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Paul Dano’s endless summer

Paul Dano did not set out to become a movie star. He never had a moment while watching a movie or a TV show or looking up at a billboard where something clicked and he thought, That’s it! That’s what I want to do! When we meet at a conveniently located and empty West Village bistro, he’s just come from a four-hour photo shoot — an aspect of the business that invariably forces him to reflect on how he got to where he is.

“I think I like acting,” he says, snacking on a granola bar, a beanie pulled down over his ears, his neck ensconced in a black hoodie. He’s got an important fitting uptown in an hour and a half, which gives us some time to discuss his latest role, playing the musical genius Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy, one that is sure to further elevate his star status. “But you know, I’ve never been a person who wanted to get my photograph taken. So it’s a funny job. It’s a funny world.”

This might sound like the usual faux humility of a sly actor trying to have his cake and eat it, but there is a quiet if unshakable earnestness about Dano that — combined with the markedly unglamorous, but meaty roles he has selected over the years — makes his contention that this world chose him and that the spotlight has never been the real attraction seem entirely plausible.

“At a super young age, I felt very aware of that world around me,” he tells me, referring to a rising tide of pressure from people in Hollywood wanting to put him to work. “In fact, I would say my career even progressed faster than I wanted it to, in some ways. I felt for some reason very cautious about it all, even though I’d started doing it. And I don’t know why.”

Dano, now thirty-one, first became familiar to mass audiences at twenty-two, in his captivating turn as a mute-by-choice teenager in Little Miss Sunshine. After his critically acclaimed portrayal of twin brothers — one a weasel, the other a preacher, both creepy — in Paul Thomas Anderson’s turn-of-the-century oil-boom epic There Will Be Blood (2007), Dano could have likely had his pick of any number of roles, including more endearing characters. But he was drawn to more villains and victims and villain-victim combos, most recently in Prisoners, as a kidnapper’s apprentice who gets his face bashed in for days on end by Hugh Jackman.

If Dano’s predilection for independent films and complex, often creepy parts was in some way borne of a subconscious desire to eschew celebrity, it’s a strategy every fame-obsessed actor in Tinseltown should consider copying.

When director and producer Bill Pohlad set about casting Love & Mercy, which focuses on two periods of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s life — the mid-’60s (specifically the years surrounding the recording of his pop masterpiece, Pet Sounds) and the Burnout Years (when he was in the clutches of crackpot psychiatrist Eugene Landy — Dano was at the “top of my list, no question,” he says.

“It can be kind of a frustrating job because it’s all a bit mysterious. There’s no secret formula for a good performance.”

“I had been watching Paul’s career for a long time,” Pohlad says, “and had been struck by the curiously sort of harsh, dark, complicated characters he had played, and thought it would be exciting to give him a more sympathetic character to play.” In particular, he says he was impressed with Dano in There Will Be Blood. “It was a stunning breakout performance — powerful, but also made you think, This guy has some magic about him.”

After an extended telephone courtship, Dano accepted the role and began preparations on his own in New York. He was ready when Pohlad sent music consultant Darian Sahanaja to check him out. Within an hour, Sahanaja, a singer-songwriter who has collaborated with Brian Wilson, sent Pohlad a video of Dano singing “God Only Knows.”

“We had no idea he could sing!” Pohlad says. “He nailed it right out of the gate — it was a big surprise.” One of a number of pleasant surprises that came with the Dano package. “The way he approached his role kind of set the tone for the whole project.”

Jake Abel, who plays Wilson’s antagonistic cousin and bandmate Mike Love in the film, recalls his first meeting with Dano at Sahanaja’s recording studio in Echo Park: “It was basically band practice, to get us all comfortable singing together,” Abel tells me. Dano walked in with his typical quiet, unassuming aura and sat down at the piano. “He played ‘God Only Knows’ and everyone just stopped. The rest of us were like, Oh, shit! It was just like everyone knew right there that this was going to be the start of something special. He was obviously so well prepared and professional, which made it really fun and easy for the rest of us.”

So how did Paul Dano connect with Brian Wilson? Why this part and not another?

