Paul Dano is having a light moment.
Seared into memory as "Little Miss Sunshine's" sullen, silent teen, "There Will Be Blood's" fire-and-brimstone devil, and "12 Years a Slave's" maniacal overseer, the young actor has a role in a heralded new movie that shows a — relatively anyway — softer side.
In "Love & Mercy," which premiered to a good deal of love at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, the maestro of emotional mayhem plays the Beach Boys' troubled genius, Brian Wilson, in his 20s. A time when the voices in his head helped make beautiful music, before things went terribly wrong.
Wilson is a two-man job in director Bill Pohlad's free-form biography. John Cusack picks up the singer's story decades later, deeply damaged and under the thumb of a controlling psychologist, then finally breaking free.
"I know Brian's life is full of turmoil, but he has a real childlike spirit," Dano explained at the festival. "Some of the parts of Brian you see in 'Love & Mercy' are lighter than a lot of the characters I play."
Dano is known for turning psychic pain — whether dispensed or absorbed — into an art form. So comparatively the young Wilson is saturated with good vibrations. But Dano hopes for more.
"Pretty absurd comedy was important to me as a kid, so I'd like to do some, whether it's something as broad as 'Dumb and Dumber,'" [he is deadly serious here] "or something more in the Jacques Tati vein."
Ah, now that's the Dano I've come to expect in this conversation. Tati is the late French actor, filmmaker and comic treasure whose beloved Monsieur Hulot — a bumbler in a rumpled raincoat — delivered pointed social commentary, laughs and solace to a weary post-WWII Europe.
Comedy is but one of many Dano dreams. The actor, who turned 30 in June, started on Broadway at 11 in a revival of "Inherit the Wind" opposite George C. Scott and returns to the stage regularly. He already has an enviable body of movie work, starting with an Indie Spirit win for his debut in 2001's "L.I.E." That's followed by three Oscar-winning films on his credit list, another possible award winner with "Love & Mercy" in the queue, and recommendations from actors like "There Will Be Blood's" formidable Daniel Day-Lewis, who starred opposite Dano early on in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Day-Lewis' wife.
Yet in a sense, Dano is only beginning. "I feel like I've got a lot ahead of me," he said. "I don't know what the next thing is, but I want to find something to be challenged by, that gets you wanting to fight."
He has done a great deal of fighting, mostly wrestling with demented minds. In last year's "Prisoners," he played a psychopath and probable pedophile who was beaten to a pulp by Hugh Jackman's desperate father in a performance that was almost as hard to watch as his singing virulent racist in "12 Years a Slave."
When so many of Dano's peers are choosing to play heartthrobs or superheroes, Dano opts for the easy to despise and then proceeds to give them a complex inner life as gripping as it is unsettling. Whether he's reflecting a demonic Southern overseer or the genius of Brian Wilson, it's a process for Dano to find his way there.
"Some of it is frankly deeply personal," he says. "Brian talked about trying to make music that would heal people. Knowing that his life was so hard and that was his attitude I felt like that's somebody I want to spend time with. Whether I needed love and mercy at the time or I wanted to give it I'm not sure."
"12 Years a Slave" was a tougher call.
"Sometimes the connection with a character can just be imagination, you can see how they look or walk, when you feel like, 'Hey, I've got something to offer that nobody else does.'
"Sometimes it is the challenge. Even the idea of men dressed as slaves, that's horrible, but the reality. ..." For a moment there are no words. "You delude yourself into thinking you can do that, go there."
Being known for that uncanny ability to get so deeply inside the skin of the characters he plays has put the actor on the map, but it does have its downsides. Many of those he meets in the real world expect Dano to be a dark, depressive, twisted, scary person himself.
"I don't really know what people think about me, don't really want to, but I've had people say, 'I was nervous to meet you, intimidated,' and I'm so shocked by that. I think I'm a pretty easygoing guy."
Given the kinds of scripts that make their way to the actor, I wonder if Hollywood is guilty too — of forgetting that he is not the men he creates.
My sense is that the real Dano is far closer to the character you see in the romantic comedy "Ruby Sparks" (2012). In that one he played a novelist whose writer's block is lifted when he begins to write his dream girl into life. The film costars and was written by Dano's real-life dream girl, Zoe Kazan, who slipped into town for the "Love & Mercy" premiere.
During a bit of quiet amid the festival chaos, in Byblos' retro-hip industrial space that is filled with sunlight rather than a trendy crowd, Dano proves to be refined, articulate, accessible.
He smiles easily and often. He considers questions carefully but is quick to answer. Reed-thin again after the extra pounds he put on to play Wilson, with pale green eyes, light brown hair, milk-white skin set off by a hipster-worthy black shirt buttoned to the top and dark brown jacket — if Vermeer did fashion styling it might look something like this.
There is no tortured soul sitting in the gray leather banquette. Whatever demons lurk, Dano must save most of them for the screen.
"Love & Mercy's" complexities allow Dano to open up in different ways. A scene in the recording studio that captures the birth of Wilson's album "Pet Sounds" gets to the sense of artistic invention and the musician's surprise when the sounds buzzing in his brain are given voice by the instruments. Gentleness, raw vulnerability, joy seep into frame.
"When I first read the script I thought Brian was quite different from me, but once I started reading a bit more, I realized how close we both were. It's funny how people can seem so distant one second and once you let yourself open up to it, you realize, actually I know this guy."
Though he'd spent time as lead guitarist in a rock band, Dano learned to play the piano and bass for the film. He also worked on his vocals "like crazy," trying to get closer to that pure sound Wilson is known for. The idea of doing "God Only Knows" live terrified him, "then it became thrilling."