Among such Gen-Y stars as Michael Cera, Ezra Miller, and Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Dano just might be the most unknowable talent in an often rootlessly themed bunch. Capable of going from a whisper to a scream, let alone hellfire and brimstone, Paul Dano radiates acerbic, quiet charm that seems this close to a mental breakdown -- cases in point being the mute teen along for the ride with Little Miss Sunshine, a wannabe preacher who gets a milkshake to remember in There Will Be Blood, and the Gatsby-era wannabee who accompanies The Extra Man.
Rising to these acclaimed performances with the artistic likes of L.I.E., The Emperor's Club, and The Ballad of Jack and Rose, the stalky and thoughtful Dano has a screen presence that often radiates a nervous charm that doesn't exactly convey the stong and silent type. Yet Dano is commanding enough, in his muted way, to more than hold his own with such powerhouses as Daniel Day Lewis, Harrison Ford, and Bruce Willis. But perhaps no megastar has gotten in Dano's face like Robert De Niro in Being Flynn. Caught between madness and the brilliance in his own mind, De Niro's Jonathan Flynn is a wannabe Hemingway who flew the coop on his son Nick long ago, destroying his wife and leaving his kid's life a wreck in the process. Now aimlessly shuffling through his own hapless quest for literary recognition, Nick's job skid-lands him at a homeless shelter in New York City. And soon enough, the ranting man on the other side of the barred window is that of his own father, whom Nick hasn't seen in years. It's enough to cause any screwed-up son to drink and do far worse, as Nick starts his own downward spiral into his dad's shoes.
Based on the all-too-true memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn and directed by Paul Weitz, with far more bittersweetness than About a Boy, Being Flynn offers Robert De Niro in one of his most delightful intensity-fests in years (complete with some time behind a taxi cab's wheel to boot). Yet Paul Dano is equally memorable in a far less showy role. Capturing the ennui of an emotionally hampered slacker trying to get his own shit together, Dano brings unassuming honesty to a young man who's confronted with situation comedy father-son events that are all too real and anything but funny when it comes to dealing with the physical and mental humiliation of homelessness. But that doesn't mean Being Flynn is any less painfully humorous for Nick's unraveling -- a process made believably touching by Dano's often bemused performance -- one that could stand again for a generation in desperate need to find itself, especially when staring its older, grizzled self in the face.
Daniel Schweiger: Do you think a common theme for your characters is that they're searching for their place in life?
Paul Dano: Yeah. I guess they go through a lot of discoveries as they struggle to find themselves. I like characters that are conflicted like that, because it makes for a richer learning experience for me as an actor. The more conflict, the deeper you have to go into somebody else, and I enjoy that. It's also a thing about age. I'm 27 now, and figuring shit out is what you go through in your 20s.
DS: You've starred opposite some powerful, Oscar-winning actors who've given blistering performances, and I can't think of two better examples than Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood and Robert De Niro in Being Flynn. Do you think the cinematic “bark” they project is worse than the bite that you actually get from working with them?
PD: I look at it like: here are two of the greatest actors, and I get to go to bat with them. It's the most thrilling thing in the world for me. Bob is so warm, as a person, that I was totally disarmed by him. He plays so many tough guys and doesn't like to talk a lot in his interviews, but he gives one of the best hugs I've ever had. Immediately, I was able to look at him as a person. And I could stop thinking of him as Robert De Niro and have some fun. So bark or bite, I'm all for it.
DS: I think everyone has the primal fear of seeing someone on the street and saying, “My God, I could end up there.” How did that inform your performance?
