Since his breakout role in “Little Miss Sunshine,” Paul Dano has put together a resume featuring some of the most acclaimed directors in filmmaking today: Paul Thomas Anderson, Ang Lee, Spike Jonze, Kelly Reichardt, Rian Johnson, Steven McQueen and Denis Villeneuve, to name a few. That assortment not only speaks to the actor’s immense talent, but likely also to his own desire in pursuing work that’s interesting, creatively fulfilling and distinct. After chatting with him recently for our feature Movies That Changed My Life, it’s clear that his love of cinema is wide-ranging, deep and constantly evolving.
Dano’s latest turn is in the Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy,” where he plays the gifted yet mentally fragile leader of the Beach Boys. It’s another fine performance from Dano, and if you didn’t get a chance to see it on the big screen, it’s now available on DVD/Blu-ray and Digital HD. Read on below for a guided tour through the films that marked important moments in his life.
What’s the first movie that you remember seeing in the theater?
I’m pretty sure it was a Disney film. I remember being obsessed with “The Little Mermaid” and then with “The Lion King.” I’m pretty sure I saw “Bambi” at home, and I remember being crushed at the beginning of that movie. I’m not sure I can actually remember the very first one, but I want to say “The Little Mermaid,” and I’m happy to say that because I think it holds up.
Did your parents take you to the movies often? Was it a regular activity?
No more than anybody else. Growing up in Manhattan, I did get to go to the [live] theater, which not everybody does. I remember the feeling of the lights going down and being really scared about what potentially was going to happen. It felt dangerous. Going to the movies wasn’t necessarily important to my family. I don’t know if it was with a romantic sense of reverie that I went to the movies in elementary school. It grew into something for me.
That leads into the next question: what’s a movie that you would say defined your adolescence?
I think there’s a few years or phases in my life that are important to me. I think early on when I liked movies, it was because of acting. I think later it became about film.
There were two things that happened when I was in late elementary school or middle school that really excited me, and one was Jim Carrey. I remember seeing “Ace Ventura,” “Dumb and Dumber” and “The Mask” and thinking that he was a total genius —I just was obsessed with his movies at that point. The next one would be Jack Nicholson, in middle school, seeing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and then “Five Easy Pieces.” To this day, “Five Easy Pieces” is probably one of my favorite films and favorite performances ever.
I think for most people of a certain age, their first Jack Nicholson movie might’ve been “Batman.” How did “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Five Easy Pieces” cross your path?
I almost surely saw “Batman” first, but I might have been more into Batman than I was into any of the other aspects. I can’t say for sure the first time I saw “Batman” that I knew that it was a Tim Burton film.
“Batman” was big because I lived in New York City at that point, which was Gotham City. I remember his parents getting murdered outside of that theater, and that was really scary to me. I probably remember that scene the most vividly as a young person, because I was probably afraid that could happen to me. I probably saw Jack Nicholson beforehand, but for some reason I had a more profound experience seeing those films.
I think I’d already taken an interest in acting at that point through school and community theater, so maybe somebody said that “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is a great film, and I saw it. But I’m not really sure how I could have gotten “Five Easy Pieces,” especially at that point, since it wasn’t on Criterion or something. But I know that was probably the first time I was probably really excited by acting, but in a way that I wasn’t looking for. I was just like, “Holy shit, what’s he doing?” And then of course I’ve obsessed over many actors and filmmakers and films since, but he was important.
Did watching Nicholson make you realize you wanted to pursue acting as a profession?
I’m not sure. I think the next phase was getting into film, which was probably in high school, and it had something to do with “Boogie Nights” and “The Thin Red Line.” That was the first time I really thought about what a director does and the elements of cinema, and I really thought I might go to film school. And those were kind of game changers and still are some of my favorite films.
It’s all something that builds like a wave or a snowball rolling down the hill gathering snow. I never had one lightning bolt moment —It was something that stewed for a long time. There were times that I even tried to go away from acting, but either I came back to it or it came back to me. These were certainly important films along the way.
You mentioned film school. Did you have notions of possibly directing? Or do you still have those notions?
I will make films at some point. I thought I would maybe pursue that, because I really started to get into film in a serious way and still am a student of it, but for fun. But I’m interested in all of it: I love film. I don’t just love the acting alone.
You mentioned “Boogie Nights” and “The Thin Red Line.” Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick couldn’t be more different. What attracted you about both of those films in particular?
