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Paul Dano On Nailing Nasty Roles in ’12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Prisoners’: “You Nut Up”

Paul Dano On Nailing Nasty Roles in '12 Years a Slave' and 'Prisoners': "You Nut Up"

Sometimes with younger actors it takes time to recognize how consistent is the quality of their performances. There’s a lot of drek out there–think about all the indie actors who wind up in movies nobody wants to see. On the other hand New York actor Paul Dano, now 29, keeps scoring memorably juicy roles, and has done so from his Broadway debut at age 12 in a revival of “Inherit the Wind” and his collaboration with Ethan Hawke on “Things We Want,” through his first film performance at age 16 in Sundance hit “L.I.E.,” opposite Brian Cox. He went on to strong roles in “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” “Looper,” “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” where he first met Daniel Day-Lewis, his eventual co-star on “There Will Be Blood,” And then there’s terrific indie romance he made with his girlfriend and co-star Zoe Kazan, who also wrote “Ruby Sparks,” directed by the “Little Miss Sunshine” duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. 

Dano’s latest 2013 characters, a nasty child-kidnapping suspect in “Prisoners” and an abusive slave driver in “12 Years a Slave,” are so convincingly creepy-crawly that I tell him I feel safer talking to him on the phone. “First of all you should not be afraid to meet me,” he says. 

Next up is “Love and Mercy,” a film Dano shot last summer in which he plays Beach Boy Brian Wilson. “It’s the young Brian Wilson,” he says. “I got to know Brian and worked with musicians, it’s definitely some of most fun I’ve ever had. It’s editing now, so we’ll see, there will be some cool music stuff in it.”

Playing a racist in “12 Years a Slave.” “I don’t want to treat somebody like that. You go in there and do it. You nut up. On ‘There Will Be Blood’ I was cast at the last minute. I had 3 1/2 to 4 days to get ready for the first day. I just went for it, threw myself in there and gave it everything I had. That was just guts and instinct, not a lot of preparation. I was in good hands with Paul [Thomas Anderson] and Daniel [Day-Lewis], I felt I had to cut loose and go for it.

“The content lends itself to the film differently each time. That stuff happens unconsciously. You spend that much time with a character they start to rub off on you without your control over it. You carry with you what you need to carry. For me, definitely figuring out who he is before the film starts is the most important thing. Why would he be threatened by Solomon? 

“He was probably treated like shit by his parents. He lacked authority in his own life and situation. People who are abused often abuse their animals, people who lack authority take it out in other places. When a slave is more educated than he is, and gets respect he doesn’t have, when you see a slave get respect when you are not respected, I would imagine that would be a huge insult. So it was also a part where you had to delude yourself. I left all that at the door when I showed up on set. Singing a song in front of black men dressed in rags was not what I daydream about doing! That’s something you somehow delude yourself and go do it.”

Working with Steve McQueen.

“I loved working with him. He loves his actors, and gave me so much freedom and encouragement. He wanted us to leave it all out on the floor. It was a wonderful set to be on as an actor. I knew I was in good hands with him and could go out there and do what I needed to do and take those risks and feel good about it.”

Did you think that this movie would have an impact on the cultural conversation going in? 

“I think so. People felt that way. Once you go to Louisiana to film you leave expectations behind. I thought, ‘why didn’t I read slave accounts like this in school? This is a big part of our history we need to learn more about.’ It felt like something I hadn’t seen, which was pretty exciting, a story not often enough told, with great people telling it, not just a good film (I hope) but one people should see. Not every film I can watch objectively, but I was blown away when I saw the film. There are some unforgettable scenes and images.”

Accepting “Prisoners.” Dano admits that it was not a bread-and-butter genre film he was interested in so much as working with an ensemble led by Hugh Jackman and French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose Oscar entry “Incendies” Dano admired.

