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After his breakout performance opposite Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Paul Dano could have drunk the Hollywood Kool-Aid (or the milk shake for that matter) and suited up for the next studio tentpole. Instead, he largely opted for little-seen indies like Being Flynn and The Good Heart, with some sinister supporting roles in 12 Years a Slave and Prisoners mixed in. But with his latest film, Bill Pohlad’s Beach Boys biopic Love & Mercy, Dano finally picked a starring role that all of young Hollywood was chasing: that of tortured music icon Brian Wilson.
The 30-year-old New York native caught up with The Hollywood Reporter during a break from filming the six-hour TV movie War and Peace opposite Lily James. He discussed his director wish list, abandoning his own fledgling music career and geeking out in the presence of Wilson.
Were you a Beach Boys fan before tackling this role?
Yeah. The Beach Boys and The Beatles are the two things I remember being played in the car ride to school. In high school I started to play music, and people always talked about Pet Sounds being one of the great albums. Then once I read this script, I was really surprised by Brian’s story. It struck me that somebody could make music that made so many people smile yet had so much struggle in his real life. And the fact that I didn’t know his story, and I’m a pretty big music fan and a Beach Boys fan, I thought, ‘Wow there’s really a story to tell here.’
How did you prepare?
There are a bunch of books out there about Brian and The Beach Boys and a lot of wonderful photography. They also gave me access to a lot of studio sessions. And there’s some video. You just start to absorb it all. Learning how to play the piano and work on my singing, learning those songs, brought me so close to the spirit of Brian. It’s by far the most fun I’ve ever had acting because I got to spend six months or so just living with Brian’s music.
In the film, is it a combination of recordings and you actually singing?
Some of the studio session scenes are a combination, and then when it’s me alone, it’s just me singing.
How many times did you meet with Wilson?
I actually didn’t meet with him for a few months. I really wanted some time to form my own interpretation and let my imagination fly before meeting him. He was definitely a different person in the ’60s than he is now, and that’s part of what’s interesting about the film. It’s like, ‘How did this guy in the studio who’s so full of music and life become somebody quite different than that?’ He went into a black hole in the late ’60s, early ’70s and then came out of it. But I did eventually meet with him. Brian’s a raw and sensitive person, a guy who didn’t build that extra layer of skin that most of us do to become adults. The most important thing was not asking him every question I wanted to but to say, ‘Hey I’m Paul. This is me.’ And just touch base with his spirit and his presence. I have such respect for him. What a brave thing for him to do because his story has quite a bit of pain and struggle. I became so obsessed. I think Pet Sounds is one of the greatest albums ever made. I remember him hearing me sing, and I felt good about that. I’m still pretty geeked out about it.
What was the biggest surprise about Brian?
He still has something young in him, the way children are so honest. He shares what he’s thinking and what he feels. I think most of us are just a bit more self-conscious or political. It’s really kind of beautiful and refreshing.
You’ve worked with some heavyweights, from Daniel Day Lewis to Michael Caine in Youth and Robert De Niro in Being Flynn to Tom Cruise in Knight and Day. Whose career would you say you particularly admire?
Now that I’m 30, I’ve sort of learned that the most important thing is just to try and figure out what you want and what makes you happy. As a young person, I might look up to people and say, ‘How did they do it?’ But I feel much less inclined towards that line of thinking now. You surely can’t try to emulate any of these people. I think that’s a mistake. I’ve learned everybody has their own process. The intent and the work ethic and the joy, that’s the thing to aspire to.
What has been your best filmmaking experience yet?
I do think Love & Mercy is maybe my favorite acting experience. I think Brian is an incredibly special spirit, and I loved getting to know that character and that music.
How about your worst filmmaking experience?
Honestly, I started kind of young and I feel like I constantly heard all of these horror stories. But I don’t have a horror story. I’ve enjoyed certain jobs more than others.
What filmmakers would you most like to work with?
Oh boy. Last year my two favorite films were Under the Skin and The Lego Movie so Jonathan Glazer and [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller. And Alfonso Cuaron too.
You’ve played very mean in 12 Years a Slave and a psycho in Prisoners. You can also play light and charming. What type of role do you feel most comfortable in?
It ebbs and flows. But after doing War and Peace, I think I’d like to do a comedy [laughs]. And I haven’t gotten to do a proper sci-fi film yet.
How about reteaming with your Looper director Rian Johnson for a Star Wars spinoff. Would you do Star Wars?
Of course. Who wouldn’t?
What role was the biggest stretch for you?
12 Years a Slave and Prisoners were super challenging because in some ways they feel really far from myself. But that’s what is kind of exciting.
Do you live in New York or L.A.?
New York because I grew up there, and that’s where my friends and family are.
Do you still perform with your band Mook?
No. It’s hard enough to be good at one thing, so I try to be the best actor I can and keep music for pleasure.
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