Paul Dano: An Inside Look At His Life And Career

Paul Dano is only in his 30s, yet he already has a slew of impressive roles on his resume. He is a versatile actor who has appeared on Broadway, in many critically acclaimed and popular films, as well as TV projects. He is also a screenwriter and has even added directing to his repertoire. Dano's fans have likely watched him playing complex characters that range from sullen to unhinged to downright evil. But in real life, the actor seems affable and highly intelligent with a great sense of humor.

The fact that Dano has enjoyed success from an early age and has starred in so many important and memorable films does not seem to have affected his outlook on life and his work. Dano is an actor who takes time researching his roles and truly seems to care about the projects he is a part of. The results have been stellar so far, so let's take a closer look at Paul Dano's life and career.

Paul Dano was a success right from the start

Paul Dano was lucky and talented enough to find success pretty early in his life. The actor, who was born in New York City in 1984, made his Broadway debut at the young age of 11, playing the role of Howard in a production of "Inherit the Wind" which starred George C. Scott. "Someone asked me to do a regional play –- a manager saw it and told me to audition for Broadway," Dano told The Guardian

Dano went on to do more plays and a couple of TV appearances while attending high school, and eventually landed a leading role in 2001's "L.I.E." The film, which also starred Brian Cox, was both critically acclaimed and controversial, and Dano's striking performance earned him a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance. At the ceremony, Dano looked like an average teenager, with baggy clothes and shaggy hair, but during his acceptance speech, he displayed the kind of poise seen in actors twice his age, bringing the film's director onstage to thank him personally. It was clear that Dano would have a successful career ahead of him.

Dano was a little older than his Little Miss Sunshine character

One of Paul Dano's most memorable roles is that of Dwayne, a sullen teen who hates his family and dreams of being a jet pilot, in "Little Miss Sunshine." The film, whose star-studded cast features Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, and Steve Carell, took more than five years to make, due to budget issues and difficulty finding a distributor (via The New York Times).

So, although Dano was still a teenager when he was cast in the film, he was 21 years old once filming began. "I auditioned when I was 18, and for the next couple years anytime I came to L.A. I would meet with the directors ... and they would basically be checking to see if I looked too old" he said in an interview with GQ. The character of Dwayne is only 15, but Dano managed to pull off the teen angst perfectly.

Dano also had a hand in getting one of his favorite artists onto the "Little Miss Sunshine" soundtrack. He told GQ, "I was listening to Sufjan Stevens' new album, which had just come out that summer, I think. And I played it for [the directors] and I said I'm going to see him in concert. So me and [the directors] and Toni Collette and maybe some others went to see him ... And then they ended up putting a Sufjan song in the film."

Some surprising roles on the small screen

Paul Dano is not merely a Broadway and film actor. In fact, some of his earliest roles were appearances on TV shows like "Smart Guy" and the TV movie "Sensei Rainbow and the Dojo Kids." After his success in the film "L.I.E.," Dano actually starred in a 2002 Lifetime movie called "Too Young to Be a Dad." That same year, Dano made his first of two appearances on HBO's smash hit "The Sopranos." Fans of the show with a keen eye may have spotted Dano in his role as Patrick Whalen, a friend of A.J. Soprano.

Dano's film career really took off after that, but he would make a triumphant return to the small screen in 2018, portraying real-life escaped convict David Sweat in Showtime's hit miniseries "Escape at Dannemora." Dano spoke to Deadline about the research he did for the show, which was directed by Ben Stiller. "The second you walk in [to the prison] the temperature, the smell, the echoes of other inmates, the safety protocol, the regimented [lifestyle]. It's not rehabilitation when you're in a maximum-security prison. It is punishment, so there was no greater piece of research than an actual prison visit," Dano said. His research paid off, as his performance earned him an Emmy nomination.

Paul Dano and partner Zoe Kazan are forces to be reckoned with

Paul Dano has been in a relationship with actor and screenwriter Zoe Kazan since 2007. The two met while performing in the off-Broadway play "Things We Want," directed by Ethan Hawke. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership; not only are both actors super successful in their own right, but they have worked together several times with exceptional results.

In 2012, Dano and Kazan starred opposite each other in a film penned by Kazan, "Ruby Sparks." Kazan, the granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan, spoke to Go, See, Talk about writing the screenplay for the film with she and Dano in mind as the leads. "[Paul] asked whether I was writing it for us. And once he said it, I thought that it was a great idea," she explained. When Dano was asked in an interview with Making Of how he got involved in the film, he joked, "Well, I was sleeping with the writer, so that's where it started."

The two teamed up professionally again in 2018 for the critically acclaimed film "Wildfire." Dano and Kazan wrote the screenplay, which is based on the book of the same name by Robert Ford. Kazan is featured in the film in which Dano made his directorial debut. Dano told The Guardian in 2018 that he and Kazan had chosen not to act in the same projects anymore, but writing together was still on the table. "You might be on set 12 or 14 hours and then go home together. You're not going to write for 12 hours ..." he said.

