Paul Dano is not at home on the red carpet. Though he has walked them several times—including at the Oscars for his role in Little Miss Sunshine—the 24-year-old actor has yet to feel like himself in a tuxedo and a rented watch. “That’s not why you make a movie,” he says, sitting in a shy, hunched position on a Midtown pub balcony. He is so soft-spoken and slow with his words that it’s hard to imagine him screaming until his face was purple in There Will Be Blood. “I look at myself as a different person when doing those things, that’s how I have to look at it, or otherwise I wouldn’t be acting. Then it would be me up there in front of a camera, me getting my picture taken. My life is not a part of that.”
It’s a strange disconnect. Of course, as a young actor on the rise in Hollywood—Dano’s name tops casting directors' lists of serious, real-deal, brutally talented character actors—the Oscar rounds and the publicity junkets are a part of his life. Making appearances and doing the dance is what gets movies seen, and Dano knows it, otherwise he wouldn’t be sitting in a New York pub scarfing down french fries in between interviews on a day when he could be sleeping off a late night of shooting. “We wrapped last night,” he says, referring to The Extra Man, a film about a young playwright in which he stars opposite Katie Holmes and John C. Reilly. “And now I’m here, and I’d like to be in bed.”
Dano refuses to move to Hollywood—“I don’t see why I have to live there. At all.”
Dano is staying awake to promote Gigantic, an independent romantic comedy that opens today and co-stars the impossibly cute Zooey Deschanel. Dano plays a mattress salesman who wants to adopt a Chinese baby by himself, and ends up falling in love with a customer instead. It is the first time Dano has been the romantic lead, and it is not a role that seems like an obvious fit.
For one thing, if Dano wasn’t a working actor, he wouldn’t be a handsome waiter instead. He might be a busboy, or more likely, the disheveled nerd working behind the counter at a bookstore. He has a boyish face (he must get carded at bars) and wears smudged, iron-frame glasses and a haphazardly buttoned flannel—a sort of Harry Potter-meets Brooklyn library vibe. He is not classically handsome, or even quirky handsome—he comes off like a slacker brother, a loner neighbor, that deep-thinker in class who never talks. He lives in a downtown Brooklyn studio where he pores over books and listens to records when he’s not on set. He’s almost catatonically laid-back. And in the new world of celebrity, where aw-shucks babyfaces like Michael Cera and lumpy class clowns like Seth Rogen are Hollywood golden boys, Dano is perfectly set up to become the next idiosyncratic actor anointed most likely to succeed.
Dano grew up in Manhattan and started acting early on, making his Broadway debut at age 12 in Inherit the Wind alongside George C. Scott. Ethan Hawke handpicked him to star in his off-Broadway directing debut, 2007’s Things We Want, and he has now worked alongside Daniel Day-Lewis, Liev Schreiber, Brian Cox, Kevin Kline,Toni Collette, Gena Rowlands, and Angelina Jolie. Though much about Dano’s life seems normal—he refuses to move to Hollywood (“I don’t see why I have to live there. At all.”)—much about it seems just extraordinary enough to place him on the direct path to great things. His longtime girlfriend is not a model or a Gossip Girl, but rather Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan and a rising star in her own right, having gained acclaim in Revolutionary Road.
Dano’s is a résumé any actor could be proud of, and though he is trying to resist it, he is well on his way to many more red carpets and awards shows (call it “The Philip Seymour Hoffman character actor glory train”). Fortunately, he has had many examples of how to deal with the attention. “Katie Holmes handles that stuff very well,” he says of the celebrity machine. “I have a lot of respect for her now that I've worked with her because she was very mature and sort of graceful about it and didn't let it interfere with her work.”
And while Dano fans may not be ready to share his quiet talents with the larger world—the way Dylan fans mourned his going electric—they are soon going to have to get used to his new stardom, as will he. One can only hope he will accept his accolades with the grace and self-possession he has now.
“If you get too swept up in things, it’s really easy to forget what it's like to just be a person,” he says. “You have to just do what is going to make you happy and satisfied and what gets you off, so to speak.”
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.