Paul Dano talks Ruby Sparks and how acting is like maintaining an erection
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Paul Dano has gone from indie quirk (Gigantic) to big-budget action fare (Knight And Day, Looper, Cowboys & Aliens) with a lot of divergent stops along the way, from the bombast of There Will Be Blood to the miserablist drug drama of Being Flynn and the parched spareness of Meek’s Cutoff. But one thing that’s tended to remain consistent in his roles is his sense of frustrated, almost desperate sincerity, as his characters struggle, often ineffectually, with worlds that aren’t what they would prefer to make of them. That holds truer than ever with his latest project, Ruby Sparks, written by Dano’s girlfriend Zoe Kazan (The Exploding Girl, Meek’s Cutoff), and helmed by the directors behind Dano’s breakthrough film, Little Miss Sunshine. In the film, novelist Calvin (Dano) has never been able to follow up on his hugely celebrated debut with another work, and he suffers from crippling writer’s block until he creates a bubbly, Manic Pixie Dream Girl character named Ruby and falls in love with her on the page. Then she turns up as a flesh-and-blood person in his kitchen, convinced that they’ve had a longstanding relationship, and oblivious to the fact that she’s still defined by whatever he writes about her. What starts out as a seemingly twee magical-realist fantasy goes to increasingly dark places, however, as Calvin can’t decide who he wants Ruby to be, and keeps rewriting her to fit his jealous, controlling needs. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Dano (and, separately, Kazan) to talk about his run of needy, arrested-development characters; how his four-year relationship with Kazan affected their work on the film together; and why staying in character is sort of like maintaining an erection.
The A.V. Club: You and Zoe Kazan have said in other interviews that she first brought the script to you in its infancy, when it was just a few pages and no plot. What kind of input did you have into it from there? Did you participate in her development process?
Paul Dano: Well, I read the first few pages and asked, “Are you writing this for us?” and she just sort of said, “Yeah.” But I don’t think she knew that yet. I think she was headed there naturally. So once she had that in mind, she was showing me pages when she wrote them. I would try to just be as good a balance board as possible, and give feedback and ask questions. I would also try to be a good boyfriend and encourage the writer, if she ever needed that. Zoe and I have been very collaborative in other ways: If I’m working on a part, I’ll talk to her; if she’s working on something, she might talk to me. So I think it’s just a natural thing for us to help each other when we can. I’m not a writer, but I certainly tried to be the best collaborator possible, knowing we’d eventually go act this together.
AVC: How did your relationship affect working together on set?
PD: I think, actually, at work was the easiest time for the relationship, while we were making it. Going home after a 14-hour day was sometimes when little domestic things took on more weight, just because we were hard at work. Zoe and I care so much about what we do that I think when we’re there, we’re really there for Calvin and Ruby—probably more than for ourselves. And I hoped we could bring a chemistry and intimacy to what we were doing. And we could maybe bring certain personal experience as well. I don’t think [the relationship] ever got in the way. Maybe there were times in the latter part of the film where it became surprising, or took on a depth or weight I didn’t even know was there, but I think, for the most part, it was a good thing.
AVC: The last time we interviewed you, you talked about how you like to have a longer lead-time to build your characters, and how There Will Be Blood was difficult because you had less than four days. In this case, you had more than a year. Was that a better experience? Did you worry about overthinking it as a result of having so much prep time?
PD: Sure. I think that can happen. But I can really only do one thing well at a time, so while Zoe was writing this, I was acting in other things. So it’s probably not the case where I was filming something else and thinking about Calvin. And I think while Zoe was writing, I was probably trying not to think about Calvin yet, and just kind of let her do the story, and be there to respond to that. And then once we were going to make it is when you really try to drop into that thing of sticking with it and heading toward just trying to live and breathe a little bit every day with this guy as your best friend. So, yeah, that could happen, but I don’t think it happened on this. But I did enjoy our prep time.
We were also so much more involved in this film than any other film that I’ve done, so I remember going to bed at night worried about a location, or trying to think, “God, who would be great as this character?,” considering another part of the film we were casting, rather than dreaming about Calvin. And at a certain point, I had to cut myself off from that and say, “Yo, you need to just be Calvin. Don’t worry about locations. It’s nice that you get to be involved a little more, but at a certain point, you’ve got to take care of your character.”
