While Paul Dano was in the throes of playing Steven Spielberg’s father in the famed director’s semi-autobiographical movie The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s sisters Anne, Nancy and Sue would sometimes pay visits to the set. And when they did, they would sometimes call Dano “Dad.”
“It felt like a heavy cloak to bear in some ways because Steven’s relationship with his father had some ups and downs. So I feel like I have to let Burt lead the way when I’m at work. It’s a trip to be sort of living that out. And, you know, Steven’s sisters would come to set and they would sometimes call me ‘dad,’ and it was just wild. It was moving,” Dano told MovieMaker.
In The Fabelmans, Paul Dano plays Burt Fabelman, who is based on Spielberg’s real-life father, Arnold Spielberg.
“It was a very intimate, emotional experience. It was not like any other film I’ve made. It was really a singular experience, and especially to have that experience with someone like Steven, it’s hard to quantify, frankly,” he added.
As for whether Dano was intimidated by playing the father of such an icon of cinema, he says he used that feeling to motivate him.
“You have to find a way to use that, turn it into a healthy motivating fear, you know? But that’s the thing — once you get to work, the nerves become more specific than big,” he said. “Each week you’re working on it, and Steven and I would Zoom and we would talk, and I’d have access to his family archives, and I’d do a lot of my own research.”
A father himself, Dano realized he could draw on his personal experiences for the character as well.
“It’s also a subject matter that I felt I could really give something to, just [in terms of ] family, marriage and art,” he said. “So we then got to read the script and we Zoomed a second second time, and both of our conversations were really surprisingly easy and fruitful, considering that I was nervous, meaning he was so open and emotionally available that I had a lovely time talking to him. And then we had a third zoom, where he’s got an unlit cigar in his mouth, and he said, ‘I think you’ll make my dad proud.’ And I got to do the film.”
Of course, Dano has experience playing real-life people — he played The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in 2014’s Love & Mercy. He applied some of those concepts to playing Burt, but since Spielberg’s real father lived the majority of his life out of the public eye and there was no pre-formed idea of who he was, Dano says he was able to build the character “from the ground up.”
“There’s something really different when you are playing somebody who’s real, because there’s sort of this — as if you’re trying to make contact with some piece of their spirit or essence, and you’re trying to allow them to also come through you,” Dano said. “I hope and think that there is a real piece of Arnold with us in this film. But also, it is Burt at a certain point. And for me, one of the guiding feelings I had was, well, how do I capture a life lived? I don’t know why, but that felt important to me… So I literally just tried to build the character from the ground up. I drew a stick figure and thought, okay, how am I going to get to here? And where does he hold his energy versus weight and walk and talk? I read a lot of period engineering manuals because there was such a clear ethos for the American man at that time — post-World War II, the greatest generation. He came from immigrant parents who didn’t have much and believed in the American dream. It was a time when I think there was something united in the country then, and the American man.”
Dano also got to draw on his memories of his grandfather for inspiration for Burt.
“My grandpa was like that. He worked for Ford and Xerox and served in World War II, so I had whatever pieces of me are coming to the table. The hope is never to mimic or to imitate, but rather to somehow capture the essence of that person,” he said.
The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters.
Main Image: Paul Dano as Burt Fabelman in The Fabelmans. Photo credit: Universal/Amblin Entertainment