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Paul Dano is Ready for His Next Mission

Paul Dano has done so much in a career that's spanned two decades, and he's just getting started. The star of "Little Miss Sunshine," "There Will Be Blood," "The Batman," "The Fabelmans," and so many more already appeared in Prime Video's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" this year and drops this week in Johan Renck's "Spaceman." In this daring sci-fi film, Dano voices a massive alien spider named Hanus by a cosmonaut played by Adam Sandler. Serving as a sort of guide into the far reaches of space and emotion, Dano nails the vocal challenge of a unique sort of two-hander, and it's just another interesting choice in his fascinating career. Calling into RogerEbert.com, we started by talking about my love for his directorial debut, 2018's "Wildlife." 

Will you write and direct again?

Yeah. I think writing is the hardest part. It takes me a while. And with acting—that’s what I’ve been doing—so it involves taking a break from that, which is what I’m doing now because my wife [Zoe Kazan] is in a play six days a week, and I’m at home with the two kids and writing. My dream is to try to make something in ’25. We’ll see if that comes to fruition. I’ve got a couple things that I’ve been writing, and I think they’re getting close to be able to do something with them. But, yes, I think I will. I hope I will.

How did you find the tone for Hanus? It’s almost a meditative vocal tone. How did you settle on it?

There was something about ... the spider has a mouth and teeth and all that, but he’s also kind of going through Jakub’s memories or feelings. He felt like a doula to me. Or a spirit guide. With his telepathic powers, it felt intuitive to think that if you can see so much that you only need to speak a certain amount or a certain way. I think another part was just playing with the language on the page, and the script. Feeling that out. What are the words telling me? What do they seem like to me? What do they sound like to me? I think if you’re going through this alone, emotional, existential crisis—it felt like I should be guiding him in the most intimate way possible.

When I talk to performers about themes in films, they commonly say that they have to play character first, but your role here is kind of an emotional extension of Adam’s. So do you focus more on the thematic purpose for your character more than the literal one?

Well, yeah, I do, but I think there’s value in both. I think it’s important to look at what the film is about, and what the piece is. What does your character mean to it? But I do agree that, at the end of the day, what is emotional or actionable usually comes from character, and that’s your sort of ultimate purpose. So I took Hanus at face value, meaning that he was this actual being who traveled all this time and space and galaxies and years. And his civilization was lost. And he saw a lone traveler headed back to the place he was going. I always sort of thought, ‘What does this guy need from Jakub?’ I think it ends up being some sort of human connection that is love because I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the beginning alone. They sort of have each other and a jar of Nutella. Whether the beginning is death or rebirth or whatever it is.

At what phase did you know what Hanus looked like?

It grew. Certainly, I didn’t have any fully rendered images. But the artists were wonderful, and super collaborative. I can’t remember if she was the lead designer, but we had a very long in-depth conversation about everything to do with Hanus—emotional, physical, philosophical. They were really impressive to me in their want to understand the character and try to build that into the way it looks and moves. Or the belief that if they arm themselves with that as they design that it goes in there somewhere. You hope you just kind of fill up with everything. You metabolize in some way. So I found they were doing the same thing. 

So I knew enough of what Hanus looked like and then there were different stages of post. I think I did a voice pass that was from the edit room. And then we did one with a helmet thing on for facial movements. And as they got into more of a locked-in cut, we would do final voice work. At that point, the creature was maybe there, and you could see exactly what he was doing. I would say that it was a very, very free way to work. If you’re just in a dark room alone, talking into a microphone, it’s a lot different than a room with 100 people and a camera rolling. There was something that was really fun about it.

Doesn’t that also require a lot of trust and confidence in your collaborators? When you sign onto something like “The Batman” or “The Fabelmans,” they’re kind of a known quantity. You have a good idea of what the final product will look like. But here you’re trusting your collaborators to go anywhere. There’s freedom but there’s also a little fear in that freedom isn’t there?

There is, but I do think that there’s one part of acting that’s kind of stranger to reckon with than as a writer/director. Your face is in it. So to actually be a spider, it’s just different. It just feels different. But this was also a film, I should say, on which everyone was taking that risk. It’s an ambitious film in how it’s telling its story, and what it’s trying to do. I really think that everybody was in that same boat, but I liked Johan’s work. And Adam—I grew up on his comedy albums. In middle school, that was the shit that friends and I would repeat to each other. He’s got a voice in my head. It’s something formative. So I was happy to take that risk with him.

How much did you actually get to work with him?

This began during the pandemic. So we started with Zoom rehearsals. It was actually a nice way into it because Adam, Johan, and I would just get together and read through the script. And start feeling it out. That was useful for me, and I know it was for Adam as well. Adam was working with a tennis ball and Johan had a friend who did some of the spider work [on-set] for him and Adam for his eyeline. He was really isolated on that ship. And then there were a bunch of stages of post work. I would love to work with Adam more. Everybody’s always said this and now I can too—he’s the best. He’s a wonderful person to be around.

There’s a line in the movie that hit me: “If I could do it again, I’d do it better.” What does that bring to mind in your life?

There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘So many things.’ But then there’s a part of me that thinks all my choices have brought me here, and I’m very lucky. I really like my family. I love my wife and my two kids. And I’m lucky I get to do what I do. I think I’m a little more superstitious about that—if you change one thing, it changes everything. I’m also sure that, on our deathbeds, we will be saying some versions of that line. You and I are still at an age where we can take the learning that regret has to offer and not let regret crush us. I remember reading a report from hospice nurses that the most common thing said is that no one wishes they had worked more. They usually wish they had spent more time with the people they love. That’s certainly applicable to “Spaceman.”

About life choices, do you watch your old work? If it’s on cable, what are you watching?

(Laughs.) NO. No. I think there’s probably things that are long enough ago now that I could get over myself and say, 'OK. You weren’t so bad.' I can probably feel OK about it. No. That is the funny thing about acting. And it’s not something I feel with writing or directing. Something about acting is different. It’s just a strange profession in that regard. No. Usually, I’m so tired that I just want to have a laugh, if anything. Then maybe read for a few moments after the laugh, and then just go to bed. (Laughs.)

What attracts you to a project nowadays? What’s the main draw to hook you?

Hopefully, the work meets you somewhere where you are in your life. For example, “The Fabelmans” was really important—to play a parent. 'OK, this is a different me now, going to work.' And even emotionally and thematically, entering different territory in my life. My guess is that it has to do with character and what part of myself I can get to work. I do feel like there’s a well-represented chapter [on film] of me in my twenties and thirties, and now it will feel different. And I think creating more of our own work, as well, is something that I’m interested in. Writing, directing, or helping to cultivate things. I’ve always been a film dork. I hope that I still get to work with some filmmakers who inspire me and make the stuff that I want to see.

One of the most memorable interviews of my life was with your wife two days after Election Day in 2016. It was an emotional interview and she spoke eloquently about the importance of art. The interview is titled “Art Cuts through Tyranny.” I would like to talk about the role of art in the state of the world eight years later. How important and valuable do you think art still is in this world?

For me, I suppose, I think I’ve always operated on the belief that if I make contact in something that's true in myself then it’s going to make contact with somebody else out there. I think that that can have an impact in many ways. It could just let you know you’re not alone. It could just be something that’s healing. It could just give you a laugh. Or it could help to reflect other parts of our world back to us, whether that’s political climate or hate or a certain kind of righteousness. I think that there needs to be mirrors held up that we can see ourselves and help, whether that’s promotion or a more objective point of view. 

The ways that we receive that seem to be changing with technology. I’d like to think [that] since art has been an important part of human culture for as long as we know—whether that’s a record of writing on the wall or actors and shaman in a village—I’d like to think that there will always be a place for it to do something. On a separate note, I think that there is value in entertainment, but I think the best entertainers are still giving a piece of themselves like Adam did on those comedy albums. It makes people happy.

"Spaceman" is in limited release now and on Netflix today, March 1st.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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