Paul Dano: “Nirvana became a part of my Riddler”

Written by on 03/03/2022

Paul Dano

For a good two hours of The Batman’s nearly three-hour running time, you could easily have no idea Paul Dano is in it. As The Riddler, when he appears on screen he’s usually in shadow, out of focus, or covered by a crude PVC mask. Yet even if you can’t see him, Dano’s presence is inescapable. He haunts the film, his coiled stillness always threatening a burst of violence, his voice a whisper then a sudden roar. Dano brings a sense of danger that makes his Riddler – yes, the silly old Riddler – probably the most frightening Batman villain ever put on screen. He’s terrifying because you can never predict what he’ll do next or make much sense of the man behind the mask. Dano is fascinating for the same reasons.

  • Read more: ‘The Batman’ review: down in the dumps with Robert Pattinson’s dark knight

Making a big impression while also going largely unnoticed is a paradoxical skill that has defined Dano’s career. He’s been performing on screen for 25 of his 37 years and been nominated for almost every major acting award. He’s appeared in some of the best-reviewed films of the past couple of decades and worked with some of the world’s most respected directors, from Denis Villeneuve to Paul Thomas Anderson to Bong Joon-ho to Steven Spielberg. Yet beyond knowing him as that guy from There Will Be Blood/Little Miss Sunshine/Prisoners/12 Years A Slave, how much can you say you know about him? Could you describe what he’s like or any part of his life off-screen? He’s the rare big name actor who has kept much of his life sealed off from the public. In person, he’s reluctant to break that seal, meeting every question with polite suspicion.

“You’re not just born a psycho”

“This is all very unusual, isn’t it?” says Dano as he enters the hotel room. “I don’t think we’re meant to shake hands,” he adds, offering up an elbow. Somewhat ironically, given the role we’re here to talk about, Dano is the only one in the room not wearing a mask. It’s the day that all COVID restrictions have ended in the UK, but things are still cautious when it comes to interviewing movie stars (quite fairly – you don’t want to have to cancel your premiere because some germy journalist coughed on one of your headliners). Everyone in our hotel suite is wearing black face masks, except Dano, who is exempt because we need to be able to actually hear what he says. He’s dressed all in black but for a wildly patterned blue bomber jacket, the only thing that announces the possibility he might be rich and famous. He has a round, open face that is almost always fixed in a neutral expression. His looks are boyish but he has an unhurried calm that makes him seem older than he is. He’s certainly not remotely intimidating, despite his ability to play men who are deeply unsettling. And few he’s played have been more unsettling than The Riddler.

Paul Dano
CREDIT: Matt Easton

The Batman is written and directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, two Planet Of The Apes movies). Much like the Christopher Nolan era, Reeves’ take on Batman shoots for ‘realism’ and some reflection of our own world. His Bruce Wayne, played excellently by Robert Pattinson, is a sulky recluse wallowing in his own privilege and using Batman as a way to be the hero he hasn’t the confidence to be in his daily life, as well as to unleash his violent urges. The Riddler is a twisted version of the same, a man who hates what Gotham has become: a place where criminals run everything and their actions have no consequences. He puts on a mask to perform his own vigilante justice. While Batman tries to clean up Gotham by eliminating criminals as they appear, The Riddler wants to wash it clean by eliminating the criminals who are hidden and embedded in the city. He is a guy whose entire life has been a disappointment and he has simply absolutely had it. “His sense of intent and purpose is greater than just being a serial killer,” says Dano. “It’s not just nature. You’re not just born a psycho. The city of Gotham represents the nurture that he didn’t receive.”

It was said in a recent interview that Dano has long been looking to appear in a comic book movie, and The Riddler seems the part he was born to play. When we ask why he’s always wanted to be part of the comic book world he looks taken aback, a little confused.

“I loved the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman”

“I don’t know where I said that [it was Entertainment Weekly],” he says, drawing out his words, as if taking time to search for the memory. “I was probably asked if I’d wanted to do a comic book film for a long time and was like, ‘Yeah, sure!” He takes a thoughtful beat. “And there have been [comic book] films that I’ve really loved – the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman I loved, but [I haven’t been looking for a comic book movie]… I think I was hoping and waiting for the right opportunity… I feel very lucky… I feel very fortunate that it’s Batman.”

Dano does this a lot. He talks in long, slow sentences that sometimes take a stroll around all sides of a thought before settling. He doesn’t always finish his sentences, but begins a new one without wrapping up the last. He might start with a definite statement but then gradually talk himself round to a slightly different point of view, often careful not to say anything that might be construed as negative. He frequently mentions that he often feels taken out of context. “The way things get picked up online is often a bit different from how I intended,” he says. When it comes to discussing how he created his version of The Riddler, he picks his words with the care of someone diffusing a bomb.

The Riddler
The Riddler, from director Matt Reeves’ ‘The Batman’. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

“The first conversation Matt and I had was about hero and villain and the two sides of trauma they represent,” he says. “That’s sort of the seed from which everything grew. There were other things. Matt mentioned the Zodiac Killer (a serial killer who terrorised 1960s California, leaving clues to his identity but never caught), but that only got me so far. I read about other serial killers and blah blah blah…” We try to drill down into the blah blah blah, to decode his Riddler. Interrogating an actor’s ‘process’ is rarely the most interesting subject for anyone, but Dano’s Riddler is so unusual that we want to know where it came from. Previous iterations have been largely comic, from Frank Gorshin’s Puckish take in the 1960s TV show to Jim Carrey’s camp and gurning version in Batman Forever. There is no humour in Dano’s version. He is essentially a terrorist, murdering the powerful of Gotham and releasing videos of himself barking into the camera, imploring the city’s citizens to wake up to the corruption around them. He seems at once supremely confident and terrified, shrieking the first time he kills someone. Most interpretations of Batman villains are drawn from specific comic books – Zoe Kravitz, who plays Catwoman in The Batman, drew on Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One – but Dano’s is seemingly without precedent, a bizarre creation of his own.

