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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.
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The cast and director of 'Prisoners' at TIFF.
The cast and director of 'Prisoners' at TIFF.

Accepting "Prisoners." Dano admits that it was not a bread-and-butter genre film he was interested in so much as working with an ensemble led by Hugh Jackman and French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose Oscar entry "Incendies" Dano admired.

"Within five minutes I knew the director was completely in command of what he's doing. The rest of the film was good and powerful. I knew this guy was a filmmaker. I had a gut, physical response to the character, which is a good sign if it engages your imagination right away. Strangely, I heard his voice, sort of the way his jaw or mouth moved. I was hesitant, because the content was challenging --in a good way for an actor. It's dealing with child abduction and violence. I prefer it when it has an emotional and moral cost. As an audience member I like it when a movie earns the violence. That's just me, some people love gory horror films. I'm squeamish, I need to be invested in other ways. What was Denis going to do with the thriller? It was clear that he would bring humanity to it. I had a glass of wine with him when he came to New York, and got to know him. He's a cinephile, and [cinematographer] Roger Deakins. He's incredible, I'm a huge fan of his work. And Jake [Gyllenhaal] was on board, he touted Denis to me saying he was great to work with on 'An Enemy,' which hasn't come out yet."

Being picky. 

"I care about what I do…I'm open to a lot of things, I think, but I don't do everything that comes my way. That said, I also want a lot to come my way, as your career progresses, I get more choices now that I have the opportunity to work."

Deciding to be a professional actor.

"It was not until I was 18 living on my own in college briefly that I decided more consciously, 'I'm really going to try to do this.' I feel that I am at the start of my career in many ways at 29 years old. For me there's a lot I want to do and a lot that I can do. I guess that's part of the turn-on that keeps me learning and getting better. There's a lot to explore. I've been doing this for over ten years."

Was Daniel Day-Lewis a pivotal actor to work with? 

"Yeah absolutely, frankly not just with him. I've been fortunate to work with several actors and directors who I look up to, and learned from each of them. Being a young person doing this, the most important thing to learn is 'to each his own.' You can be overwhelmed with inspiration when you watch a guy like Daniel Day-Lewis work, in a good way, you can learn to harness that and be inspired. On 'The Ballad of Jack and Rose' I was 19, really getting hungry to do this, and learning about what acting is and film in general. Certainly seeing people work with an work ethic...Your director is your main support--actors don't generally give each other advice on set, not in my experience. Sometimes keeping your energy with you is easier than stepping in and out of it, for some people it's the opposite.

But I really believe that it is not healthy to be over-influenced. That's something you learn, you find your own voice and what makes you lights you up and what you're hungry for and sometimes you don't know it until it hits you when you read something.  

On 'L.I.E.,' a small film, I was 16, and didn't know that films were made with such passion. I was going to the Cineplex and seeing any movie that came out, big films. The intimacy of 'L.I.E,' the amount of hard work and passion that went into making that particular film, which turned out well, was eye-opening. I was lucky. Since then I've had so many people that I've worked with, seeing actors with different styles. Again in order to figure out how should I work, I'd try different hats on. You learn, by failing and sometimes you succeed. Each is particular, you soak a little something up somehow."

Differences working on studio-scale project.

"'Cowboys & Aliens' certainly was a healthy budget and production, but I thought Jon Favreau was a good filmmaker to work with and Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are good actors. I guess it's lavish in some ways, but I'm honestly still going to do the best I can for that character. It's about finding the parts that naturally do that. It's not healthy fending for yourself so you have to stand out or something. That starts with what's on the page and how you interpret it, I naturally do that if I do my job."

Making "Ruby Sparks" and being inspired.

"Ruby Sparks' was one of the best experiences I've had, not just because we wrote it and were part of seeing it through, but I got to work with Jonathan [Dayton] and Valerie [Faris] who were friends since 'Little Miss Sunshine,' the loveliest most talented people I know. I certainly want to do more of that some day, to help to make films as well, whether it means developing or producing. I want to direct myself for sure. It's important to try and tell stories you want to tell.

I'm inspired by Ethan Hawke who wrote an article about Kris Kristoffersen in Rolling Stone, 'fuck yeah, dude!' Ethan just does his thing, he's pretty amazing. I'm inspired by Steven Soderbergh or Ang Lee who do something different every time. Ozu did the same thing and every time he just got better and better. I'd like to perfect something and just do something different every time, I got to soak it all up."

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Thompson on Hollywood

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.