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December 13, 2007

Blood Brother

Anderson's milestone just another day at the office for the unflappable Paul Dano

The Gospel According to Paul: Dano as Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood (Photo: Paramount Vantage)

Paul Dano got to Texas on a Thursday. The young actor had auditioned a few months prior for the pivotal role of Eli Sunday in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, but had instead found himself in the smaller part of Eli's brother Paul. But it would put him back on-screen opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, which he looked forward to even if it was one scene. After Dano met with Anderson and Day-Lewis for some line readings, Anderson made him a proposition: Would he still be interested in Eli?

Dano agreed. How much time was there to prepare? Anderson's response: Four days. Shoots would restart Monday for the entire film.

It wasn't like this would present a problem for the actor, who had desperately wanted the part. "The experience is such a blur," Dano said. "I just had to throw myself into that shit. What was great about not having a lot of time was I couldn't overthink myself. I couldn't afford to get into intimidated by the material or Daniel. I couldn't afford to look back because each day I was learning more and more about the character, the time period."

And after There Will Be Blood, a lot more viewers will be learning about Paul Dano. In October at an outdoor café on Third Avenue and then at his apartment earlier this month, he's just a tall, lanky 23-year-old who goes unnoticed on the street. He studies literature at The New School and expects to graduate in a year; he has glasses, zits and plays the guitar. So why is his name being held up in the same Oscar-courting regard as Javier Bardem's killer Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men? How is it that a kid so nondescript he couldn't even get a job at McDonald's wind up stealing scenes in Fast Food Nation and be best known for a pivotal, near-silent ensemble role in Little Miss Sunshine?

To hear Anderson tell it, he remembered watching Dano stand up to Day-Lewis in the 2004 indie The Ballad of Jack and Rose. He had called director Rebecca Miller and her husband/lead Day-Lewis at the time to congratulate them. "But really, the first question on my mind was who the hell was that, because I thought he was so terrific," Anderson told journalists earlier this week in New York.

The other reason is simple: because Dano is so simple -- an "actor's actor" if you ask Little Miss Sunshine co-director Valerie Faris, or the definition of a " '70s actor" if you talk to his Weapons director Adam Bhala Lough. Born in New York and raised in Midtown by his parents until the family moved to Wilton, Conn., Dano took up acting at age 10. His stage roles have fluctuated between Broadway and off-Broadway ever since, but to him, he said, theater was the same as playing soccer. "What I was doing was considered professional theater," he explained. "I loved it and cared about it a lot, but I wasn't ambitious in that when I'd be 23 I would want to keep doing it."

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Dano was 16 when he auditioned for a role in the independent feature L.I.E., which would find him detouring from the Great White Way. Michael Cuesta's controversial 2001 drama featured Dano as Howie Blitzer, a confused teen who found a form of father/lover in Big John (Brian Cox) as each tries to coax the other to something better than the inevitable and damning fates that await them. Dano's performance earned him two Independent Spirit Awards (Someone to Watch and Best Debut Performance) and a new career in film. "That was really sort of one of the most mind-blowing things -- going to these film festivals and seeing some really great movies that barely anybody saw," Dano said. "There were some shitty ones too, but that's the risk. After that I got really into movies."

Still in high school and mainly focusing on theater, he next appeared in the boys' drama ensemble The Emperor's Club with Emile Hirsch and Jesse Eisenberg; Dano would later re-team with Hirsch and fellow New York stage actor Chris Marquette for The Girl Next Door. "That was one of those things where I was still at the point where you have an agent and they send you to do auditions," he said. "And if you get a part, you do it when you're still starting out. I was going to college. I was sort of..." He trailed off for a moment. "It's not the sort of movie I would go tell somebody else I'm trying to get a job with to go see, but I have to stand by my work in a way."

As such, Dano can also stand by his range: the seductive killer in the opening minutes of Taking Lives; a missionary hopeful inevitably taken out by his stepbrother's twisted revenge in The King; and a young man challenging Day-Lewis' title character as he attempts to take his daughter away in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. "It was definitely the first part I did where I was really conscious about wanting to be an actor and be a good actor," Dano told me. "It made the experience different. That was the first time where I had a lot of the character rub off into my life. I remember I cut my hair at the end of the film; [when] I saw myself in the mirror for the first time, it was such a strange thing."

Dano had taken meetings afterward with the husband-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who were in development at the time with an oft-delayed feature called Little Miss Sunshine. The pair also came to Dano through his Jack and Rose work. "Fortunately he still looked young and had a few blemishes," Dayton joked to The Reeler during a joint interview with Faris, who also cited the nuance of his mute role in Little Miss Sunshine.

