I Work Harder Now: Paul Dano on Ruby Sparks

The star of the new indie comedy on working from his girlfriend's screenplay, tricks of the acting trade and memories of There Will Be Blood.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Ruby Sparks is the indie version of a romantic comedy. Instead of Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, it’s Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan. Instead of following all the kooky shenanigans of a magical premise, it really explores the dark side of fantasy relationships. Dano plays Calvin, a struggling author who is inspired by a dream to write about a girl named Ruby Sparks. When Ruby (Kazan) shows up in real life, he finds he has the power to control her with whatever he types. He has some fun with it, but then really uses his power to manipulate Ruby into the way he wants her. Dano and Kazan are also dating in real life and she wrote the movie’s script. Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed. We got to chat with Dano privately about his latest role.


CraveOnline: Is it a big year for you with this, Being Flynn and For Ellen all coming out this year?

Paul Dano: I guess so. Now that you said it it feels like one. Definitely right now, we’re getting to share this film with people now. That makes it a big year I guess because this one in particular I care about so much. It was such a good, important and gratifying experience. It’s sometimes hard to believe that we’re here putting it out into the world now.


Is Ruby Sparks a little bit more personal to you than other films?

Yeah, for sure. Zoe wrote it in our studio apartment. I read most pages as she wrote them. We dreamt about it for a while and sent it to John and Val who are our dream choice of director. They said yes which I still can’t believe sometimes that we got to go make the version of the film that we wanted to make.


Do you still live in a studio apartment?

No. We live in New York. We don’t have a big apartment or anything but it’s not studio. We needed a couple doors.


Was it your goal to make Calvin a little bit creepy?

No. No, it was not. Did you find him creepy?


I think there are some things about him that are a lot more uncomfortable than the usual romantic comedy leading man.

Yeah, yeah. Well, I think we wanted to make a romantic comedy but the kind of romantic comedies that we like and aspire to would be something like Groundhog Day or Annie Hall. I think Calvin is just really human. If we’re going to explore the issue of control and not write it off as just a little fairy tale thing that means nothing, we have to go to a dark place at some point. So I hope that the film is fun and magical and romantic, but I hope it has some depth and goes somewhere unexpected. But I think what he does is just as painful for him as it is for her. And I think it’s really self-destructive and masochistic. To set her free, he has to make her not love him essentially. The best thing I can say like an analogy would be, sometimes to get sober you have to have a really bad night. I think you sometimes have to go hit rock bottom before you can grow and rebuild as a person. So I think that’s what it is. I don’t think it’s creepy or malicious or vindictive. I think that’s the only place that it can go. Otherwise we wouldn’t be indicting the idea of controlling somebody or exploring it.


Is it also important to learn that it’s really stressful to try to control your perfect mate? There’s always some gap you didn’t think of.

I think you can’t design your perfect mate is the thing. I think Calvin’s journey is learning that you can’t love the idea of somebody. You have to love the person and you have to be open to the person sitting across from you, their beautiful qualities and also the parts of them that you don’t like. Nobody’s perfect and love is imperfect so I think if you want more than the honeymoon phase, you have to accept the person and learn about them and learn all the parts of them and not impose an idea on them.


Is Calvin so busy thinking about his own problems he can’t exist with other people?

Yeah. I think that’s part of his problem. I think Calvin is scared of life and I think he feels like other people want things from him. His mother’s changed on him. His ex-girlfriend left him. His father’s passed away and he can’t write, he can’t follow up his success so he wants to stay in his house where it’s safe and where he can control things. So I absolutely think there’s some arrested development in him. That is exactly right.


As Zoe was writing this, were there some interesting discussions at home about how she sees relationships?

No. I think Zoe and I have a pretty good relationship. It wasn’t our life being put up on screen so I feel like there was a lot of imagination at work, as well as experience for her.  I feel like I’ve seen just as many of my friends being controlled by their girlfriends and they change and you’re like, “What the hell is going on?” And they break up and come back to life, as that happens to women too. I just came at it looking at what kind of film are we going to try to make? I didn’t look at this as examining our relationship or me or her. I thought it was interesting while she was writing.


Was it maybe more about how relationships are often portrayed in movies?

Well, I think that’s something to think about. I don’t think that was probably the initial intent. I think it was probably more emotionally rooted than that, but I do think that that is something that could be discussed with the film.


When you hear the discussions people are having about Ruby Sparks, even when I ask about something that might not be how you saw it, do you feel like “Mission Accomplished?”

Totally. Absolutely. We’ve been going around to a bunch of cities screening it and the Q&As have been awesome. People have been super engaged. They’ve been having really personal responses to the film and it has been really, really awesome. I even think there’s multiple interpretations and the hope is that you had a personal reaction. Your emotions come into watching and spending time with these characters, so I think every reaction is valid. There’s not one way to respond to something but I think just the fact that you’re having some kind of reaction is a good thing.


Since you were so close to the film, were there any scenes that didn’t make the final cut that you missed?

I think John and Val made the best film possible. It’s not easy to say that because it’s really hard to make a film because there are so many people contributing, so many elements that have to align. There’s a couple little things that I liked doing that aren’t necessary to the story maybe in the end. So there’s nothing I miss for the film. There’s things that I had fun doing but I think they made the best film possible.


