Beneath Paul Dano’s solemn disquisitions, best seen on talk shows and in interviews, there’s a fun game to be played. I found myself playing it recently when the actor, and newly-minted father and director of feature films, spoke with Interview as his two-month starring run in Sam Shepard’s True West came to a beautifully calamitous finale this past week. It goes like this: When the 34-year-old artfully explains his thoughts on fatherhood, humanity, or his lifelong devotion to acting, visualize his most famous characters springing into spasms of rage and frolicking mania, with one of his unrefined screeches thrown in for good effect. The characters I’m thinking of are some of Dano’s most notable roles — the preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, the cruel overseer John Tibeats in 12 Years A Slave, the murderous mastermind David Sweat in Escape at Dannemora, and, even, the placid screenwriter Austin from True West. It’s good for a wide-open laugh that isn’t aloud, and even better to underscore just how ambitious Dano has been across his two decade career. With Austin, who spent the better part of True West’s two hour performance dodging the barbs of his brother Lee, played by golf-club wielding Ethan Hawke, it was no different. In many ways, it was a perfect opportunity for Dano to express the full spectrum of his personality in a way that neatly melded his calm personal disposition with the off-kilter rage he’s made a signature move, to great effect, for over 100 performances. Dano’s performance covered such a cavernous emotional spectrum, in fact, that we decided to give the actor a battery of questions lifted from Glenn O’Brien’s legendary 1977 interview with Andy Warhol that covered all of the bases — from favorite soda to favorite artist, from God to outer space, from drugs to the American Dream — to get a closer look at what we might’ve missed when he was on stage. And in case you were wondering, this was one game Dano was fully in on.
When was your first time acting?
Singing at a private school in New York City when I was in kindergarten. I sang “New York, New York” for an audience.
Would you say you had natural talent?
I don’t know how to answer that without sounding arrogant. I started acting as a kid, and I don’t think that would have happened if I didn’t have some sort of natural talent for it because it certainly wasn’t something that I was consciously looking for.
What did you do for fun when you were a teenager?
I’m in the minority in that I liked high school. A lot of people hate their high school experience. I had good friends. I played a lot of music and saw a lot of music.
What kind of band did you have?
I had a few bands, but mostly some kind of embarrassing high school rock ‘n’ roll and jamming rock. From middle school through high school, I went through every musical phase that exists.
What was your first ambition?
Golly. I think farming was always interesting to me, although I would never be able to cut it. That’s one where you aspire to be the opposites of who you are. I’m a city boy. Oh, I know, fuck. I wanted to be in the NBA so badly. If I could have done anything, it would have been that.
Who was the first actor to influence you?
One of my first crushes was Jim Carrey, which is not at all like my acting, but I just really thought he was incredible. Jack Nicholson was the other person that I remember seeing, first in Batman, then in [One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest on VHS, and then in Five Easy Pieces. To this day, that is one of my favorite performances.
Did you go to the movies a lot?
I went to the theater a bunch growing up in New York. Movies weren’t such a big part of my world then. It wasn’t until I went to Sundance, and the Spirit Awards, when I suddenly went, “Oh, there’s all these other types of films.” I was 16. I wasn’t one of those kids who was 12 or 14 and watching every film under the sun.
What advice would you give to a younger person who wants to become an actor?
I can’t even tell you how many auditions all of us have been on. One of the hardest things to do is to just continue to get to know yourself and be yourself when you’re constantly at the behest of other people for your work. How to find yourself in an industry that sometimes feels so shallow?
Do you think theater is dead?
I think that it’s a hard place to go to work. I wish that more people I knew could afford to go to the theater. That is a real bummer, and I think something needs to be done about it on a bigger level.
Who do you think is the world’s greatest living actor?
Oh dear. I don’t like that question.
What’s your favorite piece out of all the work that you’ve done?