PD: Probably the most moving and stunning thing about Nick Flynn's story was that he had the power to look at himself, his father, and look at who he was becoming. Then he had a moment of clarity where he was able to make the choice to become his father. It's an easier ride to go on a downhill slope, even if that's miserable. Yet it's an even more beautiful thing to be able to turn your life around like he did. I wonder if I could do the same thing if I let myself go down certain paths. So I was really inspired by the psychology of Nick, to be dealing with the loss of a mother and then to meet your father in a homeless shelter. Then you use drugs to cope and extinguish that fire within yourself that this situation is creating. It was a rich, tough world to explore, and it took a lot out of me. The journey just kept getting deeper and deeper. I remember going home at night and feeling crushed. While it was hard while we were filming it, in that respect, making the film was ultimately a good experience. It really allowed me to go somewhere as an actor.
DS: But don't you think you have to be screwed up in some way to be a good writer?
PD: That's a tough one. I'd like to think the answer is no. But I also think a lot of artists have something they need to express. There's something in them, or that's happened to them, that they have to put out. So I'd like to say “no” to your question, because I don't want to encourage the romanticism of being f*cked up. I don't think people need to f*ck themselves any more than they already are. When you realize that you want to be an actor, you start reading about other actors who've done these stupid things. You think that's cool sometimes, but that's a load of garbage, getting busted. So I don't want to encourage that question.
DS: Did you meet Nick and his dad?
PD: I did spend a lot of time with Nick, who also happens to be my neighbor in Brooklyn, which I didn't know. But I have not met Jonathan yet. I don't know if I ever will.
DS: Are you afraid to?
PD: There's a part of me that's curious about the myth of Jonathan, especially after having Bob play him. Yet I don't know if I want to meet him. It's nice to have something elusive out there about Jonathan.
DS: You worked with the homeless in preparation for your role. Was there ever an instance of someone recognizing you and saying, “Hey, what's Paul Dano doing here?”
PD: One time I was with Olivia Thirlby, cooking and serving food in a shelter. Some guy gave us a note. And by the time I got done reading it and looked up, he was gone. The man said that he recognized us from our films and thought it was really great what we were doing. I had to stop myself and cry. I kept the note. That was the only time that happened. What I did was research, but it was not probing people. It was just being there, helping them, and hanging out. I tried not to overstep the boundaries. Just to go do the real thing.
DS: You have a bemused smile during a lot of the situations in Being Flynn. Was that a conscious choice, or was that expression just there?
PD: I think that has a little bit to do with Nick not believing what's happening to him. It also has to do with his self-destructive quality. Sometimes you just like it when things are f*cked up a little bit. There's a line in his book that reads something like, “I smiled a skull smile, and one by one, the lights went out inside me.” I thought that it was an incredible line -- one that would be good to put inside my head. It's about the juxtaposition of external versus internal. So I think, when I smile, it's for another reason.
DS: If Being Flynn was made 20 years ago, it would've been something like, “Happy, eccentric homeless dad meets son and they bond.” But the film ends up being a lot more honest than those clichés. How important was that sense of reality to all of you?
PD: It started with Nick's memoir, which is as real a piece of writing as it gets. He worked with the homeless for a long time, and that experience is a part of his life and something we had to honor. So Paul got a lot of real people from the shelters to be in the film. We did not want to try to manipulate them or the audience. Because this is Nick's life, I hope people will feel that this was an interesting and different representation of being homeless than what you're used to.
DS: Do you think there's a bigger societal point to Being Flynn, about how so many more people are ending up on the street because of how society seems to be breaking down?
PD: Well, I certainly don't think this is a political picture. It's first and foremost about a father and son. Then it's about being an artist and overcoming adversity. Then I think there's this world of the homeless. It's a problem with the recession. More people need jobs, and there are less of them available. A lot of the people I met were not f*cked-up drug addicts. There were normal people who were homeless. That was surprising and eye-opening. I learned that you couldn't stereotype the homeless. Sometimes the people you walked by have just lost their home. They're not “bad” people necessarily. Maybe Being Flynn will make you think and feel for the homeless. And maybe that will have an impact.
Focus Features' 'Being Flynn' is released in theaters Friday, March 2, 2012. Buy its soundtrack on Lakeshore Records.