Although he probably could have parlayed his standout performance in Little Miss Sunshine into any number of high-paying roles, Paul Dano has taken an eccentric, even crooked, path since the 2006 Sundance smash. Apart from his formidable turn as a self-aggrandizing frontier preacher in There Will Be Blood, a part he received with less than a week’s notice, and his leading role in the off-kilter romance Gigantic, he’s mostly thrown himself into left-leaning ensemble pieces like Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, as well as several parts on the stage. But with The Good Heart, Dano shares the lead as a guileless homeless man taken under the wing of misanthrope publican Brian Cox, who sets about grooming Dano to fill his foul-smelling shoes. The soft-spoken Dano has several more indies on tap, as well as his first bona fide blockbuster role in the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz actioner Knight and Day. On the eve of The Good Heart’s New York release, Dano called The A.V. Club to discuss why he went back to college after Little Miss Sunshine hit it big and the perils of watching himself on screen.
The Good Heart (2010) – “Lucas”
The A.V. Club: This is your second time working with Brian Cox, after 2001’s L.I.E., and you worked with Daniel-Day Lewis in both There Will be Blood and The Ballad of Jack and Rose. When you work on a second film with another actor, is it hard to separate the new film from the baggage brought from the previous collaboration?
Paul Dano: No. I mean, for me, it’s been great. And I also just did my second film with Kevin Kline [the upcoming The Extra Man, following 2002’s The Emperor’s Club]. For me, it’s been great, because, you know, as a young actor, a young man, to get to work with some of these really great actors is a gift. If nothing else, if I don’t get along with them, or if we don’t continue to be friends, at least I can hopefully steal something from them and take it on my journeys. But luckily, all these people I’ve gotten along with, and I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve wanted to and have worked with them more than once. The Brian Cox example was so long ago, it felt like working with him for the first time. It was just a great entry point, like we’d been through something together and we can trust each other and cut through some of the BS. And, yeah, that was a good thing. But it also kind of felt like a bookend to a certain part of my career or something.
AVC: You’ve been on stage and onscreen since you were young. Do you ever go and watch some of your early acting?
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PD: I never do. I never have and I don’t really know why I would and I’d probably prefer not to. [Laughs.] I think it would be easier to watch something like L.I.E than it would be to watch something from two or three years ago, because there’s such a distance. It’s like, why not just enjoy whatever the movie was and don’t beat yourself up, you know? If I watch something recent or even now, that’s harder, I think.
AVC: Do you suffer through premieres?
PD: Yeah, I like to see things once just to have closure. Anything beyond that, I don’t know. It’s probably not a good thing. Then I start to pick away at myself, you know? Maybe there’s something you can learn from it, but I kind of like to see things once, just to know what the movie is. I feel like a lot of the films I do, part of the reason I like doing them is I’m not 100 percent sure what it’s going to be. It’s exciting. I read an equal amount of very generic scripts, and you kind of know exactly what those are and that doesn’t whet my appetite. I already know what it is or I already know what the character is. It’s just a lot harder to get interested.
AVC: So it’s harder for you to get into a character if you already have a good idea of what the character should be?
PD: I would say so. It’s always great to have a job, but I find I’ll get bored or bored of myself or something.
There Will Be Blood (2007) – “Paul Sunday / Eli Sunday”
AVC: That approach to creating a character must have come into play with There Will Be Blood, when you only had a couple weeks to prepare.
PD: I guess. That is unpreferred. I had three-and-a-half days. That I don’t like, but it was good for that, because I just tried to use any instincts, any sort of primitive instincts I had, for the part. I had some really good writing to work with, but normally I prefer a long time to prepare, for sure. That’s great. You want a long time, because hopefully it’s a challenging part, but you don’t really know what the fuck you’re going to do
AVC: It’s difficult to pin down the tone of The Good Heart. Was that something that attracted you to the film in the first place?
