Paul Dano on acting, love and embarrassing parents: ‘They have way too many pictures of me’

27 days ago

Hes known for playing misfits in There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine now the actor is turning his back on Hollywood to take on Tolstoy

Paul Dano has the kind of body language that speaks before he does. On screen, he is often twisted, lopsided, stooped, crunched or otherwise cramped in such a way that instantaneously and viscerally communicates vulnerability. Off screen, wandering into a coffeehouse in Manhattan, he is mildly diffident, like someone who might try to read a volume while strolling along. Oh my goodness! he tells vaguely as we settle in, and there is something about Danos politeness and thoughtfulness that attains one want to ring to congratulate his mother.

As an actor, the 31 -year-old brings heft to the thinnest of scripts. Dano hasnt had that many leading proportions, but he is, to a certain kind of movie-goer, instantaneously and appreciably recognisable, as John Tibeats in 12 Years A Slave, Eli in There Will Be Blood and, most famously, his almost silent appearance as Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine all cinemas in which his performance exerts a greater influence than the size of the role. Next month, he plays Pierre Bezukhov in the BBCs six-part, APS1 0m adaptation of War And Peace, a role that, before accepting, Dano put through his customary process of internal questioning in this case, reading the novel for the first time to see if Andrew Daviess script was up to snuff.

It felt like the responsible thing to do, Dano says. And had the scripts not held up after reading the book, which they did, and Andrew did as good a job as I think you can He tails off.

He would have turned it down? Maybe. I wouldve questioned it.

As Pierre Bezukhov in the new six-part BBC adaptation of War And Peace, with Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna. Photo: Laurie Sparham/ BBC

Dano has travelled to Manhattan on the subway from his home in Brooklyn, where he has lived for eight years with his girlfriend, the actor Zoe Kazan( the couple co-starred in Ruby Sparks, which she wrote ). If you had to guess, youd set Dano down as a Brooklynite rather than a animal of Hollywood; he is pale and unbuffed, and his speech is riven with qualifiers. There is something nearly ecclesiastical about his manner hesitating and a little ached, without being unfriendly a deliberation one recognises from his roles. Dano is the master of the small external indicator of vast internal churn, and his characters tend towards the marginal( later in the interview, I stimulate the mistake of using the word weirdos to describe them, which upsets Dano on the basis that his characters are real people to me ). Even his biggest role to date, as Brian Wilson in Love& Mercy, the Beach Boys biopic for which he received a Golden Globe nomination, turned on the contrast between Wilsons fame and acclaim and the critical country of his mental health.

In the opening episode of War And Peace, which co-stars Gillian Anderson, Adrian Edmondson, Greta Scacchi and the reliably excellent Rebecca Front, Dano strolls into the grand ballroom in St Petersburg with a slight stoop, because, as he points out, Bezukhov is meant to be a bigger person than I am; hunching his shoulders connotes, cleverly, a man who doesnt know what to do with his height. Bezukhov is a tricky character for an actor, developing for the purposes of the narrative from awkward ingenue to a human in possession of a huge, unexpected fortune. In preparing for the role, Dano guessed long about what type of gaucheness he was trying to embody. Im more the kind of person who thinks about the room Im walking into before I do, he says. I think[ Pierre] walks into the room and realises hes there, which is kind of awkward at a high society party. Hes not innocent or childlike, but hes less calculating than the people around him. That openness is what attains him different. Its a beautiful quality.

The physical facet is one of the ways into a role Dano most savors. Its always a super-fun component. The question is: where is the energy in this person? Some characters lead from their chest or their head more, or their dick more, or whatever. It might not be something huge and noticeable.

On the evidence of the first episode, it will be a terrific series, although the filming six months through the worst of the winter in Lithuania and Russia was so penalizing that Dano still appears a little traumatised. During the shoot, Kazan came to visit him twice, but there were no visits home and, as a result, Dano felt their own lives stalling. He had never done such a long shoot before most of his movie roles have wrapped in two months and he was shocked at how everything had to be put on hold. Even if its dealing with a bill, or seeing your family, you have to learn to maintain enough life running while working. Its not fun to be away, and its a strange lifestyle. A full detox was necessary afterwards. Ive definitely tried to forget about it, merely to move on.

He looks instantly mortified at having permitted himself to say something that might be construed as ungrateful, and adds: Its also a great escapade , not only the run, but places I might not have gone to, and friends you make.

