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Paul Dano on His Terrifying Batman Villain and Why He’s No Longer Scared of Going Hollywood

The actor — who has managed to work with the biggest names in the industry while maintaining a blissful obscurity — reveals grander ambitions, the high stakes of playing Steven Spielberg’s dad and why the Riddler probably plays Wordle.

In pursuit of his art, Paul Dano wrapped his head in Saran wrap last year. This was not, it turned out, the healthiest idea. Dano was meticulously crafting his character for The Batman, the Riddler, envisioned by director Matt Reeves as a buttoned-down accountant by day, madman genius by night. The actor had carefully helped select a U.S. Army winter combat mask that costume designer Jacqueline Durran found on eBay, which Dano liked for its homegrown vigilante aesthetic, and he was thinking about the Riddler’s fastidiously executed murders. “The thoroughness of this person, the almost maniacal detail that he puts into plotting — I was like, ‘OK, well, should I just shave all my body hair?’ ” Dano says. “So there’s no evidence?” He nixed that plan and decided instead, “I’m going to wrap my head in Saran wrap.”

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Reeves loved the idea — with the top part of Dano’s head encased in plastic, he looked even more horrifying. But on the first day of shooting after three or four takes, “Paul takes off the mask, his head, his face is beet red,” Reeves says. “The heat can’t escape. I was like, ‘OK, all right, Paul, let’s rethink this. You don’t have to do this.’ He goes, ‘No, man, I told you that I wanted to do it. I’ll do it.’ ” The plastic stayed.

The Batman is the first time in Dano’s distinguished, 25-year acting career that he is part of a big-budget, four-quadrant movie heavily anticipated by a global audience. As he sat on the set of the nearly $200 million production in England, poking holes in the Saran wrap to vent heat and pressure, the actor thought, first, of the fans. “I just hope on Halloween nobody wraps their head in Saran wrap and passes out from heat exhaustion,” he says.

Although he starred in three best picture nominees before he turned 30 — Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and 12 Years a Slave — and has been nominated for a Golden Globe, for Love & Mercy, and an Emmy, for Escape at Dannemora, Dano, 37, is still little-known enough that many people mispronounce his last name. Dano rhymes with Draino, but even serious fans, like the creators of a 34-episode podcast devoted to his filmography, Is Paul Dano OK?, say it wrong.

Dano had never heard of the podcast until this interview: “Oh my God. Who are they?” Turns out they are Matt Brothers and Daryl Bär, a couple of British movie obsessives drawn by Dano’s craft and the abuse his characters often seem to suffer. “He’s someone who people know, but they don’t know they know,” says Brothers. “And what motivates a performer to keep gravitating toward these roles where he gets a good slapping? Is he OK?”

Yeah, Paul Dano is OK. In fact, he is a bit better than OK. After years of trying to avoid the kind of mainstream attention that comes with a project like The Batman, Dano is ready for household-name status. “I am more clear in myself now about what I want and what I get from my work,” Dano says. “That allows for a more healthy sense of not just artistry, but also ambition. It feels really good to me to have done this now, and I can enjoy it now, where I don’t know if I would have in my 20s.”

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“I’m not a multitasker,” says Dano. “I am a horse with blinders on.” Salvatore Ferragamo coat and sweater. Photographed By Erik Tanner

There is a reason that, while nearly every other major male actor of his generation has at least one comic book movie on his résumé, The Batman is Dano’s first. “I really had a stiff arm up to the industry when I was young,” he says. “Being a child actor, I instinctively felt, … ‘How do I somehow protect myself from Hollywood?’ I just don’t think I knew who I was enough to be around it. I was too impressionable. I don’t know that I’m a natural performer. I don’t know that I get my ya-yas from entertaining. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know if it was possible.”

What Dano wanted was a career that was long and varied and left room for him to have a life — and he’s gotten it. In 2022, he’ll appear in two roles that represent almost diametrical opposites in terms of their themes and places in the movie industry, first as the Riddler in WarnerMedia’s epic The Batman, which opens March 4, and then as a father inspired by Steven Spielberg’s own dad in The Fabelmans, the director’s intimate, semiautobiographical family drama due from Universal in November. Dano also hopes to finish writing his second script this year, a movie for him to direct, as he did the 2018 Richard Ford adaptation Wildlife, which he co-wrote with his longtime romantic partner, actress and screenwriter Zoe Kazan.

