The list of actors who can go toe to toe with Daniel Day-Lewis is not terribly long, and one of them is a low-key 26-year-old named Paul Dano. You may have seen his award-winning film debut as an abused teen in L.I.E., his sly comic turn as the mute older brother in Little Miss Sunshine or his galvanizing performance as twins Paul and Eli Sunday opposite Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Dano disappears into the characters he plays, and he’s doing it again as explorer Meriwether Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) in the Broadway premiere of John Guare’s A Free Man of Color. Although he’s in demand on the big screen, Dano has made theater a priority since childhood. Good thing: He met his girlfriend, Angels in America star Zoe Kazan, when they co-starred off-Broadway in Things We Want three years ago. During a rehearsal break at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the soft-spoken Dano chatted with Broadway.com about his busy career.
So, you’re living every little boy’s dream as Meriwether Lewis, playing an explorer in a coonskin cap!
It does feel pretty bad-ass to put a knife and hatchet on my belt and pretend to go off into the wild.
And audiences get to learn more about a man they remember vaguely from history class.
People know one thing about him: that he was the first American to explore the western part of the United States. It took more than two years, traveling by boat, by foot, by horse. Before that, he lived and worked with Thomas Jefferson, one of the closest relationships a President has ever had with an employee. But after the expedition, I don’t think he ever fit back into society. He continued to sleep on the floor, he drank a lot and had troubles with money. He was deemed a hero, but he was a very troubled guy.
Your scene partners are Broadway legend John McMartin, who plays Jefferson, and Jeffrey Wright in the title role. What’s that been like?
John is just a lovely guy, and I can’t believe how good and how committed he is at his age . Our characters’ relationship has blossomed into something that I didn’t quite see on the page. And I have a couple of great scenes with Jeffrey; I’m a huge fan. You just try to be a bit of a sponge when you’re working with either of them.
You appeared on Broadway as a kid [in the 1996 revival of Inherit the Wind]. How did that happen?
I started doing community theater in Connecticut for fun; it was just another activity, like soccer or basketball. Someone saw me and asked me to do a regional play in Stamford, then somebody asked me to come to New York and audition. [Appearing onstage with] George C. Scott was pretty cool. I remember enough about that experience to wish I remembered more!
You were in the original Toronto production of Ragtime [as the Little Boy]. Why didn’t you come to Broadway with the show?
We were only supposed to be in Toronto for a short period of time and then we extended. I wanted to get back and play with my basketball team and see my sister, so I left the show early.
So, you knew Lea Michele [who played the Little Girl] back in the day.
Yeah, we were friends. I bumped into her parents not long ago on the street, but I haven’t seen her in years.
You've given amazing performances in There Will Be Blood and other films. Why is theater still important to you?
That’s how I started. It’s always a good swift kick in the butt to be in a rehearsal room with someone who’s really pushing you, and it’s a thrill to be on stage in front of an audience.
You’re in the premiere of this massive play, and your girlfriend [Zoe Kazan] just opened in Angels in America, which runs seven hours. Have you had any “my epic is more challenging than your epic” arguments?
Noooo. No way. Can’t do that [laughs]. We both went through a couple of weeks of intense rehearsals and shows, but we’re lucky that we have each other and can truly empathize with what the other is going through.
You’ve jumped from small movies like The Extra Man to big ones, like the forthcoming Cowboys & Aliens.
It’s great to mix it up. I had a great time on the Cowboys & Aliens movie. It’s got a lot of really good people—Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde. I had a fun part.
Are you a cowboy or an alien?
I’m a cowboy. They’re trying for Unforgiven meets Close Encounters. I think it’s going to be good.