It’s a clever phrase — “you know”. It can be patronising, it can be praising. And when Paul Dano uses it, it seems to take on a whole different effect: a substitute for a full explanation, almost a safe word to allow him to stop talking.

Why was his family life as a child filled with “incredible turbulence”? “We were close and too close, you know?” What did he expect from his film career? “I’ve always been a slow and steady person, you know.” Is he disappointed not to have been nominated for an Oscar? “No, because, you know.”

I don’t know, I am tempted to interject. But it’s hard to be irate with Dano, a 34-year-old actor from New York with an unforgettably round face. He sits there on a hotel sofa, with the timidity of a junior employee who has crashed a company car.

“Part of the reason I have trouble answering certain questions,” he half-smiles, half-sighs from beneath his baseball cap, towards the end of our conversation, “is just that I don’t know I need to hear myself say things out in the world.” In the age of social media, this is an unfashionably sane view; it will, I think, never catch on.

Let’s start, therefore, with what we do know. Dano is a superb actor, a prince of independent cinema. He excelled as the speechless teenager who came good in Little Miss Sunshine and as the sweaty psychopath who tried to lynch Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

He has appeared alongside everyone from Daniel Day-Lewis to Daniel Radcliffe, without being overshadowed by any of them. In War & Peace, one of the BBC’s best dramas this decade, he was the fulcrum — the frustrated, maligned Pierre Bezukhov, striving to make his character as rich as his inheritance.

© Jack Davison

Dano does not look like a conventional A-lister, and his characters often end up being punched in the face. (The YouTube video of “Paul Dano’s Greatest Hits” is surprisingly literal.) Yet his appearance surely helps audiences warm to him. His choice of roles also gives the sense of a creative, restless mind — someone who refuses simply to take whatever paycheck is thrust in front of him. “If I get bored, I get sad and I don’t want to do that,” as he puts it, matter-of-factly.

Dano has now given the best insight yet into how he sees the world. Wildlife, his first film as a director and co-writer, is a compelling, beautiful tale of 1960s Montana. An adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel, starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, it is the story of a man who goes off on a whim to help fight a forest fire, and a wife who responds equally impulsively to his absence. It’s about a schism in marriage, and a teenage son’s attempt not to fall head first into the crack.

For Dano, this depiction of family love and stress echoes his own childhood. He grew up in Manhattan; his father was a financial adviser, his mother stayed at home. The family lived “in a one-bedroom apartment in New York — my sister and I in bunk beds, my mum and dad in the bed next to us”. There were strains, which the young Dano struggled to comprehend.

“My parents weren’t always together. They had, you know, their own relationship, and, as a kid, that’s something you navigate,” he says. Some boys would have responded by misbehaving, but Dano’s instinct was to be “always trying to keep things normal”. His parents did eventually reunite and move to a house in the suburbs. Dano remains “amazed that we as human beings have heartbreak and still move on”.

And the experience left him wondering about “the mystery of who our parents are — when you realise that they have a past life, or when they are struggling with something”. Wildlife confronts these themes masterfully. Dano, a man generally reluctant to talk about his own emotions, has channelled them into a rich story on screen instead.

In person Dano seems physically slight: you have to think that it’s lucky his film career worked out, given that his other childhood ambition was to play professional basketball. His vibe is quiet relief. “We did it. We made the film we wanted to make — I feel like it’s me, in a good way,” he says.

He has been working on Wildlife, off and on, for six years. He read the book in 2012 and, with his partner, the actor and writer Zoe Kazan (The Big SickRevolutionary Road), bought the option directly from Ford. “The only reason we did it was because I felt like I had to do it,” he says, emphasising how much the book moved him.

Dano took nearly a year off from acting to make the film, and the endeavour could have foundered at various points. Ed Oxenbould, the Australian actor cast as the teenage son, “was one of the last boys we saw. And I don’t know that there was another kid we could have cast.” Production almost had to be put back a year, because there was only enough money to film in Montana for four days, and no other location could be found with the right tax incentives and weather. Then came a “Hail Mary” idea — Oklahoma. Dano and his production designer “drove the entire state in two days”, literally keeping the show on the road. As an actor, he points out ruefully, “you’re not worried about the f**king budget”.

