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Paul Dano: One of Hollywood's most underrated stars

American actor and filmmaker Paul Dano often finds his way onto people’s lists of Hollywood talents that are criminally underrated, and there’s good reason for that. His performances in beloved cult classics like Little Miss Sunshine as well as acclaimed masterpieces including Paul Thomas Anderson‘s There Will Be Loved are beautiful pieces of evidence of his undeniable artistic talent. On his 37th birthday, we revisit Paul Dano’s life and career as a celebration of his contributions to the world of cinema.

Born in New York in 1984, Dano was an active participant in the sphere of performing arts from an early age. Starting from community theatre, the promising child actor worked his way towards classical productions on Broadway. He made his Broadway debut at the tender age of 12, appearing in John Tillinger’s Inherit the Wind before scoring parts on sitcoms like Smart Guy. Dano’s gifted approach to acting facilitated his migration to cinema, enabling him to nab his film debut in the 2000 family drama The Newcomers.

However, Dano’s greatest exposure (up to that point in his career) came in the 2001 film L.I.E. where he was cast as a teenager who gets involved with a child predator. For his wonderful work, Dano won the coveted Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance. Around that time, he also managed to get onto The Sopranos and landed other small but memorable roles like his brief appearance in the 2004 psychological thriller Taking Lives. Dano kept building his portfolio with supportive parts in The Girl Next Door and The Ballad of Jack and Rose among others.

The rising star attended college in Manhattan and studied Literature to take a break from the pernicious celebrity world: “When I went to college, I knew I could use it as a buffer,” he once said. “I was very conscious at an early age of that [celebrity] world, and what it could be. And that was not attractive to me. For some reason, I always thought that the long game was more interesting than the short game.” Although he was interested in the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, Dano dropped out because he felt that college did not have much to offer that he couldn’t achieve by himself.

What came after that was one of the finest acting runs of his life, started by his starring turn alongside Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine. He was flawless as an angsty, voluntarily mute teenaged follower of Nietzsche who embarks on a road trip that changes his life. Dano exceeded expectations when he followed his impressive performance with an acting masterclass in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling magnum opus There Will Be Blood. It takes a great actor to hold their own against Daniel Day-Lewis, but Dano managed to do just that and much more. Featuring as a manipulative evangelical preacher (as well as his twin brother), Dano effortlessly evoked powerful emotional reactions from the audience but he was robbed at the BAFTAs as well as the Academy Awards.

While the latter half of Dano’s career is no longer characterised by the earlier meteoric rise in public perception, it does have contain some of his finest work yet. He has starred in lovely romantic comedies like the melancholic Ruby Sparks as well as powerful historical dramas including the well-received 12 Years a Slave which ended up winning an Oscar for Best Picture. While working simultaneously in Broadway productions, Dano has also expanded his acting range by featuring in works of science fiction like Looper and Cowboys and Aliens. In 2018, he finally fulfilled his dream of putting his art as a filmmaker out into the world.

Wildlife, Dano’s directorial debut, starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan as a dysfunctional couple, exploring the effects that parental disruptions can have on children. The film was lauded by critics who were surprised by Dano’s refreshingly sensitive interpretation of the intimacy and volatility of the family sphere. Dano said: “I have always wanted to make films and have always known I would make films about family. I couldn’t be happier to have such beautiful collaborators like Carey and Jake leading the way.” That very year, the actor received an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the limited miniseries Escape at Dannemora.

With the pandemic bringing the world to a halt, Dano’s career has been on hold but he is set to feature in some stellar productions including the 2022 Batman film where he will take on the iconic role of The Riddler. He will also star in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming autobiographical project as a character based on the filmmaker’s own father. It remains a mystery how the talented thespian has evaded major accolades. Fortunately, Dano’s views about life prevent him from focusing on the superficialities that are omnipresent in Hollywood: “I think I’m more interested in the present moment, not in terms of getting rich and famous. I don’t think you can calculate life. I like it when you see a person who obviously puts themselves out there, and almost that it costs them something. You want to feel that people really gave you a piece of themselves. That’s what I think can be really inspiring or moving.”