It isn’t easy to find somebody who can truly understand you. Everyone needs that one person with the ability to dispense appropriate advice, someone to spill secrets to, or perhaps, just someone to make you soup. So what happens when that individual is nowhere to be found and you’re desperate for comfort? In Richard Dunn’s (Jeff Daniels) case, you create an imaginary friend and, in Paper Man, that pretend pal is Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds).
How excellent is Captain Excellent? Excellent enough to make Daniel wish that if he had a make-believe buddy, he’d be just like him. “I wish he could be and look like Ryan Reynolds. That would be nice,” Daniels told ComingSoon.net. But there’s much more to Captain Excellent than his bold blond hair and colorful costume. Richard relies on the Captain for support, maybe even more so than on his wife Claire (Lisa Kudrow).
In an attempt to overcome a bad case of writer’s block, Claire drives Richard to a quaint location in Montauk. She spends the weekends with him, but come Monday, must return to her surgical duties at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, leaving Richard alone with his typewriter, Captain Excellent and a Heath Hen, none of which makes much sense. Richard timidly rejects his wife’s laptop offering, an older man with an imaginary friend is simply taboo and, what’s up with the Heath Hen?
The American Heath Hen is the core of Richard’s second book and, at first, Daniels wasn’t quite sure why the animal was given so much attention. “I asked [writer/directors] Kieran [Mulroney] and Michele [Mulroney], ‘Why the Heath Hen?’ ‘We don’t know, we just liked the name.'” The inclusion of the bird is partially instinctive, but Daniels pointed out truly a significant similarity, “that it was about to be extinct and the last one died at Montauk.” He continued, “Which is what Richard thinks he’s doing, he’s dying, he’s stuck, he’s never going to do anything else for the rest of his life, just like the Heath Hen he is over, he is finished.”
Writers aren’t the only professionals who feel finished upon hitting a wall of creativity. Both Daniels and his co-star, Emma Stone, know about detaching from their craft. Stone recalled, “Actually after this last movie I did, last summer I did three in a row and I’d never experienced doing three in a row, which how lucky am I? I got to do three in a row!” She continued, “But there comes an exhaustion after that that I was dead and I didn’t know if I was going to snap back. And then I came back, thank god, but if there’s ever a day when I’m dead and it’s over because you have to be pulling so much constantly as an actress. Emotions have to be free-flowing and if that stops, I’m not going to push it.”
Perhaps Stone and anyone else struggling to be artistic can benefit from Daniels’ advice. “In my theater company in Michigan, Purple Rose, we call it Fire the Judge and don’t judge yourself, especially early on in a rehearsal for an actor. Make mistakes. That’s what rehearsal is about. If you’re writing something or you’re crafting something or whatever it is you’re doing, make big mistakes early.” In addition to acting, Daniels enjoys writing plays and music as well. When working in those mediums, he keeps this in mind, “You write without even knowing what you’re writing sometimes and then you can rewrite that. You can’t rewrite nothing, but you can rewrite, even if it’s garbage, you can rewrite 98% of it and then you’re off and running.”
The Mulroneys actually struggled from a case of writer’s block themselves. After realizing their career wasn’t moving in the right direction, they opted out of agency work and into personal projects. This experimental effort became an opportunity to reflect and ultimately turned into an unusual road to completing a rather atypical screenplay, Paper Man.
In fact, it was the irregular development of events in the actual script that drew Daniels to Paper Man in the first place. “The script was unpredictable and the writing was so good and the scenes and I didnt know where it was going.” He added, “And so often you read scripts and especially coming out of Hollywood. You kind of go, ‘Well, that’s what this is,’ and sure enough, it’s exactly what you thought it was going to be and you just kind of watch them execute it.”
One of the most unpredictable elements of this script? “The whole relationship between Richard and Emma Stone’s character, the 50-something guy and the 17-year-old girl.” Daniels explained, “You initially go, ‘Uh oh, here we go. Sex,’ and it isn’t. These two people, lost soles that they were, really needed each other for something far bigger than that and that’s what really pulled me through the movie.” Stone never even looked at Richard and Abby’s relationship as taboo to begin with. She said, “I always saw it as these two people, no matter the age difference or the gender difference, needed each other and are very similar in a lot of ways even though on the outside, they’re not so much. That relationship made sense to me.”
