Daphne Zuniga comes home

After a career of movies (The Sure Thing, Spaceballs) and TV (Melrose Place, One Tree Hill), Daphne Zuniga was ready to go back where it all started: to the theater.

The Berkeley native was something of a rebel as a girl until a wise teacher channeled her energy into something completely foreign to her at that time: drama class.

That led to classes in the Young Conservatory at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, and from there Zuniga headed to college (UCLA) and a career that has kept her mostly in front of cameras.

At the moment, however, she is back in the Bay Area, living in the East Bay and commuting to San Francisco, where she’s starring in Theresa Rebeck’s acclaimed dark comedy The Scene at SF Playhouse.

“Last year, when I was on set, I’d find myself longing for the process of rehearsing,” the 45-year-old Zuniga says during a rehearsal break. “My job is a lot of work, traveling a lot, long hours. I was feeling like I had forgotten what I really fell in love with in the beginning. I was missing rehearsal, which you don’t get in TV because it all goes so fast.”

The other day, while driving into San Francisco across the Bay Bridge, Zuniga was struck by a thought: “It occurred to me that I had gotten exactly what I wished for. I was back on stage, and it’s in the place where I first fell in love with acting, two blocks away from where I studied at 14. I am overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Well, maybe not overwhelmed. “Now we’re rehearsing, and I’m bitching and moaning because it’s such a long, tedious process,” Zuniga says with a laugh. “Can’t we just print that already? I’m kidding. Theater is such a different animal. I love it. It’s so great to be back home.”

Zuniga has never been one to strategize her career. Even in college, when she was roommates with Amy Resnick, who has become one of the Bay Area’s most popular actors, she didn’t form a long-term plan. When she and Resnick auditioned for an agent as scene partners, they were both signed the same day.

“Every time I try to strategize, it never seems to work,” Zuniga says. “It’s not exactly like you’re blowing in the wind. But things have a tendency to come up.”

So how did Zuniga, who hasn’t been onstage since a production of Moliere’s Tartuffe in Los Angeles five years ago, end up in a hot play in her old stomping grounds? The simple answer: a friend hooked her up.

Jennifer Seibel, SF Mayor Gavin Newsom’s fiancee, had performed at SF Playhouse in Six Degrees of Separation, and while in LA having lunch with Zuniga and mentioned that she had just read The Scene.

Oddly enough Zuniga, who recently acquired a New York apartment to put her in proximity of more theater opportunities, had also read The Scene, which was sent to her by another theater company.

Within 24 hours, Zuniga had been in touch with SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English, with director Amy Glazer, and the next thing she knows, Zuniga is in rehearsal and spending a lot of time looking for parking spaces in San Francisco.

About Stella, the character she’s playing in The Scene, Zuniga says: “She works very hard. She strives to be the best at what she does, and because she’s a hard worker, a lot of people around her annoy her. She supports her husband, who was a TV actor, but he hasn’t worked in a while. Then this horrible thing happens with her marriage, and she doesn’t know how to cope. She’s worked so hard for a lfie that looks good on paper. Then this tragedy happens, life happens, and she’s at a loss. Her husband betrays her. How many of us know what to do when that happens? It’s a sharp play with relief in the humor.

In addition to her TV — and now stage — work, Zuniga is an activist.

“It’s all Berkeley,” she says. “Growing up in Berkeley put me in therapy for 20 years, but it also gave me a sense of no boundaries. No no’s. If there’s a no, challenge it. That’s from the Bay Area. That’s San Francisco. That’s the mentality, the world I was born into. There’s no other place like it, not even Greenwich Village. We combine creativity and open-mindedness with action. We create stuff here in California. That’s why I love it here and am thrilled to be back.”

One of Zuniga’s causes — saving the planet, basically — resulted in The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED a documentary based on the Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences that aim to bring together great thinkers and speakers from all walks of life and gives them 18 minutes to make “the best talks of their lives.”

“I’ve seen all these talks,” Zuniga says, “and I had to do what I could to inspire people. I though that the masses needed to see this and experience what I experienced there. I left with my brain burst wide open, my heart…it was like wow! So much more is possible than what we’re led to believe. human beings need to be reminded how amazing we are. We know down deep that our passions are worthy and our passion and longing for a better world are worthy. Why not believe in them, why not make these things come to be?”

The documentary is available at all the usual outlets includeing Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com and Borders.

For information about TED, check out the Web site here.

Visit Zuniga’s personal Web site here.

The Scene continues through March 8 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.

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