While Paul Dano caught our attention playing a mostly silent Nietzsche-obsessed teenager in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, the 31-year old actor has actually been practicing his craft since childhood: he made his Broadway debut at the age of 12 opposite Oscar-winner George C. Scott and Charles Durning in Inherit the Wind. Despite his cherubic looks (just one of Dano’s strengths) he’s never been typecast in Mr. Nice Guy roles. Rather, his face is a window to an array of eclectic souls, some fierce—such as his enraged preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood—and some wry, such as the philosophical Hollywood thespian Jimmy Tree in Youth. In Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, Dano adds another persona to his roster, this time portraying a real-life icon—Brian Wilson—the young, emotionally tortured musical genius behind The Beach Boys.

How did the opportunity come about to play Brian Wilson?

I read the script and saw that Bill (Pohlad) was directing it and Oren Moverman was a writer on it, and I’m a fan of them both. The script was really challenging but I felt they had something by trying to look at two points of his life intensely, instead of a birth-to-present day biopic. There was a real experience to be had with the character. I’ve since become an obsessive fan of The Beach Boys, but didn’t know a lot about (Wilson’s) life, the extent of his relationship with his father. Here was a guy who made music that was generally happy, but he had a traumatic life. There was a story to tell, but I felt that this was not an easy one. I was willing to take the risk. Bill had been thinking of me for a while for the role. I sing a little and Bill offered me the option to sing. He had a lot of faith in me. Before I even accepted the role I did some research—not only because there’s a responsibility to his fans or Brian for anyone playing this role, but he’s a sensitive and special person. I needed to know I was the right person. Through my research, I felt deeply connected right away.

I learned to play piano. I played some guitar. I studied what Brian does with his left hand when he performs… On set, I would start singing with my voice and as the song built, it transitioned to the actual vocals on a Beach Boys song. “Caroline, No” starts with me singing and ends with the real track. I can’t tell when it transitions, the sound designer did a beautiful job.

Paul Dano
“Here was a guy who made music that was generally happy, but he had a traumatic life,” says Dano of Brian Wilson, who he portrays in Love & Mercy.

 Wilson’s father Murry has been painted elsewhere as a real tyrant. But in Love & Mercy he isn’t as severe. When he reveals that he’s sold the band’s catalog, it crushes Brian.

His father did give him gifts in certain ways. He mortgaged their business to get the first album done. He was aggressive about getting the band out there. He put instruments in their hands. But there was also a side of him that was a tyrant. To portray Murry one way is wrong. Brian felt something good for this person; he owed him something. But he also had a bad feeling for this person.

The film focuses on the making of “Pet Sounds” but only briefly eludes to Brian’s career opus, “Smile.”

Brian didn’t have the support system he needed (for “Smile”), not until he met (his wife) Melinda Ledbetter. Brian was met with a lot of resistance and negativity during his early life. I think with “Smile” there were just too many things going on with them. Yes, there was the mental illness and the drugs and he couldn’t push past the current. He needed someone to help him do it. That scene you spoke about where his father sells the library to A&M, essentially Brian’s response was, “I can’t push against this any longer. I’m going to bed.” That’s one of the reasons for Brian not finishing “Smile.” I think “Smile” and the 1967 sessions are unbelievable.

You can see that Brian tirelessly worked his symphonic band around the clock during the recording of “Pet Sounds,” but he was always a warm guy to them, not a taskmaster.

It was so exciting to be working with The Wrecking Crew. These guys looked up to him. When they talk about him, they loved him. They were getting to do stuff that they didn’t know was in their wheelhouse. Generally, there was a lot of inspiration in the room back and forth. He was always searching for something in there.

You had access to Wilson in preparing for the role, but he’s different from the young Brian you play onscreen. What did you get from him to help you create the character?

I didn’t meet Brian until I had worked on the part for three or four months. I felt like what you’re saying—he’s different now, he’s open and sensitive and a raw person—I didn’t want to be tempted toward mimicry. I really needed to try and tap into his spirit. The way was through the music. There were plenty of photographs, videos and magazine articles at my disposal. There were a number of people who had worked with him. Listening to the studio sessions is how I gained my impression of the 1965 Brian. Before meeting him I didn’t want to go in there like a journalist asking a thousand questions. I just tried to follow his sense. He enjoyed it when we talked about the music. That’s being at home for him.

For a behind-the-scenes look at Love & Mercy, hit play below: