Paul Dano’s career has been defined by strong performances opposite award-winning actors. The stunning list of his high-profile onscreen pairings range from his breakthrough, Indie Spirit Award-winning turn for Best Debut Performance in 2001’s L.I.E. as the target of a pedophile, played by fellow nominee Brian Cox, to his portrayal of a nihilistic teen as part of Little Miss Sunshine’s 2007 SAG Award winning ensemble where he shared a backseat in the Hoover’s family van with Alan Arkin in the 76-year-old’s Oscar-winning performance, to his performance of a preacher and his twin (Paul and Eli Sunday) opposite eventual Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis’ unhinged oil man Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
Collider caught up with the 26-year-old to discuss his latest big screen partnership in The Extra Man, which opened in Los Angeles this past weekend to continue its national rollout, opposite Kevin Kline. Hit the jump for the interview’s transcript and audio, along with stories of his early work with several Oscar winners, Daniel Day-Lewis’ intensity, whether he’ll work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, his take on the Broadway musical adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine and the danger of dressing in drag, on screen.
Paul Dano’s informal education at the feet of big-time counterparts began just before his 11th birthday with his first job on Broadway. He was hired as an understudy in the 1995 production of A Month In The Country with Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (1984’s Amadeus) and Helen Mirren. Interestingly, Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for The Queen in 2007, the same year Little Miss Sunshine (featuring Dano) won two Academy Awards (of its four nominations). Dano says he hasn’t met Mirren since, but the early experience allowed him the equivalent of an acting master class each night, as he watched the two actors from backstage during each performance. He moved on stage in a revival of Inherit The Wind the following year, alongside George C. Scott (Oscar-winner for Patton) and Tony winner and two-time Oscar nominee Charles Durning.
The Extra Man provides Dano with another remarkable career opportunity, opposite an Oscar winner. He pairs with Kevin Kline in their second film together, after 2002’s The Emperor’s Club. Dano’s character, Louis Ives, is a young man who relocates to New York City after losing his job at a Princeton prep school when his penchant for lingerie is discovered. He lands a job at an environmental magazine with a crush-worthy co-worker (played by Katie Holmes) and a cheap rental in the apartment of the talented, but colorfully stunted playwright Henry Harrison (Kline). The older eccentric spends his time as an “extra man” or escort (with no sexual implications) for older, rich widows to dinner and theater engagements. Fittingly, Harrison becomes an odd mentor to Ives whose comedic self-discovery takes some unexpected twists and turns.
The cast also includes fellow Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator John C. Reilly. We talked about that connection, but our conversation started with those early experiences on Broadway. Click here for the audio.
Collider: You had, very early on, very distinct (acting) experiences. From watching (Helen Mirren) every night-
Paul Dano: Right.
– to George C. Scott (in a 1996 production of Inherit The Wind). (Is it true) Tony Randall (best known for TV’s The Odd Couple) was a standby in (Inherit The Wind)?
Dano: Well, Tony’s company (The National Actor’s Theater) was doing it, but George was unhealthy (Scott died three years later) and so he decided to be George’s understudy, so to speak and so when George couldn’t go on, Tony would go on and they were obviously, like night and day, SO different. So it was actually quite fun because it would keep you on your toes.
What did you—
Dano: and Charles Durning, too.
What did you learn from those early experiences? They’re all heavyweights in the industry.
Dano: Yeah. All of it is something I’ve learned more in retrospect or, I learned intuitively and now it’s just a part of me, cause I wasn’t 12 years old onstage with George C. Scott thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna take something from him and use it when I’m 26 years old. I was acting then because you know, I liked it the way I liked basketball and I kind of fell into it and I guess I was good at it and community plays led to regional plays which led to off-Broadway which led to Broadway, but I wasn’t fierce about wanting to “be an actor when I’m older” then. So, the only thing I can say about it in retrospect is, I think it, it was a really good way to learn how to act because immediately you’re, sort of, playing people who aren’t your age. They’re from a different time period. Dealing with different subject matter. And I think a lot of television and with, you know, a lot of (movies), you’re often just kind of playing variations of yourself and just kind of really modern stuff. And so I think I, I sort of, without knowing it got some really good training, and obviously by watching those guys, you know, trying to keep up with them and do my best job on stage. You’re engaged with them, no matter what, but I would be essentially making it up–
Dano: if I gave you a really concrete answer. George C. Scott, man, was a powerful dude. Him on stage, I mean, it was pretty amazing to be there, even then. You know, and in retrospect, I wish I could be there right now. Sounds awesome!
I don’t want to diminish and say, “You were lucky to work with these people ‘cause clearly you have the talent to be able to –
Dano: No, I was.