Usually, the one that I’m working on or have just worked out. As an actor, one of the big differences about directing a film is that you watch it over and over and you get to work on it, and you appreciate it. As an actor, I don’t usually want to watch my work. I have the context of what I felt when I saw it, and the culture around it, and blah, blah, blah. In my personal experience, making something means more to me as time goes by more than it did 5 or 10 years ago.
What’s your favorite color?
Pink is one of my favorite colors. I have a lot of pink in my house.
Pepsi or Coke?
Do you ever think about dying?
Do you act every day?
I’d like to say no, because I try to live a fairly honest life. Of course, if we wanted to be semantical about it, we could say that when you are in a bad mood, but you still put on a good face for somebody, you’re acting.
Do you change your clothes when you’re writing for work?
Not always and not superstitiously. There was one time when I was writing that I needed to separate my two lives, so I put on a sweater every day when I was gonna write as a way to signal to the body that it was time to focus on writing.
Do you ever take any drugs?
No, not anymore. When I was young, of course, I tried things. I can’t do that anymore.
Do you ever get drunk?
Sure. Although, I haven’t in some time because I have a baby now, and there’s no time to be hungover.
Do you think your work will increase in value when you’re gone?
You hope that your work has value for the people who see it. Does that grow over time? I don’t know.
Do you think that people should live in outer space?
It depends. Space is cool, but we’ll see what happens after this administration, and we’ll see what happens to this planet. We may have no choice.
Would you like to live in outer space?
I think I’d want to do an Airbnb first and try it out before committing.
Do you think the future will be futuristic?
It already is. Just in my lifetime.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Hang out, cook, read, listen to music, see friends, eat. Nothing out of the ordinary. It’s important to have a nice baseline because work life can be its own thing, either because the hours are crazy or the material is.
Do you look in the mirror when you get up in the morning?
Luckily, my partner tells me if I have something on my face. I’m a slow morning person.
What do you do in the morning?
I make coffee and have a little breakfast. Now, honestly, the mornings are great because it’s mostly about playing with the baby and listening to music with the baby.
What do you play for the baby?
Harry Nilsson is pretty big right now. An album called Harry Nilsson’s Harry. Probably my favorite album of his.
Did you ever try to grow a mustache in your life?
I’ve tried for work. I’m 34, and I can almost grow a mustache. I think in another ten years I’ll have it.
Do you believe in flying saucers?
I believe in life beyond us.
Do you know how to dance?
I think everybody knows how to dance.
What’s your favorite scent?
Jesus. Well, the first thing I thought of is toast, but that’s just because of the fucking play. That’s not an answer outside of this moment in time.
Do you believe in the American Dream?
That’s something I explore in my work quite a bit. I’m redefining my dream. So yes, but totally no, as well. I like exploring that subject matter. I find great conflict in it.
Do you think the world can be saved?
I have the baby, so I’m hopeful that the world can be a good place. Can it be saved? I don’t know. Everybody might have a different definition of what “saved” means.
Do you think there should be any censorship?
We have to be allowed to have a voice, but not even for the sake of art — for the sake of people, especially when you see somebody in office trying to censor the media by lying so much and cultivating a world where lies are suddenly carry meaning. It’s important that we’re not censored in this moment because where would we be? Who would we be listening to? That said, am I gonna want my 5-year-old playing super violent video games? Probably not. I don’t know if that’s censorship.
What do you look at first on a man?
The first two first places I look on a person are their eyes and their mouth because we’re probably gonna talk. But if you’re walking down the street, I don’t know. If somebody looks interesting, I probably give them the once-over.
What do you look at first on a woman?
Let’s say that, the once-over.
Do you believe in God?
I don’t want to answer that explicitly. I do believe in possibilities — life beyond us, spiritual realms. I believe in faith. That kind of says my answer.
Do you believe in the devil?
No. I believe in devils.
Do you believe in the end of the world?
Not in a fanatical way, but certainly, I think it’s possible if we don’t take care of ourselves and our world. Why we would assume that it’s infinite?
Do you have any secrets you’ll tell when everyone is gone?
I don’t think so. Fuck it, I hope I say what I mean to say throughout my life.