Over the past few years, Paul Dano has established himself as one of the best actors of his generation and someone that can morph into any role. While most people will immediately remember his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine, he’s also great in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Paul Weitz’s Being Flynn (opposite Robert De Niro), Ruby Sparks, Looper, and many more. Based on his work in the films I just mentioned, it’s no surprise directors Denis Villeneuve and Steve McQueen wanted him in Prisoners and 12 Years a Slave, respectively, and he delivers some of his best work in both films.
Last week I landed an exclusive interview with Dano. He talked about how 2013 has been a very good year, working with Villeneuve, Hugh Jackman and Roger Deakins on Prisoners, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, getting to play Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy (which was written by Oren Moverman), if he’s involved in Warcraft and/or Akira, future projects, how he’s changed as an actor, what makes his face so punchable, and more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
PAUL DANO: It turned out to be a really wonderful year, because honestly, I try to leave my work at the door when I leave the set. It’s almost like summer camp. You go in hard, then you leave, and it’s done. Getting to go see both of these films – when I saw Prisoners, I was totally blown away by what Denis [Villeneuve] did with the film – and that Warner Bros. went in to make that film too, and Alcon. Because, I think it’s a pretty serious piece of filmmaking. It’s rigorous and intense, and two and a half hours as well. I think it’s highly entertaining, but I was so happy that he got to make the film that he wanted to make. Everybody was supportive of that. I was really happy and surprised by that, and I think we all hoped it would be a good film, but you never know. I think he just got the best out of the actors and out of the script. And, getting to work with Roger Deakins – who is a blast to work with – we’re really excited at what the final product is. And that was just shot last January, February and March. That was a super quick turnaround as well. I was really impressed with what Denis did, and I think he’s really gonna make some good films. And 12 Years A Slave was something that, there’s a lot of influential actors, and everybody wanted to be there and be a part of that film. It’s a story that probably needs to be told. It’s something that I think, at least here in the United States, in history class, you sort of skip over a lot of the details. And there probably aren’t many firsthand accounts that you read when you’re in school. Everyone was excited to work with Steve McQueen, but again, when I saw the film, I was utterly overwhelmed by what he did with it, and how powerful it was. I feel very lucky to be a part of it.
I definitely have some questions about both films, so let’s start with Prisoners. When I spoke to Denis at Toronto, he said his first cut was almost an hour longer. Maybe he said it was even longer than that.
DANO: Yeah (laughs).
So I definitely wanna know about-
DANO: I never saw that cut, but yeah. Hearing it from him, I would say, first cuts are often over 3 hours. He’s probably talking about a pretty early cut. But, I think some stuff got left at the cutting room floor, which is often the case. I think Denis also set up an atmosphere where we went in there every day and tried to get the best out of the scenes. If something wasn’t working, we would stop and take a look at it. Especially when you’re dealing with child abduction and violence, we really tried to mine the scenes for what they were worth, and see what was at stake, emotionally or morally. We really got to let a lot of these things play out, and we had freedom. I think we explored the material as best as we could. We didn’t just go in there and pop off the shots. So, I think he had a lot of footage to work with. To me, I feel like the film is so well-paced, and the tempo of it is really wonderful. He clearly knew what he was doing cutting it down.
This is a Twitter question. I put up on Twitter that I’d be talking to you and I got some really good questions. How did it feel to get beaten up by Jean Valjean?
DANO: (laughs) I’ve said this before, but, I think to be on your knees handcuffed in front of Hugh Jackman is probably a fantasy for a lot of people. It wasn’t for me. He was one of the kindest people I’ve worked with. He’s a very generous actor. It’s strange to me. Being actors is a strange job. To try to go live that out, it’s a very strange thing to want to do when you step back and think about it. Yet, when you go in there, and you do it, sometimes, you’re not sure how. It’s quite mysterious. You do preparations and all that, but you’ve gotta get the life beaten out of you. It’s hard thing to prepare for, but, I will say that, because Hugh was such a trusting and giving actor, and with Denis and Roger, you’re in such good hands. The more safety we felt, the more dangerous we could actually be. There’s a scene where Hugh takes a hammer and smashes a sink next to me while threatening me. In the last take, Denis wanted to push it a little further, so he put the hammer through the wall right next to my head. And that was unplanned. And then, I pretended to pass out. My gut reaction was to just sort of fall over since it was so close to my head. We wouldn’t be able to act that kind of thing, which is like a stunt, unless we felt really comfortable to be dangerous. So, I loved working with Hugh is the answer to that question, I guess (laughs).
