Modest and unconventional, Paul Dano is the film actor and part-time musician currently landing Hollywood’s most interesting roles including BAFTA nominated 12 Years A Slave's, most heartless villain.
Everything about Paul Dano is unusual. Slightly clumsy, endearingly shy and occasionally unremarkable, this unassuming 29 year old’s dishevelled disposition ought to have made his ascent to silver screen stardom unlikely. However, it is what lies beneath the emerald-eyed actor’s fragile but mysterious surface that has many transfixed. Cast as the central villain in Steve McQueen and John Ridley’s feature film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, the former Broadway performer has come a long way since playing Howie in L.I.E., his first film from 2001. Investing his newly acquired free time chilling with friends, catching up on movies, watching Breaking Bad, Mad Men and losing himself in a book of Wallace Stegner’s short stories, Paul is struggling to distance himself from the latest character he put to bed. John Tibeats is the deeply disturbed axe-wielding maniac with pathological tendencies whose persona Paul had assumed for the past year. “I always find that you go through a couple of things when you finish a job. Sometimes there’s just a postpartum sadness or melancholy that follows because you’re just done one day and then you go home,” he elaborates. No two parts Paul has chosen in the past are the same. Skipping schizophrenically between hugely different roles, the scripts this inward looking actor is interested in are representative of the many varying sides to his own personality.
Paul Franklin Dano first properly pricked the industry’s attention back in 2007, appearing as Dwayne Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine. Expertly portraying an angsty teenager who takes a vow of silence in an attempt to regain control of his life, the funny but thought-provoking role was bewilderingly at odds with his second film of that same year. In There Will Be Blood, playing brothers Paul and Eli Sunday alongside Daniel Day Lewis, Paul masterfully executed the menacing roles of two men corrupted by power and money with disturbing ease. The mild mannered, baby faced actor can portray both foreboding and light-hearted characters with incredible conviction. Paul has no prerequisites for the films he wants to act in or specific designs on how he wants to be perceived by audiences. Romantic, psychotic, adorable or enraged, Paul Dano is not averse to assuming unattractive, unlikeable personae in the many faces he portrays. For Paul, only one thing is constant when plying his craft - he doesn’t like looking back over his films. “Looking at yourself is just weird. Sometimes you watch yourself and think, ‘Well you know what, those were the character’s choices and I can’t pick myself apart as long as it was truthful.’ But sometimes it’s hard and you get hard on yourself. I always try to delude myself into thinking if I don’t feel good about something I can learn from it. It can take it out of you, you work really hard on something, and you hope that you’ve made a good film and it can be rewarding to see that, it can also be hard to see it.” In an industry dominated by impossibly beautiful individuals and cosmetically enhanced creatures, Paul’s disregard for vanity is refreshing. He himself is an unconventionally handsome man. Striking and alluring, his features are similar to that of a Botticelli angel, with rosebud lips, wide set eyes and a strong set nose offset by a scruffy, unkempt shadow of long hair. Paul has so many contrasting angles to his face that the camera catches a different character with each take of every scene he plays. It is perhaps this powerful physical intensity that allows him to become so many different men, assume so many different guises, so assuredly.
Last year alone he worked on the production and release of four wildly different films; For Ellen, Ruby Sparks, Looper and Twelve Years a Slave. In his most recent independent screenplay, So Yong Kim’s Sundance Film Festival entry For Ellen, Dano plays Joby Taylor, a frustratingly wayward, worn out rock and roll deadbeat who is suddenly confronted by his estranged daughter. Ruby Sparks allows Paul to show his more refined and romantic side, exploring Calvin Weir Fields, the obsessive writer who is experiencing a creative block and then dreams up the perfect girl in a desperate bid to reignite some inspiration. Out now, 12 Years a Slave takes the gently spoken actor to an inherently evil place, a slave master who brutally beats his workers habitually until a dramatic and rebellious uprising from one of the principal characters turns his world upside down. When asked what kind of characters he looks to play for in a good script, Paul replies quite nonchalantly, “I’m not sure, you could probably say better than l. I don’t really think too much about the films I did two years ago, I’m thinking about now. I like to read something and be surprised by it, so I couldn’t tell you what I want to do. I like the period between films when you don’t know what you’re going to do. I would love to make a super intimate and small film, I would equally like to do something absolutely ginormous and huge. It’s really just about feeling excited.” First falling in love with film after watching Midnight Cowboy and Dazed and Confused, these are the two films Paul has watched more than any other. Scrutinizing the expert way Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman can so powerfully command the camera made him want to become a serious actor and today Japanese silent film director Yasujirō Ozu is inspiring him to want to begin working behind the camera. “Right now I have a little time off, so I’m basically surrounding myself with books and movies, and that helps to fill me up and makes me feel like I’m back to 100% energy. I made a short film last year and I’m definitely going to direct films at some point, but I don’t know if I’ll write them or not. I’ll try but I just don’t know. The most important thing to me when I’m looking at a film is the script and the director. The other actors are just a bonus.” As familiar with