Paul Dano and Brian Tyree Henry on Acting Out Trauma and Not Letting The Riddler Ruin Real Life

Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski

Brian Tyree Henry and Paul Dano started in theater —— which will come as no surprise to anyone who sees them in their latest films, playing characters with carefully crafted backstories. In Lila Neugebauer’s “Causeway,” Henry portrays James, a New Orleans mechanic and amputee who bonds with Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), an injured soldier desperate to return to combat. And Dano has had an immense year, going from the Riddler in “The Batman” to embodying a benevolent 1950s dad named Burt, based on Steven Spielberg’s father, Arnold, in “The Fabelmans.” For Dano, moving from darkness to light not only showed his range, it’s what he needed in his life. 

Paul Dano: I’m really happy to meet you. 

Brian Tyree Henry: Not as excited as I am to meet you. I’ve been a huge fan of yours for quite some time. 

Dano: Did you know you were going to use your middle name from the get-go?

Henry: I didn’t. Apparently, there is some imposter out there named Brian Henry that already had the name, and I had to put my middle name. 

Dano: I did my first film when I was 16, and I went by Paul Franklin Dano. And then in the second film I did, they said, “If you want your name on the poster, it’s too long.” And I said, “OK.’

Henry: And you let them take Franklin away?

Dano: That’s right.

Henry: It sounds very presidential. To be part of the three-name club is something very special. Was acting something that you knew you always wanted to do? 

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Dano: Yes and no. I grew up in Manhattan. My mom probably wanted me to be a lawyer. And I remember at the school I went to, they had public speaking. We had to move out of the city, so we got a house in the suburbs. And then the schools were different. She put me in theater. I started doing not just the school plays, but the community plays. And that led to doing a regional play in Stamford, Connecticut. And then that led to doing an Off Broadway and Broadway play when I was a kid.

The child-acting thing, I’ve had mixed feelings about it. Because I think it’s hard for people to grow up if they give up school, their friends and sports. Luckily, I still had a decent enough thing back at home. 

So I Googled you today for our talk.

Henry: Oh, boy. 

Dano: You went to business school for a moment?

Henry: I was at Morehouse College in Atlanta, knowing that’s where I wanted to go since I was a kid. There was something that happened when I told all these elder Black people that I was going to Morehouse — you watched them light up. But there was no theater or arts program or anything on Morehouse’s campus; all the theater is on Spelman’s campus, our sister school.

I was in the middle of a business class, but I hated it. And I remember, I was reading Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” during the lecture because I was just like, “I don’t really care.” Two buddies of mine knocked on this window while I was in the class. They were like, “There’s an audition going on at Spelman.” I walked out of this class and went over to this audition: I just felt like I was amongst my tribe. 

Dano: So you came out of drama school and you went to New York?

Henry: I went straight to New York. So I had the luxury, honestly, of working and collaborating with some incredible people while I was at Yale. Tarell McCraney, who wrote “Moonlight,” is one of them. We did all his plays while we were at Yale.

Dano: Let me just pause. My wife, Zoe Kazan, went to Yale undergraduate. But she said that whenever you were in a play, she made sure to see it. She was like, “This guy’s got the thing.” 

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Henry: It’s crazy how small this world is. Because Zoe and Lila — who directed “Causeway” — and I were just insane people at Yale. We watched everything. We talked about theater. We would walk the streets. And I immediately felt it with Zoe. We used to have some amazing talks. And, also, I’m not going to lie — I was the guy that was always throwing functions. If you heard music coming from my apartment, if you saw smoke coming out of the window, then you could probably just come in.

Dano: Tell me about “Causeway.” What was it like working with a theater director doing her first film? Because it’s a very different language with actors, right? 

Henry: It really is. Theater is hard, but it’s always very fulfilling. I feel like theater is a place where it’s a true collaboration. Lila and I had always been champing at the bit to do plays together. And so this script came to me at her request, and the minute I heard her name, it was a yes. I didn’t even read it.

Dano: Did you and Jennifer Lawrence spend time together? 

Henry: We did. I think that the huge benefit of doing the film was that all three of us connected to the piece in such a way that we had conversations quite often about where it was going. Jennifer, this being her first producing endeavor, really was very hands-on. She started in independent film and then became a movie star. You could tell that she was going back to her roots.

Was working with Steven Spielberg something you ever thought was going to happen? 

Dano: I guess it was a dream. I got a text saying, “Steven Spielberg wants to meet with you,” and it was like, “OK, great.” It was over Zoom. The second he started talking, he was so emotionally open, it just kind of disarmed me. And as he started telling me about his family — his story, in a way, and his parents — my heart really leapt. I left our meeting feeling really good. 

And then it took a while. I was like, “I hope he calls again.” Then he sent me the script, and we got to Zoom again. We talked about his father. And then, finally, we had a third Zoom. And the third Zoom was him with a cigar in his mouth. And he was like, “I think you’ll make my dad proud.” 

Henry: A scene that really stood out to me in “The Fabelmans” is the very beginning, where you’re telling your son, Sammy, about going to the movies. Can you talk about what that was like?

Dano: It’s amazing how you can see Steven’s parents in him. His mother was a free spirit and artist; his father was a truly brilliant computer engineer. People weren’t becoming entrepreneurs yet, but had he been around a decade or two later, we might know his name: He literally helped build the first computer that the first programming language was built on. 

Burt’s rationality is something that was really healthy for me, as a parent — to be like, “You can trust the way the world works.” An engineer sees that things are made a certain way: The chair is. A plane goes. There was something very solid in his energy. I always saw the mom and the kid as the storm, and Burt had to be the grounding. So just trying to be my most grounded self through Burt, that was something that was good for me. 

Henry: Can we talk about The Riddler? You did something that lingered with me after I watched it. 

Dano: My character was like the two sides of trauma. That was the first conversation the director, Matt Reeves, and I had. Bruce Wayne is rich, but this kid, Edward Nashton, had nothing. And I always thought the only positive feedback that he ever received in his life was when a puzzle or a riddle said, “You win.” 

This happened to me with The Riddler and also on a film called “Prisoners” — where I really have to start to separate the space. Because if I have a book about trauma or serial killers, it can’t go by my bed. For the big scene, toward the end of “The Batman,” I remember thinking, “OK, let me get a hotel room and be away from my family. Because none of this needs to be mixed.”

Henry: Dealing with the trauma? What do you find was the most helpful to get you through that?

Dano: A lot of energy goes toward one day, right? One scene. And you accrue a lot of stuff along whatever your preparation time is. And then you have to release it. 

Henry: I find that I’m getting to a place now where I’m just trying to figure out how to release it — how to leave these men where I found them. Because a lot of them trail. 

Dano: I don’t want to sound too hippie-dippy, but things come at the right time. Especially with Burt and “The Fabelmans.” I needed that. I think that’s a continuous learning curve for us. 

Henry: I like being a student first and foremost.

Dano: Me too.

Set Design by Jack Flanagan