when somebody mentions that I did a play with George C. Scott, I’m like, it can’t have happened. What was I doing on a Broadway stage at 11 years old? PAUL DANO
In last year’s Youth, Paul Dano played a movie star going through a kind of slow-motion crack-up. In real life, Paul Dano the actor is on a fast ascent and seems to have it all figured out. The fact that he was fantastic in Youth wasn’t really a surprise; the surprise was that an actor normally known for playing goofs, creeps and oddballs was playing someone so utterly cool. As Jimmy Tree, Dano’s normally Gumby limbs became sort of languid, groovy, sensual; his usually dreamy affect, world-weary. He was, to put it another way, sexy—and sexiness is perhaps not what we’ve come to expect from a Dano character—whether it be the gruesomely creepy and possibly deranged Alex Jones in Prisoners (2013) or the showman charlatan Eli Sunday in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s There Will Be Blood (2007). As good as it is, though, Dano’s performance across from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda in Youth may have been overshadowed by his incredible turn as the young Brian Wilson in last year’s Love & Mercy. His work playing the Beach Boys co-founder, for which he learned to play piano and bass and received his first Golden Globe nomination, Dano says, was the most fun he’s had on set.
And this guy has had some fun. Dano, 31, a New York native, was incredibly talented from the start. He appeared on Broadway before the age of 12 in a production of Inherit the Wind starring George C. Scott. He broke out on the screen in Michael Cuesta’s L.I.E. (2001)—and then again, breaking more widely, in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine. As he settles into award season and celebrates last month’s premiere of the new miniseries adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, Dano spoke to his pal Peter Dinklage about a regret or two, about life on the road, and the joys of coming home.
PAUL DANO: Hey, buddy! We want to come see you guys and your daughter.
PETER DINKLAGE: Yeah! Speaking of my kid, I asked her this morning, “Do you have any questions for Paul, and she said, “What’s your favorite color?” So we’re going to start off with this very important question.
DANO: You’re coming out loaded. I like that.
DINKLAGE: It’ll tell the readers of Interview magazine so much about who you are.
DANO: I’m going to say my favorite color is blue, and my secret favorite color is pink.
DINKLAGE: Uh, why is pink your secret? Because it’s a little feminine?
DANO: Well, no, I love it. This is so lame to say in a magazine, but I just grabbed some pink wallpaper. I find it to be a very relaxing color. What’s your daughter’s favorite color?
DINKLAGE: Well, purple, of course.
DANO: I like purple too. I looked up color psychology before doing any house painting, because I was curious what the colors I like mean. And purple is very royal and creative. How’d your shoot go?
DINKLAGE: You mean, the biggest television show in the history of TV? Yeah, it’s good. I just got back the day before yesterday. It changes every year, working with a lot of different cast members—which makes it exciting. Different locations. And it’s probably going to be over in a couple years, so I’m just going to enjoy it while it’s sort of winding down. It’s one of those gigs …
DANO: Come on. That’s going to go 10 more years. People love the dragons!
DINKLAGE: I never complain—you know actors like complaining about everything, and I never do, especially with this job, because HBO treats you right.
DANO: Your writers are always there, right, and they’re constantly working as you’re working?
DINKLAGE: Well, not so much with Game of Thrones, because you can’t really improve on David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s material that they’ve worked on all year. We’re just in awe of that. But they’re there every single day. They’re the show runners, the producers. It’s their brainchild, so they’re there if something’s not working. And now that we have many years under our belt with the characters, they really respect our opinions.
DANO: You’ve changed since we did that play.
DINKLAGE: Yeah, man, I know. I was demanding rewrites. [Dano laughs] So when did we meet?
DANO: September of 2007. We must have met the first day of rehearsal for a play called Things We Want. Zoe [Kazan, Dano’s girlfriend] and I were the newcomers to a very tight-knit group of people: you and Jonathan Marc Sherman and Josh Hamilton and Ethan Hawke.
DINKLAGE: We were just a lot older.
DANO: You guys were old. Zoe and I kind of pitied you guys.
DINKLAGE: We wanted to feel young and cool.
DANO: We thought we’d take you on as friends, make you feel cool and hip again. [both laugh] No, man, as actors who’ve had a bunch of different jobs, we were lucky to meet friends we’re still friends with. That was a really important experience for me. That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it’s summer camp on location. So it’s nice to have a little New York community of people you love.
