Paul Dano interview: Ruby Sparks, De Niro, Harrison Ford and milkshake
We chatted to Paul Dano about great new rom-com Ruby Sparks, working with Hollywood’s leading men, fame, relationships and more…
Warning: we've spoiler-tagged a couple of questions that touch upon the ending of Ruby Sparks.
“Where do you want me?” It’s a simple enquiry - there are a number of unoccupied chairs in this posh Kensington hotel room and I’m unsure which to take - but it’s one that Paul Dano repeats. “Where do you want me?” he tries it out, “What a question”. This is the first thing to understand about Dano: he pays attention to words.
We’re here to discuss Dano’s role in smart indie rom-com Ruby Sparks, the debut feature screenplay by actress Zoe Kazan (he’s not only her co-star but also her boyfriend) directed by Little Miss Sunshine’s Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton.
Dano is great as the film’s lead, Calvin, a young LA novelist suffering from writer’s block who magically writes his dream girl, Ruby, into existence. The picture itself is clever, neat, romantic, and as insightful a movie on relationships as I’ve seen in years.
I tell Dano as much, adding that though these interviews always tend to start with a “Congratulations on the film” prefix, it’s a relief to really mean it. He’s very polite, and receives the compliment humbly, though he’s probably heard something like it a million times in a thousand different posh hotels.
Dano speaks slowly, quietly, choosing his words deliberately. Unlike a number of actors his age, his interview approach isn’t to rattle off prepared spiels on hearing a trigger word, but to listen, consider, and rephrase, often leaving frightening pauses as he does so. The effect is somewhat unnerving but also satisfying, as if he’s communicating brand new, improvised thoughts only to you. That said, it’s worth remembering that he is an actor, and very good at his job…
Like all the best magic realism, sci-fi or fantasy stories, I felt that the premise in Ruby Sparks was really a way in to talking about something very real-world: identity and control in relationships. Is that your take on it?
I don’t know that I could say it any better than that. I actually love a good romantic comedy, but there’s a particular kind that I respond to - maybe as a guy you have a different response to them - and I feel like not that many like that get made, so one of the things that interested me was the chance to possibly make a romantic comedy like that.
I don’t know how much Zoe [Kazan, screenwriter and the actress who plays Ruby]… she gets inspired and she can work quickly, so I don’t know until she was revising the script how conscious certain things were, but for me it was imperative that the relationship and the characters be as real as possible so that the magical element of the film did not take over. I think part of that was also why we wanted to get Jon and Val [Faris and Dayton, Little Miss Sunshine directors] to do the film and luckily we did, because we thought that they would help us to balance that.
What would be on your list of great romantic comedies then?
I mean, I’m not saying our film is as good as these, but that this is sort of what we aspire to at least: Groundhog Day, Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo… we definitely looked at some of the older films, you know, Philadelphia Story, and Adam’s Rib and those kind of films. I’m probably leaving something out.
There was a nine-month period wasn’t there, between writing the script and shooting during which Jon and Val worked with you and Zoe. What changed about the film from the first draft of the script to the end of that nine months?
I would say nothing major, but it was just about refining it. Also, I think that it’s important for the writer and director to have a good hand-off, meaning it becomes the directors’ film, right? I mean, they’re the ones who shoot it and then they edit the final film and so on.
One thing that I loved about what Jon and Val did was I feel like they really put themselves in it. They are a couple and they really made it very personal for themselves, and so a lot of the questions they were asking in that period didn’t necessarily become changes but were just sort of a dialogue that triggered things for Zoe, you know. It was small things over the course of that nine months so nothing that stands out as major.
The script was fairly intact from the beginning then.
I think it was there, and it was just about making sure everything was perf- was in focus.
I felt very much that it was in focus, there’s just no fat to trim on the film.
Part of that process was making sure that… I think they just helped with that. By focus, you kind of get rid of… No, that’s good, ‘trimming fat’ is good [smiles].
There’s a scene towards the end of the film between you and Zoe that really stands out - the “you’re a genius” scene [In it, Calvin cruelly exploits his control over Ruby by instructing her to perform a series of humiliating actions including repetition of the words "You're a genius" and barking like a dog] Can you tell us how that scene came about?
