“I don’t really know what kind of actor I am,” Paul Dano said when we spoke to him a few weeks ago while discussing his latest film, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farsis’s mildly dark romantic comedy Ruby Sparks. When Dano stated such, it came as a bit of a surprise, particularly because Dano has always come off as an actor who goes fairly deep into a character, from reading books to finding a character’s favorite band.
What was also obvious is that he isn’t the artistically tortured character we see him play in the film. The character, Calvin, is a bit of a jerk: a narcissistic, condescending, and neurotic nerd who wants control over everything. Dano, who spoke of his fear over expectations and other Ruby Sparks-related themes, seemed satisfied leaving all that control in the hands of all the accomplished directors he’s worked with.
Here’s what Ruby Sparks’ star Paul Dano had to say about the nice surprises you get when making a film, his process for creating a character, and the time he wrestled with Spike Jonze on the set of Where the Wild Things Are:
Do you see some interesting reactions regarding where the film goes towards the end, with one scene in particular?
It is funny and romantic, but I think it goes somewhere different and has a bit of depth and hopefully it has enough heart when it hits that sort of dark spot that we survive it. I think it’s a really great scene. Definitely when we filmed that part of the movie it got deeper every day, sometimes a scene could read funny and then all of a sudden it’s like, whoa, there’s actually some real real relationship shit going on. Sometimes there’s the opposite, something seemed kind of dark and it actually ending up being funny. For me, there were a lot of nice surprises, and I think the audience will feel that too.
Does that happen a lot, where you read a script and then when you got on set where the tone completely changes?
No, I mean, if something ends up being totally different that might be hard…This one was one of the more surprising journeys in terms of how things just slightly shape-shifted, especially in the second half of the film or once Calvin starts to control her. Those scenes were sort of hard to imagine and prepare for. Still, when I watch it I’m surprised sometimes when people laugh because I’m like, “What? That’s kind of fucked up,” but I also think it’s kind of funny too. I like that those two feelings are happening with each other. Some projects go as you hope or imagine and some change or reveal themselves in a different way, it depends.
The structure of the film is pretty tight. Does that factor usually make you or the directors less willing to deviate or make changes on set?
Well, the script was really tight and we had great confidence in it. I think the tighter something is sometimes the more playful you can be actually, because you know the scene works in a certain way so. For example, when Calvin finds Ruby in his house, the house sequence after that, pretty much up through the brother coming over and seeing her, that’s stuff really fun and playful. It’s not like we’re improvising and changing lines, but each take might be different. Especially the liberty you have as an actor if things are going crazy one take might be more off the wall then another, but I think because the structure and beats in the scenes are there that actually gives me freedom to have a solid foundation.
Do you usually enjoy improv?
I do, yeah. I think it can be great as long as…I like having a good jumping off point for it, though. I like having a script and being able to prepare and figure out not just from the clues that are in the script, but, you know, who the guy was before the script and be really comfortable with the character and then I can improvise a lot. That way I can have more fun improvising, because I definitely think about it as a character. I could just show up as Paul and use my natural personality and improvise all day, but that’s less what I’m interested in as an actor.
Some actors say how both satisfying and terrifying it can be having to improvise heavily, where your decisions can alter the film. Have you found yourself in situations like that?
It depends on the filmmaker, I think. Some people like throw the script out the window and just want capture that moment that’s really alive and happening now, and improv can be really beautiful for that reason. I think we often think of improv in a comedy sense, but I actually think if you watch Kramer vs. Kramer, Hoffman’s definitely doing a lot of improv in that film, but it’s a drama for the most part and some of those moments are just so beautiful and alive. Sometimes improvising before a scene or after a scene and sometimes you just want to fuck something up on purpose as if it was improv, just to try something new, so I do value that, but it depends on the filmmaker. Most people I’ve worked with, it’s not heavy improvisation for the most part and I think that if the script is good I don’t know how much improvising I would want to do because you know, you’re trying to make a good movie and if it works on the page then we just got to try and keep it there.
When you do a movie like There Will Be Blood, it must all there on the page anyway.
I think so. Yeah, certainly with There Will Be Blood it was all there on the page and the words are so good. I think a lot of your direction even just comes from the language itself, and it’s the same with this. There was very little improvising, and you improvise within the lines too and just try to keep it alive.
You mentioned kind of trying to figure out a character, like who he was before and before you got here I was just reading. Do you approach like Calvin does in the film, knowing a character’s favorite band or food?
