Most young actors can’t go toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis, but Paul Dano isn’t like most young actors. Ever since his breakout as a troubled teen in L.I.E., the gangly Brooklynite has crafted a solid résumé with a slew of individual performances in acclaimed indies and bigger blockbusters. A master of the one-for-me-one-for-them mentality (Dano spent 2011 promoting Being Flynn and Cowboys & Aliens) Dano cemented his chops alongside Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling oil saga, There Will Be Blood. Now comes Ruby Sparks, a high-concept romantic comedy written by and co-starring his girlfriend Zoe Kazan (and directed by the duo behind Dano’s other breakout, Little Miss Sunshine), that sees the 28-year-old play a writer whose fictional character comes to life. Here, Dano looks at that part and four others that defined his career.
L.I.E. (2001): In his first film, Dano proved he was no Disney-type child star by turning in a brave performance as a troubled teen who develops a friendship with a pedophile known as Big John.
“It’s an interesting film and the subject matter is challenging. It explores a world that not a lot of people want to be familiar with, frankly. I had started doing theater in New York at the time. I think I knew I wanted to be an actor. At that point in my life, a film like Terminator 2 was my idea of a movie. I am not Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I didn’t think of movies for me yet. But then this one came along, and I got the part. Emotionally the role was interesting, but there’s some tough things in there. In retrospect, I’m like, “Well, that was a crazy thing to do.” At the time I just did it.”
Little Miss Sunshine (2006): In the Academy Award-winning indie comedy that put Dano on the map, he plays the emo teen of a clan who do everything in their power to get the youngest of the group into the finals of a beauty pageant.
“Little Miss Sunshine was something I auditioned for, and then it didn’t get made until two or so years later. We had some good people in it, but I had no clue it would get distribution, let alone get seen. The first screening at Sundance that we had, about 1200 people watched it. I will never forget it. It was the most energetic screening I’ve ever been to. People weren’t just laughing during the film, there were rounds of applause. It’s not a common thing. It all of sudden took on this life that was never in my head when we were making it.”
There Will Be Blood (2007): Dano proved his mettle by butting heads with Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Academy Award winner about an oil prospector’s rise in the early days of the cutthroat business.
“I had worked with Daniel on The Ballad of Jack and Rose. I was 19 doing that, and getting to work with Daniel really cemented what kind of actor I wanted to try to be. So I had a relationship with Daniel, who is a wonderful person but a beast of an actor. I got cast at the last second, so I only had three or four days to prepare. In retrospect it was a good thing because I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I didn’t have enough time to worry about Daniel or get intimated. I just had to go at it full throttle.”
For Ellen (2012): In this upcoming character study from indie stalwart So Yong Kim, Dano plays a struggling musician fighting to gain custody of his young daughter.
“I was really drawn to the character, partially because I saw him immediately—the leather jacket, the boots, the jeans, the necklace and some tattoos. I was really excited at the idea of trying to be this guy. It was a really fun part to play; this narcissistic, selfish kind of prick. It was very challenging. I remember looking for that leather jacket for a long time, and I do not like shopping. Finally we found something in LA from someone who makes stuff for Bon Jovi and Tom Cruise. Then I was like, “I can play this part.””
Ruby Sparks (2012): Dano acts alongside his real life girlfriend Zoe Kazan (who also penned the script) in this high-concept romantic comedy about a famed young writer (Dano), who falls in love with his latest written creation (Kazan), only to then see her come to life.
“For the most part Zoe and I are pretty focused. When we went to work, we were there for Calvin and Ruby. There was not a lot of Zoe and Paul. Obviously we tried to be there for each other, but you go into a vacuum when you make a film. The toughest part was after a 14-hour day, driving home in traffic together. One person wants one thing, and somebody wants another. But at work it was always good.”