I zoom with Paul Dano just before midnight my time, in the Philippines, ten in the morning his time, in New York. We both look gently disheveled at opposite ends of the day. I am jetlagged, and he has just started another day in “baby town,” after waking up every two hours of the night to tend to his newborn, who his partner, fellow writer and actor Zoe Kazan, had in October of this year. Their first child is only four years-old, thus the young parents have been especially conscious about work-life balance, taking longer intervals between all-consuming film projects and, in Dano’s case, engaging with other mediums he can invest himself in from home—also in October, he released the first issue of The Riddler: Year One, his limited comic series inspired by the backstory he created in preparation to play the eponymous villain in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. That his research for a role could be turned into a project on its own is a testament to how seriously Dano immerses himself into every performance.
Dano’s Riddler is less cartoonish than Jim Carrey’s broad interpretation of the same character, aka Edward Nygma, in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. Carrey’s Riddler, an antisocial tech company CEO donning a neon green onesie pocked with question marks, invents and mass distributes a kind of VR headset that jacks sounds and images right into the user’s brain, thus giving the Riddler access to customers’ memories, secrets, and information. Looking back at the setup, it presaged today’s exploitation and surveillance of metadata, of which Dano’s Riddler is a product. Resembling a too plugged-in, redpilled incel pushed over the edge, Edward Nashton (the more grounded real name of Dano’s Riddler) feels disturbingly possible—not a supervillain who is above the simple, blunt force of a hammer.
Although Carrey and Dano’s approach to the character, let alone their overall careers and acting styles, are obviously distinct from each other, when I ask him about formative actors and performances that he may have tried to recreate or imitate growing up he says, “The first thing I thought of when you said that actually is Jim Carrey, being obsessed with Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber. Even though that’s not the kind of work I do as a professional now.” Looking up at the ceiling with his mouth gently leaning on his fingers, the next actor he thinks of, inadvertently sticking to the Batman universe, is Jack Nicholson, specifically his role in Five Easy Pieces, which he acknowledges is a common touchstone for many actors. But even before the movies, the New York-born and based Dano says, “My first memory to do with acting is the feeling of when the lights go down and the curtains are about to open—that sense of anticipation of what’s about to happen.”
Enter Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, an autobiographical fiction about a boy growing up enraptured by the movies, which captures the wonder of formative first watches and experiences, and is currently enjoying a global theatrical release. Dano plays Burt Fabelman, the character inspired by Spielberg’s real father Arnold. Burt’s son, Sammy (Mateo Zoryan as a toddler, Gabriel LaBelle as a teen), like the real Spielberg, is changed forever by his first moviegoing experience, The Greatest Show on Earth—specifically the train wreck sequence, which he rushes to recreate with a toy train set and Super 8mm camera. For the rest of the duration, Sammy dreams of making it in the movies. “I did not have one lightning bolt moment the way that Steven did,” Dano tells me. Making his Broadway debut in Inherit the Wind when he was just 12 years-old, he joined the big leagues perhaps before he had to dream too long about making them. Before then he sang in school, did community theater, and got into a regional play.
On the subject of influential first watches, I think it relevant to tell Dano his performances in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood left a big impression on me growing up, particularly the latter. On the latter, I had not seen anything like his beguilingly and appropriately histrionic performance as the gangling preacher Eli Sunday, playing opposite Daniel Day-Lewis’s iconic oil baron Daniel Plainview. At the time, it was beyond even what I could imagine the craft could be. He seemed surprised by my saying this, and I could tell he felt I aged him—“Now I’m getting old. I remember when those came out and I was a youngish person—I was like the young guy. And now I’m talking to somebody who that was formative for in a different way.” When he ponders how he would first introduce his kids to seeing movies in a theater, he says with some hesitation, “Of course, we want to share with our kids the things we love. I think that’s one exciting part of parenting. There are many, but at the same time… our daughter’s only four. I don’t know if she knows what mommy and daddy do yet: And I don’t think we’re in any rush for her to understand that either.”
The Fabelmans opens with Burt explaining film projection to his son in great technical detail to make Sammy’s first movie theater experience and “the giant people on the screen” less horrifying. “Photographs move past the light really fast at 24 photos in every second,” Burt says. “In your brain, each photograph stays for about a fifteenth of a second. That’s called persistence of vision.” Burt’s technical excitement as a computer engineer doesn’t seem to calm his son, so Mitzi—Michelle Williams, who plays the character inspired by Spielberg’s mother, Leah—chimes in to save the day, “Movies are dreams, doll, that you’ll never forget.”
