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Heroes and Villains: Love & Mercy‘s Paul Dano on Playing Brian Wilson

8 minute read

This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone.

The guy in the short-sleeved, striped button-down shirt certainly looks happy enough, playing the bass alongside his brothers and relatives, watching the kids dance to his band’s hits about girls and cars and surfing. But something is clearly troubling the Beach Boys’ singer-songwriter and resident musical genius Brian Wilson, and in the film Love & Mercy, the epiphany that will give birth to both creative heights and a descent into dark times is communicated in a few facial expressions. There’s the silent look of dread on Wilson’s face, as hears the crowd roaring and a cacophony of voices in his head starting to get louder. And then, a few scenes, later, there’s the sheer excitement and optimism beaming from his smile when he tells his band mates to head to Japan without him. “I’ll stay behind in the studio,” he says. “When you guys get back, I’ll have some great sounds for you.”

Credit Paul Dano, the slim young actor best known for playing the mute, moody teen in Little Miss Sunshine and the fire-and-brimstone holy roller in There Will Be Blood, for selling not just those key scene-setting moments but the sensation that, over the next two hours, you’re watching one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians find his mojo and lose his mind. Flipping between two timelines — the heyday of the Sixties and the late Eighties, when an older Wilson (John Cusack) was still under the thrall of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) — Love & Mercy allows viewers to watch the troubled singer come back into the light. It’s Dano’s version of the Pet Sounds-era Wilson, all guileless grins and anything-goes excursions into bold new territory, that gives the movie its heart and soul.

Rolling Stone spoke to Dano right after the movie’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, about the difficulties of playing Wilson, why he waited to meet the man and the joys of singing and playing “Surf’s Up.” (Roadside Attractions will release the film in the U.S. in 2015.)

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On a scale of one to “I own several Smile bootlegs,” how much did you know about Brian Wilson prior to getting involved?
I’d thought I knew something about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys…you know, you hear the music everywhere, you read a few articles, the usual stuff. I knew the songs that everyone knows and knew that Brian had lived a troubled life. But it wasn’t until I read the script that I realized the extent of this guy’s struggle; it was a real “holy shit” moment [laughs]. The first thing that really struck me about his story was not just that he eventually came to this place where he could live a more stable life, but that throughout this whole ordeal, he still wanted to make music that made people smile and help them heal. I wanted to spend time with that guy.

So I just started immersing myself in all things Brian — listened to everything I could, started reading through his biographies, just hunted down everything I could find. I just thought it about night and day. It was in the bloodstream even before I even had the part.

How long was it before you met him?
Quite a while — because I didn’t want to seek him out right away. I wanted to hold off on meeting him for as long as I could, because he’s a much different person now then he was during the Pet Sounds era, and I was really intent on channeling that particular person. I wanted to form my own impression first. You hear the energy in his voice during those Sixties session tapes, and it’s like, let me see how I can get close to that first.

Brian is in the music. It might sound weird to say this, but I felt like the truest sense of who this guy was, and is, can be found in the songs. I wanted to really learn how to listen to him first. Plus I was learning how to play the piano and sing, and that was going to take a while. I’m not kidding, playing and singing to those songs he wrote made me feel much closer to him than meeting him early on would have. I’m glad I got to know him that way before I got to know him personally.

So that’s you playing and singing in those scenes?
Most of them, yeah. I played and sang “God Only Knows” live on the set when we filmed. My second day of filming, I had to perform “Surf’s Up” over and over. It remains one of the best days I’ve ever had a film set. Have you ever tried to play that song, by the way? It’s incredibly hard. Thankfully, we only did two minutes of it, and not the whole thing, but it’s tough. I simplified a lot of the left hand work on the piano. Brian’s left-hand work is pretty complicated.

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As for the rest of the actors singing….
Look, you’re not going to get five guys that sound like the Beach Boys! We would be the first to tell you that. The harmonizing in the studio scenes are where you start to hear a lot of blending going on. There are a few scenes where you hear me start a line of a song and by the end of the session, you’re hearing Brian’s vocals. I have to give credit to the sound people, the transitions are really smooth; you can’t tell that one half of it is the real thing and one half is me faking it, so I thank those guys a lot [laughs].

You did eventually spend some time with him, right?
Yeah, it came to a point where I thought, I’ve done all I can do on my own…I’d like to meet him, if I could. That man — he has some fairy dust [laughs]. The man is an an angel. He’s touched, in some indescribable way. My initial idea was, What can I draw from him that will help the performance? But when I actually met him, I just wanted him to feel comfortable around me. You know, “Hi, I’m Paul. I’ll be one half of the duo bringing your life to the screen.” You don’t want to go in with hawk eyes with Brian.

The only questions I asked him were around a few instances where I couldn’t quite figure out the truth of the matter. I asked him a number of things about Mike Love; it’s interesting, because for as much turmoil as that relationship had, there was a lot of affection and respect there. It was just very mercurial — and a relationship that echoed things with his dad and with Eugene Landy. I had a lot of trouble sympathizing with Mike, to be honest. You read the biographies, and it’s like, Fuck this guy! But after I talked to Brian, I saw that he still has a lot of love for his cousin. So it did change things in terms of how I played those scenes.

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The movie does not paint a very good picture of Mike Love.
A lot of people have said we were too gentle with him, actually.

When you were asked at the premiere’s Q&A about playing the scenes of Brian losing his mind, you had an interesting answer.
Yeah. The idea is not to play a character as if they’re “crazy”; you play it as if it’s someone who’s trying to ignore the fact they’re losing their mind and is putting on a brave face. It’s a little like how some actors describe playing “drunk,” you know? To be honest, it was harder to find a way to play the more innocent, everyday moments. It’s easy to play childish, but tough to play childlike — which is what Brian is. He seemed genuinely surprised by everything, even when he was coming up with these songs that had all these elements he was hearing in his head. There was a lot of “Oh, wow, a glockenspiel, cool!” [Laughs] He was very present tense. That aspect was a lot of fun to play.

What do you hope fans get out of the film?
Personally, I hope they feel that we captured even the tiniest bit of the energy that he has. I mean, fans know his story; they undoubtedly have a good idea of what he’s gone through in his life, how he suffered and was exploited, how he finally found peace in his life. And if they love his music, they certainly have a sense of who he is as an artist. But I hope the movie leaves them with a sense of compassion. More than anything, that’s what I got out of this. I’ve never told him that, but I’m sure he’d be happy to hear it.

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