"Gigantic" is a little elusive, even for the film's star.
"The title is so fitting, but I don't know if I could explain -- or if I want to -- what I think it means," Paul Dano says by phone from New York. Amid everyday hurdles and small acts of courage, Dano's character, Brian, a 28-year-old mattress salesman with much older, high-achieving brothers, faces down betes noires and romances a girl (played by Zooey Deschanel) as he pursues his dream of adopting a baby.
"Those small things, those life things, are so big for a person. It's everything and it's nothing. What could be more gigantic? Some people think 'Spider-Man' is gigantic, but that [role] felt gigantic to me."
That the thoughtful and articulate Dano has trouble pinning down the movie he executive produced is telling of director and co-writer Matt Aselton's debut. It's firmly rooted in reality but has important moments of surreality that keep the experience off a stable axis.
"I liked the element of mystery. I think some people won't; they'll want it explained," says Dano. "I like it that Brian has something going on that not everyone knows about, and that you have to figure him out a little bit."
The character is deceptively complex. At first blush, he might seem the sort of passive figure who often passes for a protagonist, someone to whom things happen. But as the actor points out, there's more to his behavior.
"He felt very normal but kept surprising me with his actions," says Dano. "He spoke through his actions, not his words as much. A pretty girl [sits on one of the showroom beds] and says, 'Can you see up my skirt?' He just looks and says, 'Not really.'
"Or showing up at her work -- that was, in a very small way, kind of heroic to me. I don't know if that's the appropriate term, but to me, those are brave things to do, actually. And he wants to adopt a kid. So there was something else to this guy you don't see on the surface.
"The mixture of repression -- or depression -- with confidence, was really intriguing. When I read it I felt like there was a lot to discover. And also, after 'There Will Be Blood,' it was great to read a comedy -- a romantic comedy -- that I liked."
The 24-year-old stage veteran relished the 180-degree turnaround from playing Eli Sunday in Paul Thomas Anderson's period film, especially because of this character's quality of being in the moment.
"Brian is not a performer of any kind. In 'There Will Be Blood,' my character was someone who was an actor himself almost. He had a rehearsed quality about him. He was a performance artist in a way," he says. "This was the type of acting experience where I couldn't really rehearse; I just had to get to know the character as best I could and then throw all that up in the air and, hopefully, a subconscious element plays a part of it. Just be there and try to live and exist in those scenes."
Something Dano has in common with "Blood" and "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" costar Daniel Day-Lewis is, despite whole acting toolboxes at their disposal, they prefer not to analyze how they file the joints into place.
"I don't know how to explain that process; truly, I can't," says Dano. "You sit down at a piano and you start playing notes; soon enough you're playing a melody. Even if you don't know how to play piano. Maybe it's just three notes, and you hear a melody you like. How you got there, you just don't know. You just sat there and did it.
"It's hard to talk about acting because I don't think it's quite as explicit as a lot of people might think. And that's probably the best thing about it. It's a constant process of discovering and learning."
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Where you've seen him
Paul Dano immediately made an impression in his first widely seen film, "L.I.E.," in which he formed a bond with a pedophile played by Brian Cox. He was Emile Hirsch's sidekick in the teen-sex comedy "The Girl Next Door" and a heartless cad romancing Daniel Day-Lewis' daughter in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose." But Dano is best known for formidable performances in two of the best-received American films in recent years: He played the disaffected son and aspiring pilot under a vow of silence in "Little Miss Sunshine," and he memorably faced off against Day-Lewis as the scheming young evangelical leader in "There Will Be Blood." Coming up: Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock" and Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are."