Paul Dano On 'Wildlife,' And The Different Anxieties Of Acting And Directing The Love & Mercy star steps behind the camera for Wildlife, an adaptation of Richard Ford's novel about a boy whose parents are separating. The film was informed by Dano's parents' relationship.
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Paul Dano On 'Wildlife,' And The Different Anxieties Of Acting And Directing

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Paul Dano On 'Wildlife,' And The Different Anxieties Of Acting And Directing

Paul Dano On 'Wildlife,' And The Different Anxieties Of Acting And Directing

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Paul Dano, is probably best known for his performance in "There Will Be Blood" as a teenaged evangelical preacher. Imagine being in your early 20s and working on that film with director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day Lewis. Dano was only 12 when he had a part in the Broadway revival of "Inherit The Wind" starring George C. Scott. Dano also co-starred in the films "Little Miss Sunshine," "12 Years A Slave" and portrayed Brian Wilson in the film "Love & Mercy."

Now at the age of 34, he's directed his first film, called "Wildlife." The screenplay, which Dano co-wrote with his partner, Zoe Kazan, is adapted from a Richard Ford novel of the same name. "Wildlife" is about a 14-year-old old boy, Joe Brinson, who has recently moved with his parents to a small town in Montana. He hasn't yet made friends, and he's looking to his parents for a sense of home and stability. But his father, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, loses his job and his sense of purpose. The mother, played by Carey Mulligan, takes a part-time job to help make ends meet.

Meanwhile, it's wildfire season, and the father decides to join the men fighting the fire, which leaves his wife and son to fend for themselves during the indeterminate period he'll be gone, and that changes everything. Just as fires can get out of control, so can people's lives. Here's the scene in which Joe Brinson comes home from school to find his father breaking the news to his mother that he's leaving them to fight the wildfires.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WILDLIFE")

ED OXENBOULD: (As Joe Brinson) Sorry I'm late.

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Talk to your father. Tell him not to act like a fool.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) I am not being foolish. I put my name on a list. I waited for my chance. And now they finally have a place for me.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) You don't know anything about fires. You'll get burned up.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) Well, I've been reading about them. I know enough.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) You've been reading about them? You've been studying up?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) Don't turn my words on me, Jean.

OXENBOULD: (As Joe Brinson) Dad, what's going on?

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Your father is leaving us to go and fight those wildfires.

OXENBOULD: (As Joe Brinson) What? Dad, why?

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Answer him, Jerry. You won't take a job at a grocery store, but you'll go out with a bunch of deadbeats and risk getting killed.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) I have to go. They're going to leave...

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) What does it pay?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) What?

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) What does it pay?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) Dollar an hour.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Oh, my God. Jerry. Listen; you don't have to do this. I'm working now.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) But it won't be for long.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) What if - not if you get yourself killed.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) It's going to snow. The fire's going to go out. They're going to...

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) What if it doesn't?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) ...Send everybody home.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) What if it never snows at all?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) Joe, what do you think? Is this a bad idea?

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Oh, my God. Don't ask him. He'll approve of anything you do.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) He's almost grown. He has a say in what happens in this family.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) All right. I'll be glad when your father gets burned up and you never see him again (ph).

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) What? Don't say that, Jean.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) You can't keep running every time something doesn't go your way.

OXENBOULD: (As Joe Brinson) Dad, please.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Jerry Brinson) All right. You don't know what I'm doing.

MULLIGAN: (As Jeanette Brinson) Don't I? I'm a grown woman, Jerry. Why don't you act like a grown man?

GROSS: Paul Dano, congratulations on making this film, and welcome to FRESH AIR. So this film is adapted from a Richard Ford novel that, like your movie, is called "Wildlife." How did you first find the novel, and why did you fall in love with it?

PAUL DANO: I was a fan of Richard Ford's. I had just read a book called "Rock Springs," which is a beautiful collection of short stories, and I went to the bookstore in Brooklyn called BookCourt, which is which is now closed, looking for another book of his, opened up "Wildlife" and honestly from the first sentence - even the first paragraph remains probably one of my favorite in any book ever. So I was sort of immediately in just as a reader - I mean, not I'm going to make a film but, wow, this book is for me.

