Paul Dano has eked out a career for himself playing repressed, often strange characters, including his breakthrough as the willfully mute son in “Little Miss Sunshine.” His “Prisoners” turn may be his oddest yet: He plays a mysteriously remote young man who lives in an RV and may either be involved or know something about two girls who were kidnapped. He spends most of the film locked in an abandoned house, tortured to no end by one of the girls’ hothead fathers (Hugh Jackman).
It’s not immediately apparent what’s wrong with the character you play: Is he mentally slow, or is there some horrible trauma. How do you play that, and how do you play that without giving the ending away?
When you first read it he’s a bit of a mystery. How did a person end up like that? That’s the fun puzzle for me as an actor. I looked at him as a wounded animal. You don’t know what happened to him before the film begins, so you build a fully realized person, even though the audience may not learn everything about the character. You want the internal life to be as complete as possible. Every unspoken word is as important as each spoken word.
Your scenes with Hugh Jackman have an intensity to them that’s hard to take. What was it like filming those scenes?
Hugh is such a kind man, he’s such a good man. Trust is one of the biggest things, no matter what kind of film you’re making. We trusted each other and our director. Safety allows us to be more dangerous. There’s a part where Hugh puts a hammer in the wall right next to my head, after he destroyed a sink. The sink was planned, and we had done the scene a few times. On one take Hugh put the hammer next to my head, totally unplanned. And then my character fainted. That was a great moment that just happened.
Do you have a regular method for getting into and out of characters like this?
Honestly each time it’s different. Sometimes you need to stay with it. You have to figure it out each time. For this, I wasn’t filming every day, which actually made it harder, I think. We delude ourselves — that’s our job. When you’re in the middle of a scene you get lost. Sometimes when you finish a day, looking back on it it can feel like a fever dream.
Was it the subject matter or who was making it that drew you into the film?
The script was a page-turner, but then you have to know whose hands it’s going into. After watching Denis [Villeneuve]’s films, there’s a lot of humanity in his work, even though it’s dark. I knew we were making a film that explores what real violence is like. You feel empathy for a character then question what they’re doing, or you feel anger for a character, then sympathy for them.
On the other Steve McQueen:
Dano also has a small but key role in “12 Years a Slave,” director Steve McQueen’s forthcoming adaptation of the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and enslaved in the mid-19th century. It gave him a chance to work put McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) on his list of great directors he’s worked with (including Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater, Ang Lee and Kelly Reichardt). “We all had a hunch [McQueen] would make a film about slavery in America that hasn’t been made before. That’s exciting to me as an actor and as an audience member,” Dano says. Not that he was immediately thrilled to play one of the film’s most hissable characters: a slave driver who hurls epithets and whips at Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). But it was a good challenge. “With characters who act a certain way you may not agree with, you find this strange empathy,” he says. “Something made them that way. You’re able to get in there, get inside them. You have to have some care for the character, even though you don’t like them.”