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Paul Dano: 'Spielberg saw something in me that reminded him of his father'

Paul Dano has built a screen career on bringing misfits to life. So how did he find working on mainstream maestro Steven Spielberg’s highly personal new movie?

Paul Dano

Paul Dano. Photo: New York Times / Redux / eyevine

Paul Dano is one of the great character actors of our time. From his breakout role as Dwayne the elective mute teenager and wannabe pilot in Little Miss Sunshine to fiery preacher Eli (and his identical twin Paul) in There Will Be Blood, awkward Pierre Bezukhov in BBC One’s War and Peace and brutal John Tibeats in 12 Years a Slave, the breadth and depth of the collected oddballs, psychopaths and misfits he has played is impressive. Each fully rounded, fully developed – and fully inhabited by the actor.

Then came The Batman, last year’s box-office saviour (alongside Top Gun: Maverick). Paul Dano, for so long an indie darling, stepped into the blockbuster spotlight in style as The Riddler, a psychopathic loner influencer.

Now, Paul Dano begins 2023 in another huge film that appears to mark a new stage in both his life and career. The Fabelmans is an origin story for a whole different cinematic superhero – the tale of how writer-director Steven Spielberg found his love for the movies and storytelling.

Paul Dano plays Burt Fabelman, father of the film’s protagonist, Sammy. He was, essentially, cast by Spielberg to play his father Arnold alongside Michelle Williams as Mitzi, based on Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler. A compliment? Pressure? Both, says Dano. 

“I didn’t know anything about the film going into my first meeting with Steven.” The actor, who is on paternity leave at home in New York, says, “And the thing that hooked me was the look in his eyes when he told me what it was about.”

The movie is exceptional. Beautifully made, wonderfully acted, warm, funny, charming. It’s a distillation of everything audiences love about Spielberg’s films – at once intimate and epic, upbeat and melancholy.

“My heart leapt. Because I wasn’t expecting it to be about this,” continues Dano, hiding his unwashed hair beneath a hat as his wife, She Said star Zoe Kazan, pops into view to fetch something for their new baby.

“I just thought, for him to make something so personal at this point in his career? You could tell it felt important, that the stakes are high. I wrote to him after our first meeting because I couldn’t fully process in real time. His father had only passed about eight months before we spoke. So this was raw. And it took a moment to digest. I thought, golly, that’s quite bold and brave to be diving right into this. It feels like it spilled out of him.” 

Paul Dano with Fabelmans co-star Michelle Williams and Steven Spielberg
Paul Dano with co-star Williams and writer-director Steven Spielberg. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

At a time when many look inward or take stock, Spielberg did what he has always done – channelled his emotions into film. “The pandemic had some impact on it,” says Dano. “He talked about, well, what do you want to leave behind? And right from the first scene, of them all waiting in the line outside the movie theatre, it is so beautifully written by Steven and [co-writer] Tony Kushner. 

“Luckily, Steven saw something in me that reminded him of his father. Wow! I told him on our last night of filming that it would take me a few years to fully let that in – because there is something very meaningful in it.”

Nobody understands the power of emotional filmmaking like Spielberg. And nobody does it better.

“Again, right from the first scene you see where these gifts of his came from, you know?” continues Dano. “The sense of wonder that is something so special in his films, and how that sense of wonder is captured through the camera. So it felt big, even though in some ways it’s one of the smallest films he’s ever made.

“But it has that big wonder, that movie-making magic in it. You could feel it on the page and even more so while filming it. As much as I’m loath to watch myself, one reason I had to see this film is to see how Steven lifted that off the page and through the camera. Because he’s really letting us in to the way he sees the world. His imagination is a movie camera.”

Paul Dano is lovely company – softly spoken and fully engaged (despite the lack of sleep), with a charming earnestness that has filtered into some of his best performances. Like so many of us, he has a formative cinema-going experience courtesy of Spielberg. “One of my favourite movie-going memories of my childhood is when Jurassic Park came out,” he recalls. “The lines were going to be so long around the block in our little town that my mom took me out of elementary school early that Friday so I could go see the movie. For any kid to get to leave school early to go see a movie is a memorable day. And I loved the movie.” 

Movies about the movies, when done well, are a beautiful thing. But The Fabelmans is about so much more. “This is, for me, more of a love story than about Hollywood,” argues Dano. “Meaning it’s about a kid falling in love with the movies and the camera. And his childhood is in all of his movies. Saving Private Ryan has a really direct relationship to his father, who served in World War Two. And he called his mom Peter Pan then made a movie called Hook.

“There’s something really inspiring about witnessing this kid’s childhood then seeing him walk off to become who he’s gonna become at the end of the film. 

Watching Paul Dano play a middle-aged father is quite a jolt, but he is as compelling as ever. He taps into a passion in Burt – a quiet man, quietly involved in a technological revolution as a computer programmer. “It felt really good that Steven could see me as this – especially after The Batman, which is the thing I’d filmed previously,” says Dano. “To get asked by someone like Steven to play this incredibly decent man of integrity was a nice feeling. This was not a film in which to reflect on my past. The parts of me at work were much more to do with my present life. I have two kids now and so this is really the first time I’ve gotten to fully allow that part of myself to be present at work. It was a little scary at first.” 

Paul Dano with Mateo Zoryan and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans
Paul Dano with Mateo Zoryan and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans. Photo: Universal Pictures

And reproducing Spielberg’s family, friends, youth? “That’s always scary – especially when Steven is right there,” says Dano. “Steven is a sprite. He’s a very excitable director. And with each new character that came in that was based on someone from his life you could feel the energy shift slightly on set. It was very powerful. 

“It was not like any other shoot I’ve ever been a part of in terms of the director, the way his heart was on the line. The crew he’s worked with for 30 years were all saying this one’s different. From the first Zoom to the toast he gave when we finished filming, it was a big and special experience.” 

What a year, then, for Dano. Two huge, contrasting films and remarkably different characters coming out in quick succession. 

“It’s all I ever wanted out of acting, to be able to play such different characters as The Riddler and Burt in the same year. That is exciting to me. It is the magic trick I saw in actors I loved growing up – where you can get lost in that person’s performance whoever they play,” he says. 

“Maybe The Batman is more operatic but Burt was also an extraordinarily rich and beautiful character. I loved him. He’s an engineer, so I just tried to build a character, build a life. How do I capture a life lived?”

The Fabelmans is in cinemas from January 27 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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