It’s early February, and Dano is in L.A. to tape some videos that will be part of the promotional whirl for The Batman, a sprawling marketing endeavor that is new to this veteran of mostly indie projects. “I’ve not really experienced this before, the fan theories and the people reacting and counting down days,” he says. “It’s surprisingly really fun. I don’t know that I was expecting that, because I tend to be more shy.” Jake Gyllenhaal, whom he directed in Wildlife and starred opposite in Prisoners and Okja, does a convincing impression of Dano’s offscreen air of tranquil confidence. “It’s an easy impression. Basically I stand very still and just give a slight, affirming nod,” Gyllenhaal says. It was possible to fact-check this impression in real time over breakfast with Dano when a waitress delivered a complimentary fruit plate and congratulated him on some unspoken victory, and the actor tipped his head ever so slightly, closed his eyes and thanked her. Dano, Gyllenhaal says, is “openhearted but quiet and in no need of an actor’s typical desire for attention.”

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For his role as the obsessive but brilliant killer the Riddler, Dano suggested to director Matt Reeves that he cover his head in Saran wrap to prevent any DNA evidence from being found at the scene of his crimes. Courtesy of Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.

Dano, the son of a financial adviser and a homemaker in New York City and Connecticut, worked as a child actor, displaying a knack for the craft in community theater. He was able to hold his own opposite some of the most intimidating actors of screen and stage from a very early age. At 12, he made his Broadway debut in a revival of Inherit the Wind with George C. Scott and Charles Durning, and at 20 he appeared opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Ballad of Jack & Rose. In Day-Lewis, Dano observed commitment and the English actor’s ability to harness his intensity into a scene. At 23, when Paul Thomas Anderson needed a last-minute replacement for another actor in the role of preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, he elevated Dano, who was playing a smaller part, into a dual role. “It takes an enormous amount of fearlessness to stand opposite and antagonize Daniel [Day-Lewis] as Plainview,” Anderson says. “Paul’s fear, if he had any, was well hidden.”

Bong Joon Ho wrote a part for Dano in Okja after meeting the actor while seeing his band, Mook, play at a show in Brooklyn. “He was undeniably an artist,” Bong says. “He was singing while playing a peculiar rhythm on the guitar. … It’s hard to explain, but it was weird yet natural at the same time.” Bong wrote the Okja part, in which Dano plays a militant vegan animal-rights activist, to capture “his eyes and distinct energy. His quietly persuasive charisma. Especially the particular rhythm and cadence that he has in his speech and movement. I wanted to capture his inimitable aura and rhythm on film.”

Reeves, too, wrote The Batman with Dano in mind for the Riddler role, thinking in particular of the actor’s performance as Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson in 2014’s Love & Mercy, in which the songwriter is battling mental illness. “That character, he’s caught up in his artistry and he struggles to communicate with those around him,” Reeves says. “That was spiritually connected to the idea of this isolation that the Riddler felt. The Riddler is a product of our time, the way that people become isolated online and retreat to mental activities that substitute for not having contact.” Dano, Reeves felt, had the right combination of oddness and accessibility to give the character depth. “Paul is just off center in a way that makes him very relatable,” Reeves says. “I didn’t want this character to be a villain. Even in his darkness, I wanted to see that humanity.”

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“Paul is just off center in a way that makes him very relatable,” says The Batman director Matt Reeves. Prada suit, shirt, tie and shoes, Tiffany & Co. watch. Photographed By Erik Tanner

Over the years, Dano had avoided comic book movies, never outright passing on one, just not expressing enough interest to get an offer. “Sometimes you maybe just don’t engage with a meeting or something,” he says. “Just kind of knowing when to not step on the gas or to go after every job.” But he was intrigued by what he’d heard of Reeves’ approach on The Batman, which unfolds as a dark detective story, and he read the script the director wrote with Peter Craig. “I read it and said to Zoe, ‘I think this is kind of really good?’ ” Dano says. He liked that in this comic book movie, “The audience is sort of indicted. I’ve not seen that before in this kind of mass entertainment.”