AVC: You talk about living with him as your best friend. He’s a pretty difficult best friend—needy, resentful, controlling, and immature. How do you find the humanity in somebody who starts out so damaged, and eventually turns into almost a villain?
PD: Well, I don’t think of him as a villain at all. I just think he’s human. And I think everything that’s given to you on the page… Like, he had massive success; he was called a genius, and now everybody wants something from him and is expecting something of him. He’s had some kind of long relationship he’s gotten out of; his father passed away; his brother seems to be his only friend; he lives in this big house alone with this dog who was supposed to help him meet people, and that hasn’t worked out. I mean, I think all those are empathetic situations. And some people might think success is a high-class problem, but I think for a writer or an artist—he lives and breathes that, so to have writer’s block is totally terrifying and paralyzing. So to me, he seemed easy to relate to, and understand, and empathize with, and be sympathetic toward. I think he is needy, and I think part of that is arrested development, and that’s part of his journey in the film. I think people are having very personal reactions, which I love about this film.
But that climactic scene is just as painful for him as it is for her. Without a doubt. It’s self-destructive; it’s masochistic. He is destroying the thing he loves the most. And he can’t just set her free; he’s also making her not love him, too. And if we didn’t go there, you would actually be excusing him in sort of an irresponsible way. If you’re going to explore control, let’s see the full high and low of it, and hopefully that’s part of this journey. So I get how somebody might use the world “villain,” because it gets a little dark, but I think that’s really human. If you have a drinking problem, sometimes you go to that real low of being in the worst place possible before you get sober. Right? And then you hopefully grow and change, and I think that’s analogous to this, maybe.
AVC: You’ve played a number of these characters, where their central facet, the core of the character, is immaturity, anger, and deep-seated neediness. Does something attract you to those characters?
PD: Like what parts?
AVC: Most recently in Being Flynn. Eli in There Will Be Blood is an awkward, needy character who’s looking to other people for validation. Even in Little Miss Sunshine, you could say that.
PD: Yeah, I don’t ever think of that word, and don’t look at it that way. I like characters with drama, with problems; that’s more fun to get into and figure out and sink your teeth into. So that’s something I respond to—conflict, and inner conflict. I think that’s really interesting. I’m trying to see what you’re saying, but they’re such separate characters to me. But I think it’s interesting that you say needy, because everything in acting is action, and everybody always wants something out of what they’re doing. Not in a bad way, necessarily—I mean, we want something from each other right now, so there is need involved in our conversation. So yeah, I’m not totally sure.
AVC: You were the one who suggested Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris to direct Ruby Sparks. What did you think they would bring to the film? Why did you think of them as the best people for this material?
PD: I think Zoe maybe had written 10 pages when I suggested them, and she was right there with that idea. Their sensibility as filmmakers—they are so caring and personal with their work, and they can allow something to be funny and have real highs, but also have moments of darkness and depth and lows, as well. I think to balance the magical, fantastic elements of the film with reality and have it be grounded so you actually really care about these two and their journey, so it feels real—it was just sort of an obvious gut response to the writing, and yet they were our dream choice. We got very lucky to get them.
AVC: What was your collaboration with them on the set like? Are they the kind of directors who want a lot of input from the actors?
PD: I would say the four of us had a pretty intimate collaboration. All of us wanted to make the same film, it seemed, and all of us cared about it greatly, so we were there for each other. I think it’s the type of thing where if Jon and Val needed something from me, they could talk to me about it; if I needed something from them, I could talk to them about it; if I needed space, I could say that. I think it was very open and good dialogue between us, and part of that too, for me, having worked with them, was trust; I could trust them a thousand percent, and I think they felt like they could trust me, hopefully, and the same with Zoe. I think that just creates a really good working relationship.
AVC: Generally as an actor, do you prefer to find your character on your own, or in readings and rehearsals, or on the set on the day?
PD: Every step of the way, you find the character. When you get to filming, you want to live it for the first time, but everything before that, you want to be carrying with you. I like to spend a lot of time daydreaming about the character and the film and his life, and doing certain things for that, just trying to make it as much a part of you and your body as possible. I do think the first time you read a script, that gut response is very important, and that probably plants a seed that continues to blossom throughout the whole experience.