GROSS: Would you read the first paragraph from the novel, which we happen to have sitting on the table here?

DANO: Sure. (Reading) In the fall of 1960, when I was 16 and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him. This was in Great Falls, Mont., at the time of the Gypsy Basin oil boom, and my father had brought us there in the spring of that year from Lewiston, Idaho, in the belief that people, small people like him, were making money in Montana or soon would be. And he wanted a piece of that good luck before all of it collapsed and was gone in the wind.

GROSS: Thank you (laughter).

DANO: I mean, the language is so...

GROSS: I'm a big Richard Ford fan and...

DANO: ...Beautiful.

GROSS: Yes, I agree. So tell us more about what you related to in the story. There's the writing, which is beautiful...

DANO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...But you were adapting the story. So what was it about the story that spoke to you?

DANO: So even about 20 pages into the book, there's a paragraph about a kid watching his mom teach swim class and thinking that everybody around her thinks, oh, there's a woman with a good smile or there's a woman with a good figure or there's a woman who's happy, and he knew something was wrong at home. And at that point, my heart sort of leaped, and I was like, wow, this is - as great writing can do or a great song or whatever it is. It felt like it's for you in some way and that - I just remember I moved to a new town when I was 14. Your home is sort of the edge of the world when you move somewhere new because you don't know what's outside of it. You don't have friends yet. You know, school is not yet a release. It's sort of scary to go there for the first time. And so we grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. I'm really close with my family - maybe too close. And I remember when my parents started having, you know, struggles in their relationship, sort of what a profound and I guess difficult moment that was for me. So this book sort of reflected back to me how family is one of the greatest loves in our life. And because of that, it's also sometimes one of the greatest sources of struggle in our life. And he was able to capture that with compassion.

GROSS: In the clip that we just heard, the parents are fighting, and one of them says to the teenage boy, what do you think, Joe? (Laughter) I'm like, how awkward is that, asking a teenage boy to weigh in on the battle between his parents? Were you in that position?

DANO: Well, I think so, and I think that's something I related to in this character. I think somebody else might have wanted to make a film about a kid who rebels - right? - or something from their youth that - for me, I remember sort of standing in the middle feeling the ground shake and not wanting things to tip. So Joe and I have something in common. And Richard Ford and I have something in common in that regard. I was somebody who wanted to keep things together, so if something like that had been posed to me, you know, I wouldn't have said, you know, I'm out of here and, like, whatever. You know, I would've tried to actually understand what was going on and can I help?

GROSS: Did your parents separate?

DANO: Well, my parents have an interesting situation, which is they separated. They, like the end of this book strangely, which is not the end of the film, have resumed living together a few years ago. They never got officially divorced, but we did not always live together (laughter).

GROSS: You were 14 when your parents separated. The character in "Wildlife" is 16 in the novel...

DANO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...But he's 14 in the movie. Did you make him 14 in the movie because that was your age when your parents separated?

DANO: I made him 14 because that's when I moved to a new town as the Brinson family does in the film, and that felt like where I was emotionally connected to a time in my life. I wouldn't say that's officially when my parents separated. I think it was actually previous to that there was some ins and outs in the relationship. So for me, that was, like, spiritually the right age to sort of put myself into this story.

GROSS: Another kind of theme in the book is that this 14 or 16-year-old boy is getting different narratives from his mother and his father as they're going through this turbulent period of their marriage. And he has to decide who's right, who to believe. And that's really tricky when you love both your parents and they're telling you different stories about what your future is going to be like. Is that something that you relate to also?

DANO: Absolutely. And that actually - you've now reminded me of probably my - the most exciting first hit I got on the book was this feeling of the mystery of who our parents are. Do you know when you suddenly realize, like, they had a past life or that they have problems or that they're real people, you know, and sort of seeing them as whole people, which means they're flawed people - that was exciting to me. I sort of had to get to know Jerry and Jeanette better probably as a means of understanding my own experience maybe being put in the middle as you say. But especially Jeanette - I was like, this woman is so complicated and mysterious and...

