By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Paul Dano is one of those quiet actors who can convey more emotion in his eyes than through dialogue. He memorably played the nearly mute suicidal teen in the highly acclaimed “Little Miss Sunshine.” Daniel Day-Lewis was so impressed with his performance in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” that he recommended him to Paul Thomas Anderson for “There Will Be Blood.”
Dano now stars opposite another Hollywood screen legend, Robert DeNiro, in “Being Flynn,” an intimate drama about an aimless writer who finds his long estranged alcoholic father at a homeless shelter. Battling his own addiction with drugs, the younger Flynn meets and tries courting a young woman (played by Olivia Thirlby), who also works at the shelter.
Paul Weitz, who helmed the box office hits “American Pie” and “Little Fockers,” helms this touching family drama based on real events in author Nick Flynn’s life. “Being Flynn” is adapted from the author’s bestselling memoir “Another Bulls_t Night in Suck City.”
The tall, lanky 27-year-old New Yorker spoke about working opposite the legendary DeNiro, whom he simply refers to as Bob, portraying the author in his presence and preparing for the gig by working in real homeless shelter.
Front Row Features: How do you play someone who’s alive and standing there on the set while you’re portraying him?
Paul Dano: The first thing is to excise any thought about pissing off the writer because you can’t do your best work if you’re worried about pleasing other people. I had this brilliant memoir (written by) this guy who lives in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. We live about four or five blocks from each other. Paul Weitz adapted the book, so there’s a piece of Paul that’s in Nick in the script. It’s not just Nick Flynn or his memoir. When you adapt something, a piece of yourself goes into it, and then there’s me. So you end up with this new Nick that’s different from the real Nick in the memoir. I certainly used the memoir to the best of my advantage, but the script was my bible for the part. I also hung out with Nick Flynn a lot, but who Nick is now is different from who he was in his 20s. That was an important thing to separate as well.
Front Row Features: What did you do to prepare for the role?
Dano: It was important for me to get out there and work in a real (homeless) shelter and go on a truck and deliver food to people. There were a few things I was struck by. One was how normal a lot of these people were out on the streets. They weren’t all crack addicts or alcoholics. There were people who had just had a rough go of it. The ordinariness of how some of these people became homeless was really surprising to me. They were not scary people in any way. There were a lot of people whom you didn’t know were homeless, even. They didn’t look it, but they were. It’s not all cardboard boxes and smelly clothes. People who use the shelters in the right way, you wouldn’t know they were homeless.
Front Row Features: You’ve played some extreme characters in your career. How would you characterize this role?
Dano: How I play the character isn’t a choice I make consciously. I did whatever I thought was best for this character and what the character was telling me to do. His internal struggle is totally fascinating with his father, and this idea of becoming your parents, and making that choice not to (become them). It’s a pretty hard thing to do, so I think it’s a pretty amazing part to explore. He’s a dynamic guy in some ways. He’s somebody who can be helping the homeless one second and hitting the crack pipe the next, dealing with his father and sort-of having a thing with this girl.
Front Row Features: How did you go about establishing your relationship with DeNiro’s character? Did you talk to the real Jonathan Flynn?
Dano: I did not meet the real Jonathan. One thing that was hard was Bob was such a warm guy to me, he was so nice, I thought, he gives a really great hug, and (our characters) don’t totally get along, so it sort of made my job harder that I liked Bob so much. With film, you do a lot of your work at home and bring your character to the set. It wasn’t a long shoot. We were in New York. We were on the street a lot. There wasn’t a lot of idle time, so Bob and I brought the relationship to the set. The most important thing is what goes on in front of the camera. It was a good piece of material and we came prepared and ready to do our best.
Front Row Features: What did you think about Nick’s struggle to be a writer like his dad?
Dano: I’m in my late 20s and luckily my parents are decent people but you still start to see them in your habits. You have to start to own up to who you are and you have less excuses as you get older. There’s no way I can escape being an adult now so you have to own up to yourself. I tried to bring as much of myself to the character as I could but there was a limit to that because Nick’s story is not like my own. A lot of the work was trying to understand what (Nick’s circumstance) was like, and engaging my imagination in the most active way possible. That’s the fun thing about acting: you’re trying to expose your most intimate self and trying to be as far away from yourself at the same time. It’s a strange thing.
Front Row Features: Did you feel any pressure of Nick Flynn watching you?
Dano: No. There was one minute where I was worried Nick was going to be on set a lot. What’s that going to be like for me? You just put on your horse blinders. I know it would be hard if I were worried about it. I don’t know what I did not to worry about it. I somehow deluded myself into not worrying about it. I think it made the film better, having him there.
Front Row Features: How do you choose a part?
Dano: Usually what I’m looking for is to read a script and have it move you or light you up in some way. I definitely prefer that feeling to a calculated decision. There are always a lot of external reasons to do something but those are reasons you can’t always count on, so I usually just start with me and then look at other factors like who’s in it. I’ve gotten to do some good work, which, hopefully, I’ve learned to become a better actor over the years. I’m looking to branch out and do some other types of film, and hopefully some things that people don’t expect of me. As I’ve gotten older, I’m more clear about myself and more certain about myself, so I’m excited about the possibilities that are out there for me.
Front Row Features: What did you take away from the experience of “Being Flynn?”
Dano: There are so many levels these things work on. I learned a lot as an actor. I also got to experience something amazing as a person by researching this film and going out there and learning about the world of the homeless, and doing some volunteer work, which was inspired way to prepare for a part. It’s a great thing to get to do as a person, getting to work with Bob, and getting to tackle this part. I definitely feel I went into it as one person and came out a slight different person. These experiences can impact you in a very great way.
Front Row Features: What can you tell me about your next movie, “He Loves Me?”
Dano: My girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) wrote it. We both star in it. It takes place here (Los Angeles). Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who directed “Little Miss Sunshine,” directed it and it will come out later this year. It’s sort of a magical realism comedy.