DANO: I hadn’t. And honestly, I first met with Denis, to feel out what he wanted to do with the material, just because, I think a lot of directors might have made a different kind of thriller out of this. And honestly, it would be one that I might be less interested in. But when he did say that Roger was gonna shoot the film, I knew I was gonna do the part just because I wanted to work with him. I mean, the guy is a Jedi. He is so good, and his crew is so wonderful too. They’re really quiet, which I love as an actor. Their set doesn’t blow up in between takes. They work really well and efficiently, and he definitely helps you do your job. He makes you a better actor with what he does, great cinematographers do. It’s a team effort in that regard. I was very happy to get to work with him.
What were you thinking when you were on set looking at playback of some of the shots Roger was doing? Were you just like “Yeah, this is gonna be real good”?
DANO: You could tell that the atmosphere, from the actors’ camaraderie and from Denis the director, was good. I don’t recall watching playback. I think I did once for a technical thing, having to do with something Hugh and I had to accomplish. But generally, I stay away from the playback myself. But you could tell. I remember the first scene I shot, I was so excited to see Roger work. The first scene I did was outdoors in the rain, and the back of the gas station was all lit up. But when those guys come into the woods, Roger stood next to the camera with a flashlight and a bounce board in his hands. And I was like, “Oh my God, he’s tearing it up with just a flashlight and a bounce board right now, you know?” You had a good feeling.
Jumping into 12 Years A Slave, did Steve McQueen call you up, or did it go through your agents? How did you first get into contact with the material?
DANO: I got sent the script. I read it. Of course my first inclination on reading that script is, shit, you wanna help. Your natural instinct is to not want to hurt him, but, you’re there to help tell the story, so it’s not personal in that regard. I think Steve wanted me to do the part, and so we talked on the phone. Then, when he came through New York, I think we got some Chinese Food in Chinatown, and then just took a 2-hour walk and talked about the film, and talked about movies. He’s a wonderful guy. And I think we met up again shortly after that, because we were gonna get together just to get to know each other. I was excited that he was interested in me, and liked my work and just wanted me to be there. And there were – I don’t know if you could call them fun themes – but I was excited by the part. Boy, it was gonna be a tough one, but hopefully a good one.
12 Years A Slave is just an incredible film. One of the great things about it is it doesn’t just “Hollywood-ize” the past. It’s very matter of fact. It’s played very realistically. It’s a very powerful movie. As an actor, could you talk a little about preparing for the role, and also just the fact that the material doesn’t try to glorify? It just presents it very matter of fact.
DANO: I think that was a really smart choice on Steve’s behalf, because I think that, coming at that material, you have to try not to judge it. We’re doing something that’s historically documented by a person. Some of the people who were bad in the film – like my character – I think he was just raised with that. He was probably treated like shit. I think he was abused himself in some way, in the way that some people who are abused take it out on their animals. You couldn’t come at it judging it, and I think the way he presented it is really the smartest and best way to tell that story, and not to Hollywood-ize it, as you said. For me, playing a really bad character is about figuring out what brought the person to where we need him. So, there’s stuff you can read about the period, life on the plantation, what it was like to be around there, what the hours were like. And then, building a history for the character. What makes this person angry or spiteful, or why did he seem constantly irritated, or why this? You just start to try to turn up every stone. Then, you feel like you’ve got a whole human being with you, and you can just let the scene happen.
DANO: (laughs) Oh dear. Well.
In all seriousness man, I’m a huge fan of your work. But you’ve definitely been hit in movies.
DANO: Yeah. You know, you should probably ask my girlfriend that question. I’m sure she’d have a good response. I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s something that probably will cross my mind, now that these two films have come out this year. When you get to work with Steve McQueen or these different movies that I get so excited by, I go to the movie theater and do what I do, so I’ll take a punch and throw a punch to be in those kinds of movies.
I think someone wrote an article online about this, so I think that’s why I got a lot of people on Twitter are tweeting me.
DANO: (laughs) That’s funny.
Although it hasn’t been screened yet, I’m also very excited about Love & Mercy. What was it like making that project?
DANO: Yeah, we did that this summer, and it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had. He’s a really special man, Brian Wilson, and, not just the ‘60s and the music, but his spirit is really special and strong. And, I just fell in love with him and what he did. If you listen to Pet Sounds, there’s really nothing like it before or since, and it was just a joy filling up on that, and learning to play the piano. I got to work with these amazing musicians and, it was just a joy. I don’t know if I should say that since it’s a ways off but, I think he’s got a really great story. He’s a special guy. I hope that we do him justice.
One of the reasons I’m so excited about the project, besides your involvement in it, is the screenplay by Oren [Moverman]. I loved Rampart and The Messenger. He’s just a great screenwriter, and I’m curious what he brought to the table in terms of this script.