GROSS: And sexual...

DANO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Which is I think also really difficult for the teenager to deal with, especially because she kind of includes him in a seduction that she's doing.

DANO: Yes. And I - how I feel about that is this woman has probably been a good mother for 14 years and a good wife. And I think the dad has tried in his way, and I think they've done their best in many ways. But suddenly, like, one day the rug is pulled out from under you. The charade is up. And it's just like this kid is sort of being kicked out into the wild, right? You know, it's like, OK, time's up. This is - welcome to the real world.

GROSS: So you directly asked Richard Ford for rights to adapt his novel "Wildlife" into a movie, and he wrote back to you and the letter he wrote back is included or at least excerpted in the press kit for your movie. I'd like you to read that letter. It's a great letter.

DANO: (Reading) I'm grateful to you for your interest in my book, but I should also say this in hopes of actually encouraging you. My book is my book. Your picture, were you to make it, is your picture. Your moviemaker's fidelity to my novel is of no great concern to me. Establish your own values, means, goal. Leave the book behind so it doesn't get in the way.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. So was that liberating to read that? Like, the writer of the book was saying, do your thing? I'm OK.

DANO: I could not have written something better myself that you would want somebody like that to say to you. I was shocked and moved. It is an incredible bit of wisdom and permission. So considering how much I admire his writing in general and especially how much this book moved me and how much it meant to me, to have that sense of permission was incredibly important.

GROSS: Were there lines from the book that you wanted to make sure were in the movie? And there's no voiceover. So it - all the lines are dialogue.

DANO: That's right. So the book is first person and actually looking back on the event - very tempting to use voiceover, especially because the language is so beautiful. We sort of set a challenge for ourselves immediately. Like, let's try not to use - let's see if we can do it without voiceover. Let's try to make this present tense. And let's put it all into the experience of witnessing this through the boy.

Let's start in the Eden of childhood, you know, with sort of the opening image and slowly peel back the layers of this portrait. So that was the goal. And there are lines that I felt like had to be in the film that probably are not now. Do you know? - because it just keeps growing.

And that's one of the most beautiful things I experience in making a first film, is the growth, meaning writing the script and putting so much work into the script, honestly, for a few years because you just - as an actor, believing that the foundation is kind of what we all stand from, you know, and jump off of, and then suddenly bringing actors into it who are asking you questions, who are bringing subtext that you might not have even thought of. An emotion passes through them, and it fills out something.

And suddenly you don't need that line that you thought was the essence of the film or something. You know, in fact, there is a line that's cut from the film that I think is really important, which is Warren - the character named Warren Miller, played by Bill Camp, says to the kid, Joe, sometimes you have to do the wrong thing to prove that you're alive. For me, that line just bowled me over when I read it. And I couldn't wait to put it in the film. And in the edit room, we didn't need it.

GROSS: Interesting because it kind of says that.

DANO: Well, yeah. I probably shouldn't even say it now (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Do you have a lot more anxiety as a director than you do as an actor?

DANO: It's such a different kind of anxiety.

GROSS: Tell me about the difference.

DANO: Well...

GROSS: Is one a migraine and one a stomachache (laughter)?

DANO: I think that, for me, acting is just a bit more lonely because you do so much of the work on your own. And then you arrive kind of hopefully full, so to speak. And then you're with your scene partners and your director and - but directing is so collaborative. It's more like, you know, playing in an orchestra or something, and maybe you're one of the - you know, you're the leader, maybe. And I don't mean that arrogantly. I just mean that's the job.

GROSS: It's your job. Yeah.