– No, but along the, over the span of your career, you’ve had very interesting on-camera pairings with people like Brian Cox-
-in L.I.E. and again recently (in The Good Heart) of course, Kevin Kline in (The Extra Man), Daniel Day-Lewis a few times (their pairing in 2007’s There Will Be Blood followed their initial teaming in 2005’s The Ballad Of Jack And Rose)
When you’re working with somebody who’s at such a high level, it’s like playing basketball with Michael Jordan, you can’t help but try to keep up, but what (are) the most important lessons that you’ve learned?
Dano: You take away something different from all of them. And I have been lucky, but that’s also something I relish. I look for, too. Since I’m still a young man, getting to work with Kevin (Kline) in the capacity that I did, is obviously a great opportunity to learn. You know, it’s different from every person. Kevin is an incredibly spontaneous and alive actor and it was really fun to try and keep up with him, which my character does, too. You know, he’s sort of leading the crazy train, so to speak, and I’m seeing everything for the first time, this world he lives in. (I) really had to be on my toes and just go with anything. And th- that was just so much fun. Daniel Day-Lewis and all these guys, really. You know, one thing you notice is, there’s a lot of people with raw talent and then there’s people who take that talent and work hard. And I think Daniel’s the best example of that. His level of commitment, it makes you want to step up your game and work just as hard and it’s inspiring.
Was there a moment (with Day-Lewis) on There Will Be Blood or (The) Ballad Of Jack And Rose where you go, “Wow, this guy goes where nobody else goes?”
Dano: There was definitely some moments where, you know, I was going, “Holy s–t.”
Like specifically what—
Dano: Because we didn’t really rehearse and so sometimes, I didn’t know how big something that was gonna come out of him was gonna because he’s so powerful. And I don’t really want to say specific instances. I think you can probably imagine hearing some of the lines from that ending scene on the page (from the famous “drink your milkshake” scene of There Will Be Blood) but then, you know, the real deal is just a whole (other) level, you know, from that. I definitely had moments like that. It was cool.
Yeah. (There Will Be Blood’s director) Paul Thomas Anderson, he’s an actor’s dream to work with and-
-he gives you so much room and so much space to explore.
First of all, are you working on the religion film with him? (Reportedly titled The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a man who starts a faith-based organization in the 1950’s and is helped by his wife, played by Reese Witherspoon, and a drifter, played by Jeremy Renner)
Dano: No. I don’t think so. We keep in touch. You know, he’s a, he’s a great dude. And he is, he loves actors and you can tell in his movies. He’s a great guy.
On Knight And Day, you worked with Tom Cruise (and worked with Cruise’s wife Katie Holmes on The Extra Man).
He’s also part of the Paul Thomas Anderson collective.
Dano: Yeah. He’s amazing in Magnolia.
Along with (The Extra Man co-star) John C. Reilly who was in Sydney (re-titled Hard Eight by the studio) and Boogie Nights, of course.
Dano: Yeah, yeah (and) Magnolia.
Dano: I love his character in Magnolia. We’d met each other before. (John C.) Reilly and I. I think we maybe have even met each other through PTA (Paul Thomas Anderson) ‘cause they’re still boys. I have to say, I have to admit, there was definitely like a, an immediate kind of connection. It’s like when somebody likes the same sports team you do or, or something, it’s just kind of like, a jumping off (point). You know, there’s a feeling about it. You know, so I’m sure we talked about Paul, but mostly it was just kind of like, we probably had a feeling we would get along.
Yeah. In looking at Little Miss Sunshine (where he played a character that stays mute through most of the film), and there’s so much that comes through the silence. And, you know, everybody says at least 50% of acting is listening, but how much was that magnified, especially making that leap from that film–
— to There Will Be Blood and (The Extra Man), too where so much of it is observing and watching as the character?
Dano: Well, yeah, I think since then, it’s been important to any acting I’ve done and (you’re) certainly forced to learn that lesson when you’re playing somebody who doesn’t talk. I think you’re constantly kind of re-learning that lesson, though. You know, like with Kevin, we really, sort of, let anything fly. We were definitely not clean. It was pretty muddy (in terms of) banter and blocking and, you know, our interaction. So if you’re gonna try and work like that, you have to be listening. Otherwise, you’re just gonna freeze and not know what to do. But, you know, Little Miss Sunshine, not just because the film did well or, or some people liked it, but it was a good challenge.
Speaking of Little Miss Sunshine, have you seen any of the early drafts of the musical?
Dano: (Taken aback) No. No. No, I haven’t. I heard they were doing that, but that’s about all.
Yeah. It’s supposed to debut at the La Jolla Playhouse in February and then pending its success it’s rumored to be coming to Broadway.
Dano: No way! That soon?
