Paul Dano Is Finally Ready To Be Famous
Just after Paul Dano’s 22nd birthday, in the summer of 2006, the actor flew from New York to El Paso and made the long drive to the set of There Will Be Blood. He had been cast in a small role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic Western as the business-savvy brother of Eli Sunday, the film’s preacher-antagonist to Daniel Day-Lewis’s ravenous oilman, Daniel Plainview. Dano’s character, Paul, had just one scene, and once Dano filmed it, he planned to head back home to prepare for his final year of college. But something on the set was amiss. After three weeks of shooting, the actor playing the much bigger role of Eli Sunday wasn’t working out. “It just wasn’t the right fit,” Anderson explained later. And so when Dano arrived in Texas, Anderson approached him with a wild proposal: what if he played Eli too?
The Sunday brothers would be twins now. And Dano would only have the weekend to prepare for the most significant acting opportunity of his life. “I suppose the advantage is not having time to get nervous,” Dano says now. Over the weekend, then, Dano paced the frontier buildings of the film’s Sunday Ranch, sat among the fresh timber in Eli’s house of worship, and rapidly learned the movements of his scenes – feeling his way into the spirit of the revivalist showman who leads the Church of the Third Revelation, and preparing to go toe-to-toe with perhaps the greatest living actor in perhaps his greatest ever role.
Over the remainder of the summer, Dano conjured the other all-time performance in arguably (we’ll argue it here, for argument’s sake) the great movie of the first quarter of the 21st century. Revisit Eli’s opening sermon. Revisit Eli’s baptism of Day-Lewis’s Daniel. Revisit their tussle in the mud. Revisit, of course, their final showdown in the bowling alley. (Revisit, too, Dano’s perfect originally planned scene as Paul.)
So, do you know why they got rid of the other guy? I ask Dano while he’s driving us around in his father-in-law’s Honda Civic, momentarily lost on a West Hollywood side street.
He takes a deep breath. “No. I don’t. I didn’t ask. I didn’t want anything in my head. And frankly, I feel almost superstitious talking about it now…” He stumbles a little. “You just never… if it was me… it’s horrifying, almost, to young people.”
To stare too closely into that sun, to reckon too recklessly with one’s alternative existences if that situation goes the way it does 999 times out of 1,000 – it’s all a little haunting.
I ask him why he thinks Anderson didn’t just give him the job in the first place.
“I have not divulged this in the past, but I think this is true: I think once we had hung out as people, like this, he was worried I was too nice.” He chuckles. “I often get that.”
Back at college in New York that autumn, Dano would occasionally drop in on the editing suite, in an apartment that Anderson and his team had rented. He’d swing by after his Russian Lit class, or whatever, with his backpack and spots, and marvel at what they were putting together. “I don’t want to make it seem like I was there all the time, but I remember the first sequence I saw them working on – the images, the way the camera’s moving, the montage, the mise-en-scène, the music. My jaw was on the floor. Just: holy shit.”
Life is opportunities. Life is pivots. Life is this way or that way.
There Will Be Blood, then, was the rarest of fateful sliding doors for Dano and his career. He’d been acting since he was a child. He’d been in big Broadway plays and low-key Hollywood hits and even a couple of episodes of The Sopranos (he played one of AJ’s friends). But this one, this would change everything. In those dusty oilfields, with Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, he’d been made. A church in West Texas, a baptism by fire.
The path from there has been formative and deliberate, like a climber pushing pitons into a rock face. Here is the sheer landscape of Hollywood, and here is his line through it. There are no obvious misses. No performances that leave a fan wondering what the hell this was all about. Even with the films he’s less impressed by today, there were purposeful reasons for spending a few months in the presence of a particular director of photography, or working with this producer, or those other actors. Squeezing something from everything.
That moviemaking line of ascent, articulated through its directors as much as its titles – that is, from Paul Thomas Anderson to Ang Lee to Spike Jonze to Kelly Reichardt to Rian Johnson to Denis Villeneuve to Steve McQueen to Paolo Sorrentino to Bong Joon-ho to Matt Reeves – has led, this month, to Steven Spielberg, and The Fabelmans, in which Dano plays a stand-in for Spielberg’s own father. It is a much-anticipated personal coming-of-age story by Spielberg – and only the fourth time he’s written the script for a feature he’s directed, this time with his now frequent collaborator Tony Kushner. The Spielberg showcase comes at another consequential pivot, perhaps as significant as the break on the set of There Will Be Blood, when Dano has elevated in mass recognisability, having played the Riddler in March’s The Batman. It comes when he doesn’t necessarily expect it. “Like a mailman: ‘Oh, shit!! Riddler!!’ ” For the first time in his career, he is welcoming the fame.
