When he’s in his birthplace of New York City, actor Paul Dano says he’s most recognized for playing Daniel Day-Lewis’s evangelical nemesis, whose proverbial “milkshake” of oil gets drained in “There Will Be Blood.” Outside of major cities, the 26-year-old is more instantly familiar as the mute Nietzschean road-tripper from lighter Best Picture Oscar nominee, “Little Miss Sunshine.” And one time recently, at an ice creamery in Brooklyn (where he currently lives), a delighted scooper spotted him from one of her favorite films, “The Ballad of Jack and Rose.” It’s a credit to Dano’s gifts that he can shine in projects so diversely night and day, including his first summer blockbuster, “Knight and Day.”
For “American Splendor” filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s new comedy “The Extra Man” (adapted from a novel by “Bored to Death” creator Jonathan Ames), Dano plays Louis Ives, a NYC newcomer, friendless daydreamer and secret cross-dresser who begins subletting from unsuccessful playwright Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline). More than merely mismatched, the two quickly develop an unusual mentorship as the deeply eccentric Henry teaches Louis how to make ends meet as an escort to wealthy old ladies. I met Dano to discuss weird roommates, his band Mook, the collaborator who took him to tranny bars, and why wearing women’s clothing is scary.
Have you had any unusual mentors in your life?
Not in the way that Kevin Kline’s character is to this guy. I’ve definitely had mentors, whether parents or friends or actors who I like. That’s just something that I consider lucky. I liked getting to work with Kevin, and we remain buddies. He’s a hilarious dude and a great actor. He’s somebody I can easily go to and say, “Hey, man, what do you think about this?” I try to steal any nuggets of wisdom he has. I’ve had a few of those, which has been great, but there hasn’t been a super-eccentric mentor.
Besides being a mentor to Louis, Henry makes for an odd roommate. Do you have your own stories of weird roomies?
I lived with two guys in the East Village for three or four years. My grandma sent me this vat of her amazing chicken soup. It was frozen in a big Tupperware [container]. I came home one night, it must have been 4am, and one roommate had almost eaten the whole thing straight out of the freezer. I was so angry — not only did he eat my soup, but that’s not the way to eat my grandma’s chicken soup, which takes a few days to make. It was a strange sight to behold a guy guzzling a vat of chunky, frozen soup. He would do that with a jar of horseradish or mustard. There would be repercussions the next morning, waking up to certain sounds in the bathroom. [laughs]
Our apartment was a disaster. The first time my girlfriend came over, it was just a shithole. Flies over the sink. We had a fish tank that was sludge green. No fish, ever. We tried, but they never made it. The thing stunk. I don’t have any stories beyond that. One of my friends is an eccentric to the truest form, but I don’t want to say. He’s my friend.
The scene in the Russian Tea Room in “The Extra Man” reminded me how many NYC landmarks I’ve still never visited. Are there any local treasures you could say that about as a native New Yorker?
I’m sure there are, but I’d probably be ashamed to admit if I could think of them. That was one of the things that piqued my interest about the film. It was a piece of New York that I didn’t really know. Getting to go to the Russian Tea Room was a thing. You should go. They gave us a little caviar, it was quite good.
I grew up in Manhattan, and now I live in Brooklyn. Getting to know Brooklyn has been like grabbing my hat. Brooklyn was way over there. [laughs] I never went as a child, so that’s a whole part of the city I now know. I don’t know Queens well, except for Astoria and Sunnyside, and I need to get up to the Bronx. I know it’s not like going to the Russian Tea Room, but I feel I should get there and see what’s up. Apparently, this Boom Boom Room is a happening place. I haven’t gone there. I got invited the other night, and I was like, “Ugh, sounds awful.” A whiskey on the rocks is probably a hundred bucks.
Did you spend any time with writer Jonathan Ames?
Oh, yeah. He lives a block away from me. I like Ames, man. He’s a singular guy. We met because of the film, and I spent time with him before we started. He liked to come around during filming. We obviously bump into each other on the street, but also catch up every now and again. He’s a source of endless amusement. If you want eccentric stories, that’s the dude to talk to. We went to some tranny bars together, that was interesting. He’s written a bit about what he knows. He knew the ropes and helped me find research. The movie seems pretty out there, but some of it’s not far from the truth.
Was this the first time you’ve worn drag?
Yeah, full drag. I’ve probably put on a wig, and I’ve definitely worn girls’ clothing before, whether it was a joke, or a dare with your girlfriend. This was heels, stockings, panties, bra, slip, wig, eyeliner and lipstick. I’ve never done that. It’s a little scary at first because you ask yourself, “How am I going to feel about this? What if I’m turned on by it? Am I going to want to do it again? What does it say about me?”
But I felt totally like myself. I was shocked that I did: “Okay, I can do this. It doesn’t make me feel that weird.” The clothing didn’t bother me, but the lipstick did. It was uncomfortable. That was when the line got crossed. I was like, “Oh shit, how long am I going to have to stay like this?” But it was interesting. I don’t know when I would’ve done that if not then.