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Paul Dano on Dream Girl Zoe Kazan Coming to Life in Perfect Summer Indie "Ruby Sparks"

Paul Dano re-teams with “Little Miss Sunshine” filmmakers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton for “Ruby Sparks,” a fantastical fable written by—and co-starring—Zoe Kazan. The star opens up about researching famous writers and his upcoming Tribeca Film title “For Ellen.”

In Ruby Sparks, the latest feature from Little Miss Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the impossible comes true. The film stars Paul Dano as Calvin Weir-Fields, a writer who experienced Salinger-like success at a young age and has been suffering from writer’s block and various heartbreaks ever since. A writing assignment from his trusted therapist (Elliott Gould) provides inspiration in the form of Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), an imaginary dream girl he creates and compulsively writes about.

Much to his surprise, Calvin stumbles across Ruby in the flesh and seeks counsel from his reluctant brother, Harry (Chris Messina, Fairhaven & The Giant Mechanical Man, TFF 2012). Calvin soon ecstatically comes to terms with this miracle: Ruby is real, unaware of her origins, and in love with him. It’s not all a bed of roses for these two lovebirds, as Calvin must find the balance between keeping control of his own creation and letting her independently flourish. Also starring Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, Ruby Sparks is the perfect summer indie.

Paul Dano recently sat down with us to chat about observing the writing process, working with Elliott Gould, and finding the artistry in his characters.

Tribeca: Ruby Sparks is such an interesting movie. It’s fantastic, yet rooted in reality. Since you were involved in the project since its inception [Dano’s partner is writer/co-star Zoe Kazan], could you talk about the creative process?

Paul Dano: Zoe started writing the film in our apartment, and I read as she wrote. About ten pages in, I immediately suggested that John and Val should direct the film. I didn’t know where the story was going, but I knew that the film could be funny, but at the same time have some depth and darkness and explore an idea. Films can be entertaining without shying away from exploring something. They can be magical and have fantasy, but also can have enough reality that you can be really emotionally invested.

I knew that the script had that potential from the very beginning, and that there was nobody better to handle these themes than Jon and Val. The idea to combine fantasy and reality definitely shaped the script, and Jon and Val brought out this concept even more forcefully when they became involved with the project. 

Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks/ Credit: Merrick Morton

TRIBECA: This is the first time you have worked with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris since Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. How did your two experiences with them differ?

PAUL DANO: Well, Zoe and I enjoyed a very intimate collaboration with Jon and Val on Ruby Sparks.  I feel like the four of us are like family, at this point; we’re in it together. With Little Miss Sunshine, I was not so involved in the creative process that gave rise to the script, but I was excited to be working with them, as was the entire cast and crew.  We all just loved John and Val because they are wonderful filmmakers, just really wonderful people, actually. I kept in touch with them after Little Miss Sunshine and knew I wanted to work with them again. It feels good as an actor to trust your director so much, and to be able to give yourself over to your role.

Obviously, the different subject matter made the two experiences different as well. Plus, Ruby Sparks came together kind of quickly, whereas Little Miss Sunshine took forever to get made, so there was a slightly different energy in that regard. I’m certainly a lot older and different now as opposed to when we shot Little Miss Sunshine. For Ruby Sparks, I could approach Jon and Val as friends and work with them as an adult.

TRIBECA: Were you able to have any input on the character of Calvin while Zoe was writing the script?

PAUL DANO: I actually wouldn’t want that. Zoe is such a good writer. I trust her and she knows me very well. She knew that if she was going to write something for me that it would have to be something challenging. She also knew that if she put my life on the screen, I would get pissed off. I didn’t want input, so I just tried to be a good boyfriend and help her through with her creative process, like she does for me. I mainly was someone she could use to bounce ideas off of. I tried to give good feedback and ask questions, and I shared her excitement about the script as it evolved.

Once it was done, I took my interpretation of the character and followed that as we all talked about the scenes and the kind of film we wanted to make. I would not say I had input in constructing Calvin, except as an actor.

TRIBECA: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role of Calvin?

