Not long ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Dano, a crucial component in the wonderful ensemble cast of Little Miss Sunshine. In the film, Paul plays Dwayne; an extremely angry Nietzsche-reading teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he is accepted into the Air Force Academy. Paul crashed onto the independent film scene in a big way when he starred as a young boy "involved" with a much older man in Michael Cuesta's directorial debut, L.I.E. Since then, Paul has gone on to star in films like The Girl Next Door, Taking Lives and The Ballad of Jack and Rose.
Most recently, he's had the chance to work with director Richard Linklater on the upcoming Fast Food Nation, as well as helped voice a Wild Thing in Spike Jonze's big-screen adaptation of the popular children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. Paul had a lot to say. So did I. Check it out:
Cinematical: How did you first get involved with Little Miss Sunshine?
Paul Dano: It was a long time ago, like three and a half years ago. I met with John (Dayton) and Valerie (Faris), the directors, and auditioned for the movie. At that point, they were trying to get it made. It went well, we talked and it seemed like they really wanted me to do the movie. And I really wanted to do the movie – it was a wonderful script. And then the movie kept getting pushed, kept getting pushed. And I live in New York, so whenever I was out in LA, I would say hi to them (Jonathan and Valerie), grab coffee, that sort of thing. A few years go by, I'm thinking maybe I'm too old or too tall, and luckily, it just got made. Another year later and who knows if I would have been fitting for the part. It boggles me this movie took so long to get made because the script was brilliant.
Cinematical: What was it about the script that immediately jumped out at you?
Paul Dano: For me, the Dwayne character really popped out at me. As an actor, the whole being silent thing is a fairly unique experience. There's not that many times you get to do that. It was scary, but that's what also made it intriguing. And then, having a grandfather tuck a little girl in bed and give you this beautiful little moment, only to go in the bathroom and snort heroin – I thought, this script is great!
Cinematical: I loved how your character didn't speak at all, yet managed to convey everything he was feeling at the time. How did you go about practicing for a role like that? Did you just stop talking to people?
Dano: Well, ya know, I went and spent some time with my parents and tried to not talk. That proved nearly impossible because it's so frustrating being around your parents and not being able to defend yourself or, ya know, point out what you think is wrong. Because that's what (growing up) is all about – thinking differently then they do.
Cinematical: Did you sit there with a pad and pen and write out what you wanted to say?
Dano: Nah, with them I didn't do the pad too much. But once we started rehearsing with the character, (the entire cast) would get in the VW bus and drive around LA. We'd eat lunch as a family, go bowling as a family and just do family stuff to stay in character. And that was a really helpful experience and very smart for Jon and Val to do.
Cinematical: So, they (Jonathan and Valerie) wanted you, in some ways, to become a real family before acting like one.
Dano: Yeah, they liked to make us go do real things. Ya know, what a family does. Rather than have us read lines, practice them and just block a scene.
Cinematical: Sounds awesome! But was it intimidating working with this kind of all-star cast?
Dano: At first, ya know, you look up to these people. So, you do put a little bit of pressure on yourself. But luckily, everybody was really cool and never once put themselves on a pedestal. And they put me on the same level as them – which was comforting, to feel that confidence and trust. It was important
Cinematical: It seems like such a wonderful experience. Did you learn anything as an actor after working on Little Miss Sunshine? Take anything away from the role?
Dano: Yeah, definitely. The thing I took away from this whole silent thing was the ability to listen ... because it's such an important part of acting. The thing I took away for myself was that not arguing puts you in such a position of power. At first, when I tried to do it with my parents, it was frustrating. You can't let it get frustrating. With Dwayne, it's frustrating, but I don't think he gives you 100% because then he'd be giving them satisfaction. He's, like, putting himself higher because he's not giving in to them or instigating them. If you argue with them, you're going to just get farther and farther away. Ya know? And so it was interesting to learn the power of silence.
Cinematical: Do you have a different relationship with your family after Little Miss Sunshine?
Dano: The thing that I see different, ya know, is I now know things that seem serious to me, like, arguments with my family -- well, to somebody else, it looks completely hilarious. It's like you've gotta learn not to take yourself so seriously.
Cinematical: Hmm, maybe I should stop talking. Would you mind interviewing yourself?
Cinematical: Now, you have two films coming up that, personally, I'm really looking forward to. First up is the Richard Linklater film, Fast Food Nation. Let me ask, after that film, are you now officially off fast food?
Dano: Um, yeah. It sounds like a promotional thing to say, but after I read the book, I stopped eating fast food. Well, I have had In n' Out Burger in LA ...
Cinematical: Ha, I don't blame you -- I love In n' Out Burger. Damn Los Angeles and their awesome burger establishment!
Dano: [laughs] Yeah, but that's it. I will not eat, like, Mcdonalds or whatever. And I've gone on some long car rides – I love driving places – and I've literally starved myself because I don't feel like taking the time to find a real restaurant. So, instead, I'll just eat mad granola bars from the gas station.
Cinematical: And that's all because of Fast Food Nation?
Dano: Oh yeah, prior to that I loved Wendy's. Loved it. Loved it. Chicken nuggets. Burger. Loved it! And I'm a huge meat eater -- I'm a carnivore. But, surprisingly, I was able to cut fast food out and still be happy. And, in New York, it's not hard to find some sort of alternative.
Cinematical: Yeah, just eat pizza.
Cinematical: How was it working with Richard Linklater.
Dano: Great man. Such a cool dude. Really cool, down to earth and super intelligent. He's such a great filmmaker.
Cinematical: Next up, you have Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. Having been addicted to the book as a kid, I'm totally psyched about this one.
Dano: Dude, I'm psyched about it too! I want to see what the hell it's going to look like, though it's going to be awhile before it comes out. I play one of the Wild Things -- it's going to be awesome. They're doing it live-action with giant puppets -- like, super-formers. It's brilliant, because the book is so different from a kids story. It's not like this moral tale and there's not this ending where everyone is happy. It's a little different, a little off. And that's why I think kids loved it so much.
Cinematical: So, it's going to look cool?
Dano: Yeah, I mean, it's not going to look like Star Wars or E.T. or whatever. But there's just something more magical about (live-action) then, say, Shrek. And I really think it could be this magical experience. And (Spike Jonze) is definitely the guy to do it.
Cinematical: How was it working with Spike? Is he totally off-the-wall nuts? Or just an average, down-to-earth guy?
Dano: Dude, he was so much fun, so crazy. We'd fight and wrestle – he was insane. We filmed the whole thing on digital, as actors acting it out. Which was great because you get to explore so many different levels with writers, improvising and fleshing things out -- just creating stuff, ya know? Because that's what we wanted to do and I believe it will translate. I think you'll be able to feel that versus just going in to a voice studio.
Cinematical: Have you seen any of these giant puppets?
Dano: Well, we saw the miniatures they made first as a test ... and they looked awesome. But I have not seen one of the eight-foot tall ones yet. I'm excited about it.
Cinematical: Sounds great Paul. Okay, so I'm getting that "We need to wrap-up" signal -- let me end by asking you this: In a summer full of gigantic blockbusters, why should people take the time out to see a tiny independent film like Little Miss Sunshine?
Dano: Well, that's exactly why people should see it and why people might want to see it. Because I don't think there's going to be anything else like it this summer. There's something for everybody to take out of this film. This movie really takes you down before it takes you up. Through frustration. Through disappointment. Through tears. Meanwhile, it really takes you on a ride ... and has a lot of fun along the way.