Dano grew up in Manhattan, on the East Side, and later in the suburbs. The East Side is shorthand for massive banking wealth and, yes, Dano tells, he was raised in one of those ritzy neighbourhoods, but without much money. His papa was a financial consultant, but not the 1% kind, and his mother raised Dano and his sister. We were in a one-bedroom when we lived in Manhattan, in a really nice neighborhood, but we had bunk beds and my parents were in the same room. It was a nice apartment. But to move into a bigger place would have been too expensive, so we went to the suburbiums, an hour away.

It was when they moved out of township that Dano began are active in a community theater, one of many after-school activities; at the time, he would have said that his aim was to become a professional basketball player. After being invited to appear in a regional play in Stanford, Connecticut, he started to go for auditions in New York, and in 1996, aged 12, attained his Broadway debut in a play called Inherit The Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. Im pretty sure I had to save the money, and Im also sure it was not a lot a week. It wasnt like all of a sudden I had a lot of currency.

He did, however, start to get a sense of how a career in acting might run, and how it might go wrong. As Dano began appearing in small roles on TV “hes in” a few episodes of The Sopranos, a single episode of the sitcom Smart Guy and, at persons under the age of 17, won a sizeable part in the movie L.I.E . alongside Brian Cox he started to worry about getting sucked into the celebrity rat race.

The question is: where is the energy in this person? Some leading from their head or chest more, or their dick. Photo: Benedict Evans for the Guardian

He took up a place at the New School, colleges and universities in downtown Manhattan, with the intention of staying away from acting for a few years. When I went to college, I knew I could use it as a buffer. I was very conscious at an early age of that[ celebrity] world, and what it could be. And that was not attractive to me. For some reason, I always thought that the long game was more interesting than the short game.

He majored in English, took a course in Russian literature he didnt read War And Peace, but did read some of the big ones: The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. The Brother Karamazov and Anna Karenina, one of my favourite books. At some point, the need to accrue course credits and knuckle down was beginning to rankle and it occurred to Dano that, I didnt require a certain degree for the things I might want to do. It didnt seem to make sense any more. He fell out, sadly, he says, although he believes that, even for a short time, college served special purposes, dedicating him a breather from a too-fast trajectory into working life.

Although neither of Danos mothers had an acting background the nearest anyone came to it was his papa, who, Dano recently discovered, enrolled in acting class in his early 20 s to try to meet women( I thought that was really funny) they werent overly fazed when their son fell out of college. They did wonder whether he should do something as a backup, like a business or accounting course, but, Dano says, my mum was really important in letting me follow what I was good at. Its an insane profession to advise someone to go into. I dont know that I would, but both of my parents were in the camp of You can do it.

Reading remains important; in ways impossible to measure, he feels that it feeds into his abilities as an actor. One of the reasons he likes to take the metro is that he can get a lot of reading done and now, having forensically analysed War And Peace, he wonders if its time to tackle Proust. When hes at home, he mainly watches Tv, although his choice of present depends on whether or not his girlfriend is there. If hes watching with Kazan, whom he met almost a decade ago while doing an off-Broadway play, they stick to comedy or drama. Its a relationship thing, he tells. Were sharing something and want to have a chuckle together. Mad Men is something we watched together. So it is that, although hes impatient to finish the final season, Dano has had to wait until she has time to join him. Its so inter-tangled with watching with her.

Left to his own devices, however, Dano will sit and watch back-to-back sports; it doesnt matter what: baseball, basketball, ice hockey, the best live sport. He still plays basketball at some courts in Brooklyn Bridge Park, a 20 -minute stroll from his home. In some ways, he admires professional athletes more than actors. Their work ethic is so bananas. Its super-inspiring. It is also a profession, much like Danos, in which physiognomy dictates opportunity.

The actor is uncomfortable talking about the beauty pageant component in his industry; he doesnt want to be negative. On the other hand, he has been annoyed by losing out on a role to someone chosen for the incorrect reasons. If a superficial option is constructed, then its very annoying. But of course, I feel like women have it a lot worse. Its an easy thing to overthink or get upset about, but its kind of a waste of time.

But if he loses out in a fair fighting, then so be it. As long as its a really good actor get a chance, Im super-excited for them just to insure what they do. I think its nice to feed off.( The exception to this is if the person isnt a good human being. Sometimes[ bad behaviour] get romanticised, and I dont understand that .)