DANO: And, honestly, one of the hard things for me was that I didn't have any alone time because I'm quite used to that. Somebody is always asking you a question. Somebody - you have to make a million decisions a day. But I loved that feeling of collaboration with every little bit of the crew and sort of just helping to create, like, a space where we could all kind of go to work together. And you're almost, like, parenting. Like, you're just trying to get the best out of everybody. And I found that really gratifying.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Dano, who you probably know as an actor from films like "There Will Be Blood," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Love And Mercy." Now, he's directed his first film. It's an adaptation of the Richard Ford novel "Wildlife." The movie's called "Wildlife" too. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET'S "MIGRATIONS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Dano, a great actor whose films include "There Will Be Blood," "Love And Mercy," "Little Miss Sunshine." He's in a new Showtime series called "Escape at Dannemora." And he's directed his first feature film, and it's called "Wildlife." It's adapted from a Richard Ford novel of the same name.

Let's talk about your acting. And let's start with "There Will Be Blood." You gave such an amazing performance in this. You're a teen evangelical preacher in a small, poor town in Southern California - turn of the 20th century - during the early days when they're discovering that there's oil there. And there's an oil man played by Daniel Day-Lewis who's a bit of a con man and also a incredible capitalist who comes to town and wants to get as much of the oil there as possible.

You want some money from oil. And you and he become antagonists. And in one scene - the scene we're going to hear - he's basically told by one landowner that he'll sign over the oil rights to Daniel Day-Lewis if Daniel Day-Lewis agrees to be baptized by you in your makeshift church. So this is the scene where you're baptizing him.

And I should just say, parenthetically, that the Daniel Day-Lewis character - earlier in the film, he's taken in a boy whose father was in - was killed in a mining accident. And then, when the boy goes deaf as a result of another oil accident, Daniel Day-Lewis sends him away to a school. OK. So here's the scene with my guest Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THERE WILL BE BLOOD")

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) We have a sinner with us here who wishes for salvation. Daniel, are you a sinner?

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) Yes.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Oh, the Lord can't hear you, Daniel. Say it to Him. Go ahead and speak to Him. It's all right.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) Yes.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Down on your knees and do it. Look up into the sky and say it.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) What do you want me to say?

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Daniel, you've come here. And you've brought good and wealth. But you have also brought your bad habits as a backslider. You've lusted after women. And you have abandoned your child, your child that you raised. You have abandoned all because he was sick, and you have sinned. So say it now. I am a sinner.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I'm a sinner.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Say it louder. I am a sinner.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I'm a sinner.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Louder, Daniel - I am a sinner.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I am a sinner.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) I am sorry, Lord.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I am sorry, Lord.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) I want the blood.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) Want the blood.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) You have abandoned your child.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I have abandoned my child.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) I will never backslide.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I will never backslide.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) I was lost, but now I am found.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I was lost, but now I'm found.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) I have abandoned my child. Say it. Say it.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I abandoned my child.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Say it louder. Say it louder.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) I've abandoned my child. I've abandoned my child. I've abandoned my boy.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) You'll beg for the blood.

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) Give me the blood, Eli. Let me get out of here. Give me the blood, Lord, and let me get away.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) Yes, I do.

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Get out of here, devil - out, devil - out, sin. Do you accept the Church of the Third Revelation as your spiritual guide?

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAPS, CROSSTALK)

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Get out of here. Get out of here. Get out of here.

(CROSSTALK)

DANO: (As Eli Sunday) Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?

DAY-LEWIS: (As Daniel Plainview) Yes, I do.

GROSS: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis in a scene from the 2007 film "There Will Be Blood." I should mention the slapping sounds that you're hearing at the end of that scene, that's Paul Dano's character, like, (laughter) slapping the devil out of Daniel Day-Lewis, also getting even with Daniel Day-Lewis, who has beaten him up earlier in the film. That scene, it's almost like this incredible operatic duet. Did you think of it that way when you were making it?

DANO: It was sort of intense just to hear that. You know, that...

GROSS: Yeah.

DANO: It's been some time for me. I was sort of cast at the last minute in this. And I started about four days after I was cast in this part.

GROSS: You were initially cast as the preacher's brother.

DANO: Yeah.