Dano: No, I-
William Finn who did Falsettoland and (was nominated for two Tonys on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and won 3 Tonys for Falsettos)
Dano: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I’ll be curious.
And James Lapine. (also a Tony nominee on The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and who won a Tony for his work with Finn on Falsettos and is a longtime collaborator with Stephen Sondheim on works such as Passion, Into The Woods, Sundays In The Park With George and more)
Dano: (Taking it in) Yeah. Sure. Wow. You know. All right.
(Laughter) You’ll be there.
Dano: I’ll check it out. You know, I guess so, yeah.
Are you nervous at all about seeing it in a musical form? The-
Dano: I think so. I think it might be a little weird.
Dano: I think I might be a little like, you know, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Like, that’s my guy.”
Dano: “Like, easy!”
Dano: (Smiling) You know. You know, possibly. I don’t know. I’ve never had that experience before. I don’t even think with plays… Have I seen any plays that I’ve been in? Uh, you know, might be a little weird. I might feel a little, you know. Yeah.
It’s a little out-of-body.
Dano: Yeah, I think so. I mean, but it’s a different. It’s not like a, it’s not a movie, so I think I’ll, I’ll be open-minded and I hope they, I hope they do good.
Yeah. Looking at Louis (his character in The Extra Man). (He has) no father, no mother anymore. He’s sort of rudderless and latching onto (Kevin Kline’s character Henry) somebody who makes adventures out of banality. What kind of insanity was there on the set? From (their adventures at) the opera to the apartment?
Dano: Oh, God. Yeah. Well, you know, we made the film in 27 days, maybe, which, which I’ve done less, but when you’re shooting a movie, a lot of it out in New York City, that’s not a fantastic amount of time ‘cause there, there are so many things that eat up your time like sirens going off during a great take, crowds, you know, just all sorts of–, So it was a pretty crazy shoot. A lot to do everyday. And Kevin (Kline is) just a circus on his own in a great way and (John C.) Reilly, they had worked together before (on Robert Altman’s last film, Prairie Home Companion) and they had, they like each other, but their characters had a little bit of a, (Reilly’s character) Gershon’s mad at him. They would bicker like all the time in, in this hilarious way and John would be like (imitating the high voice of Reilly’s character in the film) “Kevin, like, you know, if you like…” You know, and like, Kevin was meanwhile, like quizzing me on Shakespeare. He would quote Shakespeare and if I couldn’t name the play it was from, you know, I was chastised for the rest of the day, you know, about it.
Would he go obscure (with Shakespeare’s lesser known plays) like Cymbeline?
Dano: Well, no. He would bust out like, the few obscure ones he had memorized, but I found if, if you said Hamlet two out of five times, you were right and then (King) Lear, two out of five times you’re right. And then you get into (playwright Anton) Chekhov and then you just guess Three Sisters, I found with him. (Smiling) There was a lot coming at me, I felt like. You know, so there was enough insanity, definitely. And then, the whole tranny thing. That’s insane, too. (Dano’s character experiments with cross-dressing)
Did you have any trepidation about that?
Dano: You know, when I took the part, I didn’t even think twice about it and then like, a week later, I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s, whew.” And you know, I went and spent some time with this woman named Miss Vera (http://www.missvera.com/ ) who runs a little school of helping boys fulfill their dream of becoming girls. And she was wonderful and she really helped me and kind of put me at ease about it. Because, you know it, it’s not a total sexual thing. There is a fetish element. There is a sexual element, but a majority of guys who cross-dress are straight. And then there’s a really high percentage that are married or have a partner.
(Actor and comedian) Eddie Izzard—
–who cross-dresses, but he’s straight.
Dano: Exactly and so, understanding the other reasons why you, you would do that were really important to this character for me. You know, the film’s so eccentric. Any of Louis’ eccentricities need to come from inside and this place of sort of being lost and feeling unlovable and (Miss Vera) was great and, you know, I went to tranny bars and kind of got used to being around that and then getting dressed up. You know, scary at first, ‘cause you’re worried like, “Is this gonna turn me on?” for example, or, you know, “what is it gonna make you feel?” And then I totally felt like a dude, still. I was like, “Yeah, ok. You know, I’m dressed like a woman, but it feels like I’m still me.” You know, it was much less scary, the, the thing I really hated was the lipstick, though. The clothes were not as bad. I really hated the lipstick.
Well, ultimately though, (Louis) finds his manhood through-
-dressing like a woman.
Dano: Yeah, yeah. I guess I mean, I, I just still felt like a dude, which I was pleasantly surprised by, ‘cause you just, I, I didn’t know. You know.
Well, look, I know we have to wrap it up, but good luck.
Good luck with The Extra Man.
Dano: Thanks man.