Paul Dano stars and is one of the executive producers of “Gigantic,” the indie written directed by Matt Aselton that won the top prize at this year’s AFI Dallas International Film Festival. He chatted with journos about his propensity for playing character who get beat up, what it’s like acting with a baby, and being a Wild Thing.
So what is it with you getting beat up in movies?
PAUL DANO: I guess it’s a masochistic quality that I have, and I like an ass-whuppin’.
Did you use a stunt double for this, when the homeless man was beating you up?
DANO: We didn’t punch each other in the face so there was definitely make-up. Honestly, those things are painful to shoot, not physically — it’s just a very hard thing to act, because you sort of have to chop things up to make this and make that look good, and cut, and I really actually dislike doing fighting scenes.
Can you talk about the romantic comedy aspect of the movie? It’s sort of a romcom in reverse — she’s pursuing you, in a way.
DANO: I think, for me, that was one of the things about the film that I liked it when I read it. And after doing “There Will Be Blood,” I wanted to do something different for myself, and this felt like an opportunity to try that… I hadn’t done a romantic comedy before. And I guess for me, if there’s any cat and mouse to it, if she’s the aggressor, what I liked about that relationship was Brian, my character, is somebody who speaks a lot via his actions, not necessarily his words, so when a pretty girl like that asks you, “Can you see up my skirt?” [as Zooey’s character does] and he just looks and says, “Not really.”…
That’s really surprising to me because he’s a seemingly normal guy — he works at a mattress store — for a guy like that who also has a repressed or depressed quality, to be able to have that confidence was something I found really surprising and kind of heroic in a small way. And that was something that really intrigued me and could understand, but I also wanted to figure out and learn more about [him]. I felt like he was a little mysterious too, which I liked. Brian kept constantly surprising me, and part of it was that relationship with Zooey’s character.
That depressed quality you mentioned, do you have to worry about going too far in portraying that?
DANO: I think you try and get to know the character as best as you can before you start filming, in what’s written and what’s not written, and then if you know the person well enough and then you are that person, you just have to go with what’s coming at you, too. Because a lot of it is, you think certain things, but then when you get there, you don’t know what the actor’s gonna do, and you do have to be open enough in that part to respond to what’s happening. So I’m not sure… I didn’t do a lot of takes where I would go bigger this time and then try and try and be more repressed this one. There was a place of comfort, for me, as Brian, that felt right when we did it.
You were working opposite the kind of actors that could bring out something, too, like Zooey and Ed.
DANO: They were great. Those were great parts too. Part of what I liked about the script was that Brian kind of grounds the film. It’s a little bit through his eyes, and he’s sort of the heart of it, and it allows for these characters to have something to bounce off of. I liked the dichotomy between my character and then somebody like John Goodman… Working with Zooey was really easy. She’s great. She’s such a lovely, sweet girl, and really easy to work with as an actor, playful and just great.
How was working with a baby?
DANO: That was tough. It was actually really hard because you know, there’s things like continuity when you’re making a movie, and you shoot from all these different angles, and from one minute to the next, a baby goes through different moods and emotions. It was really hard but I really liked it because it distracted me from being able to act at all. I had to think about what I was doing because I had to care for this person and make sure she was okay, so it was actually very freeing too, as an actor, even though I felt like I had take care of this girl and then she starts wailing and crying. It was tough.
What’s the worst thing about acting?
DANO: The best thing about it… There’s a lot of best things about it. One is getting to be a part of something that gives you something, meaning I like movies a lot. I feel really, really excited when I see a movie that moves me the right way. And getting to work with people who I look up to or liked their work and sharing an experience with them is really great. And then there’s the personal experience of just being able to put your all into something, and then at the end of the day feel like you did okay and you got something from it. The best thing about it is that you’re always learning so I don’t get bored. Hopefully I learned something from doing this film, which helps me on my next film, and then that happens over and over again.
The worst thing about it is definitely…
Being stuck in a roomful of journalists?
DANO: No, this is not the worst thing a bout it. The worst thing about it, well the hardest thing about it is when you make a film, it’s really intimate. You’re with a small group of people who you get to know really well and you’re playing with your emotions and all that, and then you give it away. And that’s really hard, because you get people who judge you and they judge your work and then you get people who judge you as a person even though they don’t know you, and that’s something I have trouble with. It doesn’t trouble me, but I don’t like the idea of that. And then I also think that the idea of celebrity and some of the things that come along with the film industry are, they’re not the best thing.
You also were executive producer of “Gigantic.”
DANO: My involvement as an executive producer was not really on the business end of anything, which was good. It’s just that I got involved in the film very early, and Matt and I had a really good relationship and felt a little bit collaborative. It’s his film, the director is the author, but you know, [we were] definitely talking about casting and getting the movie together, when we can do it, and I was just with it for a long time and trying to help it get made, so that’s really what it was.
I asked Matt about the scene where you and your brothers and your father were all doing mushrooms in the woods, and he said Ed Asner asked you guys what it was like to trip. It’s such a crazy scene. Could you talk about it a little? Have you ever done mushrooms with your family?
DANO: I’ve never done mushrooms with my family. I think that’s gotta be quite the bonding experience. It certainly says something about how close their family is that they can have some fun together. Ed was very funny about that. He’s from a different generation than I am, so yeah, I think he might have had to take his cues from us. I’m not sure mushrooms were a big thing back when he was a young man or not.
Do you enjoy the part of it when you get to see the final product?
DANO: Yeah, I do. I mean, I’m starting to understand more and more why some actors don’t watch their work at all, because it can be very hard. It’s a strange thing. But I’m fascinated by filmmaking, and I love seeing how a movie is cut together and how it changes, how the music changes the film, how it fits in there, how it looks, the cinematography up on the big screen. So I do like seeing the final film, even though it scares me.
Why does it scare you?
DANO: Because you don’t know what it’s gonna be. But that’s also one of the fun things about it, and I think that’s what’s nice about taking a risk [when] you make a movie. Some really generic films — you know what they’re gonna be, and that is uninteresting to me as an actor because there’s not a lot of mystery to it. I like being surprised and not knowing what something is, and when you figure it out, that’s rewarding.
Can you talk a bit about “Where the Wild Things Are?”
DANO: I think it could be really great, it could be really magical. I did like that book as a kid; it’s the only memory I have of the library I went to when I was very young, of reading that book. It was very cool to be a part of that, but also I got to work with a lot of great people — Spike Jonze, and some of the actors. The Wild Things did their parts all together on the sound stage so we actually got to act with each other rather than going to vocal booths, which is much better because that’s what acting is. It’s hopefully gonna create an extra layer to these Wild Things, a little depth to their performance, because they’re puppets with some CGI. It looks really beautiful, and I’m excited about it.