Dano, now 38, has a large head, a round face, cheekbones like swollen stone fruit, a small mouth, a weak chin. His face has often made him prone to being cast as creeps, oddballs, serial killers – or at least those who might be highly suspect. More frankly: he’s a little weird-looking, and that makes him interesting. His is a handsome face. But also highly distinct and unclassical. It can be both ominous and punchable. It can be both tragic and terrifying. There is both a softness and a wildness that lends itself to damaged hit men and fragile psychopaths. Also to writers and artists. (Which: same.) In this way, it is easy to imagine a middle-aged Dano winning an Oscar for playing a Beethoven or a Welles. Or – as was suggested during the last US administration, to the disgust of his partner, actor Zoe Kazan – a Donald Trump.
There are not easy analogues. It is an actor’s face in the lineage of, perhaps, Christopher Walken. And it facilitates performances in the lineage of, perhaps, John Cazale or Philip Seymour Hoffman. For a run of films in the early part of his career, Dano’s characters were beaten up so frequently – thrashings pointed by his piercing squeals and strangled screams – that their prevalence was noted as a calling card of a Paul Dano movie. When he voiced a wild thing in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, his goat character was bullied. As one YouTube commenter observed, “Even as a goat Paul Dano still gets beat up.”
In person, by contrast, Dano’s face is disorientatingly neutral. Invisible almost. You look through it. Wide and warm and blank, when not performing. It’s like seeing a neon sign when the electricity’s turned off. You pick out suggestions of all the performances, in outline and shadow. But the gift, the genius, is his knowing how to turn the lights on – and in any colour you’d like. Maybe that’s what good acting is.
Early last year, Dano got an unexpected text that Steven Spielberg wanted to meet him via Zoom. It was the depths of another plague year, and, having finished The Batman and moved back from London to New York, he’d let himself fall into a little COVID disrepair. Spielberg wanted to do the Zoom that very day, so Dano scrambled around the apartment, trying to decide if he needed to shave or wear his glasses. Kazan, an acclaimed actor and screenwriter, hadn’t seen Dano that motivated about grooming in a while, and looked at him sideways: Who are you meeting?!
He and Spielberg had spoken in person just once before – at Saturday Night Live; “He’s a huge SNL fan, he goes a lot,” Dano says – though there wasn’t any particular promise of a future collaboration.
But before long, Spielberg sent Dano the script that he and Kushner had written, based on Spielberg’s years growing up in Phoenix, Arizona. Dano reads a lot of scripts, generally with great scepticism. But this, he told his reps, this was good. “They were like: You don’t really like any scripts you read, so this must be really good,” he says now. “I rarely have that feeling of I really, really want this to work out.”
He Zoomed with Spielberg a couple more times. Waited anxiously. And then, one day, Spielberg popped up on his screen with a cigar in his mouth. “He said something like: ‘I think you’ll make my dad proud.’ ”
They made the movie in late 2021, shooting in California’s Central Valley for Arizona. Dano rented the house next door to the home where Zoe grew up, and where his in-laws still live. It’s where he and I meet on another day this summer, and talk on the porch out back. Dano and Kazan don’t have their own home in LA, despite their careers, and instead generally stay with Kazan’s parents, themselves screenwriters. (Zoe’s paternal grandfather is Elia Kazan, the legendary director of On the Waterfront and America America.) When we first meet, Dano can’t share much about The Fabelmans, except to say: “My guess is this is a story Steven’s wanted to tell. I think it’s brave for him to put that on the line now, at this point in his career, when he doesn’t have anything to prove.”
Getting the part in The Fabelmans thrust Dano and Kazan squarely into the logistical challenges of being parents of a toddler. Just a couple of weeks after Dano got the Spielberg role, Kazan was asked to play one of the two leads in She Said, about the journalists who broke the Harvey Weinstein story. The productions started one day apart, on opposite coasts. “If we could alternate, we would. It just doesn’t always work out that way. And so we just had to make it work.” Trading off childcare, calling in the grandparents.