GROSS: And then they moved you to be...

DANO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The teen preacher. Is that why those two characters became twins? Were they not twins before?

DANO: Yeah, they were just brothers.

GROSS: They were just brothers, but now that you were playing both roles - so they saw something in you where they wanted you to play the bigger part.

DANO: Yeah, I suppose so. But, you know, why....

GROSS: You suppose so (laughter).

DANO: (Laughter) I mean, sort of why I was going back there is - just listening to that clip, you know, gave me a feeling, which was I just remember the two days before I started spending sunup to sundown in that church alone, you know, Eli's church. And that was a really sort of beautiful couple days just sort of trying to learn the script and make contact with the character and in this empty church. I don't know why that's what I went back to.

GROSS: It was your idea to learn your part while sitting in the church.

DANO: Well, I was just suddenly on location. And I was like, what? OK. Day one is Monday. And OK, I'm just going to go to the church and learn my, you know, scenes. It's funny because that clip, too - quite a long scene. So that was a sort of scene we filmed for all day long. And I believe our first set-up was probably some kind of wider, maybe some kind of master shot. And I slapped Daniel, as you said, in the - towards the end of the scene.

And I think we were supposed to, once we get to that part, just stop, you know, because we're going to be shooting this all day. And I remember the first take forgetting and just slapping him many times. And as soon as we cut, I remembered that I was supposed to stop. And I went oh, God. And I think I had nicked his eye even. He had a little bit of red in his eye. And, you know, I was, oh, my God. What is that? And he just said, that's how you do it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DANO: You know? And I was like, OK.

GROSS: My guest is Paul Dano. He co-wrote and directed the new film adaptation of the Richard Ford novel "Wildlife." We'll talk more after a break and hear about what it's like to be beaten up in films, including in "There Will Be Blood." And Kevin Whitehead will review a new reissue of music Nino Rota composed for Federico Fellini movies. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with actor Paul Dano, who makes his directorial debut with the new film "Wildlife." It's adapted from Richard Ford's novel of the same name. Dano co-wrote the screenplay with his partner Zoe Kazan. He's best known for his roles as a teenager who's decided to stop talking in "Little Miss Sunshine," as a cruel overseer in "12 Years A Slave" and as a teenage preacher, a false prophet in "There Will Be Blood," which was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and also starred Daniel Day-Lewis as a speculator looking for oil who comes into conflict with Dano's character.

There were two scenes in "There Will Be Blood" where Daniel Day-Lewis' character beats you up. One of them is kind of like a baptism in oil, where he beats you up. And he pushes your head into, like, oil mud. And he beats you up pretty badly. And then, of course - spoiler - at the end of the film, he kind of beats you to death with a bowling pin.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you take a lot of abuse. There's actually - you've probably seen this. On YouTube, there's a whole, like, reel of you getting beaten up in different films, including "12 Years A Slave," "There Will Be Blood" - forgetting what else was in there.

But anyways, you've gotten beaten up a lot (laughter) in your movies. And in some of those, you scream as you're being beaten up. And you have different kinds. Talk about different kinds of screams...

DANO: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...For different circumstances 'cause you have, like, really high-pitched screams and, like, deeper screams and...

DANO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Louder and softer screams.

DANO: That's very funny. It's fun to build a character. And I think that you do ask yourself, where's the energy in this person's body? For example - right? - are their shoulders, you know, a little bit more back than mine? And then I think the same with the voice. You know, you ask yourself, does this person live in the front or the back or...

GROSS: Of the throat?

DANO: Yeah or the mouth or the - and, I mean, it's really small, subtle, you know, stuff. But you at least ask the questions and maybe try to, you know...

GROSS: Is one of the questions you ask, does this character stay strong or do they become weak when they're being beaten?

DANO: Sure. And are they - is there - are they enjoying this? Are they, you know, terrified? What's the...

GROSS: And how does that affect the scream?

