Paul Dano’s name long has been synonymous with outsider stories—breaking into the mainstream as the most soft-spoken of the socially awkward, porn-craving trio of The Girl Next Door and the aspiring pilot swearing himself to silence in Little Miss Sunshine. In the last few years, he’s shifted among a lonely writer dealing with the reality of his fantasy girl in Ruby Sparks, a developmentally disabled kidnapping suspect in Prisoners, and mentally unraveling genius Beach Boy Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. If he’s linked to one movie, it’s his dual role in There Will Be Blood, but Dano’s transitioned easily among psychologically weighty material. He’s unafraid of leaning into the uncomfortable, including appearing as a despicable disciplinarian of enslaved men in 12 Years A Slave.
Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe still can’t make a movie without people feeling the need to mention Harry Potter as soon as possible. It’s not that he hasn’t tried to break free of the ubiquitous franchise that made him a star before he was a teenager. His work as a collegiate Allen Ginsberg in 2013’s under-appreciated Kill Your Darlings marks a particular moment when he really might have started shedding the proverbial cloak of child stardom. And he’s taken chances like appearing nude on stage in Equus before the Potter adaptations were over; anchoring a 10-month run of the Broadway musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying; and providing a bright spot in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, with Radcliffe as a smoldering dog walker with a traumatic past in a movie-within-the-movie. He’s currently working on an Edward Snowden-inspired, heavily improvised play called Privacy.
Both actors are exceptional in Swiss Army Man, which, yes, is that “farty boner corpse movie,” as described by The A.V. Club’s own A.A. Dowd when the film premiered at Sundance. Few titles at the fest earned as much polarized chatter, and those who walked out misjudged something undeniably unusual but also unexpectedly beautiful. Dano plays Hank, who’s stranded on an island and interrupts his suicide attempt to investigate a dead body, eventually dubbed Manny (Radcliffe). The latter soon proves that his farts can power him like a jet ski and his body can be an all-purpose survival tool for Hank, even after—spoiler alert—the corpse seems to come back to life. With ace physical comedy and a gorgeous score from Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, the debut feature from writers-directors Daniels (the duo of Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan best known for directing music videos like DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What”) won the Sundance directing award and puts bodily functions and the search for connection on the same plane of natural human experience. Dano and Radcliffe spoke by phone with The A.V. Club about their characters’ physically demanding relationship, while wondering about the location of the prosthetic butt.
The A.V. Club: You’ve talked about how you were both game for the shared physicality of the roles. Is there an untold story about the first thing you did to get on the same page or the moment you knew it was going to be okay?
Daniel Radcliffe: I think it was pretty obvious early on that we had both come with kind of the same attitude of “Let’s just [jump] in,” and neither of us was going to be precious about it. I feel like the thing that we learned is, weirdly, the most intimate thing or a very intimate thing you can do to somebody is hold their tongue with your fingers. When Paul is making me talk. At one point we were doing that, and that was a lesson: “Okay, that’s something I don’t think I’ve done with anyone before.” Paul had to drink water that had passed through my lips as well.
Paul Dano: It was flowing through his mouth. It looked like it did. It looked like pretty sketchy water to be drinking. The first time I went to Daniel’s apartment to just hang out before, because we’re doing this crazy thing together, right away he said, “Do you want to put your hand in my mouth so we can get used to this?” And he was really ready to go. So we broke down any barriers pretty quick.
AVC: That being established as the baseline, was there anything you figured that once you got started would be the most difficult or would require the most talking about between you two on set—other than Paul riding Daniel like a jet ski, of course?
PD: I think it was all super collaborative and just all-in every day. Luckily our directors were two and we were two, so there was a really easy give and take if there was something to figure out or questions. I think it was a lot of trust as well. If we didn’t have that, it could be a very painful film to go make. But it was a super joyful film to go make. I mean, there was stuff that was, like, totally bananas. But it was kind of par for the course every day with that stuff.
DR: Yeah, every day I would come to set going like, “How are we going to do this?” And every day the Daniels would come up with some amazing solution and [make it easy] to put yourself in their hands. There’s something really lovely about knowing you’re working with directors who know exactly what they want and exactly what they’re looking for, and they’re not going to move on until they have it. That, as an actor, frees you up a lot because you can [try different approaches] and they’ll only use what’s appropriate.
AVC: What’s something specific you remember asking them as part of the collaboration process? Something you needed more clarification on, or something they did to impress you.
DR: I think there was a lot of working out the arc of how Manny talks. Scene to scene, if I would start talking a little too well, they would come in and say like, “Hey, you need to [dial back] your ability to speak”—things like that. That was a lot of stuff that I was very reliant on them for—Manny’s arc and tracking the way his movement and his voice evolves and just making sure he’s not too good at it too quickly.
PD: I mean, I ask a lot of questions. Usually before we film, though. I’m sure there was enough. I would say that the emotional content of the film took me by surprise, and sometimes I would probably want to capture the unique tone of it. It was always there for us, but I was constantly surprised by how things took shape, whether it was something that was funny or [sharp] or some of these more simple, quiet moments in the woods. Honestly I would say everything and nothing. I honestly don’t think it’s different than on any other film. I think I would probably ask questions of everything always.
AVC: Daniel, how did Paul carrying you compare to when a friend carried you around your apartment to prepare, and did you share any of those experiences and lessons with Paul when you were working together?