Some famous people – film stars, athletes, billionaires – regard their children as moons orbiting their own massive planet. Nice to gaze at, nice to have in tow, but ultimately solvable with an army of au pairs. Dano and Kazan, whom Dano refers to at least once as my “wi – partner,” are not married, but have been together since 2007. Now they find themselves in the prime of their careers, the place they’ve been aiming at for decades. And yet there is restraint. A desire to be present for each other and their daughter. Consequently, they take more care to choose fewer and better things to spend their limited time on. “I’m always amazed at people who churn out a lot,” Dano says. “Because I find it takes a certain amount of incubation time to find out I care about something enough to spend years of my life on it… my favourite experiences are the ones I give the most to.”
After wrapping their respective films, Dano and Kazan came home, returned to being a family who see each other every day. Neither has shot anything since. This autumn, they will emerge to do publicity for their films – only this time, there will be a new baby. “We are literally on a take-it-as-it-comes. And it changes season by season, year by year. We have to figure out how to be the artists we want to be and parents we want to be. And that’s not super self-explanatory,” he says. “It’s a new practice being a parent compared to before, where it’s: how do I bring these two things together? And what’s the healthiest way to do that?”
Michelle Williams, who plays Dano’s wife in The Fabelmans (ie. she plays Spielberg’s mother), underscores the extent to which this kind of overt consideration is unique: “I think an abiding logic for both Paul and me is a life-work balance. Which you don’t much hear men [in Hollywood] talking about. Neither of us have worked since Fabelmans, which is both a result of how deep and magical the experience was, and the desire to fill up the family well. He hasn’t worked for a year. If that doesn’t speak to what he values in life and the quality of time he cherishes, I don’t know what does.”
One day in LA, where Dano decidedly does not live, we eat sushi at the restaurant where he first took the actor who plays his teenage son in the Spielberg movie. “This is the first time I have played a full-on father while also being a father,” he says, animated by the dawn of this new chapter. “And it was a nice next step toward the well in myself that I want to be in right now – some part of myself that I imagine I’ll be working with for some time. For me – I don’t mean career-wise – I think I’m at some inflection point, where I am as a human… I think every few years I go through a ‘Why am I doing this?’ kind of feeling. Like, what’s going to move this forward? I don’t know if I can just go play a serial killer again.”
The weariness comes in part from the fact that Dano has spent most mornings of the past year with his most recent serial killer, writing a real-live comic book, The Riddler: Year One. Dano’s principal preparation for any role is to figure out, as best he can, how his character “gets to page one.” For The Batman, he’d put so much thought into the Riddler’s backstory that the film’s director, Matt Reeves, set up a call with DC Comics, which hired Dano to write his own book.
For the first half of 2022, Dano gave himself entirely over to The Riddler: Year One – which he describes as “an emotional horror story about trauma,” partially inspired by one of his favourite graphic novels, Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. “One of the gifts of the pandemic is that I developed a writing practice that I never had before,” Dano says. Though he and Kazan co-wrote the script for Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, Dano says he doesn’t consider himself a writer like Kazan, who has several play and screen credits to her name.
When omicron hit New York, Dano “panic rented” a commercial space near his daughter’s nursery in Brooklyn. “It looks like Dunder Mifflin [the company in the US version of The Office],” he says. “But I just needed the ritual.” Consequently, 2022 has been consumed with “getting really dorky about sequential art and colour theory.”
The Batman experience scaled in a way Dano previously hadn’t experienced. It was not just the largest-budget film he’d worked on, or the longest production, but the first taste of how much people care about this stuff. “When it was said I was going to do that part, I never received that many texts, phone calls, emails,” he says. On set, he submerged himself into the epic cache of production materials. They’d give Dano hard copies of all the renderings: “Don’t lose this. Put it in your ‘special binder.’ ” He’d seen other ways of keeping secret materials secure. “But this was the first time I had a binder with a locking code on it. Then they added a tracking device.”
Dano is in Southern California this weekend to present the first pages of his book at Comic-Con, in San Diego. Drafting off the excitement of revealing the project to fans for the first time, he suggests we swing by Golden Apple Comics on Melrose Avenue, where he shows me some inspirations for his own book. As we stroll the aisles, he seems to me like a self-aware amateur athlete, who lives to play ball but doesn’t harbour delusions of turning pro. The process reminds him, in part, of his experience behind the camera, as a director, on Wildlife: “This image we shot, I could love it, like tangibly.” In a small way, he says, “This comic feels like my next film.”
