In Being Flynn, Robert De Niro does his best work in nearly two decades, but that’s not the only great performance in the new film. Based on the inventive, nonlinear memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by PEN Award-winning poet Nick Flynn, the film also stars the gifted young actor, Paul Dano, as De Niro’s son. Dano portrays a caseworker at a homeless shelter who encounters his father, a convicted con man and self-proclaimed writer who abandoned his family years ago.
De Niro’s Jonathan Flynn is alternately infuriating and heartbreaking. His portrayal–as an egomaniacal, homophobic racist in a fierce struggle to maintain his enormous pride even as he sinks deeper into mental illness, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, alcoholism, homelessness, aging and despair—is extraordinarily multilayered. De Niro delivers the same grit and fury which characterized his iconic roles. When Flynn, a cab driver, looks in a mirror and cries out, “I’m 28! Why do I look like this?,” there’s a touch of the insanity of Travis Bickle, gazing at his own reflection in Taxi Driver (“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”). The intervening years have only intensified the mire of disappointment and the exhaustion of battling demons.
He rages against his loss of dignity while sleeping on grates (“al fresco”), being bloodied after a beating and enduring the innumerable humiliations of homelessness. “I’d like a private room,” De Niro says without irony to Dano, upon checking in the shelter. Paul Weitz’s direction captures the hardcore poetry and grimy menace of the winter streets.
Emotions flicker subtly across Dano’s touching, boyish face: terror that he is destined to become his father; guilt that he may have caused the suicide of his mother (Julianne Moore) as his own drug use escalates; rage at the childhood abandonment by his father, alternating with a desire to rescue him, even get to know him, without being pulled under by the drowning man. “This is why you don’t become a writer,” Moore says to Dano in flashback, holding up his father’s mug shot.
A Wilton, Connecticut native who began acting at age 14, Dano won a Critics’ Choice award for Little Miss Sunshine and was nominated for a BAFTA award for There Will Be Blood. We sat down with Dano recently to discuss his career.
Dano was initially interested in acting as a teenager because “it was sort of like basketball to me. I loved basketball, and I also liked going to the theater. Even though I started young, I tried to keep my ambition in check, meaning just sort of making sure I went to a normal school, played sports and had friends. When I was 18 and in college, I had a moment where I thought, ‘I’m not going to fight this; I’m going to try to do this for real.’”
The first time Dano met De Niro was at De Niro’s apartment. “He opened the door and gave me a big bear hug. I was sort of immediately disarmed. He was very gracious and warm to me. Once we started filming, Bob never makes anything happen; he just lets it happen. He’s really good at trusting himself, and it just sort of spills out. He’s very alive in the moment and that trust in himself kind of rubs off on you in a good way when you’re doing a scene. You keep things really alive and pass the ball back and forth. That was a lot of fun. When we got on set, we didn’t have a lot of conversations that were off-topic; we’re both people who like to keep to ourselves on set.”
Dano has already worked with an array of major actors by consistently selecting quality projects. We asked him about some of those experiences, starting with Steve Carell on Little Miss Sunshine: “Steve is such a sweetie in real life, first of all. And then on camera–comedians are so fast, their instincts. Sometimes I think your intellect can get in your way as an actor or an artist. When you come from a world of improv and comedy, you’re able to let it flicker and fall out. I’m sure he thinks greatly about his work beforehand, but once you’re on camera, you want to let it rip and let it fly. It’s nice to see that, and see it done so successfully. He’s a really nice, normal, down-to-earth guy. He was funny on set but he’s not ‘on’ all the time.”
Daniel Day-Lewis won a Best Actor Oscar for There Will Be Blood, in which Dano played twin brothers. “He taught me that hard work pays off. Tenacity and perseverance,” said Dano. “You watch a guy like Daniel put so much into his work and you look at the result. You know there’s a lot of talented people out there and sometimes it’s about how hard you want to work and push yourself. He’s a fighter and that’s really inspiring to be around.”
With Harrison Ford on Cowboys & Aliens, “We got to hang out. We were on location and we had a great group; it was so fun to hang out with those actors, all of them. It was amazing to have some scenes with him. To be running away from explosions with Harrison Ford, you know, that’s pretty great. He’s quite a presence!”
In the existentialist Western Meek’s Cutoff, Dano acted opposite Michelle Williams: “The better the acting is, the harder it is to see what the process is. Michelle’s a good friend and an amazing actress. She’s a wonderful girl, an amazing mother and a very dedicated, hard-working actress. She’s not afraid to put herself out there.”
In Meek’s Cutoff, Dano’s wife was played by his real-life girlfriend, Zoe Kazan (”It was great, living in a motel in a little town in Oregon.”). The couple lives in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. “I love Brooklyn; it’s a part of who you are,” said Dano. He likes hanging out at “neighborhood joints like Brucie, a great little Italian restaurant, and my local bookstore, Book Court,” where fellow Cobble Hill resident Nick Flynn has done readings. Nick Flynn’s wife, actress Lili Taylor, plays Dano’s co-worker in Being Flynn.
Kazan is the granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan (Brando’s “I could have been a contender” speech from Kazan’s On the Waterfront echoes through Jonathan Flynn’s own doomed illusions). The couple met four years ago, doing the play Things We Want.
Dano described the challenges of a grueling shoot like Being Flynn: “You have to shake it off at the end of the day. You go home and eat dinner and get ready for the next day and go to sleep. Acting is a very strange thing; your life kind of goes on hold. You disappear; you don’t see your friends. If you’re in a relationship, that can be hard for the other person. You’re gone 12-14 hours a day and on your one day off, you sleep all day. Usually it’s a cleansing process once it’s done. Then you get really depressed and sad and post-partum; you feel good and bad at the same time. Then you kind of have to reboot your system like a video game so you can do it again.”
Dano just wrapped his third project with Kazan, which also marks her screenwriting debut. “The working title is He Loves Me, but that will change. It’s the second directorial effort from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris [who directed Dano in Little Miss Sunshine], to be released later this year,” said Dano. The film, which also stars Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, is described by Dano as “a magic-realist romantic comedy drama.” He plays a writer again, “but he’s really different from [Nick]. He’s a young author with a hit novel at a young age and now he’s struggling to follow it up. He has a dream and he starts writing about the girl in the dream and falls in love with this character he’s writing. One day he wakes up and she’s in house. He doesn’t know if he’s going crazy or if she’s real. But he embarks on a relationship with her.”
For fun, he plays lead guitar in his band, Mook. “We don’t play often but we’re trying to keep it going a little bit, three of my best friends from high school. It’s great fun. We all write the songs; it’s really collaborative. They’re very good musicians.” They play in small New York rock clubs, including Mercury Lounge and Arlene’s Grocery. “Rockwood Music Hall is probably my favorite place to play,” said Dano. “We made an album and threw it up on iTunes and nobody really knows about it. One day we may try to get it out there.”
Dano played a rocker in For Ellen, which premiered at Sundance in January. “It’s a part I really loved, a hard rocker who goes to a small town to see his estranged wife to get money from her but he ends up meeting his daughter for the first time. He’s a bit of a selfish narcissist and meeting his little girl impacts him.” Though they’re both guitarists, his character, Joby, is “not much like me; he’s into different music and wears a red leather jacket and has tattoos and jewelry. He’s a delicious character.”
Being Flynn opens nationwide today.