Paul Dano On Being Brian Wilson: “It Felt Like We Were Really Making Pet Sounds”

The award-winning actor speaks to MOJO about playing the troubled Beach Boy in our favourite film of the year, Love & Mercy.

Paul Dano On Being Brian Wilson: “It Felt Like We Were Really Making Pet Sounds”

“PAUL DANO AND John Cusack both did great jobs [as me],” Brian Wilson ventures in MOJO 266’s Review of The Year, where he reflects on the two actors’ differing approaches to playing him in Bill Pohlad’s remarkable Love & Mercy biopic, MOJO’s film of 2015. In London in October for the premier of Paolo Sorrentino’s new movie, Youth, Dano took time out to speak to MOJO about how he approached the difficult task of portraying the 23-year-old Wilson in the sections of the film that deal with the making of The Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds.

This car of mine: Paul Dano as Beach Boy Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy.

“The key to unlocking Brian was definitely through the music,” said Dano. “Then, at a certain point, you start to look at how a person holds his head or his shoulders, what part of their voice they speak from. Like I speak from the back of my throat; Brian’s a bit more forward. But he’s such an honest and open person that to mimic him would be a big mistake, so it’s really about finding that open centre. I think that’s what made the world painful for him. I think he really was an open vessel of a person.”

Dano also sang and played the Beach Boys songs live in the film, a fact that contributed significantly to his portrayal of Wilson.

“The other stuff was so clear,” he explained, “his father’s violence and the mental illness, but it was more the other side of it, finding the centre of his creative joy, learning to play and sing those songs, that really puts it in your body.”

“The key to unlocking Brian was definitely through the music.”

Paul Dano

Against the advice of his producers, Pohlad filmed the Pet Sounds scenes with real musicians in Hollywood’s EastWest Studios, formerly United Western Recorders, one of the actual studios where Pet Sounds was recorded.

“We were in the studio that Brian actually recorded Pet Sounds in,” says Dano, “with real musicians who’d toured with Brian. These guys revered Brian so much that they looked up to me, weirdly, in the room. I’d listened to so much of that music from the vault that I could kind of work with all of them and there’s such a difference in the energy in the room, to actually hear a live clarinet or a timpani rather than just hearing it on a speaker.

“Bill did a great job there,” Dano concludes. “He set up everything to succeed. You felt it in the room. Everybody felt it. It felt like we were really making Pet Sounds, you know?”

Love & Mercy is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 4, 2016.