I think that’s the scene that almost made Jon and Val want to do the film, I think they felt like they’d not really seen a scene like that much on film. That was towards the end of our shoot and we were doing… I don’t know how many takes it took because there were multiple set-ups, there were several angles, and it’s quite a long scene as well.
Did you rehearse it beforehand between the two of you or was there any improvisation?
No, what happened was that the scene was written, but there was looseness to the writing. What we did was, the commands that she [Ruby] performs were not written in the script, so Jon and Val came up with some, Zoe came up with some, and I came up with some and then we got together and they selected which ones made the most sense. It was interesting because I remember it sort of revealed something about each of us, what we would make the other person do. Then they created a routine essentially and we shot it and it was probably very challenging and exhausting, but also in the end I think we felt good about it.
So which command was yours?
Well, I don’t know if I want to say. I couldn’t get in touch with… for me, making her do something physical didn’t make sense, I think I would rather emotionally abuse the person [slight awkward laugh], as horrible as that sounds, so making her say something that she doesn’t want to say to me was the most painful thing to do to her. But I think some people think that the dog thing is the most degrading thing and I understand that as well.
The film’s titled Ruby Sparks, but it’s really about Calvin’s pathology isn’t it? His relationship and self-esteem issues, would you agree with that?
Yeah I think so. I mean, I think some of the themes and ideas in the film are about relationships, but you know, it’s only through Calvin’s journey that we sort of get to explore those ideas about how sometimes we have the idea of somebody and impose that on them and ask them to be that, and we’re not really seeing the whole thing. There’s that thing that if you want to have any kind of lasting love, I think you have to love the whole person and not just the parts of them that you choose.
The film talks about Calvin holding onto a Platonic ideal of a girlfriend rather than engaging with the real thing…
Yeah, and I think part of Calvin is that, you know that thing people say? If you don’t love yourself you can’t love somebody else properly? I think Calvin’s got a bit of that too. There’s almost some coming-of-age aspect to him because I think he’s almost in arrested development from being called a genius at eighteen, I think between the book and his ex-girlfriend and his father, something kind of stopped for him almost.
As someone who’s been in the public eye from a young age, is there any part of you that empathised with that part of him? The child-star aspect?
You know, I think I have empathy for it, but I think my experience is somewhat different. Calvin’s got to a place where he’s stopped producing and I haven’t felt that. What I related to is that the outside world for him, his literary world, is not just asking something of him and wanting something from him, but they’re also now partially determining what success is. Do you know what I mean?
I think so.
Like when you write your first book, it takes on its own life and it’s not even on purpose, you weren’t looking for that kind of success. And now, everyone wants to know what’s next, and they want it to be a masterpiece - for Calvin, I mean - and they want it to be another great American novel or something, and I think that’s really hard for people because then they start to consider external factors when making decisions.
It’s the film’s control theme recurring isn’t it?
The media wants a narrative, whether it’s a big success or a huge blow-out and failure…
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I remember… still I think, most actors when they get a project at the door, it’s how much can you just look at yourself and say ‘Does this inspire me, does this intrigue me, does it make me happy, is this challenging?’, or are you looking at it thinking ‘Oh boy, is this going to get good reviews or is this going to make a lot of money, or what are people going to think of me if I play a guy who’s dark or just happy, or this guy’s not tough enough, or…’ And then you worry about what people think about you, I think that’s sort of like what Calvin in some ways is worrying about, in terms of his success.
That certainly comes across in the film. I loved the dog idea, that all of his hopes for self-change are projected onto this disappointing dog…
Part of the film at least is a critique of the way Hollywood sometimes has a problem writing women who aren’t cipher characters, isn’t it? Was the term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ [a term coined by critic Nathan Rabin, who defines the archetype as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”] thrown around while the film was being made?
You know actually it was not while it was being made. I didn’t know what it was until our trailer came out, and then people started saying that about our film. Zoe knew what it was, but I didn’t. I can’t speak for Zoe on this issue of whether she was writing in response to that in any way but I do think again the film is talking about having the idea of somebody, and I think it’s interesting that, you know, actually for us, the media creates an idea of who we are and it may or may not really be right, in some way.
