Sundance 2012: Nice guy Paul Dano acts tough in 'For Ellen'
Everyone knows Paul Dano can play nice. He's done it plenty of times before: as the dopey brother in the "Little Miss Sunshine" family, a sad, young homeless man in "The Good Heart" and the docile husband in "Meek's Cutoff."
But the lanky 27-year-old actor had never portrayed a real jerk on the big screen until "For Ellen," director So Yong Kim's minimalist drama that premiered at Sundance on Saturday evening.
In the film, Dano is Joby, a twentysomething in the middle of a messy divorce. He's the front-man of a rock band that has found only middling success, and he has a penchant for smoking, excessive drinking and tattoos. Because of his devotion to his music, he's neglected his 5-year-old daughter, Ellen. When his ex demands full custody of their daughter in the divorce, Joby begins to wonder if it would still be possible to forge a relationship with Ellen.
Dano admitted that the hard-edged nature of Joby's character initially intimidated him.
"I immediately saw the character, but I didn't know how I would get to him," he said in a question-and-answer session after the screening. "I never did so much shopping looking for the right leather jacket. I went to every shop in New York," he added, referring to the cross-adorned jacket he sports throughout the film.
Relating to Joby's interest in hard rock music proved to be especially difficult, Dano said. While the actor was a fan of AC/DC and Guns N' Roses, the "modern equivalent" of those bands wasn't something he was familiar with.
"And then I put on Buck Cherry while driving on the Sunset Strip, and I realized there is a place for this music, which I did not get until then," he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Meanwhile, the audience struggled to hear director Kim, who appeared meek and admitted she was "embarrassed" to be speaking publicly. Known largely for her film "Treeless Mountain," Kim said she did not intend "For Ellen" to be as autobiographical as her previous work. Still, she acknowledged that the screenplay -- only 72 pages in all -- originated with a "vague memory" of her own absentee father visiting her as a child. She initially envisioned Joby as an older man, but once she began talking with Dano about the possibility of him being younger, she decided to change the film.
Despite the original age gap, Dano said he immediately responded to Kim's script.
"When I read a script, that's all I can ask for -- that terrible feeling of, 'I know I can do this, but I don't know how,' " he said. "I wish it could be that way every time."
-- Amy Kaufman
Photo: Paul Dano stars in "For Ellen." Credit: Sundance Film Festival