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Paul Dano On Nailing Nasty Roles in '12 Years a Slave' and 'Prisoners': "You Nut Up"

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 1, 2013 at 4:24PM

Paul Dano's latest 2013 characters, a nasty child-kidnapping suspect in "Prisoners" and an abusive slave driver in "12 Years a Slave," are so convincingly creepy-crawly that I tell him I feel safer talking to him on the phone. "First of all you should not be afraid to meet me," he says.
'12 Years a Slave'
'12 Years a Slave'

Sometimes with younger actors it takes time to recognize how consistent is the quality of their performances. There's a lot of drek out there--think about all the indie actors who wind up in movies nobody wants to see. On the other hand New York actor Paul Dano, now 29, keeps scoring memorably juicy roles, and has done so from his Broadway debut at age 12 in a revival of "Inherit the Wind" and his collaboration with Ethan Hawke on "Things We Want," through his first film performance at age 16 in Sundance hit "L.I.E.," opposite Brian Cox. He went on to strong roles in "Little Miss Sunshine," "Meek's Cutoff," "Cowboys & Aliens," "Looper," "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," where he first met Daniel Day-Lewis, his eventual co-star on "There Will Be Blood," And then there's terrific indie romance he made with his girlfriend and co-star Zoe Kazan, who also wrote "Ruby Sparks," directed by the "Little Miss Sunshine" duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. 

Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Prisoners."
Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Prisoners."

Dano's latest 2013 characters, a nasty child-kidnapping suspect in "Prisoners" and an abusive slave driver in "12 Years a Slave," are so convincingly creepy-crawly that I tell him I feel safer talking to him on the phone. "First of all you should not be afraid to meet me," he says. 

Next up is "Love and Mercy," a film Dano shot last summer in which he plays Beach Boy Brian Wilson. "It's the young Brian Wilson," he says. "I got to know Brian and worked with musicians, it's definitely some of most fun I've ever had. It's editing now, so we'll see, there will be some cool music stuff in it."

Playing a racist in "12 Years a Slave." "I don't want to treat somebody like that. You go in there and do it. You nut up. On 'There Will Be Blood' I was cast at the last minute. I had 3 1/2 to 4 days to get ready for the first day. I just went for it, threw myself in there and gave it everything I had. That was just guts and instinct, not a lot of preparation. I was in good hands with Paul [Thomas Anderson] and Daniel [Day-Lewis], I felt I had to cut loose and go for it.

"The content lends itself to the film differently each time. That stuff happens unconsciously. You spend that much time with a character they start to rub off on you without your control over it. You carry with you what you need to carry. For me, definitely figuring out who he is before the film starts is the most important thing. Why would he be threatened by Solomon? 

"He was probably treated like shit by his parents. He lacked authority in his own life and situation. People who are abused often abuse their animals, people who lack authority take it out in other places. When a slave is more educated than he is, and gets respect he doesn't have, when you see a slave get respect when you are not respected, I would imagine that would be a huge insult. So it was also a part where you had to delude yourself. I left all that at the door when I showed up on set. Singing a song in front of black men dressed in rags was not what I daydream about doing! That's something you somehow delude yourself and go do it."

Paul Dano in 2012's "Ruby Sparks"
Paul Dano in 2012's "Ruby Sparks"

Working with Steve McQueen.

"I loved working with him. He loves his actors, and gave me so much freedom and encouragement. He wanted us to leave it all out on the floor. It was a wonderful set to be on as an actor. I knew I was in good hands with him and could go out there and do what I needed to do and take those risks and feel good about it."

Did you think that this movie would have an impact on the cultural conversation going in? 

"I think so. People felt that way. Once you go to Louisiana to film you leave expectations behind. I thought, 'why didn't I read slave accounts like this in school? This is a big part of our history we need to learn more about.' It felt like something I hadn't seen, which was pretty exciting, a story not often enough told, with great people telling it, not just a good film (I hope) but one people should see. Not every film I can watch objectively, but I was blown away when I saw the film. There are some unforgettable scenes and images."

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.