i-D’s Tom Seymour meets Paul Dano to chat method acting, directing dreams and his latest film For Ellen.
At 23, after a series of small parts in b-movies, Paul Dano was cast as the devout preacher who owns an ocean of oil, starring opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood. Dano has since worked on Rian Johnson’s Looper, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and in collaboration with his girlfriend Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks. He can next be seen in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, and is playing Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad’s biopic of the Beach Boy.
Today sees the release of So Yong Kim’s For Ellen, a low-budget indie which sees Dano – who also acted as Executive Producer – play a struggling musician fighting his estranged wife for custody of their young daughter. He talks i-D through his career.
How do you prepare for your roles? I would love to have three months to prepare my part for every film I work on, but it rarely happens like that. I had four days to get ready before the first day of shooting on There Will Be Blood because I got the part at the very last minute. Somehow your primal instincts kick in and you just fucking do it. I learnt a great deal making For Ellen. It made me think I’ve still got a way to go; in a good way I think. It was a challenging part, but it’s made me look forward to the next role that really gives me a ride.
Do you have a regular process or does it change role from role? There’s things I always do when I’m finding a character, but often the script tells me what it needs and what I need to work on. When I was working on For Ellen, I spent a lot of time with that character. Once I’d captured his energy, I was able to stay with him. Sometimes it happens naturally and it makes sense; I’ve never tried to force staying in something. It takes you over, and it happens of its own accord.
Do you stay in character between takes? I like to stay focused, but I’m more sure what that means. You’d have to ask Zoe (Kazan) if I stay in character. A lot of the things that are happening aren’t entirely self-conscious. It’s strange to talk about because it sounds terribly self-important, but I don’t like to chat on set. I often keep headphones in so people don’t talk to me, so I can stay where I need to stay.
You’ve talked about your ambitions as a director. How far away are you from making your first feature? I’m not sure. I would love to do it in the next five years. It’s all about getting it on the page first and I’m not there yet. The best films I’ve been in had the best scripts; that’s a literal rule. A good script can end up being a bad film, but a mediocre script rarely becomes a good film. It’s a go go go world, and people want to get films made as fast as possible. But I often think people want to make movies when scripts aren’t finished, and that’s something I can’t even comprehend.
You became a professional performer before you turned 20. If you could say something to Paul Dano before he had got into the film industry, what would it be? I think when I was young, acting was like basketball or soccer. I never had a lightning bolt moment. I went to college at 18 and until then I didn’t even think about acting, I was shying away from it. But I think I had to go away from it to be able to really commit to it. I had it right then and it’s harder now that I care about it so much. To be honest, right now I’d say: “Take the money and run.” Or maybe I’d say: “Trust yourself, live your life and don’t worry too much.” Although, to be honest, I tell myself that everyday.
On the subject of take the money and run, are you ever tempted to give Michael Bay a call? I would love to do a huge film with a director and find exciting in some way – look at Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter film. Films are great entertainment, it doesn’t have to be art. I go and see all sorts of movies, and you can tell when a film respects its audience or a filmmaker loves the genre and content. And you can tell when they’ve spent a ton of money with the sole intent of trying to make money, which is disrespectful to the people who are paying for it. Acting is a strange career. I get jealous of directors and screenwriters. Screenwriters can ghost-write and directors can do a commercial, but as an actor, your face and your name are usually on it, so I feel there’s responsibility – or something – to represent and respect myself.
For Ellen is in cinemas today. Read Paul Dano i-N Conversation about his film Ruby Sparks in The Role Model Issue.
Text: Tom Seymour