When discussing the experiences that have shaped him as an actor, Paul Dano uses the adjective “eye-opening” more than any other, employing it to describe the festival rounds of his indie breakout, L.I.E., and his time visiting homeless shelters while prepping for his latest role in Being Flynn. One look at Dano’s filmography confirms that he’s built up quite a broad perspective. For a time, it seemed he might go the way of so many here-today-gone-tomorrow talents, playing a young serial killer in the Angelina Jolie misfire Taking Lives and a well-endowed best bud in the throwaway teen romp The Girl Next Door. But with the arrival of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, a word-of-mouth awards magnet that earned priceless exposure for his turn as an angsty mute, Dano found himself an art-house niche that would serve him extremely well, and lead him to parts in films as epically unsettling as There Will Be Blood, as whimsically offbeat as The Extra Man, and as minimalistically cerebral as Meek’s Cutoff. He’s occasionally meandered back into the mainstream, with titles like Knight and Day and Cowboys & Aliens, but he hasn’t had to venture far from the indie arena to maintain that widened focus.
“L.I.E. opened me up to a world of film that I frankly didn’t know about, and that I started to feel really good about,” Dano says. “It seemed like people really cared about what they do, and I guess I like really interesting and challenging material, and a lot of it lies in that world.”
It’s a Saturday morning at the Waldorf Astoria. Dano, 27, looks conspicuously out of place against the ornate patterns of a rather luxe sofa, where he’s seated, hunched over, with his arms crossed atop his knees. He’s rocking a tweed jacket over a simple black sweater. And glasses. His appearance screams “thinking man” and “casual cool” at once, and that’s essentially echoed by what he has to say. He talks a lot about “taking cues from what’s on the page,” and allowing that to stimulate what he does and how he does it, whether the character calls for understatement or Eli Sunday-style eruption.
“It’s a funny thing, you try to put as much of yourself into a part and try to get as far away from yourself as you can at the same time,” Dano says. “For me, it usually comes down to just how the words make me feel. And obviously the cast matters, and the director probably matters most, but I don’t want to get up and be convincing myself that I’m going to make dialogue better than it is. I want the material to make me a better actor. I just want to get that rush from reading something. So, whether it’s big or small, it’s the same thing that you’re looking for, that you’re chasing. It’s the same feeling—to be inspired.”
The inspiration has evidently worked both ways, as Dano has established himself as a very interesting, very specific type of role-filler, the kind of actor sought out by unique filmmakers when Zac Efron just won’t cut it. To date, he’s worked with Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ang Lee, Spike Jonze, Kelly Reichardt, and Rian Johnson, among others. On camera, he’s acted opposite Brian Cox, Kevin Kline, Toni Collette, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Michelle Williams, and Daniel Day-Lewis. In Being Flynn, he shares the screen with Robert De Niro.
“I really relish the opportunities to work with people I admire,” Dano says, putting an unaffected emphasis behind the words. “That means a lot to me. It’s something I cherish, and I always hope I’m going to learn something from the people I work with. [De Niro] disarmed me immediately with a giant hug, which I couldn’t believe. He’s one of the greatest actors we have, and to get to have so many scenes with him, and to step in the ring with him, as an actor, is a dream.”
What Dano doesn’t mention, of course, is that he handily outperforms De Niro in his new film. Based on poet Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Being Flynn sees the two actors playing father and son. Dano is Nick Flynn and De Niro is Jonathan, a cantankerous legend-in-his-own-mind who winds up in the Boston homeless shelter where Nick works. De Niro tackles his role by repeatedly playing the same shrill note, screaming and aiming for broad comedy, but Dano, portraying a real-life addict-turned-writer, adds another impassioned performance to his résumé, and does all he can under Paul Weitz’s direction and with those “cues on the page.”
A New York native, Dano talks further about his efforts to get into character, including interacting with shelter dwellers around the city (“So many of them were newly homeless, and just like you and me,” he says), and meeting with Nick Flynn, who incidentally lives just a few blocks away from Dano’s home. The actor dishes on his own father, and about how he didn’t need Nick’s same paternal woes to get at the heart of the film’s core relationship.
“I have a good relationship with my dad,” he says. “The memoir was very well-written, so I had a great entry point for my imagination, and for my empathy toward this character, Nick. And for an actor, for me to play this whole father thing, it doesn’t have to be my father, it just has to be someone personal that I’ve either had that fear of becoming, or had that kind of conflict with. But I just think that, even if you haven’t experienced it, the whole father-son thing and mother-son thing is so universal and instinctual that I think you can put yourself in that position and feel what it might feel like.”
Dano’s had plenty of additional opportunities to exercise his method lately, including in Korean filmmaker So Yong Kim’s musician-redemption tale For Ellen, which played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the futuristic, quantum-leap assassin flick Looper, Rian Johnson’s follow-up to his neo noir Brick. So, with his three latest projects alone, Dano can check off biopic, rock-star drama, and time-travel genre film. What’s next?
“I like all of it, really,” Dano says. “I’d like to do some kind of crazy sci-fi film, some kind of epic period film. I’d like to kick some ass at some point. It’s just about getting excited about what the film could be. I do like certain types of characters. I like people with a lot of conflict, because it’s more fun and more challenging. But I’d like to do it all some day.”
Which is to say, his mind, and eyes, are wide open.