Dano isn’t keen to give up too much of the formula. “There were other things that I read,” he says when we ask about his specific inspirations. “There was music. There were tons of comic books.” Dano has said before that he always listens to music between takes, to keep himself in character. What was on the soundtrack for The Riddler? “Well, in the script Matt had actually mentioned ‘Something In The Way’ by Nirvana. So that right there, that song, those words, that refrain, became hugely important to me. Nirvana became a part of that [character].” The lyrics describe a man living under a bridge, where “the animals I’ve trapped have all become my pets”. It certainly reflects the isolated, cruel life of the character. Dano also listened a lot to ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’, Aaron Copland’s orchestral piece written in 1942 to honour American soldiers going off to fight in World War II. “There’s almost a sort of irony there,” he says of its use in the film. “It’s this big, American horn sound, and The Riddler is playing on that” trying to rally ‘soldiers’ to fight, but against those who command them. Both ‘Something In The Way’ and ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ are on the film’s soundtrack. Asking him to expand beyond those is met with a polite but firm insistence that it’s “private and personal”.

“‘Something In The Way’ became hugely important to me”

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Dano to have some fascinating mystery beneath his characters. His most famous roles suggest some very complex things going on below the surface. He often plays characters who hold their true nature back. His breakthrough role came in 2007’s There Will Be Blood, playing a young preacher who initially seems gentle and pious, but reveals himself to be morally corrupt, ready to give up his god for money. In Prisoners he was a man suspected of being a kidnapper, but whose true story was tragic. In Little Miss Sunshine he was the largely silent teenager whose quiet hid a world of pain that eventually burst out. Dano himself, though, has never cultivated any air of eccentricity or mystery. He doesn’t make a show of being strange off-screen, like Jared Leto, who seems to treat every role as performance art, or Daniel Day Lewis, his famously method co-star in There Will Be Blood. In fact, he tries to expressly dispel it.

A bit of myth has built up around Dano, especially in relation to this role. He’s developed an image of being extremely intense and so committed to his character that he can’t shake it off. You’ve likely seen stories about how he suggested The Riddler should be wrapped in clingfilm, to avoid shedding forensic evidence, which caused him to turn bright red and almost suffocate when he tried it. Or how he couldn’t sleep because of the intensity of playing the character. He says now that these are stories given a dramatic spin he didn’t intend.

Paul Dano
CREDIT: Matt Easton

“Yes, it’s a hard part to come down from,” he says. “But I think of it a bit like an athlete. [The Riddler] is not my life speed. So I’m working at a different speed to embody someone different.” He says the nature of shooting in a pandemic, when there were extra restrictions and nervousness about filming, creates tension, “and there’s an intensity to the costume and an intensity to the material, so it’s just natural that to get yourself there takes some work and then once you’ve made contact with it it’s easier to keep it close,” But he was not living life as The Riddler for the entirety of the shoot, nor even carrying his intensity at all times. “I have a kid,” he says (he has a child with actor/writer Zoe Kazan, his partner of 15 years), “I’m not going home and acting like I do in the film.”

By some distance, The Batman is the biggest movie Dano has ever been in. He’s dabbled in bigger budget Hollywood stuff – remember Cowboys & Aliens? – but he’s never gone near anything with this level of attention. In his younger days, he was overtly against anything that might make him famous. In a 2018 interview with The Independent he said he’d once considered celebrity “repellent”. Now, he’s not so fussed. “I started young,” he muses. “So I think some of that was self-protection, frankly. Until you know yourself well enough and what you want…” He tails off. “That’s not a motivating force… That part of the job is a little strange, frankly, right? It just is.” He says he’s actually enjoyed an element of the fame that comes with being in Batman, with its millions of dedicated fans. “They’re so passionate. It’s actually been really fun to see the fervour around this.”

In keeping with his modus operandi of never doing the expected, Dano will follow a comic book serial killer with something very wholesome for America’s most beloved filmmaker. In The Fablemans, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film about his childhood, Dano will play a version of Spielberg’s father. Daddy issues have been a running theme in Spielberg’s films – dads are usually absent or, if they’re present, they don’t give their children the love they crave – and Spielberg’s own dad was, he says, ungenerous with praise or affection. For Dano, the approval of Spielberg is almost too much to countenance. “It was a really special experience,” he says. “To be working with someone like Steven, who is a master filmmaker, on a film that is so personal to him and was such an intimate and vulnerable experience for all of us… I’m still processing the fact that he would ask me to do it.” It should be no surprise to anyone else that Dano was asked. Spielberg’s father inspired his son to become the greatest living filmmaker by keeping his son at a distance. Dano has become one of the greatest living actors by keeping his audience, and nosy reporters, on the other side of his mask.

‘The Batman’ is released in cinemas on March 4

The post Paul Dano: “Nirvana became a part of my Riddler” appeared first on NME.

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