He says he had been a fan of screenwriter Oren Moverman and was excited to read the script when it arrived in his inbox, as so many do. He was immediately taken with it, but getting to yes was a process — as it always is for Dano.

“I didn’t know at first if the part would come my way,” he says, modestly. “And I also thought it was a really ballsy script; it wasn’t an easy movie to make and have work. It looked like quite a challenge in all departments.”

More importantly, he wasn’t sure if the part was right for him. Then Pohlad sent him the Pet Sounds Sessions box set, which includes raw recordings of the studio sessions themselves. Dano closed his eyes and listened to the music and Brian Wilson in action.

“When I read the script again, and listened to the music while reading it, I had a whole different experience,” Dano recalls. “And then I started to look at some biographies of Brian, and all of a sudden I knew I was going to get the part, and I knew that I was going to take it. I started working on it that day. Something just kind of clicked.” He bought a keyboard and booked some lessons with a voice instructor in the city.

Sometimes the click comes faster than others. When he was offered the role of a vicious slave master in 12 Years a Slave, it was more the importance of the project that he connected with. “That’s not a part I actively wanted to play, in a way, but you’re contributing to a story that is a worthwhile story to tell,” he says. He liked the challenge of doing his part to make sure that story was heard. “I didn’t lie in bed dreaming about playing a racist bigot,” he says.

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“Everything I did before I was nineteen was instinctive. You try and learn to get better, and grow, and change, and ultimately try to get back to that.”

When he read the script for Prisoners, it really wasn’t a part he wanted to play, but he immediately heard the character’s voice and saw something about his jaw and shoulder. “And when you get a hit like that, it usually is a good sign, you know?”

He found that pathetic character interesting because he was basically bad but was actually just a victim himself. He says that while he approached both of those parts from a place of empathy, the roles were more imagined characters than drawn from feelings and experiences that existed within him.

Dano was born in Manhattan and lived there until the third grade. The one-bedroom apartment got small for the growing family — Dano has a younger sister and brother — so his parents decamped to the suburbs for more space. “When you grow up in a tiny apartment, there’s a closeness that you’re forced to have. We definitely have that,” says Dano, who spent the previous weekend visiting with his folks in Pennsylvania and lives down the street from his sister in Carroll Gardens.

The family eventually wound up in Wilton, Connecticut, which is where young Paul started doing community theater. His parents never pushed him in that direction, he says, but an acting teacher recognized his talent and encouraged his parents to take him to some Broadway auditions. At age twelve, he was cast in a revival of Inherit the Wind along with George C. Scott and Charles Durning.

Then he gave acting a rest for a while. By high school he was more interested in music (he played lead guitar and vocals in a number of bands with goofy names like No Gum), girls, and getting stoned. “I still liked acting,” he says. And after his first major role in the indie film L.I.E., the film and TV worlds liked him back. Then seventeen, Dano played the role of Howie Blitzer, a teenage boy who becomes involved with a middle-aged pedophile. Yikes!

“Everything I did before I was nineteen was instinctive,” he says. “You try and learn to get better, and grow, and change, and ultimately try to get back to that, make sure that you’re still using all that instinct and intuition. Hopefully that’s the case. It can be kind of a frustrating job, because it's all a bit mysterious. There’s no secret formula for a good performance.”

But with Brian Wilson he was able to make a real, personal connection with the man, his music, and his search. “Not only did he want to explore — and he did, he was always pushing the boundaries of things — he wanted to make music that made people smile,” he says. “I think there’s something so beautiful about that.” Dano is currently on location in Lithuania shooting War and Peace. His character, Pierre Bezukhov, has a heart of gold for a change. He loves the role and says he’s loving learning all about Tolstoy and Russian history but can’t wait to get back to Brooklyn, where he lives with his longtime girlfriend, actress Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Hollywood legend Elia Kazan.

Before he heads out for another fitting, I ask him what’s the worst part of being a movie star.

“It starts to infiltrate your life a little bit,” he says. “Luckily, living in New York, people are super cool. But every now and then, you know — the photographers. That’s all quite strange. And doing a lot of photo shoots on the red carpet … I think it’s weird.”