Paul Dano moves from indie kid to up-and-comer.
Paul Dano is the next Dustin Hoffman; that’s the word from Gigantic director Matt Aselton, who explains that Dano, like Hoffman, is confident enough not to do too much. Aselton goes further and compares Dano’s Gigantic performance to Hoffman’s career-making turn in The Graduate. Later, when I tell Dano about the praise, it brings a wide smile to his face.
“That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in a long time,” he says, beaming. “He [Hoffman] is one of my favorite actors for sure, along with a slew of others. But The Graduate and Kramer vs. Kramer were the types of films Matt and I thought were applicable. Sure, some actors I love are working today—Philip Seymour Hoffman—but when I first got my kicks from acting it was from Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, people from that era.”
The “Dustin” tag makes perfect sense when one sits close to Dano at a crowded Toronto bar. He’s not Hollywood handsome like Zac Efron or a muscleman like Vin Diesel. Dano looks more like a nerdy college student, an average Joe, just as Hoffman was the “everyman” alternative to pretty boys Paul Newman and Robert Redford. His shaggy, sandy brown hair complements his slim build.
Asked if he has to battle his managers to take part in independent films like Gigantic, a romance costarring Zooey Deschanel, Dano laughs. “This is like an hour-long conversation, but I think the biggest fight is with myself, not with anybody else,” he explains. “It’s hard to have patience and to try and believe in yourself to do what you want to do. I definitely respond to certain things as an audience member, as a reader and as an actor. For me to give my best work, I have to believe in it. The work is thrilling but also exhausting, and I don’t know if I have the capacity to give my best work in something I don’t believe in completely.”
Eli Sunday, the young preacher at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling drama There Will Be Blood, offered Dano the role of a lifetime and the chance to work opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. It was also a showcase for what Dano does best, combining a sense of youthful idealism with internal torment and multilayered complexity. The same praise could be offered for his work in Little Miss Sunshine, in which he plays a solemn teen, as well as his performances in little-seen dramas The Ballad of Jack and Rose, L.I.E. and The King.
Over and over, Dano emphasizes his commitment to smaller films, including upcoming projects with Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock) and Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are), although he insists he has no bias against Hollywood.
“I don’t care if something is studio or independent,” he says. “It’s the script and the character and hopefully you get along with the filmmaker. I’m a young guy. I’m 24. I’m not just here to make some money or have a moment. I want to learn and become a better actor. Of course there are films I want to make and directors I want to work with, and maybe I can’t because I’m not well known enough, so you have to consider those things.”
Looking for proof that sometimes a student can inspire his master? I recently mentioned to Dustin Hoffman how much Dano looks up to him. Hoffman nodded with appreciation, visibly moved that a young talent like Dano would respond to his films. For a brief moment, the circle is complete: the veteran and the newcomer, Dano aiming to be the next Dustin Hoffman and Hoffman taking satisfaction in the comparison.
Gigantic plays for one week only at the Gene Siskel Film Center.