DANO: Well, usually, at that point, you've tried to lay the groundwork so that when the moment comes, it comes the way it's meant to, you know. So I don't know that I would intellectualize, like - but certainly something I may think about is like, for example, one of the films you're talking about is "Prisoners," a film called "Prisoners." And, you know, that person was somebody who was traumatized and abused at a very young age. And I felt like his body was sort of frozen. You know, the way that you react when you're scared - your shoulders go up a little bit. You know, your neck gets a little tight. And so then, you know, carrying the history - because the body holds that information, your body does - you know, it's holding some of your history, your emotional life, and it does for all of us. And that is a part of the voice.

GROSS: You were directed at age 22 by one of the greatest directors of our time, Paul Thomas Anderson. Were there things you learned from him about directing, about how to work with actors that you've tried to carry through in the rest of your acting career and now in your first-time directorial effort?

DANO: Yeah. Paul, I think, has a lot of love. I think he loves his actors and his crew. He has an incredible eye for detail. I think it's definitely been important for me having - wanting to have been a filmmaker for a long time to have seen directors like this go to work, meaning to see them wait for the oil drip to be right even though time and money is, you know, burning. I remember one time in a costume fitting, you know, him noticing something in the stitching of the tie that nobody else would have noticed. You know, just sort of the focus, the care and the integrity. And it's also important when you see somebody like him able to enjoy their work and have a moment of fun probably too. But I absolutely loved working with him. And frankly, many of the directors I've worked with, I think the common theme is really hard work.

GROSS: Let's talk about your film, "Love & Mercy." And this is the story of Brian Wilson, most famous for The Beach Boys and, of course, for his solo albums. And in this film, there's two versions of Brian Wilson. There's the version you play when he's younger during the Beach Boys era. And then the version later in life when he's having serious mental health issues. And Brian Wilson in that part is played by John Cusack.

So I want to play a scene from "Love & Mercy." You've been in this scene writing "God Only Knows," a great song. And you play it for your father. And your father, who's played by Bill Camp in the movie, is an abusive control freak. He's very authoritarian with his sons and very hypercritical. And nothing's ever good enough for him. And so you're playing the song for him while he's sitting and looking very tense and smoking his pipe. So here's Paul Dano and Bill Camp in a scene from "Love & Mercy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE & MERCY")

DANO: (As Brian - Past) And God only knows what I'd be without you. And God only knows what I'd be without you. And the last verse repeats one more time. And the chorus will harmonize over and over at the end. It's still rough, I know, but it's getting there. It's right for Carl's voice. So do you like it, Dad? I mean, it'll get better. The vocals will counterpoint the backing track, real soulful.

BILL CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) Oh, you don't want my advice or my meddling.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) Well, just tell me what you think.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) How much use of me is there with your mom living on her own?

DANO: (As Brian - Past) Come on. We're still family.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) Families don't fire their own father.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) I don't want to start that argument again.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) I'm not arguing.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) If I say something now, you'll argue.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) Then don't say anything.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) Forget it.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) Forget what? Forget what?

DANO: (As Brian - Past) You don't like the song.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) I never said that.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) I can tell. Just say something.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) I would change the title. The Capris had a tune out called "God Only Knows" in '55, '54.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) Never mind that. Did you close your eyes like I asked you to? I think if you close your eyes, you can see a place where something's happening. It's like being blind, but because you're blind, you can see more. Don't you think it's a spiritual kind of thing?

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) I don't know what the hell you're talking about. I closed my eyes, didn't see a thing. I don't know. Maybe it could be something with the right arrangement.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) Well, yeah. I have French horns on it and flutes, tambourines, sleigh bells, piano, bass, real complex key shifts.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) Frankly, if you really want to know, I don't care for it. It's too wishy-washy. If you leave me, why leave me? Life will go on, why go on living? It's not like a Beach Boys song. Your brothers are going to hate it.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) It's a love song.

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) It's a suicide note.

DANO: (As Brian - Past) Didn't you just say it could be something with the right arrangement?

CAMP: (As Murry Wilson) Well, I gave it another thought, OK? And if you can't keep your voice down in my house, get out.