AVC: In regards to “making him part of your body,” was there anything particularly kinesthetic or physical about Calvin that you felt really typified who he is?
PD: I think Calvin is sort of afraid and has a fear of failure, and I think that’s what leads to the control. I think in the beginning of the film, a much more—I don’t want to use the word “controlled” again, but maybe slightly constricted or tight. Then I think once Ruby shows up in the house, he becomes really alive—at first because he thinks he’s going crazy, but then because he’s in love, and you see a different physicality blossoming there in those scenes. It all comes from emotion, I think, why we carry ourselves a certain way. So that was really fun, to go from that place emotionally and physically, to that other place.
AVC: There are a lot of big names in small roles in this film. Was there anyone you were particularly excited about working with, or who ended up being particularly surprising to work with?
PD: Almost everybody, I was very excited about—No, everybody I was excited about. Certainly the day Annette Bening signed on—I think she was the first real casting piece of the film after me and Zoe. She’s pretty selective, actually, and she’s such a tremendous actor; that was like, “I can’t believe Annette Bening’s going to do our film.” That was really a good feeling. I will say Elliott Gould—The Long Goodbye is probably one of my favorite films, and we shot all those scenes in one day the first week of filming, and to spend the day with him was just a blast; it was great. And Antonio [Banderas] was just great casting. Zoe and I were not thinking a character named “Mort” was going to be Antonio Banderas. Then Jon and Val called us with that idea, and we were like, “Oh my God, that’s actually kind of amazing.” So that was just a great casting choice. It was so fun to spend a few nights with him. I think everybody did a great job.
AVC: Throughout so much of this movie, it seems like everybody’s having fun but Calvin, who’s off refusing to participate. Was that isolating? Was it enjoyable in terms of being such a focus of people’s energies?
PD: I seem to somehow enjoy it—even when it’s a bad place to be—there’s something about [shooting those scenes] where, when it’s over, you feel the fun of it. Truthfully, I probably would have isolated myself even more if Zoe wasn’t on set. She’s very free-spirited, free-loving; it was hard to go hide. But I don’t know, that’s just what you do. I think, when I work, I keep to myself anyway, so I usually keep headphones in just so people won’t talk to me.
AVC: Is that a Method idea where you’re trying to stay in character, or are you just an introvert?
PD: I think it’s saying that once you start something—I’m going to give you a bad analogy, but I think it’s like sex. Once you get it up, it’s not like you’re going to take a break and go flaccid. I think once you start your day, it’s easier for me to just stick with something.
AVC: What’s the longest shoot you’ve been on? Do you maintain that over months of shooting?
PD: I’m not saying I’m going home at night and [staying in character]. Just when you’re at work, I think it’s actually easier to stay focused in a place. Stepping in and out of it takes more energy, for me. But it’s personal. Everybody’s different.
AVC: Every actor we talk to has a different method; some people need to be in character the whole time, and some people drop character the second they hear, “Cut.” Do you ever come into conflict with other people’s styles?
PD: Somehow it usually just works itself out, as long as people respect each other. I think that was one of the most important lessons I learned early, that there’s no right way to do it, so long as you arrive at that place. Hopefully most of us are more concerned with what’s happening in front of the camera for the sake of the film.
AVC: What was it like getting funding for this? While you and Zoe are both established stars, it still seems like it could potentially be difficult funding a film by a first-time screenwriter who wants to star in the film with her boyfriend.
PD: I don’t know how other people interpreted us reading the script, but we believed in the material, so we knew we wanted Jon and Val to direct it. We got producers first, just because as friends with Jon and Val, I did not want to be calling them, saying, “Have you read it yet? What do you think?” We wanted somebody else to help facilitate that, just because work and friendship can be murky. Luckily, we got great producers, and people responded to the script. Once Jon and Val signed on, they did some rewriting, and we started to daydream about casting. Then Fox Searchlight came in and wanted to make the film, so we had an extraordinarily fortunate way of getting the film made. I would say making a small film is definitely not easy. Most people want to make a film that costs a lot, lot, lot, lot more. They’re playing Vegas odds—the more you spend, the more you might make on a big spectacle film. We got lucky, though.
Don’t miss our Ruby Sparks interview with Zoe Kazan, about the stories that inspired the film, what she’s learned about need and control from her own relationships, and stretching to play a loud, extroverted comedic character.