by Chesley Turner
photography by Finlay MacKay
“New York. If you can’t go around the corner at 3am and get something to eat, it’s not a city… I am one of those people that thinks it’s the best city in the world.
Without a doubt.”
And just like any other normal guy, he loves a good period piece. “As an actor, it’s fun to disappear and not see yourself in the mirror. The second you put on a pair of boots and a hat, it sort of changes the way you feel.” Just like that, Dano has stumbled upon a great secret shared by females the world over. And he knows it, too. “I’m sure that especially as a woman, you know that. The second you put on heels, you feel sexier.” Currently filming Twelve Years A Slave in Louisiana, Dano is enjoying the glories of the South in the middle of summer. “It is extraordinarily hot and swampy here. It’s like walking uphill when you’re just on level ground. Half of me is melting away.” The downside to those period pieces? Wool clothing in 90-degree weather. “I’ve got to take a fucking shower. These period clothes are horrible when you’re in wool for 10 hours in the sunshine.” But it is an appreciated escapist experience for the actor, nonetheless. “You just begin to disappear into a world. You start with the script and do a reading, then you look at some paintings, then you get down to location and put some time into what your character does and who he is. Acting is like hanging out with a new friend, and soon enough you’re using that new friend’s words by accident. A lot of it is osmosis – I’m not aware of what I’m taking home with me.”
Sometimes, this sort of preparation requires some isolation from the normalcy of the “real world,” but then again, sometimes he can’t help it. When I talked to him, he was in New York promoting the release of Ruby Sparks. The film means a lot to him and so he’s agreed to make these weekend trips out of the time warp of the rural south. “A lot of my responsibilities as a human being require me to return to reality. Usually on the weekend.” But as a rule, “I try to keep my head in the game, so it’s easier to step on the set.” If you become too disconnected, he says, it makes your next morning more difficult. He does, however, try to keep up to date on current events. At least a little. And most of us would say the same. When asked point blank about Egypt and Syria and The General State of the World, he says, “How do I answer this and not sound like an asshole? Of course I’m interested. At least once a day, I go to my newyorktimes.com and see what they have.” Thank goodness the cyber world keeps us all connected; they can’t get the real NYT where he is in Louisiana.
It’s true. Most of us pick up the Times and we’re overwhelmed by the weightiness of the world’s woes. Dano continues, revealing a shadow of his political side, and a fair bit of his relatability. “Obviously it’s an election year with us, so there’s a lot to pay attention to. But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that some of these things are issues to begin with. The idea that gay marriage is still an issue – I don’t see how that’s still an issue. The most recent thing in the paper that struck me is the droughts that are going on. It’s the worst drought since the 50s and the price of food is going to spike for a lot of people. I find that shocking and concerning… not to mention how much shit is made out of corn these days. In general, boy, you know… that’s a pretty big topic to open up… it’s hard to pick a particular issue. I’m a pretty normal dude with a pretty normal lifestyle except for when I’m working.”
Although he’s spending a lot of time on screen, Dano has hopes to one day direct. “I definitely am going to make a film,” he says, without reservation. “I can’t wait to. I don’t know when I will, but hopefully sooner than later.” This aspiration seems well-ingrained, and for good reason. “I love acting, but as an actor, you’re sometimes a vessel for what someone else is saying. I’d like to be the final author of what’s being said. I just like it. I just like it and I want to do it.” Having spent so much time around great filmmakers, including Ruby Sparks and Little Miss Sunshine‘s wife-and-husband duo, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, it isn’t hard to understand. In the meantime, he does a fair bit of producing. “It’s a way to help people put themesleves int he right situation to feel creative. Hollywood has development issues,” he observes. Too many people have a say in how a script will turn out, and sometimes movies are started before the script is even finished. “If I can be of service to helping a good film get made, I will.”
And what about writing? Having played a writer in two of his most recent films – both Ruby Sparks and Being Flynn – one wonders if maybe the writer’s penchant has rubbed off on him. But no, he maintains. “I have too much respect for writers to try to write a novel. I love to read and don’t want to put out a shitty novel.” Instead, when he’s in need of creative output, he calls up his friends and picks up a guitar to play a little music. “It’s some kind of rock music. It’s very strange, but accessibly strange. People have called it Carny Rock. I’m not sure what that means…” Dano will meet up with three good friends who hail from Wilton, CT where they all attended high school, to let out some creative energy. “Music is more private for me in some ways, which I like. It’s fun and it’s a release that’s not being written about. Well, except that I’m talking about it now…”
So Dano leaves the writing to his girlfriend, actress and writer Zoe Kazan, grandaughter of directing great Elia Kazan. Zoe wrote Ruby Sparks and also starred in it alongside Dano, which made for a lot of together time. His first observation about the experience is made in deference to her talent. “You know, the better the actor across from me, the better I’ll be.” The two met five years ago during an off-Broadway production of Things We Want, directed by Ethan Hawke. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve had. It was a four-person cast, working together all day with Zoe, Peter Dinklage, Josh Hamilton, and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman. And Ethan was a wonderful director and an interesting guy. Plays are hard, but I also met Zoe there. So that was certainly a good thing.” From that intense courtship grew a relationship that was ready for the intensity of filming Ruby, although he admits it was strange to lose himself and begin speaking his girlfriend’s words; to day after day have to “let go of Zoe, myself, and be there for Calvin.”
The hardest part, by far, was at the end of the 14-hour day, when even picking who gets to drive home has more weight than normal.” After running your emotions to the limit, being publically vulnerable, and trying to embrace the fiction of a beloved character all while letting go of the reality that you have to return to, one can only imagine the stress. “There were some domestic quibbles, but I feel like we did pretty good. And we’re still going strong. So that’s good.” Perhaps it’s indicative of the balance in their relationship that at the outset, Zoe thought it was going to be easier than it was, and Dano expected it to be harder. “I guess we can see who was the pessimist!”
Dano currently lays his head in Brooklyn, a place he misses much when he’s away. “I LOVE where I live. There are a couple of other cities that I really like, but my impression of a city was always New York. If you can’t go around the corner at 3am and get something to eat, it’s not a city… I am one of those people that thinks it’s the best city in the world. Without a doubt.”
The funny thing about acting is, if I’m able to have a good career, that’s great. But I hope I don’t ever have to stop riding the subway. That would really suck.” As a New Yorker, Dano thinks about his advice for fellow inhabitants of this self-proclaimed “best city.” Determined to come up with the right advice, he takes his time. “I want to say something… hmmm… now my mind is racing. I don’t know if I should go the political route, or the simple route? Maybe corny?” Finally, he comes up with his golden advice for Big Apple-ites. “I often forget to take advantage of the city. We do that where we live. Remember to look at what movies are playing at the Theater of the Moving Image at MOMA. Pick up the paper and see what’s going on. I have to take my own advice because I get so used to my routine when I’m home. But don’t forget to take advantage of where we live.”
You heard him. Head out for your uniquely New York experience. And keep an eye out for Paul Dano when you’re there. He might be there too. After all, he’s just a normal guy.