Guest of Honor

Paul Dano Delves into Brian Wilson’s Troubled Genius in ‘Love & Mercy’

The actor talks to Rico about trying to capture the brilliance and sadness in the early years of the legendary music figure, whom he portrays in the music biopic.

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Paul Dano attends the 'Youth' Photocall during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2015 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Actor Paul Dano is best known for gripping character roles in films like “Little Miss Sunshine,” in which he played the mute older brother. He was the scheming young preacher in “There Will Be Blood,”and a brutal slave overseer in “12 Years A Slave.”

His latest is a starring role in the biopic “Love & Mercy.” Dano portrays young Brian Wilson, the songwriting genius behind the Beach Boys, as he creates the classic albums “Pet Sounds” and “Smile”… while gradually becoming plagued by mental illness.

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Rico Gagliano: I think everyone’s a Beach Boys fan on some level, but before this film were you especially into them?

Paul Dano: I’ve had like a few different phases of Beach Boys. The first phase being, after Disney songs on a car ride to school, I think you get the early Beach Boys and the early Beatles.

Rico Gagliano: That’s true!

Paul Dano: I think a lot of kids get that — “Surfin’ USA” and that stuff. And then, in high school, when I started to play a little bit of music and really got into music, “Pet Sounds” was an album that —  it seemed like real musicians were like: [whispers reverently] “Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds.” And I remember not being sure about that. I mean, “Really? OK, ‘Pet Sounds.'”

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, it’s like, “The Beach Boys? Really?”

Paul Dano: And I did love it, but I didn’t know Brian’s story. I think I knew a bit of it; I knew that “Smile” was an album that didn’t get finished, I knew he was a troubled guy.  But I think my favorite thing about coming across this script was seeing that a guy who made music that made so many people smile — you know, there’s so much light in the music — had so much struggle and pain in his real life.  And I didn’t know that.

R to L: Graham Rogers, Brett Davern, Paul Dano,  Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, who play the Beach Boys in "Love and Mercy," appear with the real Brian Wilson. Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel
R to L: Graham Rogers, Brett Davern, Paul Dano, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, who play the Beach Boys in “Love & Mercy,” appear with the real Brian Wilson. Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel

Rico Gagliano: Well, that kind of leads nicely to my next question, which is: you read that script, you get offered the role… what scares you about it? It seems like a very scary role to take on.

Paul Dano: Yeah, I think everything scared me.

What’s funny about it is, I never thought I would play Brian Wilson. I never saw a — you know, nobody had ever said that to me. Every now and then, sometimes, you get, “You should play this person someday, or this person.”  Brian… it just never crossed my mind.

And knowing there are so many people out there who revere him, or idolize him, or who feel like they’ve been given a gift by him… that’s actually probably the biggest challenge you face, is trying to live up to something, or somebody else’s idea.

Rico Gagliano: “I’m going to fail America by messing this up.”

Paul Dano: Yeah.  And then, also, the trickiest thing is it was certainly not a performance I wanted to approach from a place of mimicry. Brian is such an honest and sort of special spirit.  I felt it was more important to get inside whatever that spirit means, or heart. That is what makes his music, and that is something that is ineffable. You sort of have to chase it around and, hopefully, discover it.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, trying to figure out what your motivation would be as an actor would be very hard.  Because you’re playing somebody who is touched by genius. He just hears voices in his head, literally, and music in his head, and just lays it down. It’s like magic. How do you portray him as a mortal human being?

Paul Dano: The way I sort of looked at it was that Brian… I just don’t think he ever built up the extra layer of skin a lot of us do to become adults, and sort of face the world. Some people say it seemed like he was a bit childlike, or had innocence. And I think that openness was what allowed him to access music that was bigger than himself, really.  But it makes the highs higher and the lows lower when you’re that open.  And I think that’s part of his genius as a musician. I think it’s also what made the world a hard place.

Rico Gagliano: That’s interesting. You open yourself up to the good stuff, and that means that the punishing stuff is going to hit you all the harder.

Paul Dano: Yeah.


Rico Gagliano: What does he think of the film? Has he seen it?

Paul Dano: Yeah, I think he really likes it. Brian is… what’ he’s thinking and feeling is what he’s going to say. He’s a pretty unfiltered guy. So, it was scary to see the movie sitting near him. Also because —

Rico Gagliano: Wait, is he the sort of person that would just burst out in the middle of it, and be like, “This is crap,” and just leave?

Paul Dano: I don’t think he would say, “This is crap.” I think he would get up and leave, possibly.  Possibly!

