In the new film Love & Mercy, the role of legendary Beach Boys leader and chief songwriter Brian Wilson is played by two actors: John Cusack plays Wilson as an older man whose mental issues and drug problems have placed him under the control of a megalomaniacal psychotherapist, while Paul Dano essays the younger Wilson, hitting the peak of his creativity with the iconic Pet Sounds album and just heading down the dark path that would throw his life into chaos for many years.

Both actors are terrific but Dano, who looks a little more like Wilson and even gained weight for the role, cuts a truly tragic figure as a sweet-natured artist who cannot walk the difficult line between genius and madness. The 30-year-old New York actor’s resume is packed with memorable roles in movies like Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, 12 Years a Slave and Prisoners, but he may do his finest work yet in Love & Mercy. Screen Rant spoke with Dano about becoming obsessed with the Beach Boys’ music, recreating the studio sessions for Pet Sounds and even “collaborating” with Wilson himself.

Congratulations on the film, this is really remarkable stuff. What was your knowledge of Brian Wilson? We all know the Beach Boys to some extent but how far did your knowledge go before getting involved in this?

You know, I knew the music and I thought I knew a little bit about Brian, but when I read the script, I was like, “Whoa.” You know, the story — there’s so much struggle, so much pain behind music that made so many people smile. I was like, “Wow.” I really felt like there was a story to tell and I was very excited by that and I was very moved by it. And then I became obsessed — I mean, proper obsessed with the music. Pet Sounds and Smile, I mean, I still — I think it’s some of the best music ever made, so I was lucky to get in there and have some fun with that.

You got to meet him and spend some time with him. Some actors, when they play a real-life person, want to stay away because they don’t want the real person to bleed into their performance. So what was your position on that?

Both. I mean, I spent several months sort of working on it on my own before I met Brian — just sort of the research, the music, learning to play it, learning to sing it. I just wanted some time for my imagination to do its thing, and I do think Brian was different in the ‘60s than he is now. And I also just didn’t want to go near mimicry for Brian. He’s too sort of honest, you know, for that. He’s just too sort of open and raw, so it was important for me to kind of get some time in by myself with the imaginary Brian. And then to meet him, he’s got such a strong presence and spirit. Being in the room with him, you get something right away. To get to talk with him about music and geek out about being in the studio, I mean that was pretty great.

The Beach Boys in Love and Mercy Love & Mercy Interview: Paul Dano Talks Playing Brian Wilson

Some of the most thrilling scenes in the movie are of you as Brian orchestrating the sessions for Pet Sounds. And you’re a musician yourself, so did that tap into your desire as a musician to do that sort of thing at all?

No, I mean, honestly, I listened to so many hours of studio sessions, and we had Brian’s current band play the Wrecking Crew (the band that played on Pet Sounds) and they played live in the studio. And we were in the studio that he recorded Pet Sounds in. So I mean, it was like, to have those guys playing live — who play with him now — and me get to stop and start them and, you know, kind of build the song up, and the energy of it was unbelievable. It was so much fun. And Brian’s spirit in the studio, just sort of being so open to connecting to the music and, you know — I think that was some of the most fun I’ve ever had acting, that studio stuff.

You did some of the singing and then they sort of merged your voice with Brian’s on the soundtrack…?

Well, the scenes where I’m alone, I played the piano and sang live on set, and they used it. So, you know, I mean, I didn’t even get to go try and like touch it up and make it better. It’s just a sort of raw deal. And in the studio (scenes), it usually starts with me and as the song builds up, it goes to the song that you know.

Paul Dano Love and Mercy interview Love & Mercy Interview: Paul Dano Talks Playing Brian Wilson

You actually put on some weight for the movie too. How does that inform the role?

Yeah, you know…I just sort of started to walk towards Brian, so to speak, right from reading the script, and at first I didn’t know if putting on weight would make a difference, so I just kind of started. And then I started to feel different and sort of look in the mirror, and – I think it’s a way to just tap into a new energy and sort of lose self-consciousness really, you know. So yeah, I put on like 30 pounds, and I can’t say that was all fun, you know. It was a lot of sweating and being bloated and feeling, you know, like, I mean you have to force yourself to do it. But it did create a sense of freedom ultimately, so I was glad I did. It would be hard to do again, but…

Love and Mercy is now playing in theaters.

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