Of course, the first time I saw them, it was more guts or intuition or awe. I remember my Dad reading in the paper about “Boogie Nights” and probably telling me not to see it, so of course that meant I had to see it. I just don’t know if at that point I’d seen a film that just bowled me over from start to finish. It was intensity from start to finish, it happened in the blink of an eye, it was funny, and what the camera was doing was just sucking me into some kind of world. There were so many beautiful actors and characters… It was like a new world of film… It’s a wonderful balance of a film that’s masterfully made that’s also super fucking fun, which is kind of an amazing feat.
And I didn’t know that a film like “The Thin Red Line” existed. I probably had only seen A to B stories. Whatever Terrence Malick was doing in that movie, it felt like in his films he was actually searching for something. It was a completely different experience as a viewer to watch somebody search.
What maybe separates those two for me at that age was also being moved by the images. Not just by the story or the acting, but going, “Oh wow, there are other things at work here that are speaking to me and moving me and exciting me.” I think before that it was the story or the character that might have really gotten into me. Now, there was all of this other stuff that was happening that was getting into me.
What’s the first movie you became obsessed with where you would re-watch it over and over?
Oh fuck, this could be really embarrassing. There’s a few along the way. “Ace Ventura” was definitely one, but I think before that, I must have seen some of those Disney films a billion times.
I remember “Dazed and Confused” was a movie that I watched over and over. There’s some weird ones. You know, a movie I saw a million times in middle school or high school was “Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.” Then there are still movies that I will watch once a year. “Midnight Cowboy” is something I watch probably once a year. “All That Jazz” is definitely something I watch once a year. That’s a long list.
Is there a movie that always makes you get emotional or cry every time you see it?
I think there’s quite a few [Pauses to think].
Does “Midnight Cowboy” get to you when you see it?
For sure. I’m trying to think of one that means something to me but maybe not anybody else. Well, if we’re talking about Dustin Hoffman, then “Kramer vs. Kramer” is a tear jerker.
Do you have a guilty pleasure movie?
I have a sister who’s two years younger, and she would get obsessed over movies. I would pretend not to like them but actually did, because that’s something you just do as a kid. “Clueless,” that’s a classic. That’s something that as a kid I probably said I didn’t like but actually kind of loved it. That holds up though.
Do you have a movie that you appreciated better the second or third time you saw it?
When I went to college, getting into foreign films was a total game changer. I think a lot of these were movies that I fell asleep seeing for the first time and then fell in love with. Your article is titled “Movies That Changed My Life,” and seeing “A Man Escaped” by Robert Bresson and all of those films changed my life for sure. I just didn’t know you could make movies like that, and it absolutely was a game changer in how I saw film. It was something about the simplicity and the complexity within that simplicity.
Oh, you know which one that I’m embarrassed that I don’t get as much? I have a mixed relationship with Tarkovsky. I think some of it is staggeringly brilliant, but I don’t totally get some of it. I think “Stalker” is brilliant, and the images in “The Mirror“ are just fucking amazing, and “Solaris” is great. But I’ve tried watching “Nostalghia” and “Sacrifice” more than once, I’ll fall asleep during them, or I just cannot get into them.
What’s your most memorable moviegoing experience?
Well, there’s a few. I remember being young, “Jurassic Park” was coming out and my Mom took me and my sister out of school early to go see it because supposedly the lines were going to be so long. And I don’t remember much about actually being in the movie theater, but I remember that excitement about that movie coming out, and I remember being taken out of school early and how cool that was. And I’m pretty sure I had to stand at the back of the theater at points with my sister, because it was loud and scary and we were pretty young.
I’m pretty sure a babysitter took me to see “Terminator 2” with her friends, which she shouldn’t have done. I think I actually fell asleep during it though. And so those were two [early] ones that I remember for funny reasons.
In terms of really seeing something in the theater: Seeing Woody Allen movies in New York City, I remember all of a sudden understanding so much more about those movies that I’d seen before. All of a sudden, seeing them with an audience was like, “Oh my god, this is even funnier than I thought.” And when you get to see something really jaw dropping on the big screen, it’s so fun. And seeing old movies especially. I saw “Nashville” projected at BAM last year. I’d seen that movie many times at home, but seeing it on the big screen I was like, “Holy shit, I have to make sure to go to the theater as much as I can.” Because I had seen that movie before, and I loved it so much more projected on the big screen.