DR: Paul was amazing at carrying me around. I wanted to be there as much as possible but didn’t want to hurt Paul’s back, but Paul often chose me over the dummy many times on the set. But yeah, to be honest, a little bit of preparation I did with my friend in my flat could never have prepared me for quite the level of physical reliance we would have on each other. And it was usually me being reliant on Paul because there would be moments where if my character starts the scene in one position but then has to see the Sports Illustrated magazine halfway through, while we’re blocking it out and rehearsing the scene we would try and say, “Where is there an appropriate moment?” or “Does Paul tap my head in the right way so that I can move it to be looking in the correct eye line?” We would choreograph before each scene and very quickly got to a place where we could improvise physically in scene and know that the other person would respond in character appropriately. So that [dynamic] was a lot of fun.
AVC: Does it become comparable to choreographing a dance, where eventually you understand the way the person moves?
DR: Yeah, a bit, definitely. There were some parts of the film that the Daniels really wanted to look as elegant as a piece of ballet. As Hank and Manny go on in the story, they get better and better at being with each other and more and more adept—Hank knows more and more what Manny’s going to need at any given point, and having that choreography helps a bit.
AVC: Paul, Hank says, “I’m going to be all buff from carrying you around.” How much did you notice that actually happening?
PD: [Laughs.] I regretted not being a person in shape many a day while we were making this film. That line was actually improvised because that was what I was telling myself. So that I would be able to get through the soreness. If you could call me buff, my version of buff was when I finished that film.
DR: I remember Paul had said at one point that when he finished this film was the strongest he’d ever been just from lugging me around for [several] weeks.
AVC: So you’d recommend carrying around another human being as a workout regimen?
PD: Yeah, I was actually thinking about starting like an app where you can watch videos of me carrying Daniel.
DR: Maybe you can find somebody else who’s about 128 pounds to carry around with you.
AVC: A Daniel Radcliffe-esque dead body.
PD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It will put CrossFit to shame. People will get obsessed with it.
AVC: Any movie you make may impact the way you see the world. Paul has noted the film deals with the pain, joy, and silliness of being alive. To what degree do you feel like this movie adjusted your outlook or the way you conduct yourself compared to anything else you’ve made?
PD: Well, I know that part of why I was excited to do this was the sense of play and childlike wonder and the spirit that’s in the Daniels’ work. I think we’re tracking some issues that are actually quite sad or lonely but I think in a joyful, creative way. So I like that balance. I think singing in the woods, the music and spirit of that—there’s something very pure about the film. I love that it’s such an uncynical film. I think it’s got a lot of love in there, and I think that’s a nice thing in this day and age.
DR: Yeah, everything Paul said. I think it highlights how important it is to retain that childish sense of curiosity and wonder as much as you can. Although I may not be amazing at that all the time, I think it’s something I definitely strive to achieve.
AVC: You guys have correctly commented that originality is hard to come by. Can you think of some other things—movies, albums, books—that have blown your mind recently? Like, “Holy shit, it’s about time someone did something different”?
DR: The only thing I can think of is my favorite album at the moment by this guy called Father John Misty, and the album is called I Love You, Honeybear. It’s just brilliant. It’s the album I’m currently obsessed with. It is original, and the lyrics are fantastic and [it’s] brilliant. So that’s blowing me away.
PD: I think that’s what I felt when I saw the Daniels’ videos and short films. That’s why I did this film: “Okay, somebody with a singular voice.” I think D’Angelo’s album [Black Messiah] I probably kind of freaked out for in that way. I think there’s a play or two probably I’ve seen as well in the past few years. I’m not sure.
AVC: It’s no secret that people have difficulty connecting with each other in today’s world. There’s the scene about Manny thinking people would be singing together on the bus but in fact everyone’s separated, listening alone with headphones. How much do you think people can get better about those connections, or will it get worse before it gets better?
DR: All these things, social media or [smart] phones or the things that distract us from each other, are fairly new. They’re all fairly new inventions, and I think we’re in a stage where we sort of as a whole have gotten these new toys and we’re just obsessed with playing with them. I feel like after a period of adjustment it will inevitably be a regression from where we are now. I’m not too worried about humanity in the future. I think we’ve got an innate ability as a species to self-correct.
PD: I think that no matter what age you’re in, there are probably always going to be things that we come up against that sort of don’t help us be our best or fullest selves. Sometimes technology actually does help us connect; it’s kind of a double-edged sword there.
AVC: With so many interesting ideas going on in this movie, do you wish there was a little less talk about hydraulic penises and prosthetic butts and all that, or is that inevitable?
DR: I think it’s kind of great, to be honest. I’ll never do another film where I get to talk about those things, so I might as well enjoy it while I can. It’s really good to talk about it, and it’s very gratifying when people ask us about the other aspects of the film, but [those things] are part of the movie and they’re important and hilarious, a very fun part of the movie, so there’s no sense from us of not wanting to talk about that. I think it’s exciting that those things exist in a film that is also very heartfelt and emotional and profound. Those things can be what’s genuinely shocking about the movie because people wouldn’t expect to be moved by any of it.
AVC: With that being said, did you get to keep the prosthetic butt?
DR: You know, no. I don’t know where it is. Which I suppose, now that I think of it, should be of some concern to me because I don’t really want it getting into the wrong hands. I’m sure it’s with our makeup [department] by now and they’re keeping it safe somewhere.
AVC: Did you ever keep any of the other molds that were done for Harry Potter?
DR: I have a face mold and I have this arm that I had done at one point, but I don’t know where—I feel like one of my cousins [had] the arm at one point and then it got shoved away in a box. I think [the face and arm] are at my parents’ house somewhere, but I don’t know where. I’ve had a weird life to the point where the other day somebody said to me, “Is this the first time you’ve had your butt molded?” And I genuinely couldn’t remember. I couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty whether this was something that’s happened to me before or whether it’s new.