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel
Paul Dano as Brian Wilson ponders by a pool in “Love & Mercy.” Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel

Paul Dano: I think it would be hard for him to watch, you know? I mean, there’s tough stuff in there. It’s revisiting… I don’t want to use the word trauma, but…

Rico Gagliano: I’d use that word.

Paul Dano: …But for anybody, right?  A car accident, if you’ve been in a car accident, maybe watching a car accident might be hard. But the first time I saw the film with him, afterwards, we got out of the screening room and he went, “Well, that’s a really good movie!” Just totally sort of put it out there.  And I was like, “All right!” And he repeated it a couple times!

Rico Gagliano: You play and sing as Brian Wilson in several scenes. You are a musician. You’re in a band called Mook. What did you have to change, though, to “get” Brian Wilson? Or what did you maybe re-learn?

Paul Dano: Yeah. Well, I play the guitar a little bit but I — so, I learned some songs on the piano, which was super fun.  Because, I mean, some of them are hard, but the voicings are so beautiful.  And if that’s my homework, to sit down and try to learn the chords to “Surf’s Up?” I can’t imagine having a more fun research process.

And that’s what I would do every day before work, going to set. I would wake up, I’d sit down at the piano, I’d play a song, and that’s the thing that brought me closest to Brian.

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel
Paul Dano croons in a studio in “Love & Mercy.” Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel

Rico Gagliano: Did you find there was something technical that happens in those songs that you hadn’t noticed before that maybe helps explain… You know, Lamont Dozier was on our show, who wrote a lot of great Motown songs. And I asked him if there’s some sort of magical, mystical chord change that just always results in a hit or something.

Paul Dano: Well the early songs, definitely, they had a thing. But I’d say “Pet Sounds,” man… it’s still revealing itself to me.

I mean, one interesting thing about his piano playing is he played bass in the Beach Boys early on.  He wrote on the piano, but he played bass live.  And his left hand work on the piano is really impressive — like the bass lines in the left hand. He’s doing really cool stuff.

What’s amazing is the songs go down so smooth in your ear.  But you don’t realize what he’s doing in terms of chord change, or a bass clarinet, or a timpani, or a whatever.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, there’s everything but the kitchen sink in these songs, but they don’t sound like a cacophony.

Paul Dano: Exactly, and that’s kind of the peak of art, that you could do something that nobody’s done before, but it just goes right down.

Rico Gagliano: Tastes like candy.

Paul Dano: Yeah.

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel
Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel

Rico Gagliano: We have two questions that we ask everyone on the show. The first is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?

Paul Dano: Ooh

Rico Gagliano: I can tell you what you said last time you were on the show.

Paul Dano: Oh, really? I’d be curious.

Rico Gagliano: You said that you didn’t like being asked what led you to become an actor. And you hated it because you didn’t know.

Paul Dano: Really? That’s so interesting.

Rico Gagliano: Do you know now?

Paul Dano: What I realized, actually, doing this film, was that I think I got into acting because of singing. Because I think singing in school led to doing school plays and musicals, which led to me doing musicals and plays in New York theater.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, wow.

Paul Dano: But hmmm… Don’t ask me at a dinner party… I guess, you know, don’t ask me about the weather. Let’s real talk.

Rico Gagliano: See, I live in L.A. so we don’t.  We just take that as a given.

Paul Dano: Yeah, right.

Rico Gagliano: It’s going to be sunny and not raining again.

Our second question is kind of the flip of that: Tell us something we don’t know.

Paul Dano: OK…

Rico Gagliano: Last time around, you told us you had a bacon fetish.

Paul Dano: Ohhh.  Why did I say that.  It’s true…

Rico Gagliano: It’s too late. It’s out there.

Paul Dano: …It’s true. I’m proud of that.

Rico Gagliano: If you’re stumped, I have something I could bring up, but… you can tell me not to.

Paul Dano: Yeah, bring it up, bring it up, bring it up.

Rico Gagliano: I have it on good authority — interestingly, for somebody who plays a lot of intense and edgy roles — that you are a Phish fan.

Paul Dano: Oh, that is true.

Rico Gagliano: Phish the jam band.

Paul Dano: You know what’s funny about that? So, I live in Brooklyn, and I think just being an actor and in certain films that are hip, I’ve gotten asked before in these kind of interviews, “So, are you a hipster?”

And I’ve always thought, “Well, if I tell them that I like Phish… I’m pretty sure that’s like the least hipster thing.”