The first time I saw Paul Dano was on The Sopranos. He plays one of A.J.'s high school buddies and he doesn't do much in two different episodes. But that moon face stuck with me. Flash forward to the present: Dano is a seasoned actor. Unblemished by the star machine, he remains steadfastly out of the spotlight, appearing in huge studio films and quiet indies alike. Along the way, he's built a resume to stack alongside any other 30-year-old actor. If he's not the best of his generation, he's damn close.
Dano appears in what may be his most challenging role to date this week. He plays Brian Wilson, the mastermind of The Beach Boys, in Love & Mercy. He gained weight for the role and his musical skills (Dano fronts the band he started in real life, Mook) are on full display. Wilson is well known as one of the music industry's greatest innovators, a genius who both impressed and exhausted his bandmates and colleagues. Dano brings that complexity to life. His performance is one of the most impressive of the year as he channels the singer/songwriter's childlike sense of wonder in the studio and aloofness outside of it.
Great performances seem to come natural to Dano. But he's been criminally overlooked by the Academy Awards thus far. The things he did in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, in 2007, should have been enough to secure him a nomination. But Dano was the victim of a very strong year for actors. He was nominated for a BAFTA, however, that year and critics lauded his work. Strangely, it almost didn't happen. Dano took over the role of Eli Sunday from Kel O'Neill, who dropped out of the project after two weeks.
Luck is always a part of any success story, and Dano certainly has had his share. He was nominated for Best Debut Performance by the Independent Spirit Awards when he was 17 for L.I.E.. The Sopranos came soon after. And in 2006, Dano appeared in Little Miss Sunshine, which would become his breakout movie. In one way, Dano's turn as Dwayne in Little Miss echoes his career. He doesn't say a word for the first half of the movie, but he's a strong presence. That's how he does it. You may not know his name, but Dano is the kind of actor who elevates scenes just by showing up.
That brings us back to There Will Be Blood. Dano plays two characters in the movie: identical twins Paul and Eli Sunday. It's Eli who takes the bulk of the screen time. He's a preacher in Little Boston, CA, a speck on the map of civilization that happens to sit on "an ocean of oil." Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is the oil baron intent on sucking the land dry and Eli keeps getting in the way. As the film's counterpoint to Plainview, Dano emits sheer righteousness. He is a man of God and all that comes with it and Dano exudes piety with every breath. In one of the film's best scenes, he baptizes Plainview in front of the town, slapping the devil out of the powerful man with more than a hint of indignation. Dano brings There Will Be Blood to life.
After working with Day-Lewis and P.T. Anderson on Blood, he produced his first film (Gigantic) and worked with a number of other elite directors: Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock), Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are), Kelly Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff), Rian Johnson (Looper), Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). Dano's career has been marked by collaborations with serious filmmakers as well as authentic supporting performances, but he's coming into his own now as a leading man. He starred in Being Flynn opposite Robert De Niro in 2012 and the same year he produced and starred in Ruby Sparks alongside his long-term girlfriend, actress Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script. I interviewed Kazan in 2012 about the movie and she talked about how funny Dano is in that film, and she's right. Not only is Dano a beast when it comes to serious drama, he's got a real sense for comedic timing and slapstick as well.
So what's the conclusion? Is Dano the best of the 30 to 35-year-old crowd of male leads? He has stiff competition in the forms of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (34), Ryan Gosling (34), Jake Gyllenhaal (34), and Jesse Eisenberg (31) just to name a few. All those guys are great actors and there's no right answer here, but Dano has one thing over all of them: versatility. To me, Dano's range exceeds any of those famous names (with Gyllenhaal coming the closest). His work is all over the place: comedy, drama, period drama, indies, biopics, thrillers, sci-fi, and westerns. This week you can see him in theaters as Brian Wilson. It may be his best role yet. That is, until the next one.