The Batman is a reboot of a franchise that has grossed some $5 billion globally but also has been through creative tumult the past decade, with director Zack Snyder reluctantly handing off his Justice League film to Joss Whedon, who clashed with multiple actors, and Ben Affleck stepping away from the Batman role to deal with personal problems. Reeves’ new film is a fresh start for the characters, with Robert Pattinson as a younger Batman in a story wholly distinct from the DC Extended Universe. When Reeves and Dano spoke, they connected over an interest in moral gray areas and the notion that Batman and the Riddler are mirror images of each other. “There’s just a thin line that separates them,” Reeves says. “There’s a moment where you think, ‘Oh, is that Batman’s point of view watching through the binoculars, or is that the Riddler’s?’ Paul kept saying to me, ‘This character is not just a serial killer. It has to be grander than that.’ “

Growing up, Dano was obsessed with Jim Carrey, and he remains a fan of Carrey’s Riddler in 1995’s Batman Forever, but Reeves’ Batman is no comic treatment. As Dano began to prepare for the film, he thought through the Riddler’s motivations, his traumatic history and his connection with Batman. He worked with a mask expert to figure out how to inhabit a role where he spends the vast majority of the movie with his face covered. The first time he put on the winter combat mask, he felt a sense of power. “Power, because you don’t want the person wearing that mask walking toward you,” Dano says. “And for somebody [like the Riddler] who felt powerless in their life, that’s a big feeling to be given.” He obsessed over the tiniest details, trying on hundreds of pairs of glasses before settling on the clear plastic frames the Riddler wears over his mask. “I’m not the guy who’s like, ‘If you don’t see my feet in the shot, I’m going to put on more comfy shoes,’ ” Dano says. “That’s just not how it works.”

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“I’m not the guy who’s like, ‘If you don’t see my feet in the shot, I’m going to put on more comfy shoes.’ That’s just not how it works.” Photographed By Erik Tanner

In order to shoot one scene in which the Riddler is talking to Batman via cellphone video, Dano was alone in a room with an iPhone and Reeves speaking to him in an earpiece, while the rest of the cast and crew were on the set of an ornate murder scene at Gotham’s City Hall. Over what Reeves estimates to be some 200 takes — many of them at Dano’s behest — the actor delivers variations on Riddler’s madness. “He goes, ‘OK, let me try one where I’m off camera and I stick my head in,’ ” Reeves says. ” ‘Let me try one where I’m already sitting there.’ He’s directing this one-person play on an iPhone. It was the giddiness that really got to me. Calling out the passing time, like he was a game show host. He was so inventive and creative. He’s also very critical of himself.”

Dano takes this character deadly seriously — though he is willing to entertain the idea that the Riddler plays Wordle in his downtime. “This is a guy who survived by finding a way to focus his brain on something apart from his own thoughts and trauma and pain,” Dano says. “That actually was very important to my backstory — not Wordle, literally — but the idea that puzzles were the only place that he would be given any form of positive feedback in his life. They were the only thing that ever said to him in his whole life, ‘You win.'”


Dano and Kazan met on a play in 2007, and they live in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn with their daughter, now 3½. The couple are not legally married, but Dano refers to Kazan as his wife. “The first part of the pandemic was one of the only times where work didn’t seem to be a part of my life,” Dano says. “That period of time was about my family and maintaining sanity.” During the pandemic, Dano and Kazan developed a system for dividing up childcare and maintaining personal time. “I would take a few hours in the morning to myself, Zoe in the afternoon,” he says. “We shared all meal times, but we each needed a point of the day where we weren’t playing 2-year-old games.” They left Brooklyn for a while and moved to be near Kazan’s parents, screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, in California, where they could take their daughter on hikes and have a sense of space. (Kazan’s grandfather was On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan.)

