When Paul Dano hobbled into the room with a cane, I half-expected him to be method acting for an upcoming role. In the elevator, I’d overheard another theory. A woman wondered if it was an injury he acquired from one of the two intense (and intensely praised) films he was promoting here at the Toronto International Film Festival–the slavery period piece 12 Years a Slave, and the pitch-black thriller Prisoners.
And although Dano is only 29, a cane would suit one of his characters well. From the mute teenager in Little Miss Sunshine to the twisted preacher in There Will Be Blood, he’s at his best playing deviant and defective men. His two movies at TIFF showcase his uncanny ability to capture the aberrant and abnormal. In Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, he plays a despicable slave owner to slithery perfection, and in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, he mixes sympathy with revulsion as a man with an IQ of a ten-year-old, the prime suspect in a kidnapping case. Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays a detective in the film, singled out Dano’s phenomenal performance at the press conference: “There are four or five moments in the film when he’s in that cell and you hardly see anything except for Paul’s eye,” Gyllenhaal said. “And, there is more performance in that one eye then all of us put together.”
In the press conference, we were talking about how Prisoners is a family drama, but its themes also touch on larger issues, like torture and surveillance.
My feeling about it is that the more personal a film is, the wider the response can be. I think a film becomes more relevant or political or social or whatever by being more about what the character is actually experiencing. What about this particular guy? What is the essence of his experience? And hopefully that can transcend just the story. At least in my experience watching films, that is more powerful than if it were just overtly on the nose about Syria or something. It’s human emotion that I think has the greatest impact. And so hopefully some people will ask that question when they leave.
I think thrillers as a genre have the ability to have really powerful political resonances.
I do think when people use genre correctly it’s such a wonderful thing. I think the script was wonderful for this film, but I think a lot of people would have taken it more toward the scare-you-for-scare’s-sake side of things. I really think it’s hard to do what Denis did. Whether people like it or not, he did a great job managing the material. And I love when genre is used that way. And it’s still super entertaining too. You can get your kicks but also more than that.
You play weirdoes and you play them so well. What attracts you to the roles that you choose?
Each time it’s a different thing. It’s hard for me to label anyone as a wierdo. I get to know the characters so well sometimes. When I hear something like that….
Oh no, have I offended your character?
No.I read the script and it was a super page-turning experience. First of all I think, Do I really want to do that character? And secondly, Are we going to take the subject matter serious enough to be worthwhile. The script and the director are the most important things to me. And luckily Denis has made some other films that I really like, so I got excited to meet him. And we talked pretty frankly about this script. And, with a bigger film like this, sometimes you wonder, are they going to let Denis make the film that he wants to make? And God bless them they did. When I saw the film I was shocked and I was pleased. Because I really don’t take it lightly. And I don’t like violence in film–not just because I’m squeamish. But I feel like the emotional content has to match the level of violence or thrills that there are. And somehow we did that. So it became very exciting. And the character was really harder than I thought. It was a darker journey than I anticipated.
A lot of stars have trouble disappearing into roles because of their fame. Do you think about this?
What turns me on about it, like with this character from Prisoners, is I have to think of an entire history for a human being that is nothing like myself. And when you do that, all of a sudden there’s something maybe in your body that’s different or in your voice or your energy. And that’s like the thrill of it. I’m never going to just show up and be myself. I just have no interest in that.
When you have to get inside the head of a character and he’s not a nice guy, like your character in 12 Years A Slave, is there ever a conflict there? Are you worried when you can be so convincing at being so despicable?
Honestly, it only worries me when I have to do press stuff. I don’t think I’m like either of those guys so I never think that people would think that I’m like that. Definitely 12 Years A Slave, it’s such a beautiful story when you close the script, you’re like, Oh they want me to play a bad character.”It’s almost a bummer. But there’s some fun scenes for an actor. And you think, Okay, I’m playing a bad character but I’m contributing to a good story. And ultimately, the film is more important than me. And then you see 12 Years A Slave and you think Thank God I got to be in there. I don’t like to talk about my opinion of a film too often. But that one just totally blew me away.