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The Transformation Of Paul Dano From Childhood To The Batman

Matt Reeves' "The Batman" could not be more hotly-anticipated by fans around the world. One of the many reasons for the hype surrounding this latest entry into the Caped Crusader canon is the ensemble cast, which, in addition to the ingenious casting of Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz in the leading roles of Bruce Wayne and Catwoman, is set to feature Paul Dano as the primary villain. By the looks of it, a lot of mainstream audiences around the world are finally going to get a proper introduction to one of the most fascinating performers in American indie and arthouse cinema of the past two decades.

Born in New York City in 1984, Paul Dano moved with his family to Wilton, Connecticut at a young age, only to get involved in community theater in his teens, thus motivating his family to take him back to New York (via The Hour). From there on, it was nowhere but up for the actor.

He got his start as a child actor on Broadway and in movies

Although Paul Dano and his family weren't in a particular rush to achieve major Hollywood child stardom — he would later tell the New York Times that he saw acting in those days not as a potential career so much as a fun after-school activity — he still had a rather auspicious beginning. After nabbing an understudy position in a 1995 production of "A Month in the Country" (via IBDb), he managed to make his Broadway debut at all of 12 years old, playing Howard Blair in the 1996 revival of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's "Inherit the Wind."

A few years later, Dano also broke through in the movies, thanks to his role as Howie Blitzer, the protagonist of the 2001 indie drama "L.I.E." The film, which was acclaimed for its stomach-turning candidness and psychological acuity (via Metacritic), tells the story of a teenage boy who, in the throes of the trauma of losing his mother and feeling neglected by his father, finds himself drawn to a middle-aged hebephile named "Big John" Harrigan (Brian Cox). It was a daunting role for a 16-year-old actor to take on, but Dano aced it, earning across-the-board raves for his work as Howie.

Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood made him a marquee name

In the years following "L.I.E.," Paul Dano continued to act in movies and TV, appearing in films such as "The Emperor's Club" and "The Girl Next Door," and landing a recurring role on "The Sopranos" as Patrick Whalen, a friend of A.J. (Robert Iler).

But it was in the 2006-2007 biennium that Dano truly made himself a marquee name. First, he appeared as part of the legendary star-studded ensemble of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' "Little Miss Sunshine," the blueprint for all quirky Sundance dramedies that came after. He played Dwayne, the Hoover family's resident moody teenager, who's in the middle of a long-held vow of silence when the movie starts. His highly expressive yet reined-in performance won him, along with his co-stars, the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast.

Then, the following year, Dano showed the cinephile world that he meant business with his role in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood." Playing Eli Sunday, the devious and hypocritical preacher who becomes Daniel Plainview's (Daniel Day-Lewis) arch-nemesis, as well as Eli's twin brother Paul, Dano impressed critics with his ability to project cunning, menace, and fervor — and of course, to hold his own against Day-Lewis. The many awards and nominations for Best Supporting Actor he received (via IMDb) sealed the deal: Paul Dano was now in the big leagues.

He won awards for his portrayal of Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy

From there on out, Paul Dano became a cinema mainstay who could be seen in three to four movies a year, usually in supporting roles, but often in the lead of films like "Gigantic," "For Ellen" and "Ruby Sparks" — the latter of which was written by and co-starred his longtime partner Zoe Kazan, and also had Dano on board as an executive producer.

In those years, Dano got to play eccentric and offbeat supporting parts under the guidance of many A-list auteurs, including Denis Villeneuve, Steve McQueen, Rian Johnson, and Paolo Sorrentino. His most acclaimed performance by far in this period, though, was in "Love & Mercy," a biographical drama directed by veteran producer Bill Pohlad.

Although nominally a Brian Wilson biopic, "Love & Mercy" is actually split into two stories, one focused on the arduous, emotionally fraught recording process of the Beach Boys' landmark album "Pet Sounds," and the other centered on Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), her relationship to an older Brian (John Cusack), and her effort to free him from the draconian guardianship of Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Dano's lived-in performance as Wilson in the former timeline was among the most acclaimed of 2015, and it won him many more awards and nominations (via IMDb) — the performance would probably have won even more, in fact, if not for the category confusion that stemmed from being a lead in just 50% of the movie.

He returned to TV in great style with Escape at Dannemora

Paul Dano could be seen on TV relatively often at the beginning of his career. In addition to his "Sopranos" bow, he was also the lead in the 2002 Lifetime movie "Too Young to Be a Dad." As his film career took off, however, he mostly took a break from TV. It wasn't until 2016 that he made his return to the small screen with "War & Peace." A BBC One British-American co-production, this miniseries was based on the seminal Leo Tolstoy novel, and had Dano playing the central role of Pierre Bezukhov.

Not long after, he again appeared on a prestigious miniseries, this time stateside, playing David Sweat on Showtime's "Escape at Dannemora." Based on the real-life 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape, the series focused on the two convicted murderers, Sweat and Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro), who managed to escape the facility with the help of Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), a prison employee both of them were romantically involved with. The series earned Dano his first Emmy nomination, for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie (via IMDb).

All eyes are on his take on the Riddler in The Batman

Paul Dano did relatively less acting work between 2017 and 2022 compared to the fast clip of his earlier career, perhaps in part because he was busy making and promoting his directorial debut, "Wildlife." But, if there was any doubt left that Dano had established himself among the upper echelons of American character actors, co-starring in a buzzy premium cable miniseries alongside Oscar winners Patricia Arquette and Benicio Del Toro pretty much remedied it for good. 

Indeed, when the names in the cast of "The Batman" were rolled out, Dano's was right up there with the likes of Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, and Andy Serkis in terms of generating fan excitement.

The hype surrounding Dano's villain performance is particularly strong because "The Batman" will be the first theatrical Batman film to feature the Riddler as its primary antagonist since 1995's more lighthearted "Batman Forever." As envisioned by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig, the Riddler has been refashioned into a neurotic, terrifying serial killer loosely inspired by the Zodiac killer. Dano has spoken openly about the difficulty of going to the dark, intense places that the character required. "There were some nights around that I probably didn't sleep as well as I would've wanted to just because it was a little hard to come down from this character," the actor confessed to Entertainment Weekly. 

Now, we're about to see what all that effort has yielded, and we couldn't be more excited.