In the store, a song from Pet Sounds drifts from the speakers. Dano, who played Brian Wilson to glorious effect in 2014’s Love & Mercy, is also a musician. (Michelle Williams says his rendition of “Helpless,” which he played and sang by a campfire while filming Meek’s Cutoff, is “forever in my brain, and I sing it to my baby the way I heard Paul sing it to us.”) When I point out the Beach Boys record, Dano chuckles at the embarrassment of Dano-world references around us.
One of the store’s employees notices him and is eager to chat about Dano’s comic book – and to gift Dano a copy of his own. Then, on our way out the door, a tween’s eyes go extra wide: “Excuse me, are you Paul Dano?” (Pronounced correctly, I should say: Day-no.)
“Umm, yes,” Paul Dano says, from behind his mask and beneath his dad hat.
The kid asks for a picture, and I suggest taking one with the life-size Spider-Man that is set up on the pavement.
“That’s Marvel, bro!” Dano jokes, charmed by the opportunity to be a DC company man.
Dano had told me earlier, when discussing his new recognisability, that it had never really been something he’d explicitly invited before: “I do think that some people ask for it more than others.” I tell him, as we leave the store, that he may have been asking for it there. He laughs. Dano returns to give the employee a signed copy of the cover of his first Riddler comic.
“I would have been less ready to do a film like The Batman when I was 25,” Dano says. “I think I would really have had a hard time doing all the press and getting recognized. And I can handle that now. The biggest difference now is that I want it more clearly, frankly. Like: I want to be an artist, and I want to be an actor, I want to be a director, I really want to make my next film. And, um, I guess I want to be a comic book writer?”
In 2018, Dano directed Wildlife, a coming-of-age story set in 1960s Montana, adapted from the 1990 Richard Ford novel of the same name. He’d walked into his local bookstore one day, read the first paragraph, and ultimately decided to look into optioning the book with an aim toward writing and directing his first movie.
Despite starring in professional plays and films in high school, Dano had always wanted to be a director first, but was not admitted to his top-choice film school, NYU. Still, the desire hovered there for him just out of reach. Dano relishes having directors like Anderson, with whom Dano would share a cut of his film, and Bong, who once came to see his band play in Brooklyn, in his corner. But even with that bench of directorial support from over the years, it wasn’t until he received a letter from Ford that Dano felt truly ready to take the leap and direct his own film.
“I’m grateful to you for your interest in my book,” Ford wrote to him. “But I should also say this in the hope of actually encouraging you: my book is my book; your picture, were you to make it, is your picture. Your moviemaker’s fidelity to my novel is of no great concern to me. Establish your own values, means, goal. Leave the book behind so it doesn’t get in the way.”
It was the great gift and the green light. Permission to both write what he and Kazan needed to write. And to construct a new building out of someone else’s blocks. The result is crisp, clean, painterly – except where it’s singed by wildfire. I found myself remembering bits of the film long after seeing it, like it was a trip that I once took. It is, in other words, like the experience of reading a Richard Ford novel – or any work that turns your brain a different colour for a while.
Despite all the acting roles in Dano’s career thus far, it is that work as a director that he treasures most. “I don’t get off watching myself act,” he says. “And I don’t have any acting memorabilia in my home at all. But I do have the Blu-ray of Wildlife. For some reason, that’s okay with me to have in the home. And it’s not because I have any feelings about the acting stuff. I just don’t want to be like: hey, look at me, I’m a fucking actor!”
Following the long acting sabbatical of making Wildlife, Dano tacked as far away as he felt he could from the silence and stillness of the editing room into Ben Stiller’s exceptional prison drama, Escape at Dannemora. Dano got as fit as he’s been on screen (via a fitness regimen he says he could benefit from more often), embodying the prisoner-fugitive David Sweat. The role is heavy metal: the shoot was seven months long, through three upstate New York seasons, a long-term transformation, and an endurance test. It is possibly Dano’s best performance yet – buzzing at all times at an entomic frequency (that neon sign again). Stiller, he says, “is one of the directors I’d follow into the jungle.” Making him only the latest of the director-dads who’ve imprinted upon him. “One thing that I really appreciated about Ben is that he is a kind of ‘stop at nothing to make the best thing’ guy,” he says. For example, the manhole that the actors pop up out of during their escape is the actual manhole, which had been welded shut. “And it was just, No, no, no, you can’t film there, no, you can’t film there.” Until Stiller got on the phone to the governor, or whoever, and it was open sesame. “Which, as an actor, makes me feel like I’m really in good hands. This guy is going to make sure that we have the best thing on camera today.”
