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In its review of Love & Mercy, simultaneously lauded Paul Dano’s portrayal of the young Brian Wilson, and bemoaned his under-the-radar status. “Despite boasting an impressive list of credits, Dano is frequently left out of the cultural and critical conversation, and doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves for his powerful performances. He’s arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation, but his subtle presence in strong material hasn’t been enough to gain him awards season traction or long-term attention.”

The article speculated Love & Mercy would change all that, but it raises a question: Does an artist have to be a widely known and/or “award-winning” to be appreciated or validated in some way? With the proliferation of social media and “entertainment news”, it seems we need to know an actor as a person, that he has to exist publicly and consistently in the “real” world to exist as an artist. Few who’ve seen Dano’s work in films like L.I.E.Little Miss Sunshine and 12 Years a Slave would question his disconcerting ability to absorb and then stun us with a kaleidoscopic range of characters. But try and describe Paul Dano the person and most of us would search long and hard for adjectives.

And that’s fine. “Fame looked horrible to me,” says Dano. Though he still can’t completely articulate why he got into theater at age 10 and is just now starting to figure out what he does want as an actor, instinct has always led him away from what he doesn’t: Early on, he got the feeling that films like his 2004 teen rom-com The Girl Next Door would likely define him before he had a chance to do so himself. So his next choice was indie The Ballad of Jack & Rose with Daniel Day-Lewis, “Because someone there believed I could be nothing like me.” He’s since shone in a string of highly acclaimed performances in some of the most intriguing releases in recent years, including PrisonersThe Extra Man, and There Will Be Blood, of which Texas Monthly said: “Dano is so electric that the movie sags whenever he’s not around.” But it’s the aforementioned Love & Mercy that truly bears witness to his sensitivity as a performer and a vulnerability Dano says came from an almost personal regret about not being able to protect someone who couldn’t do it himself. The result was a portrait far more real than any degree of physical mimicry could ever convey.

Dano takes the long view of his career, asking of each new role, “Why would I do this?” As much as he questions what he can give to each project, he wants to know what he can take from it for the next – and how it’s going to be different from the last. Dano’s never going to be the guy wearing the lampshade at your next dinner party. He will, however, take on a new and meta persona in the upcoming Youth, playing the kind of actor he never wanted to be, and prompting us to ask, how does an actor prepare to play an actor?

We loved getting know him at least a bit better, and as far as adjectives go, we’ve landed on “necessary.” Because as long as Paul Dano continues acting, we know there will be films we really want to see.