up: we are replacing your sister.” That was really hard. Even though I was sitting in an executive seat, I couldn’t do anything about my sister’s job. That’s the hard part about being siblings in the business.

Name a professional accomplishment of your sister’s that made you proud.

Merrin: I was going to dinner with Channing when she said, “Do you want to see a cut of this show?” I didn’t want to go. It was Grey’s Anatomy, and Channing was its biggest champion. It became a phenomenon that’s still happening. It spawned many things, launched Shonda Rhimes and gave us Scandal.

Channing: Sometimes my sister plays roles that are reminiscent of who she is as a person, like Francie on Alias. When Francie was replaced with a clone who became known as Bad Francie, I saw a very different side of my sister. She had a fight scene with Jennifer Garner, and it was like watching someone else. I was literally in awe. That was the first time that happened, and it stuck with me.

What are your long-term professional goals?

Merrin: I want to be part of another series that is binge-worthy, a show that you can’t stop watching. To show up in a Scandal, Lost or Orange Is the New Black. Alias was binge-worthy.

Channing: I really enjoy what I do. The broadcast business is challenging these days, and it’s an exciting time to be at ABC. My job is part managerial, part creative and part production. The creative side gets me most excited, so someday maybe I’ll do more of that again.

Do you share any guilty pleasures?

Merrin: Awards shows, except we can’t watch the Emmys together because Channing’s always at them.

Channing: We have annual sister spa days.

Merrin: But when we went to Bacara [a Santa Barbara resort], what did we do?

Channing: We got room service and binged on Sex and the City. But we did go down to the pool.

This article was originally published in emmy magazine issue #4, 2014.

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