In director Paul Weitz’s Being Flynn, which opens Friday, actor Paul Dano shines as a wayward writer working at a homeless shelter while battling substance abuse and a demon from his past (in the form of his father, played by Robert De Niro).
Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood), was tasked with embodying author Nick Flynn, whose 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City serves as the basis for the film. The actor sat down recently for a roundtable chat regarding the challenges of playing a real person, holding his own against De Niro, the emotional toll the role took on him, and his love for Brooklyn.
How did you feel when you found out Nick Flynn lives mere blocks away from you in Brooklyn?
It was a nice coincidence. The day I got the part, I went to my local bookstore – called BookCourt in Brooklyn, great bookstore. And I was gonna buy a copy of his book, and I brought it up to the counter and they said, “Oh, no – wait – we have a copy for you!” And so they gave me this copy that Nick had written something in. But I’d just found out I’d gotten the part. I guess he guessed that I’d go to this bookstore to buy the book?
Wouldn’t it be funny if Nick had left copies of his book for you at every bookstore in Brooklyn, just to be safe?
Yeah, if he went around to all different ones – that would be funny! But that was definitely a sort of, you know, “Ehhh, what’s going on here?”
What did the note say?
I should’ve looked at it – I have it at home – I don’t really remember. Something short and simple, you know, not something like, “Hey – looking forward to working with you!” It was something like, “I am you, you are me.”
Did you spend much time getting to know Nick and shadowing him to get his walk or mannerisms down, stuff like that?
Yeah, I spent a bunch of time with him, but one of the most interesting parts of the process was – Nick now is sober for many years, he’s a teacher, he’s a father, he is much different than he was in his 20s. Then you have the memoir, and then you have Paul Weitz adapted it into a screenplay, and I think there’s a piece of Paul Weitz in the character that’s on the screen as well. And I think that happens when you adapt something, and I think it should. So it was sort of using all of my resources – the real Nick, the memoir, the script and talking to Paul Weitz as well, and then bringing myself to it. And so I took what I could from Nick, but it was pretty clear immediately that … I was not going to be trying to do some kind of impression, because I think he’s a much different person now than he was in the period of his life we’re depicting.
And Nick has mentioned that he was on set every day. It must already be kind of daunting to take on playing a real person, but then having him on set as well – did you find that nerve-wracking or comforting?
I think probably when I first realized that he was going to be there a lot I was probably a little nervous about it, but then … you just gotta put that to bed pretty quickly, otherwise you’re just not going to be as good as you want to be. And it ended up being great that he was there, and I think it helped us – maybe not even with the performances, but just with the authenticity of the world that we’re sort of depicting. Because Nick had so much experience in these shelters and working with these kinds of people, and so when we’d bring in real homeless people from the shelters to be in the scene, or from a project, he was a good example of just sort of how to embrace that, and making sure that that happens rather than hiring actors. And I should also say that it’s a testament to Paul Weitz … I think, a lot of people, it’s their set, they’re the director – I’m not sure everybody would like having the author there every day. And he did. And we utilized Nick, so I think him saying that that is okay, it makes you feel okay about it, too.
Speaking of daunting – there’s also the task of acting against Robert De Niro. Could you talk a bit about your initial feeling of working with him, and how it evolved after you got to know him?
Yeah, I was excited. The first time I met him, I went over to his apartment and he opened the door and just gave me a big old bear hug. And I was sort of immediately disarmed. He was very gracious and warm to me. Once we started filming – we don’t totally get along in the film, it’s a conflicted relationship – it was kind of a short, hard shoot and I think we were both really well-prepared and cared about this film and the characters. So we were there to do our job, and I find that fun. So most of our relationship while filming was in front of the camera. But yeah, certainly I relished the opportunity to get in the ring with him. I didn’t just get to be in a movie with Robert De Niro and just kind of work with him – we actually had some great scenes together, and that was amazing.
The movie is tough to take on many levels, but everyone’s got someone in their life – a parent, son, daughter – like that. It’s universally relatable on some levels.
Yeah, I think so. My relationship with my parents is not like this film, but I think just because family and father-son, mother-son stuff is so instinctual – we all have parents, whether we know them or not. You’re just able to immediately empathize with this guy and sort of understand what he’s going through even though you haven’t gone through it. My other favorite universal thing in the film is when people have to make a choice to be better. It’s really hard to look at yourself and look at who you’re becoming and the people around you and how that influences you. And to look at your parents – and in this case, you don’t want to become them. It’s just so much easier to continue on that downhill path Nick Flynn was on, and to be able to make the choice to be better is – I find – super moving. Just what this guy went through and what he was able to do from it. It’s kind of an amazing thing.
Did immersing yourself in this material make you look at, or treat, your parents differently?
Yeah! You know, I remember the filming experience for this was a lot harder than I had even anticipated – just the weight of the character day after day really started to take its toll. And I did feel very vulnerable during the shoot. So I’m sure that I – yeah, I did think about my parents a lot, and that was interesting and it was useful for the film.
There are many profound emotional moments throughout the film – as a human being, how did you cleanse yourself, step out and return to normal life?
It was tougher than I thought on this one – it really was. I did a lot of work to get ready for it, but day after day, this was a tough one. But rewarding for that reason too – when you finish it, you feel like you went through something and you hope that’s going to end up on the screen. I think once you’re done with it you worry about shaking it off, but there’s not a night-to-night concern of shaking it off. Acting is a very strange thing – your life kinda goes on hold. You disappear, you don’t see your friends, you work such long days – if you’re in a relationship, that can be hard for the other person. You’ve gone 12 to 14 hours every day and then on your one day off, you sleep all day. So usually it’s a cleansing process once it’s done. Then you get really depressed and sad and post-partum and you feel good and you feel bad at the same time. And then you have to sort of re-boot your system like a video game – you just wait for your life cell to just sort of go back to full so you can do it again.
Does living in Brooklyn allow you to maintain that sense of reality in your life?
Yeah, yeah – I mean, my world’s only crazy on days like today! [laughs] Yeah, I love where I live, and luckily I have some good friends there. Brooklyn is great for me. I love it. It’s important, it’s a part of who you are, where you live sometimes.
You’ve also gravitated towards the material of Brooklyn writers – Jonathan Ames and now Nick Flynn – so who do you want to take on next? Lethem?
That’s true! Yeah, I like Lethem. He’s good. There’s a lot of good Brooklyn writers. I don’t know, I think I’ll probably try and not play a writer for a little bit. I like to work with good writers, so maybe that’s a way to do it. Instead of playing one just work with one.