"I'm a sucker for period pieces," Paul Dano says. "There is always great opportunity for research, and to delude yourself into feeling like you are in a different time and place."
It seems to work: Dano has been spending a great deal of time in the past lately, especially in the Old West. In There Will Be Blood (2007) the actor, then only 23, held his own playing a charismatic young preacher battling a business tycoon (Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis) during California's 1890s oil boom. This summer he will join Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig in the sci-fi Western Cowboys and Aliens, set in Arizona in 1873.
Before then, however, he'll be seen in another Western, Meek's Cutoff. Set for limited release throughout April, it's the story of a three-family wagon train that loses its way on the Oregon Trail in 1845.
All of that research has left Dano well versed in the hardships encountered by pioneers in 19th-century America, and he admits that he has his doubts about his own ability to cope with such an experience.
"I don't think a lot of modern people would be able to survive in that day and age," the actor says. "It was just such a different lifestyle for men and women."
One of the "turn-ons" about making Meek's Cutoff, he says, was the chance "to spend six weeks just walking oxen and making fires. I guess, if you are an actor, usually you like 'pretend' on a certain level."
One day, Dano says, he joined several other actors to fix a wagon axle, for real.
"It's not that long a scene," he says, "but I remember that we just shaved the hell out of this piece of wood. I know it is very simple, but I like doing that kind of thing."
Dano prefers to "follow my own nose" in determining how much research is helpful.
"I could read journal entries or a thick book on the journeys westward," he says, "or maybe I could spend some time working on the character's back story. You have to understand yourself and what you need."
Dano plays Thomas Gately, one of a group of six adults and a child led by Stephen Meek, a guide hired to escort the families over the Cascade Mountains. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the short cut Meek has taken has led the group into unmapped, inhospitable terrain.
Working with Zoe Kazan, who plays Gately's wife, Dano developed an extensive back story for their characters.
"Zoe is also my girlfriend in life," Dano says, "and so we had plenty of time to hang out and talk about it. The Gatelys were young and with some ambition. They wanted to head west to strike it rich. Then they got stuck at this cutoff."
The film was shot in a sparsely populated part of central Oregon, most of it on a salt flat an hour and a half away from any sort of civilization.
"I knew that this experience would be as gritty as making a film could possibly be," Dano says. "Meek's was very unique in the sense that you didn't have to delude yourself as much as you might normally have to. We were with a small crew out in the middle of the desert, where conditions were very hard. Walking with those oxen, you have to tend to your animal and the path that you are going on, so it doesn't give you time to think about acting, in a good way.
"The task is the thing."
Director Kelly Reichardt's previous four films frequently are discussed in terms of their political undertones -- Dano calls her Wendy and Lucy (2008) "one of the best films about the recession" that he has seen -- and Meek's Cutoff also has subtle political resonances. Lost in the rocky desert and faced with hunger and thirst, the emigrants begin to doubt their leader. When a Native American crosses their path, some see their salvation in a man who is familiar with the terrain but whom they've always regarded as a sworn enemy.
Dano sees "the idea of leadership" and "the idea of xenophobia" as issues relevant to audiences today, and also points to dialogue about the pros and cons of modern progress.
"What I like about Kelly's films is that I think the characters come first and then, underneath, there is a social and political aspect," he says. "When I saw this film, I was blown away by how relevant I felt it was, even more so than when I read it."
With the success of True Grit (2010) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), the Western genre has seen a recent resurgence in popularity. Dano calls Westerns "archetypal ... classic morality tales set in an interesting landscape.
"I know I am always pumped, as an audience member, to go and see a Western," he says. "I think that the Western went away for a while because part of its function was that it used to be America's action film."
His filmography includes several Westerns, but also runs a wide gamut of other genres. His biggest hit was the indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine (2006), but he also has scored with the coming-of-age drama L.I.E. (2001), the socially aware drama Fast Food Nation (2006), the 1960s tapestry Taking Woodstock (2009), and the Tom Cruise thriller Knight and Day (2010).
"In terms of self-reflection, there are definitely parts that have changed my career, so to speak, and then there are parts that really meant something personal to me," Dano says. "It might have been in a film that nobody saw, but I took a big step forward as an actor or I learned something really interesting. There are a few different kinds of progress."
He singles out his performance as the angst-ridden, Nietzche-reading teen in Little Miss Sunshine as "probably the standout example of something that I really enjoyed doing, and loved the people that I was working with, and then it did well. People liked it. That definitely changes things."
Becoming an actor was never a burning ambition for Dano, who says that he doesn't have the "5-year-old-boy story" that is many actor's account of the film that, seen as a child, set them on the path to acting.
"I always liked acting," he says, "but I also liked basketball."
Even so, acting was always part of the picture for Dano, who grew up in Manhattan and often accompanied his parents to the theater before moving to Connecticut as a teen. Parts in community-theater productions followed, as did college shows at Manhattan's New School for Liberal Arts.
It was during college that he finally made up his mind to pursue acting as a career.
"At one point," he says, "I remember feeling, 'OK, this is just inevitable. Not only is it what I want to do, I feel like I have to do it. I like it and I care about it.' "
Dano went on to work with some of today's top directors, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Jon Favreau, Spike Jonze, Ang Lee, and Richard Linklater.
"I like being a part of films that I like going to see and by filmmakers that I admire," he says. "I need to believe in them and trust them, so that I feel like I'm in good hands and can do my job the best way possible. You also become inspired when you get to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, who was one of my favorite filmmakers before I got to work with him. When you work with people who are that good, it forces you to try to step up your game."
In the upcoming Cowboys and Aliens, Dano plays Percy, the son of Harrison Ford's character. Percy is a brash hooligan who takes his father's wealth for granted and soon finds himself in jail.
"He's a really fun character," the young actor says. "Percy is a bit of a hothead. He's a spoiled brat, and he runs his mouth because he can.
"In life you have to keep certain parts of yourself in check because you want to be a decent human being. But one of the guilty pleasures of acting is that sometimes you get to let a little something out that you don't in life because it's not right. Using somebody else's words, you sometimes have an excuse to do that with a character."