Did he find directing hard? “Sure,” he bats back. “It’s really refreshed my feeling about when I get to act in a film — because you’re just seeing you’re lucky to be there . . . I loved the collaboration. Acting is much lonelier to me. Directing is more like playing in a band, and you’re the bandleader and you’re just trying to get the best out of everybody.”

Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Wildlife' (2018)
Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Wildlife' (2018)
Tuppence Middleton and Paul Dano in 'War & Peace' (2016)
Tuppence Middleton and Paul Dano in 'War & Peace' (2016) © Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Ford told Dano to treat the story liberally, to “leave the book behind”. But the adaptation, written jointly by Dano and Kazan, is resolutely loyal. Even Ford struggled to keep track of the differences. “He loved the film,” says Dano. “Afterwards, we were talking through it, and he said, ‘I loved this scene and this moment.’ And I said, ‘That’s in the book.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s not.’ I said, ‘Yeah it is.’” Dano laughs at the possibility that he knows a novel better than its author. “I mean, the book’s from 1990, so I don’t know the last time he perused his own work. Probably not often.”

Ford’s text provides umpteen quotable lines. Mulligan’s character tells her husband at one point: “I’m a grown woman, Jerry. Why don’t you act like a grown man?” She tells her son later: “Why do you think men do things? They either go crazy or it’s a woman. Or it’s both.” The British actor is wonderful as a thirtysomething in full crisis mode. “I wanted to see Carey being more messy,” says Dano. “She felt she never got the chance to be messy, because people don’t want to put women on screen that way.”

In Wildlife, the son has to decide whether to enter the adult world or run away from it. Dano himself didn’t have much of a choice. His mother pushed him into all sorts of extracurricular activities; his acting took off, and he first performed on Broadway as a 12-year-old. “I was in the adult world at a young age. I remember being the witness to things, not even a lot of them bad.” George C Scott — the late actor who turned down two Oscar nominations because he opposed the unnatural competition — was the star of the Broadway show. Dano saw him come into rehearsals with an oxygen tank: “He was sick and it was so sad.” Did Dano try to avoid growing up too fast? “I had a real kid side and a real adult side. I think I’ve always had a big duality inside of me.”

Whichever way you cut Dano, you run into his independent streak. He doesn’t recall what people told him about the acting business, but he doubts he would have taken much notice of any promises of stardom. “If someone had said that to me, I would have felt leery.” He initially looked up to established actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Philip Seymour Hoffman “because when you’re young, that’s what you do”. But he’s quick to add: “I actually think the most important thing is eventually giving that up and figuring out who you are.”

At least once, a decade or so ago, he thought about giving up acting because the roles bored him: “There were times that I put the brakes on. I always interrogated it and eventually went, ‘Mmm, yeah, OK, I’ll give it a good go.’ ” Little Miss Sunshine (2006), about a dysfunctional family heading to a beauty pageant, and There Will Be Blood (2007), about a ruthless oil prospector, confirmed his talent. Yet Dano took stock: he spent three years in college studying literature, before deciding he didn’t need to graduate to act. Even then there were several years of underwhelming ventures. Not until 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Love & Mercy (2014), in which he played Beach Boy Brian Wilson struggling with mental illness, did his star rise again. (Dano says of Love & Mercy, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe: “Spending that much time with that music gave me something in life. It made me really happy.”)

Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in 'There Will Be Blood' (2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in 'There Will Be Blood' (2007) © Collection Christophel/Alamy
Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin in 'Little Miss Sunshine' (2006)
Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin in 'Little Miss Sunshine' (2006) © Collection Christophel/Alamy

Dano, a reader and daydreamer, is still regularly “re-examining” why he acts. He’s seen as an indie actor, a label that he calls both “totally fair” and “reductive”. His recent parts are certainly odd — including an animal-rights activist in the film Okja, about a genetically modified super-pig; and, in Swiss Army Man, a marooned character who spends the whole movie dragging around a farting corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe. Is he typecast as weird? “The characters are too personal to me to put a word like ‘weird’ over them. That word is just, like, too vague for me.” In politics, this is called a non-denial denial.

Acting messes with the ageing process. Dano turned 21 while playing a 15-year-old in Little Miss Sunshine. He could still probably pass as a teenager now, with the right make-up. He clearly relates most easily to the son in Wildlife. But he is now the same age as the parents.

