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Paul Franklin Dano: Life So Far, © IFCRant

by Erin Torneo

Paul Franklin Danoís voice is sometimes hard to hear over the dull hum of air conditioners and errant sirens. These sounds create a kind of melody at a recent interview on a hot summer afternoon in New York City, the same way that the continuous lull of traffic lumbering down the Long Island Expressway provides a breathing rhythm for the suburban sprawl it traverses in Michael Cuestaís first film L.I.E., in which Dano makes his feature acting debut. That congested expressway, known more commonly as the L.I.E., not only gives the film its name and central metaphor but also defines the parameters for Danoís character, Howie Blitzerís, collapsing world.

"I donít think Iíll ever have to do stuff as difficult as what I did in L.I.E.," says the 16-year-old Dano. "I definitely donít think Iíll ever have a challenge like that in a film thatís so substantial and unique and controversial." L.I.E., acquired by Lot 47 Films at Sundance earlier this year and hitting theaters in September, is an unflinching coming-of-age tale. Dano plays a sullen-faced adolescent who lost his mother in a car accident on the notorious road that goes "east, west, and to hell." The highway, along with neat subdivisions and strip malls, conceals a truth: that rest stops are busy centers of sexual transaction and the town hero is a predator of young boys.

"I wasnít sure I was going to be able to pull it off," admits the largely untrained Dano, who confronted pedophilia and homoeroticism in his first big role. But his inexperience only enriches his performance, giving it a staggering rawness derived more from intuition than method. With his slight frame and serious demeanor, Dano delivers a rending depiction of lost innocence and quiet strength. "The only uncomfortable thing was walking around in tighty-whities," he laughs.

Danoís own suburban upbringing in quaint Wilton, Connecticut, doesnít reflect L.I.E.ís dark undercurrent. A close relationship with his family distinguishes him most from the character he plays, though he acknowledges he shares a similar vulnerability with him. "Howieís kind of lost," he explains. "Iím just going through high school now, and thereís a lot of stuff that comes at you, and you donít always know where to go with it."

Despite the hubbub around his performance in L.I.E. and a follow-up role in Universal Picturesí The Palace Thief with Kevin Kline, Danoís true love, like any good teenager, is music. "I have a band and weíre going to play at New York Cityís Wetlands this summer, which is kind of cool for us," he says. "Most of it is acoustic rock with congas and bongos, lots of vocal harmonies with a reggae influence and Phish-type sound." And while the acting gigs will likely keep coming, Dano imagines more: He has just completed a five-week course in film directing at NYU.

As for his role in this quietly devastating film, Dano says, "Everything you do, every experience that you have, enlightens you a little bit or worsens you. L.I.E. was big for me. I think itís one of the best things Iíve been a part of in my life so far."

From IFCRant The Magazine September/October 2001