This ‘manic pixie dream girl’ term, when you label things you sometimes reduce it really just to one thing. I know that definitely the goal was that this imaginary perfect woman for Calvin is actually more real than him almost, she’s more of a fully grown three-dimensional person and definitely not a cipher or some kind of foil character or something, so I do think it speaks to what you’re talking about, I just can’t say if… You know, I think Zoe would naturally do that anyway because she’s a good writer and she knows how to write men and women so to me it seemed natural for her but I do think it’s reflective of something, yeah.
In terms of your work, can we expect a kind of Cassavetes/Rowlands, Allen/Farrow continuation from the Dano/Kazan collaboration…
[Smiles broadly] I don’t know, I think that Zoe and I will work together again, I don’t know that we’ll act together again anytime soon, just because this was such a big experience for us and an important one personally, so I think it’s best to let those characters be those characters for a while.
But I do think we’ll work together in some capacity and we sort of help each other all the time, we are collaborative naturally so I’m not sure. I think somehow we’ll find a way.
You’re both obviously film-lovers as well as working in the industry, in Ruby Sparks there are a number of allusions and references to other films, for the benefit of some of the less cine-literate amongst us, could you talk us through a couple?
There are some that are accidental too. Like, it just happens.
Subconsciously you mean?
Well, in that climactic scene you were talking about, at the end of it, did you notice something there when she’s laying on the ground after the genius scene? [I shake my head] Well, you see I don’t want to draw people’s attention to it.
Please, go on.
Well I mean I can tell you but I don’t know if I want to… Okay, the camera pans down her and it ends on her feet and she’s wearing red shoes, and the film… [he pauses and waits for me to finish his sentence]
The Red Shoes?
The Powell and Pressburger film, which is a stunning film, and that was not planned, Zoe just ended up wearing red shoes that day in wardrobe and the shot ended up just finding her shoes. Jonathan and Valerie did not do that on purpose, and Zoe did not put on red shoes on purpose and have them end the scene that way.
But you’re not unhappy about the coincidence? I mean, it’s serendipitous isn’t it, something like that?
I think that it’s nice that it was accidental and it’s interesting. Is there anything else? I mean, there are certainly things we were thinking about that I tried to throw in. Some little… you know, there’s a moment when I creep down the stairs and sort of hide behind this thing and look out… [he pauses and waits for me again; the interview’s become like a test].
The Jacques Tati moment?
Yeah, that was definitely trying to add in a Jacques Tati moment to our film, and then I step on the toy which was just an idea on set, like ‘What if I…?’
As a Tati fan then, did you have anything to do with the film’s great French pop soundtrack?
No. Speaking French was always in the film for Ruby and then in the edit room Jon and Val put the music in and we saw it and went, ‘Oh nice’. I think it works for the film in that I think that it’s nice when the music gives you the feeling but it’s not… when you can’t understand what the lyrics are, it’s not hitting it on the head too hard, at least in the US.
Sometimes I feel like songs in films are hard, you know, music says so much about a moment that it’s hard to find the balance of not saying too much, so I think it’s nice that you also can’t understand the words, for me that’s good. It gives it the feeling you want but it’s not hopefully too much.
I love what they did with the score though, I thought the score was so beautiful I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard it, I was so excited, and that they didn’t use all indie pop love songs and stuff, the score was so romantic to me and tragic and beautiful.
Talking about the romance, what’s your take on the film's ending? Calvin finds Ruby again, but is it her? Is it a new girl? She doesn’t remember him but other people will remember her won't they?
All I know is that, you know, whether he and that girl become friends or are romantically involved or never see each other again after that day hopefully Calvin’s just now open to the person sitting across from him.
Sticking with that, imagine a couple has gone to see the film on a date, what’s the conversation you’d like them to have about it in the car on the way home?
What I hope for the film, first, I just hope while you’re watching it that you have some kind of emotional response to it and you have fun watching it, but you also find yourself in it and involved with the characters so you have some kind of experience.
Then, what I like about the film is that afterwards if you do continue to talk about it, I do hope that there’s more to have a conversation about as well in terms of what the film is talking about in relationships, I think that’s nice if people do that. I honestly just want them to have some kind of response, to feel something and I do think it’s interesting for couples to watch together.
