Paul Dano is hiding his hair under a trucker hat and carrying a few days’ stubble. Six weeks ago exactly, his partner, actor Zoe Kazan, gave birth to their first child. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t super tired,” he says, walking into Central Park on a recent sunny morning in New York City. “But it’s heart expanding.”
After taking a monthlong break to focus on the baby, Dano is promoting another manner of child: his directorial debut, the moody, beautifully shot period drama Wildlife (out Oct. 19), which he wrote and produced with Kazan. It’s a film about family dysfunction, based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, which unfolds against rural sunsets and forest fires in 1960s Montana. The Brinsons are new to their small town, and struggling. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), a husband and father, reels after losing his job. When he runs away from his problems to fight fires outside town, his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) implodes and sparks a new romance. They unravel through the eyes of their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who is horrified to discover his parents’ fallibility. Oxenbould, 15 during filming, captures Joe’s anguish with the skill of an adult–a great surprise for Dano. “Directing is kind of like parenting–you just try to get the best out of everybody,” he says. “Push them a little left or right, and catch them when they fall.”
Dano himself started acting so early he remembers agonizing over finding time to travel with his basketball team while also performing in A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden. Now 34, he has proven himself across genres–playing bookish types in Little Miss Sunshine and The Girl Next Door, artists in Love & Mercy and Youth, and a maniacal preacher in There Will Be Blood. (His IMDB page says his trademark is getting beaten up. He doesn’t agree but thinks that’s funny.) He’ll return to Broadway this winter in True West. And he plays a real-life prison escapee in the upcoming Showtime series Escape at Dannemora.
But Dano always wanted to work behind the camera. He tried to come up with a story, but nothing stuck. Then in 2011, he read Ford’s 1990 novel. “Ford somehow was able to capture a great amount of love with a great amount of struggle,” Dano says. He relates to Joe’s feeling of fighting to steady a rocking boat. “The idea of trying to hold things together, to not let things tip in the wrong direction, felt true to who I am.”
Dano obsessed for a year before reaching out to Ford to option the film rights with Kazan in 2012, and wrote the first draft himself, adapting its deeply internal story as best he could. He handed it to Kazan, an experienced screenwriter. She tore it apart. The couple spent years passing drafts back and forth between jobs before settling on the final version.
Joe is 14 in the movie–the age when Dano himself moved with his own family. “When you move to a new place, your family is your life–it’s all you have,” he says. His was always close, once sharing a single bedroom between his parents, sister and himself. “There’s a great quote,” Dano says, tossing a stray volleyball back to its owners. “About how right outside the doors of home is the edge of the world.”
For now, Dano is happy to keep his focus inside. He’s up with Kazan for every feeding at night. He’s figuring out how to help their daughter become a critical thinker. Maybe he’ll get married. Dano and Kazan have been together for a decade, and he says calling her his girlfriend now feels “insufficient.” He’ll throw himself into his next role soon. “But right now,” he says, “I have to learn how to be a parent.”
This appears in the October 29, 2018 issue of TIME.