Paul Dano finds singing ‘healthy and spiritual’ | Inquirer Entertainment
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Paul Dano finds singing ‘healthy and spiritual’

By: - Columnist
/ 12:07 AM June 21, 2015
“IN THE credits, I saw ‘Performed by Paul Dano’... I was like, good, I couldn’t even tell,” the actor says of sounding like pop legend Brian Wilson. photo by Ruben V. Nepales

“IN THE credits, I saw ‘Performed by Paul Dano’… I was like, good, I couldn’t even tell,” the actor says of sounding like pop legend Brian Wilson. photo by Ruben V. Nepales

LOS ANGELES—Two actors who give among the best male performances so far this year play one and the same person. Paul Dano and John Cusack portray the young and old Brian Wilson, respectively, in The Beach Boys cofounder’s biopic, director Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy.” But while John can also sing well, it’s Paul who gets to croon and use his real voice in some scenes depicting Brian, a widely regarded pop music genius in the 1960s.

As the mop-haired composer, arranger and producer of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” considered one of the all-time greatest albums, Paul gives a compelling performance. “Love & Mercy” depicts the rise of the band, whose original lineup included Brian’s brothers Dennis and Carl (both have passed away), cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. Some of Paul’s scenes involve Brian’s abusive father, Murry Wilson, who became the band’s manager until he was fired.


The older Brian also experienced troubled times under his psychologist, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who took control of the artist’s life and career while he was under his care. “Love and mercy” came in the form of Melinda Ledbetter (a terrific Elizabeth Banks), a car salesperson who became Brian’s second wife and inspiration in his resurgence as a solo artist.

By coincidence, Paul and Brian’s birth anniversaries are almost the same—June 19 and 20, respectively. The soft-spoken actor, who made his Broadway debut at age 12, is building an impressive filmography, with credits that include “Little Miss Sunshine,” “There Will Be Blood” and “12 Years a Slave.”


Below are excerpts from our interview with Paul:

What was it like filming in the studio—did it inspire something in you musically?

Yeah, definitely. It was actually the same studio where Brian recorded “Pet Sounds” back in the 1960s. So in the spirit of Brian, I did try to summon any ghosts or angels that might come visit us again because he felt connected to something bigger than himself while he was in there during that time.

That week and a half in the studio was probably the most fun I have ever had acting. We got real musicians in there to play The Wrecking Crew and they played everything live. I did all my playing and singing live. Bill (Pohlad) had two 16-mm film cameras in there. He just let the cameras roll. I knew the “Pet Sounds” sessions very well by that point so I was able to stop and start the musicians and tell them what to do. It did feel like we were creating.

Do you have any experience singing and playing the piano? How challenging was that part?

It was hard because Brian’s vocal range is big. He has a beautiful falsetto but he can also sing quite low. The songs are really beautiful but hard. I grew up singing. It’s sort of partially how I got into acting. I always liked singing in schools and being in musicals. I started in New York theater doing some musicals and plays. I played in some bands—guitar and other things.

I learned some piano. I spent months on that, waking up every day and sitting down and learning some of the chords of “Surf’s Up” and learning how to sing it. I did a ton of prep but without question, that is the thing that brought me closest to Brian. The physical act of playing and singing is actually putting Brian inside you.


I worked with somebody in New York—a great vocal person… to stretch my range and get my tone of voice a little closer to Brian’s. My natural voice is not quite as clear and Brian’s got kind of a bell; it’s quite forward and clear. I didn’t really want to mimic him but I just wanted to get close enough to the spirit of how Brian sang and played. He had a really heavy left hand when he played the piano because he played the bass, so his bass patterns are really hard and cool.

Bill told me without hearing me sing, “Now, you can sing.” I was like, “How do you know I can sing?” I was really nervous but I remember having to record something and sending it to Brian and Melinda. They were really excited by it. Once I passed that test, I felt really good about what I was going to do. Bill let me do all that stuff live and we didn’t do any overdubs.

It’s cool because in some scenes, you can’t actually tell if it is me or Brian [singing] because Brian always doubled his voice on the tracks. When you double my voice, it actually kind of sounds like Brian. I watched the movie last night. In the credits, I saw “Performed by Paul Dano.” I was like, good, I couldn’t even tell! That was the best part of the job. I don’t think I will find another part as fun to prepare for.

Do you still sing and play or have you stopped since the filming ended?

I keep up singing a bit. I play the guitar more at home. I would like to get a proper piano. I have a keyboard but it’s just not as fun as the real deal. The other thing I learned was that Brian still has a child in him. He’s such a raw person. I don’t think he ever let go—the young part in him is really present. It’s just like how kids are always singing. The adults are not always singing. There’s something about singing that I discovered is really healthy and spiritual.

Brian had a troubled relationship with his father and was abused psychologically by Eugene Landy. In your research, what did you discover? Did Brian’s father also harm his brothers?

Their father was really hard on them, verbally and physically. There are some stories that are really hard to swallow. I think—without question—that contributes to how one sees and feels the world; their father, who was also their manager, was really hard on them and really competitive.

DANO with furry pals in a recording session scene from “Love & Mercy”

DANO with furry pals in a recording session scene from “Love & Mercy”

Brian wanted to be free in his music. I think that was a little hard with his dad around sometimes. The most complicated thing about Brian is that he still has love for that person. He says that he probably wouldn’t have gotten to where he was without his father, even though he has such bad feelings toward his father. I feel like part of the psychology is that you are stuck in between and it’s almost like guilt—I think his father mortgaged his business or house to help The Beach Boys get started.

So when Brian fired his father, that was really hard for him to do. His father stayed in bed for a month after, which is interesting because Brian was also in bed after a while. That’s a big part of it and it’s not the only thing. That he found Landy who was like his father, take two—again, somebody who gave him something but was also terribly abusive. That was really hard because Brian is the kind of guy you actually want to be there for, because he is such a sweet spirit.

Brian told us that it was important for him that you and John got his mannerisms. How much time did you spend with him?

I also spent several months preparing on my own before meeting Brian because he was different in the 1960s than he is now. I researched video footage, photographs, books, the session stuff to hear even just his energy and his voice, the music, talking to people who worked with him and basically everything I could get my hands on—I tried to take it all in.

Then of course, finally meeting Brian. Again, what strikes me most about him is that he’s definitely got a presence. He’s got a spirit. There’s some magic in him somewhere. That was the thing that I searched for the most. Along the way, I tried to figure out Brian’s physical aspects which hopefully helped me find his inner life aspects. I did have many resources. It was fun to research and study.

Brian was inspired by Melinda after meeting her. Who inspires you in your professional and personal life?

My girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) does for sure. She’s an actor and a writer. She’s amazing. She definitely makes me step up my game just via her own hard work. She definitely inspires me to want to do my best as well. We do that to each other, which is nice.

Also, friends and anybody who is trying to do good work. I look up to athletes a lot. Something about the rigors of how they work, the hours they have to put in, the focus and commitment. I love sports. So I find a lot of inspiration from that.

(E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at

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