DANO: Well Oren is my friend now, and he’s a great guy. He’s a wonderful writer like you said. I don’t wanna give away what he wrote, but I will say that, I think that he tried to capture Brian’s spirit as well as tell a story. I don’t think it’s a totally traditional biopic. I think it’s gonna be a fun and accessible film, and I think it’s hopefully going to be interesting, like the man that it’s depicting. I think he did an amazing job cracking this story, and I can’t imagine anyone else having done it, aside from him. I know they tried to make movies about Brian for a long time, and I think music stories are tough to tell in an interesting way. The fact that Bill [Polad] got Oren to write it is really also a smart choice on his behalf.
I know you don’t wanna talk more about it, but I have one more question on this particular film. I’m curious if you’ve heard that Atticus Ross was designing the film’s soundscape. I’m curious to know if you’ve heard any of the score of what he’s done?
DANO: I haven’t yet. I got to hang out with Atticus a little bit. He seemed super excited, and I think they’re approaching that stuff in a really cool way. I’m hoping to hear some of it soon actually, but we just finished at the end of August and I’m still detoxing, and trying to steer clear for a little bit. Then, I’ll be excited to see what they’re cooking up.
Moving onto something else so I can leave you alone on Love & Mercy, you’re rumored to be a part of Warcraft. A lot of people on Twitter asked me if you’re doing the project. What can you tell people?
DANO: I can’t say anything, because I feel like rumors get crazy and people blow up the whole internet with news. I feel like, once you’re doing a job, you shouldn’t talk about it. And so, I guess in a way, that’s an answer. I’m not gonna give a yes or no but, I’m a fan of Duncan Jones, so, he’s somebody that I would want to meet if he was doing a film or something like that.
Another question from Twitter: someone wanted to know, have you been reapproached about doing Akira? Because that’s something that’s supposedly back on at Warner Bros.
DANO: No, I haven’t. It’s been kicking around for years, and I’ll be curious what they end up doing with it. I think that there’s potentially a cool film in there. Obviously, the original is an amazing story, but I don’t know what’s going on with it right now.
This is a question from me. You had a really good year this year. Given the quality of scripts that you’ve been presented with recently, even in this past year, have you received a lot of other great scripts for films that could even be done next year? What are you thinking about for the future?
DANO: The fact that I got to work with Denis, and Steve, and recently Brian Wilson, I feel very fortunate. I’ve always been really inspired by not just what the story may be, and what the character may be, but also by the filmmaker. There’s a lot of people that I would love to work with. There’s a lot of different kinds of parts I wanna play. As your career progresses, you hope that you get some more opportunity, or some more choice. I think that one of the strangest things about being an actor is, it’s almost freelance work. Sometimes, I think people feel like they’re waiting for a script, or you read a few you don’t like and hopefully read one that you like. I think for me, one thing I’m gonna take into next year is trying to create more work as well. My girlfriend Zoe and I did this movie called Ruby Sparks, and that was one of the best experiences that I’ve had, because we sort of saw that whole thing through from the ground up. I also wanna make films someday, so I’m working on that as well. I had a really good year. But I actually tore my ACL playing basketball, so I’m spending the fall rehabbing my knee, doing a little writing, and then I’ll figure out what the next job is soon.
That’s funny that you have a sports injury.
I’m just curious as an actor how you’ve changed over the past 10 years. Actually, you’ve been acting for more like the last 15 years. How have you changed as an actor? Has your approach changed at all, in the way you prepare for the role, or the way you analyze a script?
DANO: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think it has changed. In some ways, I also feel like I’ve come back around towards the beginning in a conscious way, thinking about why I started doing this. I think carrying your gut, or your instincts, through all the learning, is one of the most important things. You learn to prepare for a part in different ways, you learn to experiment, what you do for the character – you try working in different ways. And, on set, the playground for the character, how much it takes varies. Is it like ballet, is it like jazz? The content always lends itself to the form, and it’s really not mathematics. Every time, it’s scary, and then when it is, it means you’re doing your job, you know? I think that’s part of the answer to the last question. Does the next job idea give me a thrill or a scare or a challenge? How you collaborate with the director and your other actors also plays in, but I think really, it’s up to me now to keep pushing myself. I think there’s a lot of people out there with natural talent, and they’re not wanting to do a lot of work to get better. And, that’s really the thing that’s on the foremost of my mind. I’ve been doing it for a bit, but I feel like I’m still at the start of my career, frankly. I’m still a young guy, or young enough, so-
Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s gonna call you an old man.
DANO: Yeah, yeah. In a way, so many things have changed over the past 10 years, but then again, there’s things you also want to carry with you, and there’s things you’re just gonna spend your whole life talking on. I think that’s why I like doing it. It’s a constant learning process – not just what you need to learn for the character or as far as good actors – but as an actor, there’s no limit. Every time now, you’re learning so, I think that’s a good thing though.
No, totally. I appreciate you giving me so much time, man. And, as I’ve said many times, I’m a big fan of your work.
DANO: Well thanks, dude.