Paul Dano: Let Your Experiences Surprise You

by Sarah Rapp

As far as being “Hollywood” goes, actor Paul Dano doesn’t indulge the stereotype for a second. Relaxed, generally unconcerned, and a self-proclaimed homebody, he’s able to maintain a healthy diet of three or four films a year, and find ample time to hang out in his Brooklyn neighborhood. How? He just doesn’t worry too much about it all. Dano pays attention to the senses, knowing to say yes when he feels “lit up,” and from there, giving himself the freedom to ride out the experience.As a creative, Dano is of the “ebb and flow” philosophy, allowing himself to obsess over work and let sanity fly out the window during filming, only to return home to sleep in, catch a pickup game with friends, and consider his next move.

Following his intuition has served him well. Aside from his stunning turn in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Dano recently voiced the lovable goat in Where the Wild Things Are, and played opposite Zoey Deschanel in the art-house film Gigantic. This summer, he’ll appear as the dapper – not to mention lingerie-wearing – lead in The Extra Man, based on the book by Jonathan Ames.

We spoke with Dano during a prized week off, sandwiched between off-site shoots. The unassuming 25-year-old veteran actor – he made his debut at age 12 – quietly spoke of his success, and the decisions made to end up where he is today. His advice on what works? Let go of control when necessary, make time for personal projects, and take the pressure off by defining your own success.

As you sort through scripts, or even when you’re shooting, what is important to you in an acting experience?
In the best situation, you read something, and you feel curious, challenged, lit up. You feel like you can bring something to this part that maybe someone else can’t. Personal connection is the most important. These things lend themselves to a great acting experience. But there has to be something that makes you “get it up,” so to speak. That something isn’t always quantifiable, in fact, gut response is the most important.

Your job requires long stretches of intense work. How do you stay grounded and sane despite how physically and emotionally exhausting acting can be?
Often, when making a film, you are away from your real life – literally, you’re on a location somewhere else away from home. I suppose that helps something, but I also find it hard. I’m not sure how important sanity is when acting – a lot of things seem to fly out the window.

Sometimes, especially when I’m away, and working everyday, I sort of enter a tunnel. I become quite obsessive, and my mind becomes very one-track. It takes over, and it’s really all I can think about. I become isolated in this tunnel, and there’s some light ahead – just a matter of how many weeks are left in the shoot until I get out of it. But it is always important to me to have time off in between jobs, so that I can come down and reconnect with myself and my life and be around the people I love.

I’m not sure how important sanity is when acting – a lot of things seem to fly out the window.

I understand that Jonathan Ames was very involved in the filming of your newest project, The Extra Man. Is it common for screenwriters to have such a presence on set?

No, not always. This one was probably the most involved, especially because the story is very dear and close to Jonathan. Frankly, he was a guy for me who I could go to help take some shortcuts into finding my way into the character and that world. It’s certainly easier to touch base with him and say, ‘Hey, I have this question,’  or ‘I’m looking for this’ rather than doing something like Google it. It’s really nice to have a trustworthy source who is invested in it. We got to know each other quite well.

What was the last “personal” project you’ve done?
I just did a film called For Ellen, written and directed by a woman named So Yong Kim. Although the part was much different from myself (hopefully), it was a very personal experience. It was a film I did purely because I loved the script, the part, and felt like I could try some things I haven’t done before – and not knowing if I could get there. I like that feeling.

I am about to make a short film that I wrote and will direct. That is definitely a personal project.

What is the film you’re making about?
It’s a short. It’s very simple – it’s just two characters, a guy and a girl, and it’s little pieces of what might be a relationship. There are no obvious events – there’s no kiss, fight, breakup, or sex. It’s a few little vignettes, and you sort of have to figure out what they mean for the characters.

How do you like the solo process of writing compared to your usual, more collaborative, work environment?
One of the things that sometimes frustrates me as an actor is the lack of control over the final product. I like the idea of having something that is your own, or from your own perspective or viewpoint. I’ll keep pecking away at it. Coming up with a good story is not as easy as you might think it is. But I’ll take a crack at it, and we’ll see.

What do you draw inspiration from?
I like to be surprised by things. So I’m not sure. Being involved in other creative activities or hobbies helps fuel all fires. And I am lucky to have some friends, and a girlfriend, who inspire me.

What kind of a balance do you try to keep in your personal life?
Most of my friends at home are not actors, so I probably balance things the way most people do. I am a bit of a homebody though. Being an actor is not a consistent job; at least, you aren’t always filming or on stage. There are breaks. So I definitely have time to do the other things I like to do, and it is important to me to make that time.

What is some good advice you’ve received lately?
Someone said something to me about self-validation recently. That’s a hard one, but something to aspire to. It seems our culture now more than ever defines success for you, and sometimes what you really want gets a bit foggy.

I know that your schedule is sporadic. Do you try to give yourself a routine?
Well, I do try to give myself certain routines, but they don’t often work out. Without some structure, I do flounder. So I try at least.

It seems our culture now more than ever defines success for you, and sometimes what you really want gets a bit foggy.

You’ve done theater and film acting, writing, and you’re in a band. What else is on the horizon?
I would really like to make a film. I feel like I have a lot to learn and accomplish just as an actor alone, so that in itself could be a lifelong goal. I can’t really imagine doing much else. I would like to maybe get to a place someday where I can have a production company of some kind and help get things made that I like, and that have trouble getting made. So maybe at some point, I can be involved in a little more of a business way, too.

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