"In our film he has 50 words," she said, "in contrast to There Will Be Blood and speaking throughout. I love that he can do that." But Dayton would be won over by Dano's expressiveness -- or perhaps the lack thereof, as in his ability to upstage Steve Carell just by writing "Please don't kill yourself tonight" with a face so uncaring even Nietzsche would tip his hat. Noting that Michael Arndt's original script called for a large, muscular kid in cut-offs and a green mohawk, he was floored by Dano's subtle performance followed by his eventual explosion. "His inner mohawk was evident," Dayton said.

"It really fucked with his head": Dano in Adam Bhala Lough's forthcoming drama Weapons (Photo: After Dark Films)

Adam Bhala Lough would witness the same intensity with Weapons, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and will see a theatrical release in February 2008. Dano plays Chris, whom he refers to as a "white-trash type," the kind of guy more likely to do drugs with a girl, take her home and then have sex with her while getting out the camcorder. To get into it, Dano swamped himself in rap videos, magazines and arguably the best study guide of them all: COPS episodes.

"He's shy, different from those up-and-coming actors -- he's the exact opposite," Lough said. "Paul is probably one of the smartest actors I ever met. When he becomes focused on a character, he disappears. It really starts to overtake him." He recalled the moment Dano approached him during their shoot, claiming that Chris had been affecting him more and more in a negative way. "I remember he said it really fucked with his head," the director said, adding that Dano agreed to stay in a crummy motel not only to be closer to the production, but also to get into the attitude of how miserable the suburban squalor could be.

"The thing about acting is I don't think you really realize when a character's taking you over," Dano told me. "People are really, in general, psychosomatic, and I think it's pretty normal if you spend 12 hours a day trying to invest yourself emotionally somewhere, that its going to rub off on you when you go home that night or the next day -- or when you're done filming for a little bit -- to shake a character."

Enter the screechy, opportunistic preacher Eli Sunday and his twin brother Paul, the latter of whom appears only briefly in the office of oilman Daniel Plainview, demanding $500 for information about an untapped oil vein on his family's ranch in California. Indeed, virtually the entire film comes down to a handful of interactions between Dano and Day-Lewis: Despite Plainview's goading for a lower fee, Paul refuses, ultimately raising his price to share the location. Plainview plays ball with the impression he'll never have to deal with the shrewd boy again. Then he runs into even more willful Eli, and the cycle begins anew. The brothers' existence seems like a potent culmination of the actor's canon -- the physicality of Dwayne, the dark heart of Chris, Howie's fatalistic curiosity. As though Dano's character from The King had been born a century earlier and nurtured his evil heart, Eli Sunday wears a fake smile as he goes blow-for-blow with Plainview.

But Eli only came later for Dano, after another actor, rumored to be Redacted's Kel O'Neill, left the film for reasons Anderson wouldn't discuss. "We had Paul, and he was in a small part," he said. "And we thought, 'Wow, why did he get the small part? Maybe he should get the bigger part.' And then, better yet, maybe cause of my obsession with East of Eden, I thought they've got to be twins."

Of course Dano had experience opposite Day-Lewis, but he relished the opportunity to engage the Oscar-winner in a verbally and physically demanding role that eventually found Eli being beaten and tormented in the mud or, in a bit of dramatic turnabout, repeatedly slapping and excoriating Plainview throughout his unwilling baptism. The brutality and violence compound until Anderson's title delivers on its sickening, inevitable climax.

But Eli is just another character; a piece of himself that Dano wasn't aware of. Ask him which role was his favorite and he grows quiet, not sure how to answer. It's not the guarded pause of a weary actor, desperate not to hit a tabloid cover or make Page Six, but of a young idealist who is dedicated to his craft and -- for now -- can easily move through the city without a second glance. While currently on-stage in The New Group's production of Things We Want (directed by Ethan Hawke), you likely won't even recognize the next time he's on-screen as a horned Wild Thing in Spike Jonze's adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. And that's all -- aside from some classes -- that Dano is looking forward to in 2008.

"If you go into something with the right reasons no matter what the outcome is, you can be OK with it and hold yourself responsible for it and know your intentions were good," he said. "If There Will Be Blood doesn't make money -- I want it to for Paul's sake -- but my experience has already happened. It was down there in Texas."



Comments (1)

This was a wonderful article guys. I've really wanted to know who this kid is. I didn't like Little Miss Sunshine but just seeing him in the trailer for There Will be Blood. is sort of flooring.

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