‘Youth’ and young manhood: Paul Dano avoids typecasting
In “Youth,” Paul Dano plays Jimmy Tree, a philosophical actor who can’t live down the one role that made him famous: a catchphrase-spewing robot in a trashy piece of commercial drivel.
In real life, the 31-year-old actor has yet to be typecast, and has built a reputation as one of his generation’s finest actors by playing a variety of characters in acclaimed dramas. He played preacher Eli Sunday in “There Will Be Blood,” a sadistic slave driver in “12 Years a Slave” and Beach Boy Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy.”
He’s not chasing down commercial roles, but he’s not opposed to them either.
“I like being surprised by something,” says the actor, on the phone from Los Angeles last month. “I read something, and sometimes it lights you up in a certain way, and you want to go do it. I also like to be challenged; I like things where I’m going to learn, and things that have a little bit of a puzzle to them.”
In “Youth,” the puzzle includes a trio of Hollywood heavyweights — Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda — who flex their acting muscles while Dano gets to hang out and take it all in.
It’s a function of his character: Dano’s Jimmy Tree is staying at an exclusive resort in the Swiss Alps while researching an upcoming role. He’s there alongside a famous composer (Caine) and a veteran filmmaker (Keitel), and Dano’s character spends most of the movie simply soaking up their presence. (Fonda shows up late in the film and delivers a bravura cameo.)
For Dano — his last name is pronounced Day-no — the opportunity to work alongside such legendary actors was the chief draw to the role.
“It was a luxury of the character, that I got to study and observe with them,” says Dano, who spent two months filming the movie in luxury hotels in Flims and Davos, both in Graubünden, Switzerland. “Michael and Harvey and Jane still have passion and hunger and care for their work. These guys weren’t just showing up and knowing their lines: They cared, they loved this film, and to see that at their age it was definitely something to aspire to.”
Dano is building a career that may one day be considered with those greats. The New Yorker made his Broadway debut at age 12 appearing in “Inherit the Wind” alongside George C. Scott, and broke through on the big screen when he was 16 with “L.I.E.” He went on to draw acclaim for his work in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Prisoners.”
In “Love & Mercy,” he gave one of this year’s richest performances as a young Brian Wilson. The role earned him his first Golden Globe nomination, and he’s in the conversation for an Oscar nod, as well.
For the role, he did a deep dive into Wilson’s world and became an obsessive Beach Boys fan. Even now when he hears the Beach Boys on the radio or in a store, “it sends a current through me,” he says. “It just lights me up. I still feel very close to it. It feels so personal, even though I didn’t make that music. I can’t listen to the Beach Boys that often, not yet, because it stirs something in me.”
Following “Youth,” Dano’s next project is a six-hour miniseries based on “War and Peace,” which he spent six months earlier this year filming in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania. In it, he plays Pierre Bezukhov and leads a cast that includes Lily James, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson and his “L.I.E.” co-star, Brian Cox. It premieres next month on the BBC.
Prior to filming, Dano had never read Leo Tolstoy’s 1,200-page novel, but he plowed through it several times before taking on the part. “It was a nice thing to get to fill up on for awhile,” he says.
After spending much of 2015 out of the country, Dano is looking forward to returning home to New York to hang with friends and watch his beloved Knicks. A devoted NBA fan, Dano speaks of his favorite players with the same reverence he does of Caine.
And while he hasn’t played a superhero — not yet — he may, as long as the role is right.
“The last thing I want is to be bored in my work, then I just won’t feel good about myself,” he says. “I would love to do every kind of film under the sun, I also want to feel like it’s the right one for me. So hopefully I’ll get a chance to dip my toe in all sorts of ponds.”
Rated R: for graphic nudity, some sexuality, and language