Anything we might see on the DVD?

There might be a little thing or two. I don’t think there’s going to be that much. There’ll be a few little things maybe. There’s one little thing that got cut from the film and I knew it was going to when we did it because it was a two minute silent scene, but it was very fun to do. It wasn’t meant to be that but it was, we just let the cameras roll and it was like okay, that was interesting and awesome. But again, if it was necessary, it would be in there.


I’m fascinated by scenes of waking up on film, because I know you’re not actually waking up and that might not even be the first take. What is that like to play over and over on the day?

I guess you do, if you can, jump in there while they’re lighting and just kind of see if you can at least just distract yourself and close your eyes and relax your whole body. Then there are I think probably little things you can do to at least try and get to that place, like your breathing pattern when you’re sleeping. If you kind of know what your partner looks like when they’re sleeping, the breath is deeper and longer. You try and do something so it’s not a total [fake]. That’s what an actor does with everything though.


So at least get to a place where you do have to jar yourself out of it?

Hopefully, hopefully. That’s what you try to do. It might be harder on take two than take one. Who knows?


How many takes did you do on the treadmills?

We did a few. You know what though? I always ask for more takes. I like doing takes so I’ll do as many as I can.


Did you have to type real words, even when we don’t see the pages?

Well, no. I didn’t but I tried to just because of the emotional intent, I have to be thinking about this while I’m typing. I can be sloppy though. If I f*** up, I’m not going to cut if you can’t see it. Yeah, I like to be at least trying.


Had you ever used a manual typewriter before?

Wow, no, not really. I’ve probably hit keys on one before but it was actually a lot harder than I anticipated and took a lot of practice.


What did he type to make her stop speaking French?

Oh, that’s right. He goes upstairs and types. Your guess is as good as mine at this point.  “Ruby stops speaking French and had no awareness she was doing so.” I don’t know. We probably had something. I just can’t remember what it was.


How do you look back some of the landmark films in your career like There Will Be Blood? How do you reflect on an experience like that?

When I think about something like that, I think about being in Martha, TX with Paul [Thomas] Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis, going to work and how much fun it was and how hard it was. I don’t so much think about people’s perception about it. My first gut thing when you say that was a flash to Texas and being there. That’s what I remember and I don’t know that I reflect on it all that often though, but it’s a part of me, those experiences that mean a lot to me and they are a part of me somehow.


Except for maybe the milkshake scene, the “I’ve abandoned my child” scene seems to be the go-to clip we see. When you were shooting it, did you imagine it would be the highlight clip?

Well, no, but when I read the script, it was such a phenomenal piece of writing, I would’ve remembered it even if I hadn’t done it. I was really blown away by what Paul wrote and then blown away by what Daniel did. So I remember those scenes vividly. Although at the same time, they’re sort of a fog too. When we were making that film, it felt that there was something special about it. It felt that way.


I remember in The Ballad of Jack and Rose how many characters refer to how gorgeous you are. Was that interesting because they don’t usually portray you as a leading man in movies?

Boy, I don’t even remember that. Yeah, wow, no. I was probably 19. That was, my God, nine years ago now. No, I don’t. I guess that was part of the character. Yeah, I think that guy was kind of vain too and kind of sensual, sexual and snake-like so that makes sense. He probably would like to hear that, that character. But I believe in actors being able to play different parts and hopefully transform and surprise people. That’s what I like in actors so I don’t consider myself not a leading man.


What other films stand out in your experience?

I feel like I’ve had a lot. I’ve been very fortunate and I have a lot of films that I loved making, down to the first film I ever made called L.I.E. which I think is a really important experience in my life. The Ballad of Jack and Rose was really important to me. Little Miss Sunshine was really important to me. I have a film coming out later this year called For Ellen, a small film. I loved playing that character. That was an important experience as an actor for me. Even getting to do a small part with a filmmaker who I really like, that’s important to me. So what’s important to me is really personal and sometimes it has nothing to do with if people like the film or don’t like the film. It’s always better, I want to make a good film and people to like it and all that, but often the experience is one thing and you see what happens with it.


Are those small parts for filmmakers you really like meaning James Mangold (Knight and Day), Jon Favreau (Cowboys & Aliens) and Rian Johnson (Looper)?

Exactly. Rian Johnson, I have a small part in Looper but I think he is going to make some really good films. He’s a young guy who’s very talented so I wanted to work with him. That’s why I did it.


Is it an action scene?

Uh, there’s some stuff in it. It’s a sci-fi film and it’s got some action. You’ll see. The less you know about that film, the better. It’s good and it’s surprising.


In what ways are you a better actor now than when you started?

Hmm. Well, I think I work harder now and I think I care more now. I have just more life experience that I can draw on. I think I’m more comfortable with myself now and can hopefully go to deeper and sillier and darker and funnier places. But also the best part about it is it’s a constant learning curve so it keeps me excited and going. It doesn’t feel boring or complacent. It’s like oh my God, every time a new thing.


How do you work harder?

Well, just more preparation. Just the way you carry yourself on set and your focus and dedication. Just the amount of time you put into it.