GROSS: So that's my guest, Paul Dano, and Bill Camp in a scene from "Love & Mercy" with Paul Dano as Brian Wilson and Bill Camp as his father, Murry Wilson. That's a really upsetting scene. I mean, "God Only Knows" is such a beautiful song. The fact that his father either can't hear that or doesn't want to hear that and that he's being so mean to such a musical genius is very upsetting. Anyways, you had to sing in a way that approximated, you know, Brian Wilson. And you're at the piano. Are you actually - I know you're doing the singing in that scene. Are you actually playing the chords?

DANO: Yeah. In that scene, that's just live, you know, playing and singing on camera. That's not done after the fact. You know, that was just in the scene.

GROSS: You used to be in a band called Mook, and you were a guitarist. Did you know how to play piano?

DANO: I could probably have formed a few chords but not really. And you know, frankly, learning this music for this film, "Love & Mercy," listening to it is probably one of the greatest joys I've ever had in my life, professionally or personally. I loved this music so much, you know, particularly "Pet Sounds" and "Smile." I don't know. Brian - for somebody who struggled so much, he had so much light in him and...

GROSS: You met him?

DANO: Yes. Yeah. And when he - when we talked about music, he still felt like a schoolboy about it. You know, he could be quite uncomfortable about most things, but if you were with him and got into music, you know, he really - but by light inside him, I mean, you know, he's really - he's giving a piece of himself to us. And I think he wanted to help people heal, which is such a - considering the struggles that he had and you just heard in this scene, you know, to want to give that through your music to somebody else who is experiencing - you know, is just such a beautiful generosity and gift. And yeah, listening to that scene now, it's, you know, not - it's not just upsetting because he's a musical genius. I mean, he's offering himself to his dad, you know?

GROSS: And rejected, totally rejected.

DANO: Yeah and unseen.

GROSS: The chord changes in "Love And Mercy" are so beautiful and so unpredictable. So did you have to learn those chords? Like, did you know how to play those chords, let alone the sequencing of them?

DANO: No. No, no, no. And I really started from basics, and that was just so beautiful to have the piano opened up to me through Brian because the voicings.

GROSS: Did he teach you the chords?

DANO: Not Brian. A guy named Darian, who's in his band...

GROSS: OK.

DANO: ...Helped me out and, you know, just started practicing day by day and same with doing vocal exercises, you know? And that's a really nice routine for somebody preparing for something - let's say, let me do 30 minutes a day of singing at first and this amount in piano and slowly, you know, learn your chops, sort of build them up, get comfy. But the other really fascinating thing about learning through - piano through Brian is his left hand, the bass notes - really incredible, and that's really what changes the chord often. He's not always, you know, emphasizing the root note, which you would - so if you're playing a G - you know, G, he's often emphasizing a different note in the voicing, and that changes the entire sound of the chord.

And it's actually something that I believe Paul McCartney got from listening to The Beach Boys and started doing as a bass player, which was kind of quite revolutionary at the time. So for him, in the Beatles music, to not, you know, necessarily be landing on the root note - really, it changes the feeling behind the chord. And so I learned so much, and I miss it. You know, listening to that - I don't listen to them often because it really sends a chill through me, and, you know, I do miss listening to his music.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Paul Dano who is now also director Paul Dano. His directing debut is an adaptation of the Richard Ford novel, "Wildlife," and the movie is also called "Wildlife." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Dano, who starred with Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood." He played Brian Wilson in the film "Love & Mercy." He played a teenage boy who was kind of sullen and has taken a vow of silence in "Little Miss Sunshine." He's in the new Showtime series - he stars in that - "Escape At Dannemora." And he's directed his first film. It's called "Wildlife," and it's adapted from a Richard Ford novel of the same name.

So you started acting in community theater when you were how old?

DANO: I mean, it started in school before that, and then we moved from Manhattan to Connecticut in third grade and probably shortly after that.

GROSS: OK. At what point did you know you wanted to do this professionally?