I’m a little nervous about watching it with my husband actually…
Yeah, you just kind of go, ‘Oh God’
It has a real truth to it doesn’t it, the whole thing about what you’d want to control or alter about the people you love. You say ‘No, I’d never do that’, thinking ‘Yes, yes, I probably would’.
I know. Yes. More than anything I want them to be surprised by the film.
If we can move on to your previous work for a moment. You’ve held your own against more or less all of Hollywood’s leading men, starring opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro… Would you say you took something from working with each of them? That they taught you something?
I hope so. Usually, it’s rarely the case that they literally taught me something, like sit you down and… I always feel like you get something and some of them I know what it is and some of them I don’t even know what it is.
How about De Niro [Dano co-starred with him in Being Flynn] for instance?
Well De Niro is… I really like working with him because he’s a no bullshit guy and very simple. I’m not a person who needs to chit-chat between takes by any means. And also, he’s not a good liar, he’s not a good… he won’t force something.
In film, we always have an opportunity to do another take and another, and so there are scenes in the film that we did together where like a wave would come, almost like a surfer on a wave and he would wait for the right wave. You know, I think sometimes you feel the pressure to deliver and I think that’s bad for acting, you have to actually be really open and not force things and just his sort of patience and trust in himself was… and then when it happened, you feel the difference when it just happens and that’s what you hope for, but to see somebody do it is always a good thing.
And Harrison Ford [with whom Dano co-starred in Cowboys & Aliens]?
[Pause] With somebody like Harrison Ford, they’re so commanding and confident and you know, he does have a certain power or charisma, and those are things that are sort of ineffable. I’m not sure how to put words to what I would have taken away from him.
I do remember we were running and then there was an explosion that I thought was fucking huge, and I’ve never really done that before, and I was like ‘Holy shit’, and he called cut and was like “It needs to be bigger”, and I was like ‘What?’ Somebody like him I think has a respect for the audience, like, he knows what you want to be feeling in the theatre when that explosion happens. I never would have thought it should be bigger, but he’s right, like, when you’re in the cinema you want to really feel that it’s bigger than life.
You’ve just finished on Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave?
I have. It was an intense subject matter but I actually had a wonderful time. During the day, we were in Louisiana in July and August in period clothes, it was probably the hottest I’ve ever been in my life in terms of the heat and my clothes, but Steve McQueen is just, I loved, loved working with him, he was such a wonderful director, and I think it’s a powerful story, and I think it could be a good film.
McQueen tends to work with actors again and again, so is that something you’d be open to?
I’d work with him again, in a [snaps fingers]. I really loved working with him.
Did you add Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender to your list of leading men co-stars?
No, but my scenes were with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Have you seen Cumberbatch’s Sherlock series for the BBC?
I have. I haven’t seen the second season yet, I saw the first though so I’m going to look it up when I get home… The first season was great.
The second’s good too, great finale. Speaking of Brits, how did Steve Coogan’s casting come about in Ruby Sparks? When did you first become aware of him?
I feel like he’s been on my radar for a long time. What was the first thing I’d have seen him in? It definitely wasn’t the Alan Partridge stuff, but we’ve certainly seen all that and it’s amazing. I believe it was before 24 Hour Party People, although that was one of the first things I saw him in a really big part so I’m not sure. I think he was the first person we thought of for that part.
Are you often recognised on the street?
Every now and then, I wouldn’t say too often but it happens.
Which film do they recognise you for?
I think probably There Will Be Blood the most…
Do people shout at you about milkshake?
Every now and then, yeah. I get Little Miss Sunshine sometimes, and then strangely, The Girl Next Door, which is a film I did when I was eighteen [about a high school student who falls in love with a former porn actress], I still get that, and I think somehow that movie on DVD found like a college audience, because I get college dudes coming up to me and saying like…
[Mortifyingly, I do a hang five sign, affect a slacker accent and say ‘Duuuude”]
[Laughing] Yeah, that, exactly.
So porn stars and milkshake?
Paul Dano, thank you very much!
Ruby Sparks comes out in the UK on Friday the 12th of October.
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