Ever since breaking out as a troubled teen in “L.I.E.,” Paul Dano has proved himself to be one of the best actors of his generation by going toe-to-toe with acting titans like Daniel Day-Lewis (in “There Will Be Blood”), Kevin Kline (in “The Extra Man”) Robert De Niro (in “Being Flynn”) and Harrison Ford (in “Cowboys & Aliens”), while still managing to leave a lasting impression. In So Yong Kim’s bleak character study “For Ellen” (out this Friday in select theaters and on VOD), the Brooklynite goes solo as a troubled rocker, and comes out with a performance that rivals some of the best from the actors he’s worked alongside over the course of his eclectic career.
Donning a black leather jacket, eye liner and tight jeans, Dano plays Joby Taylor, a divorced rocker, who at the outset of Kim’s drama agrees to sign divorce papers for his estranged wife in order to get money from the sale of their home. Trouble arises when he realizes his daughter is also part of the bargain and he will be forfeiting all parental rights to her.
Indiewire sat down with Dano in New York to discuss the film and his upcoming supporting turn in Steve McQueen’s anticipated follow-up to “Shame,” “12 Years a Slave.”
Both Joby and Calvin, the writer you played recently in “Ruby Sparks,” are pretty self-centered types.
I guess you could say that, but for pretty different reasons. I certainly have never thought about them together. They were filmed pretty far apart from each other. But yeah, I definitely think that Joby is narcissistic, selfish and just really interested in himself almost consciously. He’s vain and he wants to be something. I think Calvin’s problems are unconscious. I don’t think he’s trying to be anything.
You always hear actors wax on about how it’s impossible to play a character if you’re constantly judging their actions. How did you play Joby for who he is?
I think it was the writing. I mean I think when I first read it I wasn’t judging him. I felt it was an incredibly personal piece of writing, and that’s what I responded to. It lit up my imagination — usually when that happens it’s a good sign. So I wanted to do the the film.
Then I had to figure it out and put myself in it. For me that’s a turn on as an actor because I feel like Joby is very different from me. Not just the way he dresses, but I think his energy is just different from me. That’s just fun to me, even though there’s some unlikeable aspects to him.
Given that he is so far removed from you, did you have to fight hard to the role, or were you sought out for it?
No, Kim sent it to me. She hadn’t worked with actors a lot. Her two previous films were made with mostly non-actors, so she was curious to have an actor’s opinion on the script. It was originally written older, the character. I don’t know why she trusted me with the part, but she did. I think I was also turned on by it, because I knew it was a part that I would have to really commit to. I couldn’t just show up and do that. I just can’t do that — wish I could. I knew it required me to go somewhere new. I knew I could do it, I just didn’t know how I could do it.
How did you do it?
You just try to spend a lot of time with character and material, and figure out what happened before the story. Then surround yourself with the music and that sort of lifestyle. I read Slash’s book and Tommy Lee’s book to prep. I just made myself embrace this attitude that I don’t really have. And then you put on really tight jeans, and all of a sudden your crotch feels different. All of those things helped lead up to living with the guy.Watching “For Ellen,” I kept picturing you holed up for weeks in some dingy motel room prior to shooting, going full blown method.
Partially because of timing, this is maybe the most I’ve ever prepared for a part. It’s also cause I needed to. I didn’t spend a few weeks in a motel room, but it definitely required internal and external activity to get to a place where you feel like you own it.
Did the role take a toll on you?
You should just ask my girlfriend [laughs]. She might have something to say about it. I always feel pretty sad when something ends — postpartum depression everytime. It took its toll, but I also felt I learned a lot. I got a rush from the experience. It takes time to wind up and cool down properly.
It’s hard to talk about, because I think it always sounds funny when you hear other actors go on about it. It’s a hard thing to understand. When we were there it felt like one thing. And it was just shot in six or eight weeks.
Given that Kim hasn’t directed many actors, how did the two of you work?
It stars with the writing, so some of the direction is in the writing I think. We spent weeks going to every vintage store in New York looking for the right clothes. I didn’t think we were going to find the right jacket, but we finally found it in LA. I really trusted her because she got these amazing performances from non-actors in “Treeless Mountain.” She has a good bullshit radar. She also trusted to let me fly free.
You appear in pretty much every frame of the film. How grating was it to watch it for the first time?
It was tough watching it, also because I felt so close to the character. The first time you see something, there’s a lot happening. It’s really hard to just watch the film. Your memories start flickering, and you notice things that you didn’t know were going to be there. It was hard, but I also felt that watching it (I’m usually hyper critical of myself) — well that’s the character, and that’s what he did. I wasn’t picking myself apart. I’ve seen it a few times now. It’s high and low the experience of watching it.
Of your upcoming projects, I’m most excited about “12 Years a Slave,” in which you star opposite Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and a slew of others. Who do you play?
It’s about a free black man who gets abducted and sold into slavery. He encounters a bunch of people on his journey. I’m a carpenter slash owner who he encounters over the film. We don’t get along.
I have to say I was trepidatious about it. I wanted to work with Steve and that’s why I wanted to do it. The script was very moving, but to play someone who I had trouble empathizing with troubled me, but I had a great experience. The day’s work was really intense. Steve is really excitable, inspiring and loving. He was just a joy to work with. I think it’s going to be an interesting film. I’m really interested in seeing what the film ends up being. I think it’s a film we haven’t seen before. Knowing his sensibilities as a filmmaker, it will be challenging.