PD: Yeah it is. I read the script and I liked it, but then I watched Dagur [Kári]’s other two films and I really liked them a lot, particularly Nói Albínói. I thought he just had a unique kind of tone and perspective and that really excites me, to get to work with somebody whose movies I like. It always does. I thought he was interesting, and I like the idea of trying to balance comedy and tragedy, although it’s very hard to do. It’s something I definitely enjoy, sometimes as an audience member or a reader. There’s something I respond to in that as a person. So I thought we should give it a go.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006) — “Dwayne”
Explicit Ills (2008) — “Rocco”
Taking Woodstock (2009) — “VW Guy”
AVC: After a film like Little Miss Sunshine, the standard choice for actors your age would be to go for a role in a big-budget blockbuster to secure your financial viability. But you went for a string of smaller, more ensemble-driven films. Why is that?
PD: Well, everything is a different reason. Explicit Ills—I had a fascination with film before Little Miss Sunshine came out, and a very good friend of mine, Marc Webber wrote and directed it. Taking Woodstock, which is a small part, was basically just to spend a couple days on set with Ang Lee, who I admire a lot, just because I feel like he’s doing something different every time out. I feel like he hasn’t lost the hunger to try new things. I really admire that and would like to, as an actor, be that way. I’d also want to make a film someday, so getting a chance to work with directors who I like is really important, because I definitely want to make a film or two.
So each is different. And, you know, when Little Miss Sunshine came out, it was a big deal, I decided to go back to college for a year, because, you know, I was getting offered movies just like that movie. Now more than ever do I want to be ambitious about what I do and everything, but I think still, at a certain age, I wasn’t looking to get rich quick or something. Really I was still looking to just become a better actor each time out and think, Where I was in life? I think I also knew There Will Be Blood was going to come out so I felt like, “Go back to college while I can.” I was just pacing myself, as long as I can keep a foot in the door, I’ll try to maybe take advantage of the other side of the coin at some point.
Knight and Day (2010)
For Ellen (unreleased) — “Joby”
AVC: I imagine working on a giant Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz movie was a completely different process from most of your other work.
PD: Completely. You know, I just did Knight and Day, then I did For Ellen, which was really just a wonderful balance to have. I actually really enjoyed it. I was truly very excited to get to work with Tom Cruise, because I think he’s great at what he does, and I do think he’s a good actor and I think his career is quite remarkable. You look at almost every film and there’s a great director doing it. And then to go and do the opposite of that was great and I think For Ellen is a really great, really beautiful script that So [Yong Kim] wrote and that’s a fantastic part and a part that I don’t think I’ve done. I get to play this selfish, sort of narcissistic prick who’s kind of a hard rocker: tattoos, jewelry, leather jacket—kind of a sexual part too. It’s something I haven’t done and I had to do it. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I knew something good would come out of it. I just really enjoyed doing both of those and so maybe that’ll happen again.
Meek’s Cutoff (unreleased)
AVC: Zoe Kazan said that doing Meek’s Cutoff was a very fulfilling experience, but that she was glad that nobody told her how beforehand difficult it would be. Do you agree?
PD: Yeah, absolutely. It was a very brutal shoot. It was treacherous—totally a unique experience. Just a lot of time in the desert with oxen, walking. Not a lot of money, not a lot of film. The elements were not in our favor and it was a tough one. I mean, an experience I now as well look back on and say, “Jeez, that was fun,” but at the time, it was quite tough. Hopefully a good movie will come out of it. We’ll see.
AVC: Certainly Kelly Reichardt’s track record is in her favor.
PD: Yeah, she’s another person who, you can view her movies and say, “Well, shit. She’s doing something.” You know?
AVC: Back to you being resistant to watching your past films: is it your approach to just invest yourself in a scene and then leave the rest to the director to make it work?
PD: Well, I mean, yeah, shit, if I could get myself in an editing room, that’d be trouble. I mean, that’s how it works, you know? You leave everything on the field. I would pick apart—I do, even on the first time. More than once is just too much self-destruction. I don’t need that.