DINKLAGE: Yeah. We were pretty inseparable for those few months. And you’re right—now that I’m older and have good friends and a family, being on location can be very lonely, because the people you are with can often feel like temporary friends. And as much as you’re enjoying it, you know it’s not going to go much further than the outskirts of Vancouver, or something.
DANO: Totally. You just got back, are you good at transitioning? Like, I always have an adjustment period where I’m so happy to be home, but then my sense of purpose is totally gone. I’m like, “Wait, it’s okay to just go play basketball today?”
DINKLAGE: Well, my needlepoint helps to pass the time. [Dano laughs] No, it’s strange because, especially with the family, you just have to get back on track. It’s all about those obligations and, “What? I can’t sleep till noon on my day off?” I feel a little useless when I come home, especially because you’ve been sort of obsessing about something for a period of time and it’s just gone. And then, of course, a couple weeks go by, and I have to get back to work again, no matter how much I like being home.
DANO: Zoe and I are talking about alternating working, because I find that the older I get, the more important the other parts of my life are as well.
DINKLAGE: I was thinking about that because we had quite a number of older actors on the show, and they have to wake up at 5:30 and go to work like the rest of us. They put on costumes and makeup, and most of them love it. But then you think about Gene Hackman, who’s just, like, “I’m done. I’m retiring.” I assume it’s because he got older and he just wants to sit on his branch! [laughs] And I always wonder what, or who, I will be—if I’m lucky enough to reach a certain age.
DANO: I hear you, man. I just did this film, called Youth, that Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda are in. And I have to tell you, Michael Caine is so happy. Happy and healthy. I think he enjoys life. I think he’s 82 now, and I have no clue if I’ll be working at that age, but it was amazing and inspiring to see him bring it, because you know that the search never ends. I talked to Jane Fonda about acting and about what we want to work on, and I was like, “Jane Fonda and I are talking about how to be better actors.”
DINKLAGE: It never stops.
DANO: Which I also find so beautiful and healthy to see in people who have had so much success. They still have skin in the game. And Keitel, that guy wants the truth so badly. I feel like having something that you’re passionate about helps to keep you young. You know, Michael and his wife would take me out to dinner all the time—it was like I had grandparents in Switzerland while we were shooting. And they’d tell me stories about him being “Disco Mike” back in the ’70s—all these amazing things—and we’d get nice food and wine, and they wouldn’t let me pay.
DINKLAGE: Was he referred to as “Disco Mike” at a certain time?
DANO: I’ve heard him say it before, and when he says it, he says it with relish. Did you ever live that hard? I know we didn’t when we were doing our play. But those dudes, the stories of him and, like, Peter O’Toole and all these people going out drinking all night then showing up to set in the morning!
DINKLAGE: I think the insurance policies were different back then or something? And there’s such judgment of that sort of behavior now. I guess we live in a world where everything is videoed, and you can’t misbehave, because it will be recorded and people will see it and you will be shamed in society. But, speaking of these great people, you are one of the smartest individuals I know about the people you work with—people like Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson and Kelly Reichardt. How do you think they are so good? What do they do differently?
DANO: Well, I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I find acting pretty scary, and so you want to try to work with people that you trust. And it just so happens that when I was, like, 19 or 20, I got a couple of auditions and got a couple parts with good people. Of the thousands of auditions where you don’t get the part, I’ve done a couple of jobs where you do it and you’re like, “Okay, this is good.” Once you feel that, you want more of it. Spike—it’s actually a little bit like my relationship with you—it’s just all about fucking making jokes and hanging out and a lot of wrestling. Spike is a total instigator. He is the most playful person, and he creates an amazing atmosphere. He was the spirit of Where the Wild Things Are , and we could try things that didn’t always work…
DINKLAGE: I think that’s so important, to be open-minded and very protective of your actors. I’ve worked with a lot of directors who aren’t. Spike is so open. I mean, the good ones, they see it all. They’ve done so much more homework than you, but they’re just willing to open the dialogue … [barking in the background]
DANO: Oh, is that Kevin?
DINKLAGE: Yeah, that’s my dog. He’s having a puppy dream. Sorry, buddy, go back to bed. You’re okay.
DANO: We just got my parents a puppy, and they’re ecstatic about this little guy running around their house. I’ve got to get a dog now, because it’s like a Christmas present every time you come in the door.
DINKLAGE: Hey, you want to talk about Brian Wilson at all? And how obsessed I was with Brian Wilson when I was growing up?
DANO: Were you?
DINKLAGE: Well, my dad was a surfer lifeguard in Jersey Shore. Everybody was always listening to the Beach Boys. Smile is one of the greatest albums ever.