“Within five minutes I knew the director was completely in command of what he’s doing. The rest of the film was good and powerful. I knew this guy was a filmmaker. I had a gut, physical response to the character, which is a good sign if it engages your imagination right away. Strangely, I heard his voice, sort of the way his jaw or mouth moved. I was hesitant, because the content was challenging –in a good way for an actor. It’s dealing with child abduction and violence. I prefer it when it has an emotional and moral cost. As an audience member I like it when a movie earns the violence. That’s just me, some people love gory horror films. I’m squeamish, I need to be invested in other ways. What was Denis going to do with the thriller? It was clear that he would bring humanity to it. I had a glass of wine with him when he came to New York, and got to know him. He’s a cinephile, and [cinematographer] Roger Deakins. He’s incredible, I’m a huge fan of his work. And Jake [Gyllenhaal] was on board, he touted Denis to me saying he was great to work with on ‘An Enemy,’ which hasn’t come out yet.”

Being picky. 

“I care about what I do…I’m open to a lot of things, I think, but I don’t do everything that comes my way. That said, I also want a lot to come my way, as your career progresses, I get more choices now that I have the opportunity to work.”

Deciding to be a professional actor.

“It was not until I was 18 living on my own in college briefly that I decided more consciously, ‘I’m really going to try to do this.’ I feel that I am at the start of my career in many ways at 29 years old. For me there’s a lot I want to do and a lot that I can do. I guess that’s part of the turn-on that keeps me learning and getting better. There’s a lot to explore. I’ve been doing this for over ten years.”

Was Daniel Day-Lewis a pivotal actor to work with? 

“Yeah absolutely, frankly not just with him. I’ve been fortunate to work with several actors and directors who I look up to, and learned from each of them. Being a young person doing this, the most important thing to learn is ‘to each his own.’ You can be overwhelmed with inspiration when you watch a guy like Daniel Day-Lewis work, in a good way, you can learn to harness that and be inspired. On ‘The Ballad of Jack and Rose’ I was 19, really getting hungry to do this, and learning about what acting is and film in general. Certainly seeing people work with an work ethic…Your director is your main support–actors don’t generally give each other advice on set, not in my experience. Sometimes keeping your energy with you is easier than stepping in and out of it, for some people it’s the opposite.

But I really believe that it is not healthy to be over-influenced. That’s something you learn, you find your own voice and what makes you lights you up and what you’re hungry for and sometimes you don’t know it until it hits you when you read something.  

On ‘L.I.E.,’ a small film, I was 16, and didn’t know that films were made with such passion. I was going to the Cineplex and seeing any movie that came out, big films. The intimacy of ‘L.I.E,’ the amount of hard work and passion that went into making that particular film, which turned out well, was eye-opening. I was lucky. Since then I’ve had so many people that I’ve worked with, seeing actors with different styles. Again in order to figure out how should I work, I’d try different hats on. You learn, by failing and sometimes you succeed. Each is particular, you soak a little something up somehow.”

Differences working on studio-scale project.

“‘Cowboys & Aliens’ certainly was a healthy budget and production, but I thought Jon Favreau was a good filmmaker to work with and Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are good actors. I guess it’s lavish in some ways, but I’m honestly still going to do the best I can for that character. It’s about finding the parts that naturally do that. It’s not healthy fending for yourself so you have to stand out or something. That starts with what’s on the page and how you interpret it, I naturally do that if I do my job.”

Making “Ruby Sparks” and being inspired.

“Ruby Sparks’ was one of the best experiences I’ve had, not just because we wrote it and were part of seeing it through, but I got to work with Jonathan [Dayton] and Valerie [Faris] who were friends since ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ the loveliest most talented people I know. I certainly want to do more of that some day, to help to make films as well, whether it means developing or producing. I want to direct myself for sure. It’s important to try and tell stories you want to tell.

I’m inspired by Ethan Hawke who wrote an article about Kris Kristoffersen in Rolling Stone, ‘fuck yeah, dude!’ Ethan just does his thing, he’s pretty amazing. I’m inspired by Steven Soderbergh or Ang Lee who do something different every time. Ozu did the same thing and every time he just got better and better. I’d like to perfect something and just do something different every time, I got to soak it all up.”

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