Daniel talked with Esquire about Swiss Army Man.
When you first read the script and saw that you'd be farting a lot, there'd be close-ups of your erection, you'd be in corpse make-up the entire time, and that this would be as unglamorous a role for a leading man as possible... Were you excited? Is that what attracted you to the part?
I guess so. It wasn't like, "Oh great, I get to do animatronic dick shots." I really didn't think of it like, "Oh, I'm going to be really embarrassed," because I wasn't, at any point. The script was really funny and really inventive, and also somehow managed to be profound and hold all that stuff together. It was so unique that I had one of those moments where I went, "OK, imagine you're sitting in a cinema in two years watching Paul Dano ride someone else across the waves at the beginning of this movie. How will that make you feel? Really fucking annoyed, actually." I want to be a part of this. I want to be in that moment. It's one of the most joyous opening sequences of any film, and certainly anything I've ever done.
Did you know you had to be Manny?
Absolutely. Paul was already cast. And Manny changed quite a lot after I came on board. Originally, way before I read it, he was much more of a cynical, naysaying kind of corpse. But I think the Daniels were like, "Actually, if you were a real suicidal man, and this corpse was a real downer as well, you probably wouldn't carry him around with you." I think because my energy is quite up most of the time, the directors said, "Let's just make him the most cheerful, curious corpse in the world." I was a mark for Manny from the start, partially because of my physicality, which I was incredibly flattered by. I like the fact that I got a reputation now for just being willing to fucking throw my body into something.
What first attracted you when you read the script, and did anyone try to talk you out of it because it is such a strange, non-commercial idea?
No, everyone was really on board with it. We all read so many fucking scripts all the time, so when you see something like this, which is genuinely so original, it really stands out. Also, by the time I was involved, it had already been through at least one version of the Sundance lab, and it was sort of vaguely known—at least by my agents. They'd worked with Tarantino in some of those labs, I think. So these guys were a serious hot property. Then I watched their videos, and I said, "OK, these are definitely the guys that can make this movie." [When] reading the script, the physical challenge was really exciting, and the chance to be part of something so funny and fucking weird and different was so exciting. And the only thing [I thought] was: "I can see how this is going to be funny, I can even see how it's going to be moving, but I don't know how quite it's going to be epic."
And that's was when I heard the music for the first time that they were getting from Andy [Hull] and Robert [McDowell] from Manchester Orchestra to write. I thought, "OK, now I get it. This is going to be awesome." Dan Kwan said that music is so important, and sometimes they can make music that is so beautiful you can sneak other ideas and weird visuals past. I think they use it as a weapon for luring you into some of their weirder ideas. There are so many shots in this film that are just like... beautiful shots of someone farting.
Half of the movie is this weird, gross-out film, and half is almost Terrence Malick-like in its beauty and profundity. As an actor, how do you navigate these tones? Because it is on you guys to make this thing hold together.
I think that's the moment where you rely on the directors, hugely. For a lot of the film—bar a few moments, and the existential crisis that Manny has up in the trees and the stuff near the end of the film—Manny is just either curious and asking questions or just really happy about something. We were able to keep it in that place a lot on set. We got lucky that everyone who responded to the film, me and Paul and the crew, was there for the same reasons. Like you just said, it's really crazy and out there and fucking funny, but in the same breath it is beautiful and it is profound and it has a really wonderful message. We all came to it that these things would all be holding together in the same moment. When you're all on the same page about that, it makes it a lot easier. There wasn't a moment where I had read a bit and I was like, "Oh shit, I'm still trying to make this funny," and Paul is doing beautiful acting. I think for the most part, we were all pretty synchronized with that. We all really understood what the Daniels wanted, and it became instinctually very easy to get right.
This is quite a lot of trust to have in first-time directors, even if the script was great and the videos were great. Did it feel like a leap of faith?
Honestly, it didn't, because they give you so much confidence when you talk with them. You can tell you're not just talking with someone who's had the notion that they want to direct a film. They've never done a film…but if you've done as many music videos as these guys have, and you're as ambitious as these guys are, and you've filmed for as little money as these guys have, you're ready to make films. Their technical understanding of it is amazing. Dan Kwan used to be in animation and visual effects, so his understanding of that world is far greater than 99% of directors. I had a huge amount of confidence in them, and I knew that they knew exactly what they wanted from this character. What they wanted him to sound like and look like and all of those things, and when you know that they have that in their heads, it makes you feel free to think, "OK, I'm just going to throw out fucking everything, and you can cut the shit bits." When you realize they both know what they want, and they're keeping an eye on it, as an actor, you relax completely.
I know you did a lovely little romantic comedy with Paul's girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, What If. Yes!
Did you know Paul beforehand? Not hugely. But there is another weird side to that triangle, because my girlfriend Erin [Darke] played Paul's wife on Love & Mercy, and now Paul and I have kissed on screen. It's a very incestuous little love triangle going on between us as couples. I'd met Paul a couple of times, and he always seemed really nice. And because Erin had worked with him the year before, she was like, "He's the best, and not just in terms of his acting." When he did Love & Mercy with Erin, he'd just torn his ACL or something—some kind of really bad injury. He had crutches and he left them off camera, and he just did the film. He's tough, he's not precious, and he's just such a beautiful actor. And I think there's something great in this film, which is showing people how funny he is, because he plays a lot of very, very intense characters, and I feel like that's almost what he's known for. But in this film... there's intensity, and Hank has a depressive side to him, but he's so fucking funny.
A lot of it was improvised, and he made my favorite line in the film, where's he carrying me around and imagining his journey home, and at one point he said, "I'm going to be all buff from carrying you around." Those moments were hard, because when Paul would make me laugh, and my only responsibility was to lie completely still in a scene and do fucking nothing. To be the reason things get fucked up is not what you want. There might be occasional moments in the film where you can just see me about to start smirking. The one scene that was impossible not to laugh through—and in fact the take they used is the only one they could have used—is when we're on the bus and Paul is making me sweat and he spits onto his hands and dabs it onto my face. The camera operator and I were making eye contact in that moment as spit was just rubbed all over my face, and he just started fucking laughing, and it was just too much. He asked if someone else could operate the camera because he was having too hard a time from shaking from laughter.
Sometimes acting is just not doing anything.
For the first 20 minutes of the film, that's all it is for me.
Now, you just did the second Now You See Me, but overall, since the end of the Harry Potter movies, you've been making smaller films like this, Horns, What If, Kill Your Darlings. Is that the mode you feel most comfortable in these days?
I just suppose, generally speaking, that's where the most interesting stuff is being made. If people are putting a huge amount of money into something, they want an absolute cast-iron guarantee it's going to make its money back. There's not many things that can make that guarantee, outside the world of Harry Potter or Marvel or Star Wars. Generally speaking, when you look for challenging material, it's going to be for less money. But that's where the interesting work often is. And sometimes, like in the case of The Woman in Black, which was obviously a few years ago, something made for very little can have commercial success. It does happen, but it's not the be all and end all. I've been in the most successful thing I'm ever going to be in, now I just want to do interesting work.
23 June 2016
Daniel talked with Esquire about Swiss Army Man.