Dano was born in New York City, and lived for a time in a one-bedroom apartment with his parents and sister, before the family moved to Connecticut when Dano was a kid. He has in the past acted a little mystified by the source of his urge to be an actor. Unlike Kazan, who was raised on as enriched a diet of stage and film as one could design, Dano told journalist Terry Gross, in 2008, “I don’t know where it came from” – meaning the talent, as well as the interest. His parents, he says, were both “terrible actors and they can’t sing and they really don’t watch good films or anything… I think it was just something I was drawn to.”
Dano started in community theatre and got his first role on Broadway – a performance of Inherit the Wind, with George C Scott – when he was 11 years old. His mother tells a story that they offered him the role in the room, but he told the casting directors he’d have to think about it. Those sorts of stories make him groan today – as do quotes like this:
“Certainly, to me,” he said of fame, in 2008, “it’s the downfall of this job of being an actor, is that idea of being a celebrity is 100 per cent unattractive to me. And I don’t consider myself one. I’m not saying I am. But the idea of possibly becoming one is really the pitfall of the job. And I think some people are attracted to that. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why.”
That sentiment is in part why he avoided living in Los Angeles when he was a younger actor. He was extremely cautious, he says, of the trappings of being young in Hollywood. “I think I just didn’t know myself well enough to be, quote, ‘in Hollywood,’ ” he says now. “I think I just wasn’t comfortable. The first film I did in LA when I was 18, they put me up in a nice hotel. And I moved into a Marriott Residence Inn that had a little kitchen. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be spending all this money on room service.’ Now in retrospect, I probably could’ve enjoyed some things a little more. Some of it was protective.”
Jonah Hill once described in GQ the casting class of that era: “There were four of us. Shia LaBeouf would get the offer, Jesse Eisenberg would get it if he turned it down, and then me and Paul Dano would fight for the scraps. We were always the weirdos, essentially. They were the more palatable, digestible options.” When I ask Dano about that period, and the other actors at those auditions, he says, “I’d be shy to name them only because I think it breeds a weird feeling of competition. One of the greatest gifts that I’ve had now, being on the other side of the casting table, is seeing that it really doesn’t have to do with there being a, quote, ‘best actor.’ ”
We talk about the shift that has occurred to make him, at 38, more welcoming of this higher-profile moment. “I think I’m probably shy and definitely more of an introvert. There’s some part of me that must have wanted it, because I kept pursuing it,” he says. “The Batman was definitely a turning point, because I think I shielded myself from bigger opportunities when I was younger.”
“Now,” he says, “I think maybe one of the nice things about your career evolving is, and I mean this in a somewhat holistic way, is maybe it can be a little bit more about me.”
“It literally happened having a kid,” he says. “It was the first time it ever felt like: I have to earn money. Which sounds really spoiled. But I just mean I lived with pretty low overhead for a really long time. Even when I was doing some films that were successful, I was living with two dudes in the East Village.”
It is, like many things Dano says, something that sounds more like it could be coming from a 38-year-old who eschews, say, freelance creative work for a full-time job at Google. You are pushing 40. You are on the verge of becoming a family of four. Maybe you need a little more clarity and certainty and balance – and, yes, maybe you need more pay for the first time, really. Maybe it’d be nice to do one thing for a hundred dollars instead of five things for twenty.
Or maybe you’re just incapable of burning with the same convictions as a young male actor.
“Maybe I needed whatever fucking thing in my 20s to get to now where I’m much more comfortable with my work and myself and my career,” Dano says. “And it is, I feel like, for whatever reason, it’s just the right time for me to be out there more.”
He recalls this thing he heard the writer George Saunders say once. Essentially: what may have pulled your sled in your 20s may not pull your sled in your late 30s – and that’s okay. “A different dog pulls my sled now. And I like this dog better. But maybe I needed that first dog.”
Daniel Riley is a GQ correspondent.
Photographs by Mark Mahaney
Styled by Brandon Tan
Grooming by Mira Chai Hyde
Tailoring by Yelena Travkina
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