February 14, 2013
In the Brooklyn coffee shop full of twentysomethings clad in the neighbourhood camouflage of flannel shirts and beanies, it’s time to play spot the Hollywood star. It is not an easy task when Paul Dano is clothed in, yep, flannel shirt and beanie. He is well known, but difficult to recognise, having appeared in movies including Little Miss Sunshine and, most memorably, as a menacing preacher in There Will Be Blood in which he magnificently bitch-slapped Daniel Day-Lewis. The 28-year-old is in a relationship with Zoe Kazan — actress, screenwriter and grand-daughter of Hollywood director Elia — but, as the beanie and nervy “y’know”s suggest, Dano prefers anonymity to glamour and grandstanding.
In his latest film, For Ellen, he plays an unsuccessful, damaged rock singer, Joby, preparing to fight for custody of his daughter. Dano must carry So Yong Kim’s film while trying hard not to betray that he is freezing his nuts off. Filming in a snow-blanketed town in upstate New York, Joby is dressed in skinny black jeans and pointy boots, using mascara to highlight his under-chin bum-fluff.“That outfit did not cut it,” he says. “I got a throat infection. We were filming for three weeks and I got a steroid shot in my butt to push myself through my fever.”
Even so, it was “amazing to put on the tight pants and boots and feel like the character. Some people don’t like working with kids, but kids keep you honest. If you’re crossing a street in a scene you can’t be the selfish actor. You have to be in the moment so this little girl isn’t hit by a car.”
Dano, intense and serious but not preciously so, is adept at mixing off beat indie films with cool mainstream efforts such as the time travel drama Looper and Cowboys & Aliens. Now he is filming a thriller, Prisoners, alongside Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, then he’ll play the Beach Boy Brian Wilson in a biopic called Love and Mercy. “Indie or mainstream isn’t the choice I’m making,” he insists, then smiles. “Obviously I’ve got to make sure my bills are paid. It’s whether I want to work with the director. There’s got to be some exciting creative sparks.”
He is most relishing playing Wilson. “I will meet him. I’m letting the character slow-cook inside me. He’s a fascinating, beautiful spirit. I love the music, what Brian did with session musicians, building off Phil Spector. His songs were quite complex with beautiful instrumentation, key changes and vocal patterns, all stuff that wasn’t being done [then]. This won’t feel like work.” Dano will learn to play piano “to connect to the songs”.
Before that, though, evil Dano re-emerges alongside Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in the Turner Prize-winning artist turned director Steve McQueen’s new film, Twelve Years a Slave. It’s based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man from New York drugged and solved into slavery in the 1840s. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup and Dano a carpenter who treats Northup cruelly after he buys him.
“I hesitated about playing someone who behaves so hatefully,” Dano confesses.“You’reself-consciousabout it. But it’s my job.” But isn’t playing bad more enjoyable? “There is something delicious about it,” he grins. “Parts like this give me the opportunity to say things I would never say. I don’t know if that’s therapeutic, but it’s fun to let parts of yourself go.”
The actor grew up in Manhattan and was performing on stage from 11, although he had wanted to be a professional basketball play — he still plays , in Brooklyn. Jack Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest inspired him. “It was such a powerful story. He was so on fire.” Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber was so “brilliantly crazy, goofy and not afraid. I really admired the balls he had. My friends and I would do his voices at school.” Dustin Hoffman is another idol: “To do Midnight Cowboy and Kramer vs Kramer back to back is a dream to me.”
His first major movie role came in 2001, playing the victim of a paedophile victim in L.I.E., starring Brian Cox. “I didn’t think twice about it. I’m sure my parents were nervous about it but they didn’t try to stop me.”
Dano takes acting seriously. He and Day-Lewis “never had lunch together” while filming There Will Be Blood. “I don’t think we talked to each other. At the end of a hard day maybe we shook hands or gave each other a nod.”
He stays in character on-set and between scenes puts on headphones with appropriate music to keep him in the mood of the piece. For Joby he listened to Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC, then — for a scene in which he blisses out to a Whitesnake song — watched stripper videos. In “normal life” he listens to Neil Young.
What does he do when fans recognise him?“It’s sometimes nice when people come up to you about a film if it meant anything to them,” Dano says. “When I was 21 it was weird. I won’t ever be totally comfortable, but it’s less scary now.”
At some ice-hockey and basketball games people have shouted lines from There Will Be Blood at him. “I don’t care, but I would never do that.” As for fame, “you have some control over your life. You can want to be famous. I want to be an actor. I go out with friends to regular places. The actors I look up to are those whose work speaks for itself. I’m not saying mine does yet, but I hope it will.”
Dano seems diffident about awards. “They can be good for the film, but I don’t think they’re anything to live or die by. Though I’d be lying if, with Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, I said I wasn’t thinking: ‘Will we get nominated for Best Picture?’ ”
He ponders “some sports psychology from golf. If you’re putting for the birdie, focus on the putt you’ve practised a thousand times, the angle, how you hit it. If you’re thinking of the birdie you’re getting ahead of yourself and you might f*** up your shot. That’s how you should approach awards.”
He’s “pumped by ageing. I’m becoming a better actor, the parts are getting better”.
He and Kazan “are pretty regular people”; she is teaching him to cook. She wrote the film Ruby Sparks in which Dano played a writer who dreams up the perfect girlfriend (Kazan), but he says it wasn’t autobiographical. Being two actors means “we really understand and inspire each another. We respect each other, which is a big thing: to respect your partner and want the best for and be proud of them.”
Is marriage on the cards? “I guess we’ll see. I don’t know.” A slightly “busted” smile and frown fight it out. “You’ve asked her?” I say. “We’ve been together for a while. We like each other and we’ll do what’s best for our relationship.” Children? “Some day. It’s something I’d like.” The sentence tails off. He laughs, pulls his beanie down, then heads out, happily anonymous, into the cold.