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Paul Dano, from the film "For Ellen," poses for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, in Park City, Utah. (Victoria Will / AP)
Paul Dano, from the film "For Ellen," poses for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, in Park City, Utah. (Victoria Will / AP)

Johanna Schneller

Paul Dano is an actual human being onscreen Add to ...

I’m glad Paul Dano is an actor. The idea that a talented person who’s neither a conventional beauty nor a specific type not only can survive show business, but thrive, means that even among today’s rampant superheroes, spies and zombies, there’s still room onscreen for actual human beings. While the generic perfect specimens that populate most movies must, as Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, be able to fire their guns while striding down a staircase without looking at their feet, the Danos who live in the real world might be able to do that, or they might creep down with their eyes fixed on their ratty sneakers, or drop their guns altogether and chase them skittering down the stairs. Or any number of other unpredictable things that those of us who like our movies unpredictable find exciting.

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It helps that Dano, 27, has good taste in scripts, coupled with a penchant for characters who unsettle. Playing a troubled son in Little Miss Sunshine, his deliberate muteness darkened the yappy story with a shadow that made us care all the more. In There Will Be Blood, Dano’s fervent preacher wasn’t an obvious foil for the towering oil baron played by Daniel Day-Lewis (who won the best-actor Oscar), but that made him more gripping. And could there be two less-similar characters poking holes in the myth of the American West than the ones Dano played in the tiny, nearly silent Meek’s Cutoff and the super-sized, super-noisy Cowboys & Aliens?

“I like conflict,” Dano said in a recent phone interview, sounding both sane and enthusiastic. “That feels like a nice piece of meat to me, that you want to eat. When there’s conflict, there’s something to sink your teeth into, to research, to figure out, to invest yourself in. That’s what gets me excited.”

Dano’s latest film, the drama Being Flynn, which opened in selected cities last week, is a primo example of real-life conflict. Based on the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, it tells the true story of Nick Flynn, an aspiring writer who’s drifting rudderless through his 20s, until a trio of events forces him to confront his past. He takes a job at a homeless shelter. His father Jonathan (Robert De Niro), an alcoholic who left the family when Nick was young (and has delusions about being a world-class writer himself), abruptly gets back in touch. And inevitably, Jonathan becomes a client at Nick’s shelter, sending Nick into a downward spiral of self-destructiveness.

“This is a guy who wants to know everything about his father, and also wants to tell him to [screw]off, at the same time,” Dano says. “I prefer that – acting two conflicting feelings, as opposed to just doing one.”

Writer/director Paul Weitz ( About a Boy) tried to infuse the project with as much verisimilitude as possible. They shot in New York City, where Dano lives, and incorporated real shelter workers and clients as characters. “That was a really memorable and moving experience,” Dano says. “It was important for us to represent that world correctly. We did not want to use it in any way to manipulate the audience or the people we were depicting.”

The real Nick Flynn was on hand as an adviser. At first, Dano had misgivings about playing someone standing right in front of him. “But I quickly had to bury those,” he says. “To do my best is what’s going to make him the most proud. So rather than worrying about him, I tried to utilize him. Have him provide details about the shelter, specific things that people did. He could pick up on some details that maybe somebody else would have missed.

“That was one of the most interesting things to tackle in preparation,” he continues. “Nick now [in his early 50s]is sober, a successful author and poet, a teacher and a father. Nick in his 20s is kind of a mess – he drinks, does drugs, womanizes. I had to decide what pieces, emotionally and psychologically, to take from talking to the real Nick, and also know that he was a slightly different person, if not a totally different person, in his 20s.”

Of course, Dano also had to go toe to toe with the living legend that is De Niro. “Boy!” Dano says enthusiastically. “I was super, super-excited, pumped, thrilled, not only to get to do a film with him, but I feel we both had great parts and had some great scenes together. So I really got to act with Robert De Niro. That’s something I’ll cherish forever.”

And who’d have imagined that De Niro is a hugger? Yet that’s how he greeted Dano the first time they met. “It was so warm and disarming,” Dano remembers. On-set, both prefer to keep to themselves, eschewing a lot of rehearsal in favour of saving their energies for the scenes. “We both feel that, to keep it unpredictable, you have to let things play out in front of the camera,” Dano says, “and accept that sometimes even you don’t know how something is going to go down.”

Day-Lewis is the same, Dano says. (Before There Will Be Blood, the two acted together in The Ballad of Jack and Rose.) “Love him. Love him! Love working with him. He’s one of the best actors and one of the hardest-working people I know. He’s inspiring to be around. We both feel we’d rather not talk it out, just let it rip. Usually that works out magically.”

Dano’s been in the business since he was 14, and it hasn’t always been easy. “Acting is like osmosis,” he says. “You spend so much time in your head with a character, so much time prepping it, then doing it. Before you know it, it’s coming home with you. Nick was a lot harder on me than I’d anticipated, the weight of what he was carrying around, with his mother’s death and his father being homeless. It was a thrilling shoot for me, but it was also hard going home with that, and letting go of it. It affects you.”

But he’s made good friends through it, too – his next film, He Loves Me, was directed by the husband-and-wife team who made Little Miss Sunshine, and later this year, he’ll reteam with Kelly Reichardt, his Meek’s Cutoff writer/director, for Night Moves, where he’ll play an environmentalist who plots to blow up a dam.

“I put more into my work, get more out of it and have more ambition about it now than ever,” Dano says. “But more than anything, it felt like I didn’t have a choice. It felt inevitable, something I had to pursue.” When something is real, it finds a way.

Follow on Twitter: @JoSchneller

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