Fresh from his Wildlife directorial debut, Paul Dano found himself headed to prison. In Showtime’s limited series Escape at Dannemora, Dano plays real-life convict David Sweat, who escaped from New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015. Meeting with Sweat in preparation for the shoot, Dano delved deep into the portrayal of the man who was ultimately recaptured and whose prison breakout cost the life of his fellow escapee Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro). The role earned Dano his first Emmy nomination, as he began to write his next feature project.
DEADLINE: How do you tend to choose your roles? In the case of Escape at Dannemora, what was the draw?
PAUL DANO: Well, it’s funny. People often ask, “What do you want to do next?” and I never really know until I read something, meaning it really starts with the writing. I have a big, old crush on directors, and have always wanted to direct, myself, so that’s always been an enormous influence on the level of trust entering a project, and trying to give your all to something. It really depends; one job leads to the next.
I was editing Wildlife, which was quite a quiet, restrained endeavor. So when this prison escape thing came in, it was sex and prison break and sledgehammers against brick walls…It felt like the energy that I needed after the edit room, sitting on a couch and staring at a screen for months. So, that sort of feeds the next thing.
Of course, Ben is an incredible director. I think he did a really special job with this, but I am a really big fan of his prior directing work. And Benicio [Del Toro] and Patricia [Arquette] were already involved, who are pretty special actors, so you’re sort of excited to crack the script open and see what it is. Brett [Johnson] and Michael [Tolkin] had really written something that was a page-turner, as well as being incredibly detailed, character-wise and minutiae-wise—the sort of petri dish of prison life. To have both of those things—long, character-driven scenes, the dialogue, the details of prison life, the details of the escape, it being this crazy story that you have to keep reading—was a really nice and rare balance.
It was a little scary to dive in, just because of the nature of the characters, right? [laughs] It’s funny because the scripts were so fun to read, and then once we really dove in, it became apparent how bleak prison is, and it turned out to be a lot harder than the scripts implied. For me, it seemed like such a fun story, and then we get into it and we’re like, “Holy sh*t, this is heavy.”
DEADLINE: How did you prepare to play David Sweat, and find your way into his headspace?
DANO: It was clear from the get-go, the first time we met, that Ben was going to be absolutely meticulous about details and what really happened, and that was a big clue into an entry point. We had an incredible amount of research: the inspector general’s reports; tons of photographic references that were taken at the real places; all the depositions from David Sweat’s arrests in his life. Just a plethora of material. So really, it was combing through the facts.
Then, two really big things happened. One is, we got to go meet David Sweat—Ben, Benicio and I—and to walk into a prison and sit across from somebody who is incarcerated for life, it’s really heavy. One of the most surprising things about it was how he’s still a person, and that once you’re talking to somebody, they’re living and breathing, they have a history. David is somebody who was passed around from foster home to foster home. I don’t think he got a great shot at a good life, and sometimes if you’re not given the chance, you take a wrong path. He was in jail by 16 and imprisoned by 19.
But sitting across from him, you see the life that wasn’t lived. You see a person who has actual intelligence. What he did to get out of there, I mean, he has the mind of an engineer. It’s truly impressive what they were able to accomplish. I would never have been able to do it. He had a sense of humor, and you’re faced with, “Okay, there’s more to it than just the prison.” There’s what brought him here, and what they’re repressing.
One of the best things he said was that you have to put up a front in prison. You’re taking parts of yourself and storing them away, and that was a huge key into, “Okay, what am I getting rid of in order to survive in here?” Because they all said prison is just an adrenaline drip, constantly. It’s just drip, drip, drip, because something bad can happen every day. That was really intense, that adrenaline drip image, and the idea that you have to be somebody you’re not, or just be one part of yourself, to keep up the front.
The other thing that was profound was just visiting prisons. The second you walk in, the temperature, the smell, the echoes of other inmates, the safety protocol, the regimented [lifestyle]. It’s not rehabilitation when you’re in a maximum-security prison. It is punishment, so there was no greater piece of research than an actual prison visit. Nothing could compare to the real feeling.
DEADLINE: Do you remember anything Sweat told you, with regard to the events portrayed in the series? And to what extent did what he said influence your performance? How did you take that information in, recognizing at the same time the unreliable nature of the person you were talking to, and the kinds of things he had done?
DANO: That’s a tough question to answer because Richard Matt is no longer with us, and I don’t think Tilly wanted to talk, or we didn’t talk to her. So really, you’re only getting one person’s side of the story. And what is that story? I think as an actor, at the end of the day, my job is to take what hits me that I can put through the written material and the story that we’re telling, rather than just be telling the story that the inspector general wrote, or that David Sweat told us. It is a version of the story, and nobody will ever know every hard fact about it.
David was very gregarious when it came to the escape, the details. Ben filled up his notebook with details about things that they did and how it was done. When it came to talking about his past, he only offered regret, and that he should be there for life, and he’s not a bad person, and that is a hard thing to hear, because I think most of us want to believe in the good in people, first of all. But secondly, you’re sitting across from somebody who did murder a police officer. So, it was just a very hard thing to put together and to know what to do with.
He also didn’t really talk about Tilly, which was interesting in itself, and telling of something. So, we walked away kind of all going, “Okay. Well, we know this is true, we know this could or could not be, and we have to go make our show.” The writers had done an incredible amount of research, and I can’t remember at this point, also because there was just so much material; it was like a seven-month shoot. But I think at a certain point, you have to take what hits you and throw the rest away.
DEADLINE: Were you able to spend time with either Patricia or Benicio prior to filming? What did you appreciate about them as scene partners?
