“I’d do a superhero film in a heartbeat if it was a good part and a good filmmaker,” Paul Dano reveals to FilmInk at The Cannes Film Festival. It might seem like an odd statement coming from this indie darling, who has appeared in a few major studio pictures (Knight And Day, Cowboys & Aliens), but is best known for his off-kilter, often powerful turns in lower budget fare like There Will Be Blood, Fast Food Nation, Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks, Prisoners, Looper, and Meek’s Cutoff. But scratch a little deeper, and it points to an interesting fact about Paul Dano: this actor is game for pretty much anything. His performances are often eccentric and unpredictable (and heartbreaking in the case of Love & Mercy, in which he so successfully essayed damaged pop icon, Brian Wilson), and he puts an enjoyably errant spin on everything that he does.
In his new movie, Youth, Dano is caught between two titans in Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, who play a composer and film director, respectively, cooling their heels at a luxurious state-of-the-art sanatorium/health spa. “The best thing that I took away from the experience was how inspiring it was to see men in their mid-seventies and eighties still trying and caring,” Dano says of his legendary co-stars. “It’s beautiful to watch them in the film, and it was beautiful to watch them in person…I can’t imagine being in my eighties. There was something beautiful and inspiring about just watching them. And it’s really cool when you get to the place of, ‘Okay. This is Michael, this is Harvey. They’re people too.’ You can relax a bit, and also hang out. They’ve got good stories.” Can he tell us one of them? “No, it’s not my place to tell their stories,” Dano smiles knowingly. “That’s their job.”
In Youth, Dano plays LA movie actor, Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who is most famous for playing a robot and is now preparing for a certain historical role that shall remain nameless, later astonishing everyone at the spa by appearing one morning in full costume and makeup. Though not known expressly for his comedic chops, Dano has a fine sense of timing, and he actually provides most of the laughs in the sweet and quirky Youth. “So many things in the film have a light and a dark shade to them,” the actor replies when asked if he was designed to be the comic relief. “The film is funny and haunting. I feel like for me, the character was the character, and I don’t think that I tried to be funny. I just tried to take my cues from the words and what it was meant to be.”
Those words come courtesy of Italian writer/director, Paolo Sorrentino, the man behind Il Divo, the Oscar winning The Great Beauty, and the Sean Penn-starring This Must Be The Place. “I actually met Paolo in LA, coincidentally, at an event,” Dano explains. “We bumped into each other, and we just talked for a while. I walked away from this meeting wondering if we’d work together at some point, and then a month later, he sent me the script for Youth. It was just a great coincidence that we met and got along. I’ve seen most of his films now to understand the film language that he’s working with. There are a lot of things in Youth that only he would have done…only Paolo would have made those choices. That’s exactly what you want when you see a movie. He’s got his own thing, and he’s very good.”
What does Dano look for in a role? “I just look to be excited by it,” the actor replies. “I don’t always know what that means. Your gut reaction means a lot. There are a lot of things that fall into a middle ground, where you like the script, but there’s something small that you don’t understand, or that you don’t like…it starts with the words on the page. With Youth, it made a big difference because I knew that Paolo was directing it. But it’s a fun character to play too. I get to play a very different kind of actor. It would be fun to know what that’s like, or what it would be like if I was from Los Angeles, and wore jewellery…this culture of cool. Anything can turn you on, and I don’t always know what it’s going to be.”
Considering Dano’s ironically awkward grace on screen, it’s no surprise to learn that he was drawn to acting as a shy kid. “I was drawn to it pretty young,” he says. “I felt that it was something that I could be good at, but it was never like I saw a movie and thought, ‘That’s for me!’ It was more gradual, rather than a lightning bolt. I can be shy too…it depends where I am. Entertaining is not my first instinct, but there’s something about acting that I really like. I don’t want to get up right now and sing a song, or dance. But there’s something about it that I was drawn to.”
Youth is released in cinemas on December 26.
This article was first published in the January/February 2016 issue of FilmInk, out now.