Many young, successful actors dance into the bright lights of fame as if were the path to the after life, but Paul Dano keeps slinking around them. On a weekday afternoon last month, the lanky 29-year-old sauntered into the folksy diner Rucola in Brooklyn’s Boeurum Hill neighborhood and looked relieved to find the place nearly empty. He sunk comfortably into anonymity and ordered a coffee.
“This is easier,” he said with a sigh. “The whole being-in-a-room interview thing, at a junket or a film festival, is very inhuman. You meet the person, have five or 10 minutes to talk, and it’s not like a conversation.” His bulging eyes and towering figure belie a soft-spoken quality that gives the impression of discomfort with overexposure. “When you repeat yourself so many times, even if you’re speaking the truth, the repetition starts to feel false,” he said. “Sometimes, you just feel like the words you’re speaking, even if they once had meaning, have lost it. And that makes you feel kind of silly.”
But he’s no stranger to the dog-and-pony show of the promotional machine. Dano has been singled out as a talent to watch ever since his nearly wordless performance as a disgruntled teen in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which he followed up as the memorably slimy preacher opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Since then he has cropped in a lot of tortured-artist roles: He played a struggling musician and deadbeat dad in So Yong Kim’s “For Ellen,” an aspiring playwright in “Being Flynn” opposite Robert De Niro as his father, a successful novelist in the comic fantasy “Ruby Sparks” (written by his girlfriend and co-star Zoe Kazan), and a cross-dressing literary aspirant in “The Extra Man.”
These days, however, he’s just being tortured, and that gets to the root of why he’s so sick of repeating himself. In Denis Villneuve’s fall release “Prisoners,” Dano plays another wordless type with creepier ingredients as the mentally disturbed would-be kidnapper Alex Jones, who gets beaten within an inch of his life by a ferocious Hugh Jackman as a livid father searching for his missing daughter. Dano also crops up in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” as whiny racist carpenter John Tibeats on one of the plantations where the kidnapped Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is held. After forcing the slaves to clap along to a degrading work song, Tibeats ultimately faces his comeuppance from Northup, who reacts to a beating by grabbing the whip from Tibeats’ hands and giving him a taste of his own medicine.
That means you can see Dano facing the wrath of two angry in men in wildly disparate, but similarly bleak, awards season dramas — neither of which he’s the star — and viewed alongside the blows he takes from Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” it’s hard not to see a morbid trend. For months now, Dano’s been forced to answer variations on the same reductive question: Why so many beatdowns?
“I know!” he said, springing to life when asked if the suggestion that his latest performances reflect some kind of masochistic streak drives him nuts. “I fucking hate that question.” Naturally, the superficial connection between the two roles stems from the serendipity of their release dates more than anything else. “I was not expecting to have two such brutal films out at once,” he explained. “They’re both pretty rigorous experiences for audiences. It’d be fun to do a part where I smile more.”
Dano found the chance for some cathartic release in his most recent production, “Love and Mercy,” in which he plays a young Brian Wilson (the story also includes John Cusack as an older version of the Beach Boys musician). The project, which wrapped over the summer, allowed Dano the opportunity to escape the dark edge of his other 2013 gigs. “Even though Brian Wilson has gone into a black hole — he had his difficulties, to say the least — his soul was motivated to help make people smile and heal people,” he said. “That was such a gift.”
Lately, Dano’s been lying low. A basketball injury put him out of commission just in time for the holidays, providing an unexpected excuse to stay in town and struggle through his first attempt at completing a screenplay. It also gave him the chance to reflect on the past year and see the bigger picture of his recent output. If there’s a silver lining to the perceived trend of flagellation in his roles, it has to do with his non-commercial priorities.
“With these two left-of-center dark parts in films out so close together, maybe it creates the perception that the risk is worth it to me when I think the film is going to have value,” he said. “I would do a film like ’12 Years a Slave’ for my own vanity just because it’s what I like — both as a moviegoer and as an actor.”
In truth, it’s difficult to pin down Dano’s screen appeal. He’s quietly neurotic (except when he freaks out). He’s quirky and adorable (except when he’s a mess). He’s awkward and flustered (except when he’s totally subdued). This range isn’t entirely a calculated effort. “It really plays off for me as more of an internal decision,” he said. “You read something that either makes you excited or it doesn’t.” But he’s ingrained enough in the business to learn from what he sees around him. “I know an actor who would play one type of part but could never get cast as tough,” he said. “Once he got cast as tough, as a cop, he only got offered cop roles. It’s a funny business in that regard. It’s all about perception.”