Danos breakthrough role was as Dwayne, the elective-mute adolescent in Little Miss Sunshine, person with whom he empathised profoundly. I feel like I knew kids like that, he tells, and he played Dwayne tenderly, with real pathos; when the character eventually breaks his silence at the end of the movie, it is funny but also shocking. Dano says that he and his co-stars, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin, knew when they were filming that the movie might turn out to be good, because of the fun the latter are having. We were all in that van together. And then, at our first screening at Sundance, there were many rounds of applause during the course of its film. It was one of the best screenings Ive been to.

Lots of similar roles arrived his route, roles in which he was asked to play people outside of something. He was still in his early 20 s when he was casting, at the last minute, in There Will Be Blood, opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, and too young to feel the pressure. I just had to throw myself in there and go for it, he says.

While on define, did he look to Day-Lewis for professional advice? I dont think that Ive … He lapses into a confounded stillnes and we regroup around the subject of whether having idols is desirable or necessary when planning for the future. I believe Im more concerned with the present moment , not in terms of getting rich and famous. I dont think you can calculate life. I like it when you watch a person who plainly puts themselves out there, and almost that it expenses them something. You want to feel that people really gave you a piece of themselves. Thats what I think can be really inspiring or moving.

Paul Dano with Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave. Photograph: Everett/ REX Shutterstock

Then, in 2013, arrived his role as John Tibeats in Steve McQueens 12 Years A Slave. Tibeats is the overseer who taunts the slaves early on in the story, in a scene that, as with so many in the film, is profoundly disturbing. One wonders how it felt to create a character that loathsome, given the amount of empathy relevant actors must feel for any role he is playing. Yes, Dano says. When I read that character, I didnt run, oh, yes, delicious! But I really loved the script, so you ask yourself, is this worth contributing to the tale? I looked at it that way, and I think it was.

How did he go about creating the character? I talked to Steve about it and I think that one way to come at it is to ask, what is he taking out on them? Its not about that person being bad to a slave, its about something else, and what is that something else that drives me to act out in that way towards that person?

Was it emotionally disturbing to play the taunting scene? That scene is one of the only periods Ive ever felt … Normally by that point, youve sufficiently deleted yourself. You prepare, you do your work, rehearse. But because in that scene it was a group of extras who I didnt know, a group of guys who I didnt have a relationship with, which is good for the scene, but as a person it is a little He seems stricken. Then again, everybody knew why we were there.

The difficulties Dano faced during the filming of War And Peace were less burdensome, and revolved around trying to figuring out Tolstoys deeper meaning. Tolstoy was Christian, but it feelings as if theres something almost Buddhist at work, Dano tells, gamely. How to live and how to be happy. The externals, like the wealth I dont know Tolstoy thought this organization is the answers. I think he was looking for something deeper and more meaningful. Its like Pierre gets all the externals and those are the things we think are going to stimulate us happy. And then I dont think they do. And then what? When what you thought would make you happy doesnt?

Since finishing filming, he has been more or less on hiatus, trying to catch up on their own lives. He seems, next month, in a small, striking role in an otherwise pretentious movie called Youth, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino and starring Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz, in which Dano plays against form; he is often cast as somebody hampered by his own seriousnes, but in this is a jaded movie star in a country retreat, trying to escape the trappings of his fame.

For Danos part, celebrity continues to embarrass him and he sends all his film memorabilia to his mothers house in Pennsylvania. When he first started doing this, he assumed it would all go in a box in a cupboard, but on a trip back home he discovered to his horror that it was all out on display. Theyre super-proud. They have way too many paintings and memorabilia, which I find … there was a moment when … I dont want any of that stuff. It might be nice to have some day He squirms with awkwardness.

His most recent trip home was so sweet, but frustrating. There was more food than you could my mum wants to attain my visit so good, I cannot tell you how much food she made.

Did she send you back with leftovers? Yes. Very nice as well.

Until the next project comes along, Dano will bide his time in Brooklyn, enjoying the moments of separation from acting and, as he assures it, refuelling. Its a question of what you fill up on what you read and learn.

It is also a question of recognizing also that , no matter particularities of a story or idiosyncrasies of a character, the stakes are often the same: love, sex, money, power, all the things it is Danos job to communicate. The words, or the dress, or the history may be different, but the inner life is relatable, he says. Its a beautiful window.

War And Peace starts on 3 January at 9pm on BBC1.

Read more: www.theguardian.com