large scale film sets as small intimate playhouse venues, Paul bonds easily with the people he works with. “The actors and directors are probably the people you’d get closest with while you’re doing shooting, so often those are the friendships that end up lasting. Mainly because you all go through something together and you put yourself out there and when you’re vulnerable in front of somebody and taking a risk that helps to make friends with somebody. It’s like a step in the relationship.” Willing his audiences to feel as intimate with him as a lover might, Paul speaks candidly about his relationships. In Fact Twentieth Century Fox made an entire film about his and Zoe Kazan’s (who is Ruby Sparks) actual relationship, in part. Written by Zoe, Paul helped produce his girlfriend’s first ever foray into screenplay and the result is a witty, fast moving rom-com centred around a man who is learning how to love his imagined perfect person after suffering a crippling attack of writer’s block. “Zoe got the idea and then she showed it to me and I said, ‘Are you writing this for us?’ She just said, ‘Yeah.’ I think she was heading that way, but she wasn’t there yet. The characters came to her first, not the idea of us doing it together. Then the story came to her. I would read stuff that she wrote, it was all certainly not without its challenges but it was really fun to daydream about the film together. It was such a beautiful thing to share sort of every up-and-down experience. On set we are both pretty focused and were there for Calvin and Ruby more than we are there for each other.” He first met his blue eyed girl at a Broadway play over six years ago. Now, the way the two gaze at each other throughout interviews and on-screen betray the kind of puppy love that turns single people’s stomachs. Halfway through i-D’s interview, Paul puts our conversation on hold whilst he receives a delivery for Zoe. Chatting candidly about his excitement for Zoe’s creative passion, the proud boyfriend gushes and forgets himself, identifying with his current fictional character as if it were his own life. “There are parts of me in there. I think there are parts of Zoe in her character. I think there’s parts of Zoe’s ex-boyfriends in the character as well. Calvin has lost his father and has some significant ex-girlfriend, his brother is his only friend, and he has writer’s block. So those are really big, meaty things to kind of hook on to.” What kind of a boyfriend is he? “Super, sexy, romantic, charismatic, mysterious,” he laughs… “No, I don’t know.” And neither might we, but one can definitely imagine his unpretentious nature would lend itself well to him being more romantically inclined. Not much seems to intimidate or overwhelm the suddenly established thespian. Despite having starred alongside the most respected and revered actors of the last and most current generation, Robert De Niro, Brian Cox, Daniel Day Lewis, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul celebrates landing one of the most fought over parts in the industry with a quiet sushi dinner and not much else. If the reluctant socialite does decide to have a night out, he frequents Brooklyn’s underbelly. Two years ago, Paul was performing on stages at the basement bars he also hangs out in for fun, fronting his unsigned band Mook. “I play with three very good friends of mine who I’ve known since high school. We’re super-collaborative but I write a lot of the material, and then bring it to the rest of the band, then we try and make it better. Everybody brings something to Mook.” Paul’s voice is hypnotic and velvety, dulcet tones swim captivatingly over an eclectic mix of acoustic instrumentals, as Mook compose mournful, fragmented lullabies that intelligently scale the depths of heartbreak without irony. The Beatles, Neil Young, Fiona Apple and Biggie Smalls have all helped shaped his collective’s signature sound. Everything Dano fully involves himself in has his identity stamped all over it. This strength of character is such that even the purring of his own vocals over a short score of music becomes a performance entirely his own. Cruising the official Mook YouTube page, Mook Quartet, avant-garde shorts displaying monochrome, VCR filmed road trips and Paul dressed as a hooded elderly woman theme the music. Eclectic. These are the visually infused inner-workings of a kook’s most irreverent imagination. The fragmented, slightly monotone vocals the aspiring front man confidently croons, convey a placid sense of contentment that is softly pleasing to the ear. Playing SXSW in 2011, the band didn’t play any gigs last year but will soon be returning to the stage with new material. What the new material might sound like is as unlikely to predict as the persona Paul might play in his next flick. If the part-time singer/songwriter could have been responsible for writing the single greatest song, of all time, he would have preferred to not. “People sometimes ask you, ‘If you could have given any performance what would you have given?’ and I don’t understand the question,” he says. “If I didn’t get to see Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces I feel like I’d be missing something, so I wouldn’t want to replace that. I guess at the end of the day there’re a few simple songs that will probably speak to me forever. I would say Helpless by Neil Young, and Mother by John Lennon, but I would never want to have written them because then I wouldn’t get to enjoy them.” Art is more important than the craft.
Uninterested in promoting only himself, Dano is proving to be the face of a bold new anti-Hollywood movement, upheld by a contemporary breed of intelligent and creatively minded individuals. Opting for less flattering and more risqué parts, shunning air-brushed films in favour of more gritty and layered characters, Juno Temple, Michael Cera and Zoe Kazan are the notoriously young, talented and experienced major motion picture actors and comrades of Dano who have resisted the commercial allure of Hollywood stardom, in favour of supporting independent films. This is how it begins, embrace his genius, Paul Dano’s face is the changing face of modern cinema.