For now, Dano appreciates the ambiguity associated with his performances. You can’t boil down his technique to a singular impression. “It’s probably good when you can’t totally articulate what an actor’s doing,” he said. In “Prisoners,” where he plays a character with mysterious origins and motivations, much of his acting involves a frightened, withdrawn expression. “He seems like a bad guy at first, but I think he’s actually a victim,” Dano said about his character. “That’s a fun line to walk as an actor. There’s this duality, all these layers that aren’t there when you read it the first time.”
In “12 Years a Slave,” Dano couldn’t obscure the despicable tendencies of the bigoted Tibeats, but still managed to burrow into the angry man’s head. “He’s like an abused person taking it out on his animal,” Dano said. “My character doesn’t have any money. He’s just a guy who works on the plantation and some slave is being valued over him. That causes agitation, jealousy, rage, whatever. So you just start to try and understand this person.” He relished the opportunity to tackle the bit role over the course of two weeks on the New Orleans set. “When you play a part like that, so far from yourself, it’s a turn-on,” he said. “There’s this mystery to be solved. That’s my biggest challenge as an actor, figuring out what brought this person to where we meet them.”
Still, just for the record: He’s open to brighter material. “I’d like to play a hero, instead of the semi-bad guy, or whatever,” he said. At one point rumored to be in talks for director Duncan Jones’ adaptation of the “Warcraft” video game franchise — the project has been in gestation for ages — Dano remains intrigued by big studio opportunities. “I’d love to do a really broad comedy at some point,” he said, citing “Dumb and Dumber” as an unlikely source of inspiration. “I’ve grown up watching and loving them, but haven’t really been able to do them.” Basically, he wants to cast a wide net. “I would gladly do a huge science fiction film, too,” he added, “but I’d also happily go do a film for no money, if it was with some director I’ve admired. I’d like to do both, essentially.”
No matter what he does, each project offers Dano a little insight into the filmmaking process, which he hopes to harness whenever he finishes that damn screenplay. “I do want to make movies,” he said. “The biggest thing I take away is seeing somebody’s work ethic or their attention to detail or their passion. But just because you’ve been in a Paul Thomas Anderson film doesn’t mean you’re going to make a film like Paul Thomas Anderson.”
He resisted sharing details about the nature of his script (“Not to be coy, but I just feel like I shouldn’t talk about something I haven’t finished yet”), but expressed optimism about the process. “I’ve tried putting ideas down before, but I’ve never just given myself hours to do this,” he said.
Of course, he’s got a good set of eyes looking over his shoulder. Kazan, who said during publicity for “Ruby Sparks” that Dano frequently provided feedback on her own first screenplay, has become his creative partner in crime since the couple met in 2007. “I think we can help each other,” he said. “It is good to have somebody whose opinion you value and trust.”
Dano didn’t see that one coming. “I’d never dated an actress, so I thought maybe stereotypically that it wasn’t going to be a good thing,” he said. “But it’s been the opposite of that. She’s super smart, super talented and super supportive. When you’re working a lot of long hours, have to go away somewhere and you’re really into what you’re doing, it can be hard, so it’s nice that we can understand each other.”
Compared to a lot of well-know actor couples, Dano and Kazan lead relatively humble lifestyles. You won’t find a lot of gossip about them out around town in Page Six, or lavish details about their brownstone in Sunday Styles. Like many committed young New Yorkers, they casually blend in. “Paul Dano Is a Fan of Late Night Deli Sandwiches,” read a New York magazine headline not long ago.
“Zoe and I do not live beyond our means for a reason, which is that it’s nice to have some flexibilities, to be able to look for a job you care about,” he said. “I would feel endangered if I had to make creative choices in service of a lifestyle.”
Told that New York is a good place to feel poor no matter how impressive your latest paycheck, he chuckled. “Look, it’s fucking hard,” he said. “We’ve got some wonderful actor friends who are in the theater. It’s hard to make a living here doing that.”
His own work ethic has come at the expense of another time-consuming creative ambition: Music. For years, Dano served as the frontman for the rock band Mook, which played around town and even landed a gig at South by Southwest a few years back, but the group has since dissolved. “Everybody’s pushing 30 and I’m not a very good multi-tasker,” he said. “If I want to do something, I’ve got to put in the time and do it well.”
Dano isn’t used to contemplating the personal dimension of his career. As we continue to converse, he grows visibly anxious about the possibility of explaining his trajectory. “These questions!” he said with a sheepish grin, admitting that he’s constantly grappling with his next moves even if he doesn’t talk about it too much. (Maybe there’s something to the whole junket racket after all.) “I think about what I do so much that it’s nice to sometimes get on a subway and forget about it for a few minutes,” he said. In spite of his uncertainties, however, Dano shows no semblance of nervousness about the future. “I’m still young and can do this for a while,” he said. “I feel like there’s a lot I can do. I want to get better and I want to do more. It’s less about stardom and more about being somebody who wants to help create work I want to see.”