Why Can't '12 Years a Slave' Star Paul Dano Play a Normal Character?
There are no shortage of bad characters in 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen's acclaimed new film about the brutality of slavery. Between Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a vicious plantation owner, Sarah Paulson as his cruel, jealous wife, and Paul Giamatti as Mr. Freeman, an unfeeling man in charge of slave auctions, the movie is filled with horrible people doing horrible things. Thankfully for viewers, it's easy to separate the actors listed above, as well as many others cast in the film, from the awful characters they portray. After all, Fassbender was Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester, Giamatti the sad-sack wrestling coach in Win Win — and that's not even mentioning Taran Killam, a slave trader in McQueen's film who has three years worth of hilarious SNL material under his belt.
But then there's Paul Dano. In 12 Years a Slave, the 29-year-old actor plays John Tibeats, a villainous overseer who takes joy in mistreating Chiwetel Ejiofor's character. Like many of the movie's other characters, Tibeats is a deplorable person, a man crazed with power and enamored with abuse. Yet while it's no issue separating the rest of the film's evil characters from the actors behind them, it's harder to keep that in mind when watching Tibeats commit one atrocious crime after another. Unlike the other actors starring in the film, Paul Dano isn't taking any major leaps with his character's portrayal; rather, he's simply playing a role he's come to know well on-screen: the horrific, nerve-rattling creep.
Ever since his breakout role as a kind-hearted but extremely weird teen in 2006's Little Miss Sunshine, Dano has made a career out of playing misfit characters. He won raves for his portrayal of Eli Sunday, a morally ambiguous, eerily creepy character in There Will Be Blood, played an angry drunk in Cowboys & Aliens, and gave a mesmerizing turn as a possible kidnapper — and maybe murderer — in Prisoners. Even his most "normal" characters, like his panicky settler in Meek's Cutoff or his anxious novelist in Ruby Sparks, are far from likable. In practically every movie he's in, Dano plays a man who can't help but give you the creeps.
In many ways, this is a blessing for the actor. Having an "image" makes him easier to cast, and it's not like the movies are going to run out of roles for villains anytime soon. Dano's a talented actor, and there's no reason he shouldn't have a long-lasting career. Yet being typecast is also a detriment. Playing the same type of creepy, cold-hearted character in every movie doesn't give him the chance to show his range as an actor, and Dano, as he's proved in the few likable roles he's had, is capable of much more than being an antagonist. Sure, he may not look the part of a typical leading man, but he's certainly talented enough to be given the chance.
Dano is far from the only actor who has built a career off his unconventional looks and "creepy" appeal. Jackie Earle Haley, for instance, earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a child molester in 2006's Little Children, and went on to play a mental patient in Shutter Island and Freddy Krueger in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. There's British actor Timothy Spall, who found late-career success as the rat-like villain in the Harry Potter series, Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi, whose bulging eyes and eerie stare have made him a household name... the list goes on and on. In a startling amount of cases, actors who don't look normal don't get to play normal, even if they possess the talent and charm for the part.
The idea of actors being typecast for their looks is nothing new, of course, but it's primarily been an issue that's affected women. Female actors who aren't generically beautiful are typically cast as "the ugly best friend," "the fat girl at school," the 'before' version of a model. It's why actresses like Melissa McCarthy, Tilda Swinton, and Maggie Gyllenhaal — women who are beautiful, but in a way different than Hollywood prefers — are generally not cast as the leads in romantic comedies. It's long been known that women face this issue, but the idea that men do, too, is no less frustrating.
It's not that we want Paul Dano to stop playing villains, of course. He's an excellent actor, and he makes even the creepiest of characters feel three-dimensional and real. We just wish that every once in awhile, he had an opportunity to show off his other capabilities as an actor. We know he can play evil; it'd be nice to see him play, well, nice.
Image: Fox Searchlight