Indeed, in the days before our interview, there are online rumours that he and his partner Kazan have had their first child. Kazan ignores the rumours on her Twitter feed; Dano doesn’t do social media. “Well, no, I mean, yes, we had a kid six weeks ago,” he says, when I raise it. Is it difficult to maintain privacy? “I think there’s a way that certain people actually want a certain amount of attention, you know? I think you can ask for it a little bit, and I think you can” — he pauses knowingly — “not ask for it.” He adds: “If you ask me, I’m not going to lie that we have a kid, but I don’t need to talk about it.”

I ask Dano if he took any parenting lessons from Wildlife. “No, I feel like we’re starting fresh right now, and, you know, six weeks is pretty fresh.” He and Kazan live in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, and he still rides the subway, with minimal nuisance from strangers.

Kazan, his partner for 11 years, has said that Dano struggled to comprehend the sexual harassment she faced on film sets. At the mention of #MeToo, Dano suddenly starts umming, erring and choosing his words carefully. “It’s just hard to think on a human level about treating people poorly,” he says. “The power dynamics of it — now it seems quite obvious . . . ”

Dano with Carey Mulligan (left) and his partner and co-writer Zoe Kazan at the LA premiere of 'Wildlife' on October 9
Dano with Carey Mulligan (left) and his partner and co-writer Zoe Kazan at the LA premiere of 'Wildlife' on October 9 © Vincent Sandoval/Getty Images

I ask if becoming a director made those power dynamics more apparent. Dano says not, and refers instead to young actors in auditions. “If you are a young actor, it’s hard to know that it’s OK for you to stand up for yourself, because your sense of value is sometimes tied to your status and where you want to be. Fear is a very potent weapon, and I think people are often scared.”

The couple currently have a roughly equivalent level of fame, which is to say neither is as famous as Kazan’s grandfather, the late Hollywood mogul Elia Kazan. They read one another’s writing, advise each other on potential roles. Does Dano ever worry that balance will be disrupted, and one of their careers will take prominence over the other’s? “You have to understand, we don’t look at ourselves that way, do you know what I mean? I don’t ever look at her or me and think about our level of — quote — fame or success. I mean, I think about the next job I’m doing and am I happy,” he says. “I’m not thinking as externally as you’re asking. And I don’t mean that in a dickish way,” he adds.

His tone is indeed not dickish, yet it seems to me that he and Kazan may be yet to face the dilemmas depicted in Wildlife: the parents’ feeling that life is rushing by, that family has squeezed their sense of self, that it might be time to do something foolhardy.

For the moment, Dano finds each screening of Wildlife “very scary”. He worries about the temperature in the cinema, the audience’s mood. “The highs are high, and the lows are low.” His next job is to appear in a Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s True West; he doesn’t expect another directing opportunity to come along for a while. “It took so much energy to make a film. I can’t wait to do it again. But you have to be in love.”

In the past he has described himself as “very ambitious”. The New York Times thought he should have had received two Oscar nominations in the past three years; was he frustrated not to get any? He folds his arms and emits an audible, pained sigh. “I feel like you have to have the right people see the work, and you know, and also that stuff is so . . . you know.” He grimaces, pauses and points out that his films usually lack the budget to launch proper Oscar campaigns. And then he worries aloud that anything he says on the topic will make him sound “like a total dick”. Does he even watch the Oscars? “Sometimes,” he tries to deadpan, before breaking into a smile. “Yeah, it depends. I’m sure we at least DVR it.”

What about breaking beyond his quirky niche as an actor and becoming a mainstream star? Again he tries not to offend, saying he’d be happy to do blockbusters, so long as they respect the fans. “I think there are things that are just getting turned out in a way that feels like — you have to go and promote it as an actor, right? You want to be able to believe what you’re saying, just enough.”

I mention Michael Caine’s quote about starring in the fourth Jaws film: he never saw the film, but he saw the house that it built. Dano won’t be emulating that, I assume? “Look, maybe,” his upturned mouth breaking into another smile. “I’m 34 and life’s changing. I guess I’ll have to think about tuition someday.” A prediction: however bad things get, Paul Dano will never make a film in order to pay tuition fees. You know that.

‘Wildlife’ opens in cinemas on November 9

Portraits by Jack Davison/ Mini Title

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