By Solvej Schou
Updated October 17, 2012 at 10:06 PM EDT
Credit: Carolyn Drake

For Ellen

  • Movie

With his broad, serious face and lanky body, Paul Dano has always played the kinds of finely tuned characters that pop out for their intensity, from a black-haired, mostly silent 16-year-old in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine to a screaming evangelical preacher, and his twin brother, in 2007’s There Will Be Blood. He’s also proved himself to be neurotically funny, as he was in this year’s romantic comedy Ruby Sparks.

But 28-year-old Dano has rarely played a dad on film (he adopts a baby in 2008’s Gigantic), much less the deadbeat rocker dad starring role he takes on in the Tribeca Film indie For Ellen, out now on VOD and in theaters in Los Angeles, Florida and Chicago on Friday, on top of already being in New York.

As scraggly hipster musician Joby Taylor, complete with chin scruff, long hair, snug-fitting pants, chipped black nail polish and fake tattoos, he deals with a looming divorce, and whether he’ll lose all custody of his estranged 6-year-old daughter Ellen, played by cutely somber newcomer Shaylena Mandigo. Dano and Mandigo play off of each other with the realistic awkwardness of a parent and child who don’t know each other. For inspiration, Dano read books about such hard-partying bands as Motley Crue. The film’s writer-director So Yong Kim, known for her female-centric South Korean language movies Treeless Mountain and In Between Days, based For Ellen on her own back story. Her parents divorced when she was a kid, and her father disappeared.

A trouper over the phone, talking to while sick with a fever, Dano delved into the surprising glory of wearing tight pants, how he hates shopping, the joys of working with a child actor and going deep into a part “so unlike me,” his part as a futuristic assassin in Looper, and other films on the horizon.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was it taking on the role of being a negligent rocker dad with painted nails, tattoos and a shag?

PAUL DANO: The look of the character is part of why I did the film. The first time I read it I saw the image of the character with a cigarette. I don’t have any tattoos. I can’t really rock a red leather jacket like that. I was really into the idea of his look. We didn’t have a costume designer, so [the film’s writer-director] So and I went to pretty much every vintage store in New York. We ending up going to a guy in Los Angeles, and saw this jacket, got it there. … I hate shopping, and I had never done more shopping, looking for that jacket. I remember going to So’s house, and painting my nails. She doesn’t enjoy shopping either. Usually you have someone go buy 20 or 30 jackets.

So were you used to the clothes, being this hip musician? The part seems so different from your roles in other films.

Putting on a pair of tight pants, how it makes your butt and crotch feel. It’s great when the clothes, the look, can transform you. Reading Motley Crue’s book. Not just being the musician, but the idea of it as well, which is really just not me. The idea of his ego, essentially.

How was it working with a kid, Shaylena Mandigo? Alexander Skarsgard plays a stepdad, awkwardly at first interacting with Onata Aprile, in the indie What Maisie Knew, which premiered last month at Toronto. Like you, he doesn’t have parenting experience.

He [Joby] meets the girl for the first time in the film. It’s not like I needed any parenting experience, so that worked for this. … It’s very realistic. She [director Kim] encouraged us to go off of the script. It just created a natural awkwardness, when neither of us knew what to say next. People say not to work with child actors or animals. But I had to take care of her. When we were crossing the street, I had to watch out for her. It was a really enjoyable thing. This guy is so unlike me, but it’s amazing how you find ways to make it personal, living someone else’s life. It’s a very strange job, acting.

In director Rian Johnson’s Looper, out now, you play a freaked out assassin in the future, alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Looper was a wonderful script. Rian Johnson is the real deal, and a really talented filmmaker. It’s a small part, but I thought it was going to be a good film. Besides the characters, what turns me on the most is the director. … I was very happy that the film turned out well, and people seemed to like it.

What about upcoming roles? Word is you just signed on to star in Denis Villeneuve’s crime drama Prisoners with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

I did a part this summer called Twelve Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen [Shame, Hunger], and we’ll see what happens with that one. … I don’t think I can say much about Prisoners, since it’s in pre-production. I hung out with Jake once, and he was a really great guy, and we meant to hang out again. I’ve never met Hugh. I hear he’s a good man.

For more film news Follow @solvej_schou

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For Ellen

  • Movie
  • 93 minutes
  • So Yong Kim