25 in 2009: Paul Dano

Born: 06/19/84 In: New York, NY Is: Actor

Paul Dano was 16 when he starred in L.I.E., Michael Cuesta's 2001 film about ambiguous sexuality, a teenager and a sympathetic pedophile. At the time, you wondered if this clearly advanced young actor, who seemed as if he had appeared out of nowhere (although he had already performed on Broadway), would be inclined to participate in other intensely thoughtful projects. In the years since, Dano has proven to have exceptional instincts for worthwhile scripts and collaborators, and his far-ranging talent continues to attract the best filmmakers. He played a rough teenager who goes to live with his mother and brother on a former commune run by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Rebecca Miller's story of aging idealism; the teenage nihilist on a vow of silence and aspiring to join the Air Force in Little Miss Sunshine; the unsettlingly soft-faced preacher in Paul Thomas Anderson's industrialist psychodrama There Will Be Blood (again, opposite Day-Lewis); and a mattress salesman who's trying to adopt a Chinese baby and falls for Zooey Deschanel in Gigantic, which he co-executive-produced.

"My driving force is not to make money. So that helps me look at the material," he says, trying to answer how he chooses so many of these roles, in so many successful projects, without seeming calculating. "It's sort of ineffable, though -- you like certain bands, you don't like certain bands... you like certain authors, you don't like certain authors -- I know what I like, and I like movies a lot."

The streak continues in Dano's next cycle of projects. He's the voice of a wild thing in Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are; appears as a hippie in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock; re-teams with L.I.E. co-star Brian Cox in The Good Heart; and co-stars in The Extra Man as the protégé of a walker learning the business of platonically accompanying older women to the Russian Tea Room. While Dano, who is soft-spoken and unaffected, is based in New York City and doesn't come across as the Hollywood type, he's not aching to be left alone either; his focus and general niceness actually make the more tortured approach to public relations seem slightly vintage. Among other industry challenges, he manages to come across as pretty nonchalant about a newspaper profile that drew attention to his girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, in what read like an effort to pin down a new Brooklyn indie golden couple. "The weirdest thing about making a movie is that even though it goes up on a big screen, and maybe lots of people see it, it feels like a totally intimate, private experience because sometimes it's just a few of you in a room doing a scene," he says. "So then to make it such a public thing, even though that's the point, there's kind of an irony to do it. Because it doesn't feel like that when you're doing it."

Little Miss Sunshine co-director Jonathan Dayton told a reporter that Dano is aware of the clichés of young actors, but he also seems aware of the clichés of independent-minded actors and their output, which is really just a different kind of product. "The ideal way to do it in my mind is to not do it for those people who say you're Hollywood or you're un-Hollywood, or say you're this or that, or because people say you have to do one for them and one for you," he says. "These are impossible things to ignore, mind you, and I think about them constantly, unfortunately. But if you're happy then that stuff's not really going to matter that much," he says. "It's hard because the narrative of success -- and not just in Hollywood -- is sort of determined by other people, meaning box-office or what people write about you. So if you can decide your own success then that's the way to do it. That's really the hardest thing for me -- to whack the weeds away and understand what I want out of this. And it changes. Constantly."
Mark Jacobs

Wears: jacket, pants, pocket square, and belt by Michael Bastian, shirt and sneakers from What Goes Around Comes Around, eyeglasses by Brooks Brothers and scarf by Louis Vuitton

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