PAUL DANO: I love books, so it was really fun to play a true writer who has a writing routine everyday. I remember reading journals of published writers like John Steinbeck and seeing how sacred the routine is. For some novelists, the routine is from 6 am to 10 am everyday. The idea of writer’s block becomes that much more scary, I suppose, because writing is so embedded in your routine and your existence. It was really fun to get to read about writers and to learn to type on the typewriter, which is actually much harder than you might think [laughs]. I got to surround myself with books, too. It was great.

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks/ Credit: Merrick Morton

TRIBECA: Your last on-screen collaboration with Zoe was Meek’s Cutoff, which I imagine was a very different experience. Can you talk about the challenges and the advantages of working with your partner?

PAUL DANO: I think the hardest thing is not the work, but at the end of the day after the work is done, whether it’s a 12- or 14-hour day in the desert like in Meek’s Cutoff or just working intensely together on Ruby Sparks. I remember getting stuck in traffic, driving home in Los Angeles, and getting cranky over small, domestic, silly things. Work has been fine with us. I think that we’re both focused enough and care enough to be there for our characters more than as boyfriend and girlfriend.

It’s not without its challenges, for sure, and I think working together does put a strain on your personal life, because that tends to recede while you’re filming. For Ruby Sparks, though, being so comfortable together and having real feelings was a good thing, I think.

TRIBECA: In addition to appearing alongside Zoe, you have some tremendous co-stars in this film, including Chris Messina and Elliott Gould, who seemed to be working as  separate sides of Calvin’s conscience. Can you talk about working with these two actors?

PAUL DANO: I’m very excited for people to see Chris in the film.

TRIBECA: He’s so, so good.

PAUL DANO: Yeah, he’s so good in the film. He looks nothing like my brother [laughs], but he was the right person for the part. So we did it. He’s really good, really fun to work with, and he plays such an important character for the audience as well. He stepped up and did such a great job. I like Harry’s voice.

Paul Dano and Elliot Gould in Ruby Sparks/ Credit: Merrick Morton

TRIBECA: How about Elliott Gould?

PAUL DANO: The Long Goodbye is one of my favorite films, so I was so pumped to get to spend the day with him. We did all the lengthy scenes in the therapist’s office in one day towards the end of the first week of filming. He was so great. He was totally present with me through a lot of takes, since it was early in the filming process. He had so many great stories. He was such a rad dude.

TRIBECA: I really loved the scenes at Gertrude and Mort’s home, which seemed so organic in terms of the whole film. Were you and the rest of the cast able to have any rehearsal? Was there a lot of improv during those scenes, or were they tightly scripted?

PAUL DANO: I think the dialogue was scripted, for the most part. There was a little charade scene that was free flowing, I believe, but we made sure to hit certain points that were important for character and plot development. During the dinner table scene, Antonio was definitely having some fun with the dog, and I can’t remember what was scripted or if he just went off. There were very funny takes from that sequence that didn’t make it into the film. We mostly tried to create a family dynamic that felt real in those scenes.

Paul Dano in For Ellen/ Credit: Tribeca Film

TRIBECA: This is not your first time playing an artist: you played a writer in Being Flynn, and most recently, played a musician in For Ellen. Could you talk about those experiences?

PAUL DANO: I approach every role from scratch. I can obviously relate to a character who is an artist, because the creative process is a big part of my life. Joby Taylor, the character that I play in For Ellen, is a different kind of musician than I would ever aspire to be. He wants to be a rock ’n’ roll star in one sense because he wants to get famous, get chicks and get drunk. His concerns about being an artist are secondary to his desire for celebrity. He listens to very different music than I do, so it was wild to kind of get into a style of music that I had never really experienced before.

I remember that I didn’t really understand what I was doing until I was driving in Los Angeles and blasting Joby’s music. I went, “Oh shit! I get it all of a sudden.” Listening to hard rock on the subway doesn’t work for me, especially modern hard rock. Driving in LA helped me to understand the appeal of that music. Plus, I got to wear a red leather jacket and put on fake tattoos. It was a lot of fun.

Ruby Sparks is now playing in limited release. For tickets, click here

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