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Dano with his partner, actress-writer Zoe Kazan. The duo collaborated on his directorial debut, 2018’s Wildlife, and have a young daughter. Dan MacMedan/WireImage

Dano and Kazan co-wrote his directorial debut, the period family drama Wildlife, which stars Carey Mulligan and Gyllenhaal as a married couple who are rapidly growing estranged. On the Wildlife set, Dano brought his acting experience, and his own self-doubts as an actor, to bear as a director. Mulligan recalls a scene where her character is drunk and anxiously trying to win over a new man who can provide for her and her son. “I was nervous about playing drunk,” Mulligan says. “I kept getting halfway through the scene going, ‘Ah, cut, cut, cut, sorry. Fuck.’ … He came over to me and kindly, gently, just said, ‘Don’t cut yourself. And everything you are feeling in terms of, you hate yourself, you think you’re a terrible actor, you think you are getting it all wrong. There is no wrong. All of the things that you are feeling are things that she’s feeling. Just keep going. And don’t cut, whatever happens.’ I got halfway through the scene, and I kind of winced, indicating to him, please cut, … and he just refused to. It was one of those takes that ended up in the movie. And he was right. All of that inner turmoil and self-hate was all just sort of perfect.”

Dano’s next script is an original idea, not an adaptation like Wildlife, and unlike that one, he’s writing this one alone. “I’m a little slow and meticulous, so I’m afraid it’s going to take five to seven years to make my next film after the first one, but that’s just who I am,” Dano says. “I’m not a multitasker. I am a horse with blinders on.” He’d like to finish writing it in 2022 and be in production by the fall of 2023.

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Dano in Little Miss Sunshine (top, in yellow). Fox Searchlight / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Dano tends to choose his next project as a direct reaction to what he’s working on now. After Wildlife, he made Escape at Dannemora, in which he played a convicted murderer having an affair with a prison worker. “I have meetings sometimes and people are like, ‘What do you want to do?’ ” he says. “I don’t fucking know. I literally am often responding to the thing that happened before. Not even consciously. I didn’t know I would want to go do a fucking prison-break miniseries. I was in the edit room on Wildlife, which is very calm and the film is very restrained. And this thing about prison and sex and escape came up, and it was like, ‘Yeah.’ “

He shot The Fabelmans for Spielberg in the summer and fall of 2021, and the role was a welcome pivot from the darkness of The Batman, though emotionally challenging for different reasons. Dano plays a character named Burt Fabelman who is inspired by Spielberg’s father, Arnold, an engineer with whom Steven had a strained relationship for many years after his parents divorced, a subject he has explored in his films with absent or distracted fathers, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.

“Somebody like Steven making a film about his life and you’re playing a version of his father, … the stakes felt really high,” Dano says. Arnold died in the summer of 2020 at age 103 and, “in some ways it was a heavy cloak to bear because of that,” Dano says. “You’re embodying one of the most important, influential, complicated figures in [Spielberg’s] life. It was incredible to see how much of this was in his work the whole time. He’s sharing a piece of himself that I find very moving. There’s a real gift in it, when somebody of that stature and at that level of artistry is willing to do that.”

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Dano in There Will Be Blood: “I really had a stiff arm up to the industry when I was young,” he says. “Being a child actor I instinctively felt, … ‘How do I somehow protect myself from Hollywood?'”

After all the brooders and the weirdos and the charismatic sociopaths, Dano is playing someone that feels closer to himself in The Fabelmans. “[The Batman] closes a certain type of work that I’ve done, and The Fabelmans is the next chapter,” he says. “Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, you always give these really big performances.’ Sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh, you always give these very quiet performances.’ I don’t know what people think of me, but even though the relationships are complicated in The Fabelmans, the character is beautiful, and I think his heart is beautiful. And so after doing the Riddler, it was nice to go work with that part of myself that was more about being a parent and a husband than … you know.”

When Dano reflects on the young man who once held Hollywood at arm’s length, he thinks he made the right decisions to protect that person. But now he feels ready to open his arms to new kinds of opportunities. “Some of it is becoming a parent and stepping further into yourself,” Dano says. “Your fuel changes as you grow. It’s just a different fuel that I’m burning now.”

The Hollywood Reporter Cover 7, Paul Dano.

This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.