The actor had only days to prepare for There Will Be Blood

In 2007, Paul Dano starred in the Academy Award-winning "There Will Be Blood." In the film, which was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Dano plays two roles, twin brothers Eli and Paul Sunday. Initially, Eli and Paul Sunday were brothers but not twins, with a different actor cast as Eli. However, the original actor ended up not working out, and so the decision was made to have Dano play both roles.

It was a great opportunity for Dano, but it also meant he'd have only days to prepare for the new role (via GQ). Dano spoke about the experience in an interview with IndieWire, saying, "I had 3 1/2 to 4 days to get ready for the first day. I just went for it, threw myself in there and gave it everything I had. That was just guts and instinct, not a lot of preparation. I was in good hands with Paul [Thomas Anderson] and Daniel [Day-Lewis], I felt I had to cut loose and go for it."

His return to Broadway

In 2019, Paul Dano returned to his Broadway roots in the revival of Sam Shepard's play "True West." The play, which also starred Ethan Hawke, was met with rave reviews. Dano took on the role of Austin, which had been played by greats such as Gary Sinise, John C. Reilly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in earlier productions.

In an interview with Roundabout Theatre Company, Dano spoke about his initial trepidation in taking on the part. "I was really scared, it took me a while to say yes," he revealed. "... It's exciting but scary to step into that, and to wanna live up to it, but to bring yourself to it," he added.

But it wasn't all intimidation for Dano. Speaking about "True West," which was a 1983 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, he told Theater Mania, "It's a really incredible piece of work that I actually think is really fun and probably entertaining as well."

Playing Brian Wilson (and singing for him)

In 2014, Paul Dano landed a role in "Love & Mercy," based on the life of Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson. In the film, Dano portrayed a young version of Wilson, a role which required him to play the piano and sing. Feeling confident about his musical chops, Dano told the director that he could sing. But once he found out he'd be singing for Brian Wilson himself, Dano freaked out a little. 

He told Entertainment Weekly, "I was like, 'Whoah! That's something I should have known about.' I was so scared ... We recorded something and we sent it to Brian. Then, later, Brian and Melinda (Wilson's wife) called together and they were really excited. And once that happened, I actually felt like, 'Okay, now I can run with this, I can go do my work.'"

Despite having Wilson's blessing, Dano's nerves returned when it came time to shoot a specific scene which recreated one of Wilson's more stark performances. "I was shaking," Dano told Rolling Stone. "It was a fool's errand to try to get my voice to sound exactly like Brian's. His range is so bananas." It seems the months Dano spent preparing for the role paid off, however. Not only was the film a hit with critics, but Wilson himself gave it his seal of approval. "I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, and Brian sat right across the aisle," Dano recalled. "He said, 'That's a really good movie,' and repeated it a few times."

Paul Dano's thoughts on playing bad guys

Paul Dano, despite his low-key and affable demeanor in real life, has a knack for playing villainous or disturbed characters. For example, Dano's role in "12 Years a Slave" had him playing a vicious slave driver. Dano spoke to IndieWire about trying to get inside the character's mind and understanding the motivation behind his despicable behavior. "He was probably treated like s*** by his parents. He lacked authority in his own life and situation ... When a slave is more educated than he is, and gets respect he doesn't have, when you see a slave get respect when you are not respected, I would imagine that would be a huge insult," Dano said.

Similarly, Dano had to really get to know his character, Alex Jones, in 2013's "Prisoners." The character is an accused kidnapper, with a troubled past of his own. He told GQ, "One of the important moments in the development of that [character] was just ... if you've had that much trauma as a kid, what happens when we're scared and what happens to our body? ... So I think a way into that character for me was just the physicality" 

Despite figuring out a way to embody the character, Dano was initially unsure about taking on the role. "This is one of those that you really don't wanna do," he said. "Do I want to play that part? No ..." However, his admiration for cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve convinced him to take the role.

His Riddler influences may not be what you think

Yet another villain portrayed meticulously by Paul Dano was that of The Riddler in 2022's "The Batman." Dano's Riddler stands out among the previous portrayals of the character. There is nothing humorous or cartoonish about him; he is genuinely frightening. While there had been discourse about Dano's Riddler being inspired by the Zodiac Killer, Dano dispels that notion in an interview with IndieWire. "I always felt instinctually that the Riddler is just so much more than that in terms of his intent and purpose, so I didn't get too into the Zodiac Killer, frankly," Dano explained.

While Dano kept his cards close to his chest in revealing his true inspiration for the creepy characterization, he did mention the role music played in creating his Riddler. He told NME, "... In the script [director Matt Reeves] had actually mentioned 'Something In The Way' by Nirvana. So that right there, that song, those words, that refrain, became hugely important to me. Nirvana became a part of that [character]."

The Riddler costume mishap

One of the aspects of Paul Dano's Riddler character that contributes to his super creepy vibe is his costume. His army jacket and makeshift masking create an image that is far more menacing than the cartoonish costuming of past Riddlers. Dano himself had a hand in coming up with the wardrobe choices, taking into account The Riddler's innerworkings.

