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Paul Dano on the Art of Becoming Brian Wilson

For “Love & Mercy’ star, playing the Beach Boys leader was the challenge of his career

Paul Dano

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in 'Love & Mercy.'

Francoise Duamel/Roadside Attractions

Over the past decade, Paul Dano has portrayed everyone from a firebrand preacher in There Will Be Blood to a mentally challenged kidnapper in Prisoners. But on the second day of shooting Love & Mercy, the new Brian Wilson biopic, he faced his greatest acting challenge yet: re-creating Wilson’s spellbinding solo-piano performance of the Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” from a 1967 television special. “I was shaking,” says Dano. “It was a fool’s errand to try to get my voice to sound exactly like Brian’s. His range is so bananas.”

Dano nailed the scene, thanks in large part to the months of work he put in preparing to play Wilson. The actor hung out with members of the Wrecking Crew, who worked with Wilson in the Sixties, and spent time in the Beach Boys vault. “I got to spend six months listening to all of the studio sessions,” Dano says, “including ones the public hasn’t heard.”

Wilson’s current bandleader, Darian Sahanaja, helped Dano with his vocal imitation. The actor still faced a hurdle: getting Wilson and his wife, Melinda, who both cooperated with the film, to agree to let him sing onscreen. “I had to send them a clip of me singing and playing ‘You Still Believe in Me,’ ” he says. “If they hadn’t been happy, I would have been heartbroken. But they had a positive response to it.”

Much of Love & Mercy centers around the triumphant Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson’s growing mental-health issues and his struggle to record the doomed follow-up album, Smile. “What’s most sad is that Brian didn’t have a support system,” says Dano. “The Beatles had four guys and George Martin, who would be like, ‘Hey, let’s try this crazy thing,’ and everyone would be like, ‘Fuck, yeah.’ Brian would be like, ‘Hey, let’s go out there,’ and everyone would be like, ‘No.’ ”

Love & Mercy jumps back and forth between the Sixties and the mid-1980s, with the older Wilson played by John Cusack. Throughout much of the film, Wilson is under the sway of therapist Eugene Landy, who controls every aspect of his life. “I think he was just trying to survive,” says Cusack. “I would get angry thinking about it. You shouldn’t do that to anyone. It seemed even worse to do it to Brian Wilson.”

Love & Mercy has already received a rave from its most important critic. “I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, and Brian sat right across the aisle,” says Dano. “He said, ‘That’s a really good movie,’ and repeated it a few times. That was a great release for me.”

In This Article: Brian Wilson, Paul Dano

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