Yes, Paul Dano’s real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan deliberately wrote certain things for him in “Ruby Sparks,” in which the real-life couple plays a couple. The movie is not about them, though.
“When I read scenes, it was like, ‘OK, I have to figure out what’s going on here.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I remember when we were in the grocery store and that [bleeping] happened,’” says Dano.
In the film, opening Wednesday, Dano plays Calvin, an author struggling to deliver his long-awaited sophomore novel who finds inspiration through his new character, Ruby Sparks—until she comes to life (played by Kazan) and Calvin must reconcile his fantasy girl with reality.
At the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Dano, 28 (“Little Miss Sunshine”) talked about the real-life inspirations for Calvin, what most guys would do with the power to change their partner and how often people salute his role in “There Will Be Blood” by offering him free milkshakes.
Calvin has the power to change Ruby, which is a slippery slope. What do you think most guys would do with that power?
Oh, lordy. What they say they would do is different from what they’d actually do, and hopefully you’ll think twice about it after you see the film if you have that power. I don’t know; I think Harry (Chris Messina) does a good job of being the voice for the audience, or especially a male audience.
So what would guys say they would do, and what would they actually want to do?
I think the first thought a lot of people would have is, “More [oral sex] or bigger [breasts],” like Harry says. I think most people would hopefully just not do it. Calvin is such an unfortunate--once he makes that first change, you have to go to where he goes. I think he was just scared that he was going to lose her and also wanted her to be happy. I think his reason to change her was partially a vulnerable reason, not just wanting her to be different. I don’t know; I don’t want to speak for other people. I can’t imagine that now just because I’ve been through the experience of making the film. So I’m like, if I could change a person … I don’t think I would to begin with. I like being surprised by people anyway.
If we were guessing about percentages, would men or women be more likely to take advantage of this opportunity?
Well, I don’t know, man. I feel like I know a lot of women who are like, [if you asked them], “If you could change your husband,” [they would say], “Get him to [bleepin’] put the toilet seat down.” Sometimes it’s really simple things. I guess I would go with men. Something that I feel about the film is control over relationships is not a one-way street.
And these are dangerous questions.
I’m scared to answer. I’m scared to answer you right now.
You asked Zoe if this was being written for you, and she confirmed that it was. How did that change your perception of the movie, since she said she couldn’t resist writing some things to make you do them? How much did you think about Calvin being an extension of you?
I didn’t. I read the first few pages and my gut response was, “Is she writing this for us?” So it never was not for us. Zoe is good writer. And I was never concerned about her putting our life up on screen. A. I think she knows that would piss me off and B. I think she would want to challenge us. And I think she was guided by a couple characters that came to her, or a story that came to her, so the impetus for it was not for us. So I don’t think she let that dictate too much of her writing process. Yeah, obviously there’s parts of me in there. I think there’s parts of Zoe in Calvin; I think there’s parts of ex-boyfriends of hers in Calvin. I did not get heady about that kind of stuff. You look at what’s given to you on the page and the circumstances and I just started there.
What parts of you are in there?
Well, I like books a lot. I can be introverted at times. Not as much as Calvin. Not as isolated and not lonely, but he’s a pretty serious guy in some ways, so maybe that.
Do you consider yourself a serious person most of the time?
I don’t know; I can be pretty stupid and silly too. It’s hard for me to say what parts of me are in there because I don’t know. Sometimes it’s hard to see yourself. There’s things I can relate to, so maybe those are parts that are similar. Certainly having writer’s block sounds terrifying to me, and I know what it’s like not to feel inspired, and that’s totally paralyzing and awful.
I like the way the movie indicts the fantasy of the quirky construct we often see in movies or on the page. Why do you think people have this fantasy about the quirkiest possible girl whose quirks make her endearing?
I’m not sure. It certainly seems cultural in some way. Certainly those kinds of characters cannot feel 100 percent real and hopefully Ruby, who is not real, feels 100 percent real. Or she is real. I’m not sure what the deal with that is. Maybe it’s sort of like, there’s something easy about it. There’s something maybe comforting in like you can make mistakes and be messy but you’re still cute and lovable or whatever. I guess those characters have a lot of spunk that maybe people are attracted to that kind of energy.
Have you seen the SNL skit “Bein’ Quirky with Zooey Deschanel”?
Yeah, yeah. It’s funny. I thought it was funny. But like anything now that term is getting used on things that I don’t like that it’s getting used on. Especially stuff from the past, like “Annie Hall,” and I just feel like it’s a term that doesn’t do anything good for that movie or that character.
I saw Zoe’s interview on Jimmy Kimmel in which she said you love Katy Perry and think she might be pulling a prank. Why do you think this, and when and how will she reveal it?
Let me clarify. I spoke to Zoe about this afterward. Prank is not the right word. I first saw Katy Perry on “SNL” actually. I was like, “OK, who is this? Oh, she’s really funny.” And Zoe was like, “Oh, you just like her [breasts].” I was like, “No, no, I think she’s funny.” She’s like, “No, you just think she’s hot.” I was like, “No, there’s something really tongue-in-cheek. She’s aware of what she’s singing. There’s a camp element to it.” A lot of pop music I think is totally offensive because it’s so inane, and I felt like she was in on the poppiness of her music, so I thought it was kind of brilliant … I felt like she knows what’s up, basically.
At what point will the fourth wall be broken?
Yeah, I don’t know. She’s done some interesting things. So I think she’s a curious pop culture figure. I don’t think there’s going to be a big reveal one day.
I have to ask you how often you get people shouting about drinking milkshakes lately, and how many you’ve gotten free over the years?
Yeah, sometimes I get a milkshake from a waiter and I say, “I did not order this,” and somebody else in the place sent it to me.
Do you drink it, usually?
Just like, “Oh, this again.”
No, it’s not like that. I’m so proud to be a part of the film; it’s a good one to get heckled about. I’ve had some strange people. I’ve had somebody yell it right in my face. It’s like, “What?” It happens every now and then. It’s not too bad.
On Chicago: “I like Chicago a lot. I think it’s a beautiful city. I really like it. I’m from New York, and that’s where I live. This is probably the only other U.S. city that really gives me what I want out of a metropolitan … I guess being from New York, when I’m in a city I want to feel the city. L.A. doesn’t give me that; it’s more like a suburb. I just like it. Some beautiful buildings and the river, it’s beautiful.
What he'd do with unlimited time here: “Go eat some good food. Make a few friends. Explore. I wanted to go, they were closed yesterday, it was a Sunday, I heard those Mexican restaurants, Rick Bayless, somebody said his joint, I’ve heard his joints are great. Obviously Chicago pizza but New York pizza, I don’t know.”
How literary groupies differ from other groupies: “Maybe they wear more glasses.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “I don’t think it’s a guilty pleasure but the first movie that popped into my head was ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ but I just think that’s a great movie. So that’s not really a guilty pleasure. ‘Clueless,’ but I think that’s a great movie too. Guilty pleasure to me involves maybe being afraid to say it. Zoe and I, we have a tough time sometimes choosing what to watch. If I’m feeling brain-dead, I like to put on a three-hour movie. Putting on ‘Apocalypse Now’ or something, I can just sit there and … [That’s relaxing for you?] Not really, but I love for some reason a long movie when I’m feeling spun out or something. [She wants] probably something really silly and fun. TV is the issue; it’s not really movies. She’ll want reality TV, and I’ll want to watch sports, and that’s where we sort of go like this, who gets the remote. Usually she does.”
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