Paul Dano has been known for his darker film roles in recent years: the cruel slave owner in "12 Years a Slave," the young fire-and-brimstone preacher in "There Will Be Blood," and the troubled disabled victim in "Prisoners." So it's with some surprise to see him take on a very different role in "Love and Mercy" as the youthful Beach Boy leader Brian Wilson.
"It really never crossed my mind to ever play Brian Wilson," says the New York-based actor, in Los Angeles for the movie's premiere last week, "but luckily they thought of me."
"Love and Mercy" is an unconventional biopic that dissects the complex life of Wilson, criss-crossing between two distinct periods in his life: at the peak of 1960s creativity during the making of the Beach Boys' masterful album "Pet Sounds" and the chart-topping single "Good Vibrations"; and also Wilson's time as a troubled recluse in the 1980s battling mental health and addiction issues.
Spanning three decades of the musician's life, director Bill Pohlad took the unusual approach of casting two very different actors for both roles. Dano plays the younger Wilson while John Cusack plays him in troubled middle-age and under the supervision of controversial therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Along the way, the movie is also a love story about Wilson's redemptive relationship with the woman who would become his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks).
Dano and Cusack never discussed their separate portrayals. "We met when I was finishing and John was just starting," says Dano. "Bill believed that if we just followed our respective Brians and their story then it would work out. It's important to see the juxtaposition of the two people, especially when you see Brian in the studio so vital, and then see the older Brian quiet, almost traumatized. There is a mystery there, how did that person become that?"
Dano also chose to not meet Wilson initially. "I didn't want to meet him right away — he is very different now than he was in the '60s. I felt he was such an open and honest person and I didn't want to mimic him or grill him about unnecessary details of his life so I took a lot of time doing my own research and learning about his music and how to play it."
Dano felt the answers to his most important questions about Wilson lay in the complex yet sonically beautiful music he made. "I think that's where you find his truest self," says Dano. "Particularly when he is creating 'Pet Sounds.' I think the movie will change how people perceive his work."
Many of the key scenes were filmed in the actual Sunset Boulevard recording studio where Wilson recorded "Pet Sounds," working closely with the legendary studio musicians who were collectively dubbed "The Wrecking Crew."
"I got to talk to many of the members of the original Wrecking Crew about Brian, and they all spoke how in the studio they were in awe of him and they knew he was creating something really special," says Dano.
While the ebullient Wilson shines in the studio, the film also portrays his strained relationship with his abusive father, who initially managed the Beach Boys.
"Their father was really hard on them verbally, physically and there are some stories that are really hard to swallow," says Dano. "I think Brian wanted to be free in his music and that was hard with his dad, who was so critical. The most complicated thing about Brian is that he has love for that person — he would say that probably that he wouldn't have gotten where he was without his father, even though he has such bad feelings towards his father. So when he fired his father as manager, I think that was really hard for him to do and his father stayed in bed for a month after — which is interesting because Brian went to bed to for an extended time later on."
"I think when you watch the film you wish Brian had a been given a lot more love and mercy in his own life earlier on," says Dano. "He tried to give it to people with his music and generosity of spirit and perseverance."