Yeah, that’s really useful, just to feel really comfortable, and I think maybe a little part of it is just to help build a little bit of a subconscious almost. Music is a huge thing for me and sometimes you listen to what the character might listen to, but sometimes just something that helps to sustain an emotion or a mood because you’re on set for a long day. You know, sometimes you want to stick with whatever what’s going on inside you.
With this guy, right within the first 10 minutes, I think most of the building blocks are given…Well, maybe not the first 10 minutes, but he has some big ex-girlfriend, had big success, now has writer’s block, can’t follow up with a second book…At some point you find out that his dad has passed away, he gets a dog to try and help him meet girls, can’t meet anybody, his only friend is his brother, so those are like big clues. Then you just of kind of look at those and start building off with that, so what was the relationship like with the ex-girlfriend and why did it fail, what was great about it, what does he miss about it, the relationship with his dad, what the ride of success was like for him at a young age and sort of where it left him, you know, living alone in that house. So filling in all that stuff is fun.
Did you look at “Catcher in the Rye”? You see a copy of it in Calvin’s apartment, and you could make a connection between him and Holden.
Yeah, I re-looked at “Catcher in the Rye.” One of my favorite things I read was John Steinbeck’s journals while he was writing East of Eden which was so cool. And some books just on writing itself just to know a little bit and in case you get caught you know, if some comedy guy comes in here improvising you just want to have some things at your disposal in your head. So, I did a bunch reading
I heard you say at Sundance how it’s a lot of fun to play the asshole. You could call Calvin an asshole, so is it the same case here or different than being a more external asshole?
Different. Because I don’t think Calvin enjoys if he is an asshole ever. There’s a part of the the film that has got a bit of a coming of age thing almost. I think after this experience he’s going to be a man. I just think that things felt so out of control in his life, and I think that the issue of control is obviously a central theme in the film. I think he wants to control things so that things don’t happen.
Is that entry point of Calvin for you, that creative struggle?
Yeah, definitely. The idea of writer’s block or not having inspiration is totally terrifying to me. I also think there’s the idea of what being a writer is, the idea of a woman, or the idea of somebody asking them to be that, or holding them to something that maybe they’re not, where they’re not seeing all of them and trying to hold onto their image of them. Something else that I think about a lot is when other people expect things of you, when they want things from you, when they expect you to be something, when they determine what success is for you, and those are things that Calvin is going through in the beginning of the film, with the idea of following up this successful book and I think those are things that happen to me as well or are at least things I worry about, so I definitely relate to that.
How do you determine the success of a film? Is it the response or your own thoughts on the film?
Well, it’s both. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want people to like the film. I want people to see it. It helps when I like the film. I mostly try to be apart of films I think I would like, that’s a big thing for me and I do think that actors need to take responsibility for their work. I’m going around promoting this film, in a way I’m asking people to go see it because I think it’s good. If I was promoting a film that was not good, if I’m asking people to spend their hard earned money on a piece of shit, well, then that makes me feel bad. I like it and I had such a great time doing it. You want to be creatively satisfied and I guess you hold out hope that you did your best. Even if it doesn’t work out hopefully you won’t be too beat up about it just because you did what you could.
You’ve work with some directors who really have their own voice, like Rian Johnson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Jonze. Working with auteurs such as those, would you say there’s a common connection in terms of how they work?
I’d say they’re pretty different on set, but I think they all know what they want. I mean I think of some of those guys they got to be born with some kind of talent that a lot of people just don’t have…They stick to their guns. They have conviction, they have integrity, and they also have fun with what they do. They’re singular. I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know how to put words to that. I think they all have balls.
I love to work with filmmakers where I like their movies because that is just so much fun and I feel like I can give them anything and they can help me and I can help them and if feels like a collaboration. Everybody is different, though. With Spike we were filming on a soundstage for Where The Wild Things Are and we would have wrestling fights, we would beat each other up all the time [Laughs]. That’s not something I’ve done with many other directors.
That environment seems so perfect for making Where the Wild Things Are. How often does that happen, where the environment reflects what the movie is going for?
I think sometimes it happens without you even knowing it. For me it’s always really hard to tell as an actor…I don’t really know what kind of actor I am. I don’t even try to consciously be the character or something like that…It’s just like osmosis, you spend that much time with something it becomes a part of you. The best example I can give is if you’re hanging around with a friend all the time and he starts using the word “hella,” which is a word that I never use, and then one day I just say “hella,” where it just comes out of your mouth. It just happens without you knowing, and I think being on set sometimes an atmosphere is created too. I can’t think of anything too crazy, though. Maybe wrestling matches with Spike is the closest.
Ruby Sparks is now in limited theaters.