Paul Dano is reaching new heights with this fall’s highly anticipated drama The Fablemans. The actor talks taking on the role of a father—both in Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film and in real life—the importance of character origin stories and exciting new projects ahead.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ERIC CHAKEEN
"I think that kind of openness and vulnerabilit y from your leader only invites you to be that open yourself—with each other and with your work." PAUL DANO
When you think of Paul Dano, you may not immediately picture him as a family man, but this fall, the actor proves otherwise. Starring alongside Michelle Williams, who plays his wife, Dano takes on the role of Burt Fabelman in this year’s highly anticipated drama The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical story loosely based on director Steven Spielberg’s childhood and how he fell in love with filmmaking, out Nov. 11.
“Burt is based on Steven’s father, Arnold, who, in his own right, was a brilliant computer engineer,” says Dano, who refers to the character as the grounding force to the storm represented by his on-screen wife, Mitzi (Williams), and son, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle). “I thought it was a really beautiful character because it really reminded me of a classic American man,” says Dano, whose own grandfather worked for Ford and Xerox after World War II. “It was a real sense of identity, no matter your heritage; before the computer people became entrepreneurs, being a company man was being the top dog,” he adds, noting that at the time the movie was set, the American dream was not only real, but possible. In the film, Mitzi and Burt are separating, and while his family is unraveling, Dano says, “he may not know how to fully process or articulate how he feels, even though I think he feels it somewhere.”
The biggest challenge, according to Dano, was playing a role based on a real person—and not just anyone. “I suppose the biggest challenge was being the container for Steven’s father and for Burt’s family.” The actor worked closely with Spielberg, who, in addition to directing, also produced and co-wrote the film with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. “It was clear that he wanted an interpretation and not an impersonation of him,” Dano says of Spielberg’s direction.
“Sometimes we’d talk about Burt or Arnold and sometimes we talked through the script,” Dano says of his chats with the auteur. Spielberg also gave him access to family videos and photos. “It was surreal to have this sort of intimacy, not just with Steven, but in a sense with this family through Steven and the materials.” A WWII veteran, Arnold Spielberg was interviewed about being a veteran, and also for his work in computers, giving Dano more information to inform his role. One of the most influential pieces of material, Dano explains, was an interview he found where Arnold says electronics were a way of life for him. “It was pretty incredible to have so many resources, and for it to also be about where do I meet Burt and Arnold and how are we interpreting this,” he notes, stating that The Fabelmans is definitely not a documentary, and therefore it was important to add his point of view to the character. But the weight of the role is not lost on the actor. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s Steven, one of the great film artists of all time, and capturing the spirit of his father was incredibly important to me.”
Dano says the way Spielberg put himself out there emotionally was inspiring to him. The director’s sisters were also regulars on set. “I think that kind of openness and vulnerability from your leader only invites you to be that open yourself—with each other and with your work,” he says. “Tony Kushner was also there every day. He’s one of the greatest writers in the world and just [having him] there for us on set along with his words—Michelle and I literally said what a gift, what a pleasure it is to work with language like this. We felt happy to be there. And we loved making this movie and the opportunity to make it and to work so closely with Steven, Tony and [producing partner] Kristie Macosko Krieger; it just felt like a really special experience.”
At the time of the interview, Dano was at home in Manhattan with his partner, actress Zoe Kazan, and their 4-year-old daughter. He says that shooting The Fabelmans was an experience that made him question what it means to be a long-term partner and a father, and to really look at those personal aspects. “This experience for me was beautiful; I haven’t gotten to do a lot of that,” he shares. “That’s a part of me that doesn’t go to work when I’m [working on something like] The Batman. My daughter is 4, so I haven’t been a parent for that long. But something has permanently changed in me [by being a parent], and that doesn’t mean I’m just going to play parents, but I think it affects who I am and what I am making as an artist,” he adds.
Dano started acting at a young age, first doing theater in school and then community plays that led to regional plays and, later, off-Broadway and Broadway productions. The natural progression led him to a career in acting, which he says, “made my heart sing.” When asked what he’d say to his daughter if she wanted to be in the entertainment industry as an actress or filmmaker, Dano says, “I fear the day. … I would like to think that I will encourage my child to [do what she loves], but I wouldn’t run toward that. … I would say, you know, when you’re 18, when you go to college, you get to decide what you’re going to do.”
In the film, the actor plays a father to Sammy (LaBelle), whom he developed a relationship with through phone calls before filming began. “That was important because we had long conversations in the car and just to be able to look over at him and already sort of know his face and [have already] developed some kind of bond just by talking about life, [it helped a lot],” he says.
It’s not unusual for Dano to want to get to know his castmates and the origin story of his characters. Earlier this year, he garnered praise for his role as The Riddler in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. In order to set the right tone for his role, Dano took extensive notes to inform his character, which later became a comic series, The Riddler: Year One, that he penned.” Whether it’s a backstory or journaling or research, or some sort of combo, I do that to get me to the script,” Dano says of how he forms the character’s story in his mind for any role. “So that you’re bringing a life that has been lived along with you… that might help build [for example] the body—how does that person stand or where do they hold their energy, and the way they might speak or use their voice or the way that their brain works, their point of view,” he adds. For Dano, it’s a way to fully realize the character and their subconscious, that, he notes, works alongside his own.
Stylist: Haidee Findlay-Levin, @haideefindlaylevin Hair: Junya Nakashima, @junyahair Makeup: KUMA, @kuma1206 Set Design: Mat Cullen, @matcullen Casting: Six Wolves, @sixwolvescasting PHOTOGRAPHED BY ERIC CHAKEEN
“The Batman turned into a unique situation because I ended up taking the backstory and the essence of it and turning it into a comic because [my notes were] sort of written with that language in mind... and I wanted that archetypal energy going into it,” he says of The Riddler: Year One, which he wrote and worked with Serbian artist Stevan Subic for the illustrations. “I feel like a kid; I think it’s the coolest thing,” he adds. The six-issue series is published by DC Comics, with the first edition on sale Oct. 25. “I don’t know that every backstory could be turned into a piece of art or something,” he says of needing to have roots to a character “to give me support.”
Up next, Dano has the Netflix film Spaceman, a sci-fi drama with Adam Sandler as the lead. “It’s with the Sand-man, who I love. I’m so glad I got to work with him and now I get the texts about basketball—I’m a huge basketball fan and so is he,” Dano says. “My friend Carey [Mulligan] is in it, the Sand-man goes to space and there’s a giant spider, and I’ll leave it at that,” he says.
Back home in New York, the actor is shooting Dumb Money, the buzzy film centered on the 2021 GameStop short squeeze phenomenon and what happened with the hedge funds versus Robinhood and Reddit. “Like Goliath and David,” he teases.
Dano—who has been in multiple films, on Broadway, nominated for an Emmy (for his role in Escape to Dannemora) and who can now add comic book writer to his résumé—previously wrote and directed a 2018 film, Wildlife, that was co-written by his partner, Kazan. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, without question,” he says. When asked which professional hat he enjoys wearing the most, he adds, “I can’t wait to make another film; I really loved it. I hope that in the next couple of years, I’ll try to make the next one.”