DANO: I think so too. In preparing to do that [Love & Mercy], I listened to the Beach Boys, to every studio session, everything in their vault, learned how to play the piano, got to sing every day. It’s so hard to move on from it, frankly, because I can’t imagine doing something more fun. Chasing Brian’s spirit around was hard, but I actually look back on it, and that’s maybe the most fun I’ve ever had acting. We had a guy who tours with Brian, and we did all that stuff for real. It was so cool. And that studio was the studio where Brian recorded Pet Sounds …
DINKLAGE: Wow! Wow! [laughs]
DANO: Good, good spirits. And I’ll brag about this, but I got to go perform with Brian a couple times.
DINKLAGE: What?! When?
DANO: In L.A. and in D.C.
DINKLAGE: This already happened, when I was in Ireland?
DANO: Yeah. There may be another one—we’re doing some stuff for a nonprofit for mental health awareness.
DINKLAGE: That’s another thing that was handled very well in the film—your heart just melts for the guy.
DANO: Yeah. You know, another thing I have coming out soon is the eight-hour miniseries War & Peace …
DINKLAGE: You play War, right? Not Peace?
DANO: Yeah, I play War. [laughs] And we were actually out in Lithuania, Latvia, and Russia for six months. You’ve been away in exotic locations for a long time—what do you …?
DINKLAGE: What do you do? [laughs]
DANO: Yeah, in Lithuania they love basketball, and the only English channel I got was NBA TV. Do you do anything to be connected to home? Or just get on Skype with your wife and kid?
DINKLAGE: Well, kids need a hundred percent. Skype and FaceTime doesn’t cut it. The technology is incredible, but it doesn’t capture a 4-year-old’s heart. But I put up some pictures and just drink a lot of wine. [laughs] Sundays are hard, my days off. I’d rather not have a day off sometimes. I mean, we shoot in some pretty neat places, like we went to Spain for seasons 5 and 6, to these small towns, and the whole town knows we’re there. So unless you’re willing to be a piece of meat thrown to the lions, it’s really kind of hard to leave the hotel. I feel like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation before she goes out and does karaoke with Bill Murray. You get to know your hotel.
DANO: I’d like to see you in the opening shot of that movie. In that nice little sheer underwear.
DINKLAGE: That was a good sunrise, I have to say. A slow fade-in, a lovely beginning to a movie. Do you want to talk about doing movies and theater when you were a kid? Did you do Inherit the Wind? That wasn’t your first job though, right?
DANO: No, I started doing community theater, which led to doing a regional play, which then led to …
DINKLAGE: Which led to Broadway, oh God.
DANO: Stop it, I know. That sounds terrible. I’ve been so lucky to work with some great people, but that is one that I wish I could go back to. I think I was almost 12, so I knew who George C. Scott was, but if I could work with George C. Scott now, I’d be so pumped.
DINKLAGE: You mean you wouldn’t have demanded a bigger dressing room than him if you knew who he was?
DANO: [laughs] I mean, when somebody mentions that I did a play with George C. Scott, I’m like, it can’t have happened. What was I doing on a Broadway stage at 11 years old? It’s so far in the distance now. My first thought about acting, growing up here in New York, was theater, and I feel like I need to force myself to go get my ass kicked in a rehearsal room and do one of those plays at some point.
DINKLAGE: It’s good to go back to because of what we were talking about before: the close-knit circle and the ritual of it, two hours every night. Your whole day revolves around it. Yesterday I went and saw Macbeth with Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and I really loved it. Sometimes, at least in America, Shakespeare can get very big, presentational—you have to reach the back row. And this movie was good because it was really intimate. I feel like there’s something missing for me, in theater, in terms of that stuff—you can’t really get up close and personal with the characters like you can in films. When you get used to that, doing the very little, it’s tricky to go back to doing quite a deal more, you know?
DANO: I would like to do something really big and then something really small, and see what it’s like to work in that way, but in front of a live audience.
DINKLAGE: So what’s next?
DANO: Zoe and I are going to do Christmas alone for the first time. We usually go see one of our families, but since we’ve been away so much this year, we’re going to be here at home and make a fire and cook and just, like, do something kind of romantic. That’s what I’m looking forward to in my life right now.
PETER DINKLAGE IS AN EMMY AWARD-WINNING ACTOR. HE WILL APPEAR THIS SPRING IN THE COMEDY THE BOSS AND WILL REPRISE HIS ROLE AS TYRION LANNISTER IN HBO’S GAME OF THRONES.