An actor since he was 12 years old, Paul Dano has demonstrated his ability to tap into the creep factor with his powerful portrayal of the strange preacher boy Paul Sunday (he also played the twin brother Eli) in "There Will Be Blood," with Daniel Day-Lewis. He started his professional acting career on Broadway in "Inherit the Wind" and has appeared in the movies "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Cowboys and Aliens." The 28-year-old has had a busy year on the big screen. He was most recently seen in "Being Flynn" and "For Ellen" and is now starring in the romantic comedy "Ruby Sparks" about a lonely writer who creates the perfect woman. His real-life significant other, Zoe Kazan, co-stars and wrote the screenplay for it. As for his private life, he likes to keep it that way.
Your performance in "There Will Be Blood" was so strong. Do you think it made an indelible mark on your career?
You'd have to ask other people that. I mean, I'm very proud to be a part of that film. I wanted to make an indelible mark. You know, I really cherish that experience that I had with those guys. So even though the character is not maybe the most likable person, I am certainly OK with that. I am more interested in trying to make or be a part of a good film.
"Ruby Sparks" is lighter, but your character does go to a very dark place at one point.
Hmmm, yeah, well, I think we wanted to make a film that could be funny and romantic and have magic, but we also wanted it to be about something and have some depth. I think sometimes people can actually relate to something better on a more real level, you know, if you go to real highs and to real lows.
I think it also makes for a surprising ride in the film. The term roller coaster, I don't know if that sounds cliched or something, but I remember reading the script and certainly in the second half not knowing where the story was going [is], a feeling I like as an audience member.
When you play a role like that, is it any different than when you do a more steady-as-she-goes kind of character?
Each character requires different preparation, and you just try to set yourself up to be able to be there for the character and for the work and for the story. I'm not sure I could articulate what the actual difference would be. I can definitely say that pretty much every film I've made has felt like a somewhat different experience.
You know, the ultimate intention is to sort of give everything you've got. Do your best. You know when Calvin thinks he is crazy in the film, that allows a certain liberty as an actor. You stay a little bit more steady in terms of how you are feeling throughout the day. It really varies, and I'm still learning. I've never worked with actors who do the exact same thing, which is exciting but also terrifying sometimes.
Did you see any parallels between your job as an actor and the character you play, who created Ruby through his writing?
A little bit. The biggest parallel was the idea of writer's block and how terrifying it is not to be inspired. Also the idea that people are expecting so much of Calvin. They want things from Calvin, and they are going to determine success for Calvin. I think as an actor I can relate to the creation part of it a little bit. Through Calvin I thought: What personal relationships can I bring to this?
Because you started acting at 12 years old, do you think you have become savvy about the attention actors get, or has the attention become like an addiction?
I certainly don't think I want attention. I am a pretty private person, and I think this is the hardest part of the job for me. What we are doing right now, sort of going around with "Ruby Sparks" and talking about it and you have to take pictures and smile -- that I dislike. But I like acting. Certainly being on stage is a rush.
I don't think it's necessarily a total ego thrill, though. I think it's just a rush of adrenaline when you are performing, and, yeah, it feels good when you bow at the end of the night. But I don't think that's why you do it.
I started acting because I liked it, and I felt I could be good at it. When I started at 12 it just sort of happened. It was like playing basketball after school. I would go play basketball, and I would go to the community theater. Those were two things that I liked. I don't know if it was totally accidental, but I can't say it was with ambition, like I'm going to be an actor someday. I don't think it was that for me.
When the praise for your work starts to roll in, does it get pretty heady?
Yeah, I mean it can. I don't know. There's still a lot I want to do and try to accomplish. I certainly don't feel like I've necessarily gotten anywhere to some degree. I don't know that praise is always a good thing. I mean, I would be lying if I said I don't want people to go see this film. I want people to like it, absolutely. It can be gratifying when you care about something, but there are probably downsides to that. I live a pretty normal life. I don't think I have to worry about that yet.
What was it you gravitated toward in acting?
I guess I like getting to explore people and stories. And I sort of get to explore myself by doing it. I like that I'm constantly learning. It's like a job you can't do 100 percent right. Nobody is a perfect actor. There is just something I really like about that. I like watching movies a lot. I watch a lot of movies. I want to make movies at some point. So to be a part of something that gives me something feels good.
How has your career choice impacted your personal life?
I feel like I'm at a certain place in my career where I might have opportunities to meet certain filmmakers who I might want to work with and do some good work. I'm also not super famous, so my personal life feels pretty personal [laughing]. Obviously it impacts my life when I go to film somewhere for two or three months. I disappear. It's like strapping into an alternate reality. Luckily, I have understanding friends and family and all that. I'm usually not returning phone calls at lunch, so that can have an impact on your personal life.
I think the kind of films I want to make are few and far between sometimes. It takes patience. So I still feel like I get a lot of time off and get time to myself. I think it is important to make sure that I have my real life as well because Hollywood can certainly seem like an alternate reality sometimes.