DANO: Because I started young, I knew I did not want to go to conservatory after high school.

GROSS: Why did you know that?

DANO: Because the young acting world - it can be a little - I think there were things that I was aware of that I felt like, I don't know if that's the healthiest.

GROSS: What? Like, money, celebrity...

DANO: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Being in a bubble.

DANO: Exactly. Yeah. And I think I always needed the other part of my life, which we - which I don't often talk about because it's not what, really, somebody is interested in, but like friends and music or like basketball. You know, like, that's an important balance point, you know, to who I am. So I used to want to be around all actors. It's the simplest way to put it because I would - that was already a big part of my life. So I went to college as an English major, basically, to kind of double check, like hey, let's make sure that you're just - you know, the train's already moving. I needed to know I could get off, so to speak.

I had already done a film called "L.I.E." when I was 16. It did well for an independent film. I was lucky to have an agent, you know, and to sort of have one little foot in the door, but I needed to know that it was me and my choice. Sort of studying something else, being a deluded poet for a moment or, you know, reading the great Russian novels or whatever kind of helped me, you know, go, OK, you know what? Actually, I miss, you know, that, and I like it, and I want to do it. And frankly, it was getting the part in a film called "The Ballad Of Jack And Rose" when I was 18 - we filmed it when I was 19 - that Daniel Day-Lewis is in.

And that was the first time on film I got to play a character that was not like myself, so to speak. I had just done a couple parts where I was, like, a dorky guy with glasses, which I, you know, sort of am in real life. And I felt like, I don't - that's not acting to me. Like, I don't want to just be a version of myself. And I was worried because I didn't know yet that you had a choice to say yes or no to a part. And getting somebody believing in me to play this part in "The Ballad Of Jack And Rose" made me go, oh, I can be an actor. Like, this is what I want.

GROSS: So I was reading an interview with your partner, Zoe Kazan. And congratulations, you both have a little baby now.

DANO: Thanks.

GROSS: And she was comparing some of the gender differences between her world as an actress and your world as an actor. So she said, 9 times out of 10 in a role, she has to cry and that you rarely have to cry and. That once, in an audition, she had to have a gun and be tough. And you've had a lot of auditions that have involved guns or being tough.

Are you ever, like, frustrated with the number of movies involving, like, guns and violence and...

DANO: Well, yeah, I am personally - you know, even as a viewer. And I've always myself chosen to look at it like - the why part of it. So you know, like, a film like "Prisoners" has violence, right? But I think that there's a sense of morality. I actually think it's conflicted. You know, your lead character is responding in a violent way, and I don't think it's looked upon, you know, with shiny eyes. That's - I think maybe it's OK. You know, I hope I'm not just justifying it. But, I mean, I try to look at things and go, what's the cost of this? You know, "12 Years A Slave" - there's a lot of violence, but this is, you know, a story that has value. And I'm also frankly, like, actually a little squeamish, even though I've done a lot of dark material. Emotionally, I don't respond well to just violence for violence's sake. You know, that's not my...

GROSS: So what does make you squeamish?

DANO: Well, blood, actually. And I think the older I get, the worse it is, actually. It's not like something where you become more - it actually becomes more uneasy for me, especially now being a parent - right? - like, seeing the first breath of life taken and to watch life expire so easily again and again, you know, on screen. I do think entertainment's OK, though, and I just think it's about how people handle it, right?

GROSS: So, you know, your partner, Zoe Kazan, just gave birth a couple of months ago. That's messy. Were you squeamish about that?

DANO: Well, I thought I would be, and I wasn't. And I loved it. I thought it was incredible. I mean, Zoe was doing a lot of hard work. And I thought it was absolutely incredible.

GROSS: Paul Dano, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. And congratulations on your new film.

DANO: Thank you.

GROSS: Paul Dano co-wrote and directed the new film adaptation of the Richard Ford novel "Wildlife."

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GROSS: After we take a short break, Kevin Whitehead will review a new reissue of music Nino Rota composed for Federico Fellini movies. This is FRESH AIR.

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