Consider the trajectory: Paul Dano auditioned to play evangelical Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood; was cast as Eli's twin, Paul; and then found himself thrust into both roles when the actor slated to play Eli dropped out. Eli is a significant role, and suddenly the 23-year-old Dano was co-starring opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in a major picture that has already won a host of awards and now has a Golden Globe nomination for best film drama. "It was a little terrifying and very wonderful," says the soft-spoken Connecticut native.
"In the beginning, I felt the twins should be very different from each other, but the more I thought about it, the less different I wanted to make them," he says. "The idea that Paul is the good brother and Eli the bad one doesn't quite work. Paul does sell out his family and, as an actor, I can't think of Eli as evil. I have to love him. The twins are both cut from the same cloth. Their demeanor and voice have to be the same, yet there are differences. But these differences have to come from within, and that's tricky. It's not a question of each brother wearing his watch on the opposite wrist. That's Hollywood thriller."
Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood is no thriller (Hollywood or otherwise); it's largely a character study. Set in turn-of-the-20th-century California during the petroleum boom (and spanning a few decades), it recounts the rise of Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) from struggling silver miner to oil tycoon. Throughout his journey, he's in conflict with evangelical preacher Eli, whom he abhors and distrusts. The feeling is mutual. Still, the two men have much in common, and in the end they're in emotional free-fall. "Eli wants what Plainview has: money and power," says Dano. "But religious power is especially dangerous because you want the congregation to worship you, to see you as God. It's an endless quest: larger congregations, travel, radio sermons. Eli is gifted, savvy, charismatic, and spiritually seductive. He loves words and the sound of his own voice. He's quite an actor. And like any actor, he has to believe what he's saying, but at the end of the day, he knows he's an actor. Yet I don't think he's 100 percent full of shit; I don't think he's 100 percent truthful either."
Dano researched fundamentalist preachers of the period. "Unlike contemporary Christian evangelicals, Eli can't just turn on the television to find role models," he points out. "He largely makes himself up as he goes along. This role is a major departure for me. There's the historical period, and there's the character—and neither is familiar. That's the challenge and the fun."
Despite his age, Dano has racked up impressive credits, including the Broadway revivals of Inherit the Wind, starring George C. Scott and Charles Durning, and A Month in the Country, opposite Helen Mirren. On film, he is perhaps best known as the Nietzsche follower in Little Miss Sunshine, for which he earned a Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for best young actor. He also worked previously with Day-Lewis in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, playing a young man who preys on the teenage daughter of Day-Lewis' character.
Having already performed with Day-Lewis served him well, he says, especially in a scene that has his character slap Plainview, a deed Dano administered gleefully. "It was great fun," Dano says. "On the first take, I wasn't supposed to slap him, but I did. Because I worked with Daniel before—though we weren't engaged on this level—I didn't have to worry about what he thought. That also helped because we didn't have much time to rehearse."
By the time he was 12, Dano was acting in children's theatre, regional theatre, and Off-Broadway, though he says it was mostly an after-school activity for him, not unlike soccer for other kids. Still, a manager took Dano under his wing, sending him out on auditions, one gig leading to another. Dano has never studied acting formally. Instead, he developed his instincts through on-the-job training and still doesn't have any one method for tackling a role. "The content of what you're doing defines your approach," he says. "And that varies with each production. But after I've spent time with a character, he enters my life in some way, and then I incorporate that into my performance."
Asked what he looks for in a project, Dano says great scripts and characters. "But because the theatre is an actor's medium, I may take a role I love even if I'm not crazy about the play," he says. "But because a film is a director's medium, trusting the director is the most important thing."
Dano is a busy man. While waiting for the release of a few new flicks, such as Where the Wild Things Are and Explicit Ills, he is completing his undergraduate degree at the New School in New York. As for his acting goal: "It's to get to a place where I can help get films made," he says. "It blows my mind what gets made with lots of money and then what doesn't get made at all. I'd like to work my way up the ladder so I'd have a say in it."