DANO: I didn’t spend that much time with Patricia beforehand, and I just found her to be such an incredible, effortless actor—[there’s] this incredible transformation, and somehow you don’t see the work. She comes to work, she’s ready, she’s prepared, there’s no fuss, and you don’t see the work, and that’s really incredible. And she just couldn’t be a kinder person. Gosh, yeah. I really think she’s wonderful.
Benicio and I got to spend a lot more time together. We did some prep together; there was probably some crossover research that was done together, some prison visits, time with Ben and visiting Sweat. Benicio’s really fun to act with because he’s very alive and unpredictable, and it really works for the tension, the dynamic that we’re creating in these tiny spaces—”What is this guy thinking? And what are we going to do next?”
It was really interesting to talk about what each of them offered each other, too, this sort of odd couple. I don’t think they would have been friends outside of the pen. It was kind of like Matt was the guy with the ideas and Sweat was the guy who made the technology to do it—the sort of Steve Jobs and [Steve Wozniak dynamic]. There was some kind of relationship where each needed the other. I don’t think Sweat could have thought to get out of there and really have the confidence to go do it, but certainly Matt could not have pulled it off without David actually doing it.
So, [we were] just kind of cultivating that relationship, and we started with the end. Benicio and I were thrown into the woods for the last two hours right away, and it was a pretty intense start for us—[a] crazy, crazy journey. But I feel like we were able to cultivate the chemistry, the relationship and the tension.
DEADLINE: It seems like shooting Dannemora must have been an intense physical experience. Is diving into the physicality of roles something you enjoy?
DANO: Yeah, absolutely. For this, probably the first inspiration point was the physicality of it, and it felt like something I needed at that moment. Each character’s different; there’s inside-out or outside-in, and sometimes you need to start with something physical, whether that’s learning the piano, or hitting the weight room, or whatever it is, to start bringing you towards the energy of that piece. Sometimes, it’s starting with something inside of you, or in your life. I really think that the content tells you the form with which to proceed.
This was probably the most physical thing I’ve done, and it was really fun. The top of Episode 5 where we do the dry run, where you see the whole thing, we worked hard. Ben really went to the mat to make sure we did that a certain way, and it was really challenging execution, and ultimately pretty fun. Being in that pipe was no fun; that was definitely a strange feeling. But that’s a big part of the feeling of being able to survive, is the physical life in prison.
DEADLINE: It seems like ultimately, the intensity of the shoot did wear on you. At some point after you’d wrapped, you mentioned needing to step back from acting for a bit.
DANO: I’ve acted since, now. It was probably about six to eight months, though, after it before I got back to it. Boy, I think we were all surprised by the feeling of being around the colors of prison every day, and the cells. A lot of our extras were ex-cons, and just keeping up the energy…So, if we did it for seven months, not including prep, it just takes a while to recover, honestly.
Then, I did a play called True West, the Sam Shepard play. So, I got back to it, doing something no less challenging and fierce…But it’s kind of like when you’re around a friend who uses a certain word, and then suddenly you’re using that world. I don’t know. It just takes a bit for the energy to leave, and then to kind of open back up to being that committed to something else. It just takes a little time, and I’m pretty sure Benicio had a good chunk of time off, as well. I think we both felt like this was a pretty big plunge, and we needed a moment afterwards.
DEADLINE: You spent two months with True West, starring opposite Ethan Hawke. How was that experience? Why is it important for you to keep one foot in the theater world?
DANO: Oh man, it was great. True West is an incredible play. I think we gave it a good go, and I learned so much. Ethan and I are close; Ethan directed me in a play 10-plus years ago now, and we’ve been friends since. It’s a really special relationship. Boy, I’ll tell you, I think the theater is more important than ever, given how infrequent our communal experiences are becoming.
I went to the theater recently and saw a play, and I felt really excited to be out, and to be in the company of [an audience], whether it’s 200 other people or 2,000. But seeing people in the flesh like that put themselves out there, I was really excited by it. It’s also how I learned to act. I grew up in New York and started in the theater, and I think it’s incredible, the language. It’s just a completely different medium—one that I not only can find pleasure in, but frankly, am greatly challenged by. I think it’s a really, really essential part of trying to be an artist, as an actor.
DEADLINE: Last year, you brought your directorial debut, Wildlife, to the world. Has the experience of writing and directing informed the work you’ve done as an actor since?
DANO: It has. God, I can’t wait to make another film, and I can’t wait to get back in the edit room someday, because I did learn so much and I was so grateful to my actors for what they gave me. I suppose I just came away, again, with a true sense of gratitude and trust that you get to do this and that a movie gets made, and really, I think, a big trust in the collaborative process. Seeing firsthand that every editor and assistant editor wants it to be the best thing it can be—the people you don’t have contact with as an actor, trusting that it takes a village to make a film—I think having that complete of an experience with every facet of it actually just gave me more trust in the work that you choose to do, and I hope encouraged me to be an even more generous collaborator.
DEADLINE: Do you have a sense yet of when you’ll be getting behind the camera again? Have you been writing?
DANO: Yeah, I’m poking away at something, but just starting to write now. I think it’s going to take a moment. It’s such a big experience, and I really, actually value the time that’s not on the clock, financially. Because once you’re in pre-production, everything is just about time, time being precious. So, the days where you’re writing and cultivating the film you’re walking towards, actually it’s a really nice time to let the process be the process. Because once you decide to put it into a certain gear, it’s so full on. I love it and I can’t wait, but I imagine it’ll be a year or two. But you know, poking away.