“I read a bunch of period engineering manuals,” shares Dano, “and about what was expected of a man at that time [the early 1950s]. The same words kept popping up—‘Decency, integrity, tenacity, perseverance.’ There was a very clear post-War ideal. There’s also a logic because, as an engineer, he’s a highly rational man. I think he’s somebody who tries to keep going forward even though he is stuck. I always thought about him as somebody who can fix almost anything. But what happens when he comes up against something he can’t fix, like marriage?”
It eventually becomes clear to the audience that Mitzi is having an affair with Burt’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), but it remains unclear how much, if at all, her husband knows. He keeps a lot of thoughts and feelings inside, exhibiting a familiar fatherly stoicism. “We’re talking about somebody who had immigrant parents coming out of the Depression, served in World War II, and was seeking the American dream as a company man of the highest order. There’s a very American man at the center of that character.” Although some of Burt’s intentions and emotions remain ambiguous, Dano had to know them for himself, “I try to be specific about the arc of the character in the script and how we keep layering and revealing. I had to figure out what he is choosing not to see, or not to know, or what he can’t accept. I think his dad sort of fell on the sword by the end of it for the sake of the family and to try to mitigate the damage.”
The director provided Dano with photographs and other materials that helped them answer these questions for themselves. “You’re always kind of poking around [the archive] and you take all those resources, and you study them, and try to put them into your body, somatize them in some way, shape, or form,” Dano says. Pre-vaccinations, Dano and Spielberg first met over Zoom. Dano had wrapped The Batman, and he and his partner Kazan had been using the free time to parent without a nanny and keep writing hours, or “living the best pandemic life we could.” Thinking back, he recalls, “From the first meeting, which I was really nervous about, he was very open, vulnerable, and emotionally intelligent, which opened the door for me to see he had a lot at stake here. I think his dad had only passed eight months before. As we got closer to filming, more memories would come to Steven. So the more we dug in, the more stuff there was coming out of him. In a way, the closer we got, the more contact with Arnold there was, too.”
But neither Dano nor Spielberg aimed to recreate an exact replica of Arnold. The father weighed more than Dano, for example, but Spielberg did not want him to put on weight. “I’m trying to let Burt lead the way,” Dano explained, “And so here I am, somebody in their late thirties looking at a [at the time] 74-year-old, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and trying to maintain some energy of his father; not maintain, just let it exist. How do I capture a life lived? How can I make audiences see and feel that life and person outside of the frame? But it’s important that it’s called The Fabelmans, so that the audience can meet it somewhere in between. If it was called the Spielbergs, I think it would divorce the audience from being a part of that family, bringing their own family to the table.” Spielberg gives Mitzi and Sammy scenes to express their thoughts and feelings in private, but Burt’s remain off-screen. Through the magic of Dano’s performance, though, his character seems to have an inner monologue that continues to develop whether or not he’s in the scene, and which is felt upon his return.
“I told Steven on our last night of filming that it would take me a few years yet to fully process that he asked me to play his father,” Dano admits. “There were times when I found it a heavy cloak to bear. I tried to give everything I had to it. But sometimes a really special experience needs a moment afterward. Also, I have a family, my wife works, and I have kids, so I can’t just be doing 12-hour production days all the time. It just wouldn’t serve them the best.” I ask Dano if he had made any inspiring film discoveries during his downtime, but downtime doesn’t seem to exist in baby town. He does mention inspiring discoveries elsewhere, though, in other mediums. “This year was really about writing this [The Riddler: Year One] comic for me; I did have a really wonderful time being a super dork about that medium. So reading a lot of comic books and graphic novels and detective fiction. That’s what I like about my job, that sometimes you center yourself around a little universe and learn about it. This fall, I just got a film called Dumb Money that’s about the GameStop, Robinhood, Wall Street thing. And that’s a world that I didn’t know a whole lot about. Now I’m still reading about the stuff that I found interesting.”
Despite The Fabelmans’ anchoring in the enclosed yet expansive world of the cinema, it’s not until we’re nearing our conversation’s end that Dano shares on one of his recent movie theater experiences—seeing Burt and family for the first time with an audience during its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “I will say that it is debilitatingly horrendous to watch yourself,” he says. “But I always have to see the film to get some closure, partially to see all the contributions of the people I worked with. It’s nice to be reminded that it’s more fun to laugh with other people laughing than alone on your couch. And Steven is not only one of the great filmmakers, period, but one of the great movie makers who makes movies for an audience. Whether it’s about dinosaurs, aliens, or whatever, there’s a sense of wonder that he captures—and I think he does that in this film through the Super 8mm camera.”
Photographed by Isaac Anthony
Styled by John Tan
Written by A.E. Hunt
Groomer: Amy Komorowski
Set Design: Elaine Winter
Photo Assistant: Ross Thomas
DP: Jake Moore
1st AC: Peter Harrison
Gaffer: Tony Mikhnevich
Color: Kevin Vacca