The decision to wrap himself in plastic wrap beneath the costume came from Dano's idea about The Riddler's backstory and motivations. He told Good Morning America, "... Well, the character doesn't quite have the resources maybe to be like a really fancy vigilante ... and he's so meticulous about the details and he's quite brilliant ... so I thought well I'll wrap myself in cling film and see if that will cover up any DNA evidence."

While the idea was pretty genius, Dano soon found out it was not exactly comfortable. He told Jimmy Fallon that the cling wrap was basically suffocating him. "On the first day of filming, about an hour in, I just start to see white and colors ... you know, you can't sweat, that's the issue ... it's like going back inside of you," he said. The next day of filming, he decided to poke some holes in the wrapping so as not to pass out. Dano did offer some advice to those dressing as his Riddler for Halloween: "Maybe skip the cling wrap."

Paul Dano's award nominations

Paul Dano has already had quite a prolific career. He has made wise choices and ended up in some of the most acclaimed films and TV shows over the past two decades. And while his impressive work has been acknowledged in the form of many award nominations, he has yet to score a really big win.

Dano did win the Best Actor Gotham Award for "Love & Mercy," and when he was just a teenager, he won a Film Independent Spirit Award for his work in the indie film "L.I.E." He was subsequently nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award three more times, but did not win, for Best Supporting Male for "Little Miss Sunshine," Best Supporting Male for "Love & Mercy," and Best First Feature for "Wildfire." Dano has also been nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for "Escape at Dannemora," and he garnered a Golden Globe nomination for "Love & Mercy," but did not end up taking home either of the big prizes.

The actor has won several awards as part of a cast, however, including a Gold Derby Film Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award, both shared with the cast of "Little Miss Sunshine." Dano also won a Black Film Critics Circle Award shared with the ensemble cast of "12 Years a Slave." Of course, there is still time for Dano to rake in more awards and nominations, but it seems the actor is more focused on craft than on accolades.

Kissing Kate McKinnon

Speaking of awards, Paul Dano had an interesting time while in the audience of the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards. The show was hosted by Kamail Nanjiani and Kate McKinnon, and Dano was there because he was nominated for his performance in "Love & Mercy." 

During a bit in which McKinnon was dressed as an obsessed fan of the film "Anomalisa," wearing a tee shirt and hat bearing the film's name, and eating ham out of a plastic baggie, she announced that she wanted to meet Paul Dano. "Where is that sad-eyed, hunky sex machine?" she asked, before spotting him and planting a kiss right on his face, with her mouth still full of cold cuts.

Dano was a good sport and actually kissed her back, prompting McKinnon to declare, "Alright, I'm gonna go die now, I guess!" It was a hilarious moment, and Dano recalled it during a visit with Jimmy Fallon. He joked, "Yeah, the reason she's not out here is, that night, we promised each other we would never see each other again because we knew we would destroy each other's lives."

Playing Steven Spielberg's father

The momentum of Paul Dano's career shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. The actor is set to appear in Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical film, "The Fabelmans," in November 2022. Dano had several Zoom meetings with Spielberg about his potential role of Burt Fabelman, who is based on Spielberg's father, Arnold. Dano told GQ he learned he had landed the role via one of these Zooms in which Spielberg appeared on the monitor with a cigar in his mouth. "He said something like: 'I think you'll make my dad proud,'" Dano recalled.

The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, was a breath of fresh air for Dano, who had just finished up his gig as the Riddler. And, true to form, he immediately began working to understand the character he'd be playing. "One of the first interviews I listened to of Arnold was he said something like 'electronics were a way of life for me.' That was kind of the first entry that's different from my brain, which is not a math/science brain. So starting there, trying to understand what's different from my mind, from an engineer's mind, his body, his energy," Dano told Variety. Something tells us Dano will do the character justice.

Dano's thoughts on becoming a father himself

In August of 2018, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan welcomed their first child, a daughter named Alma. The couple was mum about the birth of their baby for a while, but Dano confirmed the rumors during an interview with Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show." "I'm so tired," Dano joked but added, "And I'm so in love, you know? ... It's so extreme, your heart has gone supernova in one sense." In 2019, Dano spoke with Interview, describing his mornings, which consisted of playing with baby Alma and putting on music for her. "Harry Nilsson is pretty big right now. An album called Harry Nilsson's "Harry." Probably my favorite album of his," Dano said. Sounds like Alma is going to inherit great taste from her dad.

Dano continued to rave about the joys of fatherhood in an interview with The New York Times, saying, "We were talking last night about how everything the baby does — even if it pukes everywhere — you say, 'Good job! ... One day that's going to stop, you know? One day not everything is going to be good." 

In November 2022, similar to 2018, Dano and Kazan had a second child, without a lot of notice or fanfare to the general public. Dano seems like such a thoughtful and kind soul. If he brings even a fraction of the attention and care to his family life as he brings to his work, it seems likely things will continue to be good for a very long time indeed.