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Paul Dano on Being Flynn, Tight Pants, and Making Elaborate Playlists to Get Into Character

Paul Dano. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Bing

Paul Dano is an actor who seems able to blend into the emotional range of even the most disparate pictures: Think of him in Little Miss Sunshine, and then in There Will Be Blood. In his latest film, Being Flynn, he takes on the role of Nick Flynn, the writer upon whose book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the movie is based. He plays opposite Robert De Niro, who gives one of his finest performances in years as Flynn’s estranged, alcoholic father, a man who suffers from extreme delusions of grandeur  — he thinks he’s the next great novelist — and winds up at the homeless shelter where his son works. Vulture chatted with the not-usually chatty Dano about what goes into his own performances, specifically: volunteer work, tight pants, and elaborate playlists.

Nick Flynn says he’s been stalking you.
[Laughs] He does. He’s a stalker. The way his dad was for him, he was for me — turning up in odd spots, bumping into each other. He lives about three blocks away from me in Brooklyn, and we’re neighbors, almost, so when I got the part, he secretly left a copy of the book for me with a note in it at our local bookstore, Book Court. I went in to buy the book, and the guy at the desk was like, “Oh, wait, I have a copy for you.” And that was creepy, because I had just gotten the part that day, so I was like, How did he know? How could anyone know?

Since you got to spend time with him, what little bits of behavior did you borrow from him?
I tried to cop a few things. It was just a funny process because he is so different now than he was then. I talked to him about that. “You’re so gregarious and you talk a lot!” Because he didn’t talk a lot back then. So I was like, “What am I going to take from you?” It didn’t completely line up with the book, because now he’s sober and successful and not fucked up dealing with all this tragedy.

That moment where you hit your head against the mirror kind of sums up his state of mind.
I think the mirror thing came more from [director] Paul Weitz than Nick. Paul I think was more tight lipped than Nick, but he had this thing always coursing underneath him, this lusty self-destructive side, so it was this idea of how we sort of punish ourselves. So I was accessing both Paul and Nick for that, and in how this guy could be an addict for things, his thirst for things. It’s not really how I am, but you mix it up and stir it around and you go with your gut for what’s best for the character.

You worked at a homeless shelter to prep for the role as well. And you had real homeless people in the movie. What was that like?
For our story to be as true as possible, we used a lot of people from homeless shelters and different projects, so it was a natural step to get out there and volunteer, too — go out on the food trucks, distribute gloves and hats. That’s especially important in the winter. And Olivia [Thirlby] and I went and served the food a few times — whatever the cook improvises. They especially liked being served by Olivia, more than myself. [Laughs] I have some funny pictures of us doing that.

What kind of music do you listen to when you were prepping for this?
A lot of punk rock. There’s a bunch of stuff Nick listened to at the time, from the Minutemen to Galaxie 500, so I listened to that, plus The Hold Steady.

What kind of music would you listen to for Karl Rove, if you play him in College Republicans?
I don’t want to speculate, because I don’t know if that is going to happen. But every character has music. Even if you’re playing someone in the 1700s in France, you might listen to hip hop, if it’s an energy thing for the character. Or you can listen to what the character actually listened to. I use music like crazy. It’s like sticking a needle in your arm, like taking a drug because it’s so immediate.

Do you make a playlist for every film?
I do. It’s all about what’s going to serve the mood, the vibe, the scene. Like for Little Miss Sunshine, I listened to Rage Against the Machine, Pavement, and Elliott Smith. For There Will Be Blood, I was listening to a lot of The Clash, and a lot of Radiohead. I mean, Jonny Greenwood did the score, but that wasn’t why I was listening to Radiohead. No Kelis. No “Milkshake!” [Laughs] I certainly was not playing that in my headphones. But also some Eminem and some classical music. For the film I did this summer, He Loves Me — though we’re changing the title — I was listening to a lot of Bon Iver, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, and The Rolling Stones. And sometimes I put on Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Otis Redding, just to get my blood bubbling. That might have nothing to do with the character, or maybe it does. For this film at Sundance, For Ellen [in which he plays a deadbeat dad rocker], a lot of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and some hard rock that I don’t like necessarily but was good for the character.

Are you this particular about costumes as well? Do you feel like the jacket makes the man?
Clothes can be a pain, because I’m not a shopper, so to find just the right thing? I can drive the costume designer nuts. Sometimes you just know, This is the right pair of shoes, or glasses, or jacket — and that’s part of the process. How it makes you feel. How it makes your shoulder feel. How tight your pants are. How it makes your crotch feel. All that stuff is great and super important. So I definitely use clothes and music, but the music has another bonus — so I can keep to myself on set. I’m not a super chatty guy, usually. [Laughs]

Paul Dano on Being Flynn, Tight Pants, and Making Elaborate Playlists to Get Into Character