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."