Paul Dano isn't scared. Except when he is. And then it's OK.
"We have to be careful of this word, 'scared' -- it's a good feeling," the polite, soft-spoken 23-year-old said when asked if he'd taken on roles that frightened him. " 'There Will Be Blood' is definitely one of the bigger challenges," he said of his new film, which opens in limited release Dec. 26. "In 'Little Miss Sunshine,' I didn't talk -- you have to trust the camera and your directors; you don't know how much is reading. That was really kind of scary. When I saw it for the first time with an audience, people seemed to get the character and I was so relieved."
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, directors of "Little Miss Sunshine," noted the role of the Nietzsche-loving, stubbornly silent wannabe-pilot originally called for a Mohawk-sporting bodybuilder, but the lanky, long-haired Dano was so winning they changed their take on the part.
"We sort of loved that you saw how far he had to go" to reach his dream, Faris said. "And his Mohawk was a feeling, not an external statement," added Dayton, laughing.
Dano, speaking by phone from New York between rehearsals for the Ethan Hawke-directed play "Things We Want," has been both indelible and unrecognizable in his young career. In "L.I.E.," he was an erudite but deeply troubled youth; in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," a thoughtless cad; and he made perhaps his biggest splash as the seemingly aloof brother in "Little Miss Sunshine."
But Paul Thomas Anderson's upcoming "There Will Be Blood" could be his breakout performance; he portrays a young evangelical preacher in a remote turn-of-the-century California town who butts heads with Daniel Day-Lewis' driven oilman.
A fan of Anderson's, Dano had his share of nerves before landing the part. "That was intimidating, just getting to meet Paul and audition for him. He's such a great writer and filmmaker."
Anderson returned the compliment via e-mail, saying that Dano "has more focus than any other young actor I've met. . . . There are a few young actors coming around right now who are very exciting, and I consider Paul the leader of the pack."
"Blood," based on Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!," reunites Dano (pronounced DAY-no) with Day-Lewis, his "Jack and Rose" costar. As enigmatic clergyman Eli Sunday, Dano strikes a balance between physical awkwardness and the grace of someone who may be divinely inspired.
"I didn't model it specifically on another creature. Everything matters, especially in a period piece. We're talking about physicality and articulation of language. Especially when Daniel is there," he said of Day-Lewis, famous for his immersion in roles. "He's that guy. He just is."
Dano does his share of research for parts, though he acknowledges that in preparation for "Fast Food Nation" he applied at a few McDonald's restaurants but never landed the job. He suspects that at least one franchise staff knew he was an actor.
Apart from the improbable success of "Sunshine," Dano's resume is remarkably clear of blockbusters, but he doesn't consciously seek independent film work.
"I don't feel pressure to do this type of film or that type; hopefully that's not too naive a thing to say," he said.
"The more passionate you become about what you do, the more it means to you -- it's important to enter into a project with that, something ineffable, intangible."