Abby is Stone like you’ve never seen her before. Her fresh face, sans black eyeliner might have been the first step to making her character feel more authentic than ever, but it’s Stone’s genuine talent that truly makes her feel as though you’ve known her all along. But of course Stone was eager to give the Mulroneys their due credit. “In the script, she just felt I can completely imagine this person existing, you know?” She continued, “It was so wonderful to get to live in her for a while because she doesn’t feel the need to talk all of the time or be goofy all the time and I, for some reason, do have that urge constantly for sarcasm and she’s not that way.”
When asked if taking on a more serious role was related to the all-too-familiar switch from teenage acting to adult professionalism, Stone admitted, “Oh god, and no. It’s so annoying when people are like, ‘God, I just want my audience to see me in a different light.'” She added, “I think a lot of times I’m consciously trying to stray away from that. A lot of actors live for the outside, what other people think of them, and I’m just trying to do what’s true to because you can’t play a part well if you don’t understand the person.”
Clearly Stone had a firm handle on her character and was very comfortable on set. Daniels recalled, “Emma’s in her early 20s and is already doing things that a lot of experienced actors don’t do. She reacts and listens and she uses the other actor, in this case me. We bounced off each other.” He continued, “We reacted to each other from take one on and that’s the key to chemistry and when that happens, then you’ve got that and the scene comes off the page and it looks like two people just being with each other, not two actors trying to score.”
When calling attention to Daniels’ other co-star, Reynolds, naturally his venture to bring Green Lantern to the big screen came to mind. After mentioning the pressure Reynolds must be feeling taking on a superhero franchise, Daniels joked, “What pressure? You’re a lantern! You’re green! I don’t get it! [Laughs] Come on!” On a more serious note, Daniels said, “He was so much fun. He’s so smart and he is going to be one of the next big stars, if he isn’t already.” He recalled, “And god, god help him, I mean, it was 10 degrees with a wind chill of 20 below and he’s out there in those little yellow shorts and the cape, you know, is flying behind him and we’re standing on some pier in Montauk in the middle of the night and literally you’re shaking, you’re shivering and he’s got to stand there.”
And that wasn’t the only scene that involved these A-listers roughing it. Being an independent production, there wasn’t enough cash to get the cast and crew trailers. Stone explained, “On a studio movie, not that I’m complaining because it’s unbelievable and you get really treated like royalty even though you’re a friggin’ actor.” She continued, “On a movie like this, it feels like everyone’s really there for a common goal, like they want to make the same film and it’s not about the marketing of the movie, it’s about the story you’re telling.”
The minimal budget was no issue for Daniels. Why would it be? Daniels has a bus. Yes, a bus. “I drive it myself, 42 feet long. So when they said we don’t have trailers or we can’t afford trailers I go, ‘Not a problem.’ So I drove my bus and parked it at the set and most of the time slept in the bus.” Sadly, Daniels slept solo on his vehicle, because his co-cast took a pass on Daniels’ invitation. “Nobody came. ‘Hey Ryan, want to see the bus?’ ‘Not really. No.'” Daniels did have one visitor and particularly special one at that. “My son came, he hung out with me.”
While on set, Richard’s character had to deliver one line that is particularly memorable. While chatting with his wife, he asks her, “Are we just pretending to be unhappy?” Initially it sounds ridiculous, but on second thought, nearly everyone can recall an instance during which he or she has unnecessarily exacerbated a problem. When asked about his stance on the dialogue, Daniels responded, “It usually has to do with not communicating and just kind of skirting over a problem that’s in the room with you, the 800 pound gorilla.” He added, “Richard starts to really question everything. He’s stuck in his life, he’s stuck with the book, he’s just stuck and he looks at his wife and he goes, ‘Are we just pretending to be unhappy? Are we stuck too?'”
One of Stone’s most memorable moments involved a game of ‘would you rather’ and spawned a session of our own. When asked if she’d rather hear every conversation or take back anything you say, she probed for more details, “Selectively hear conversations? Or have to hear every conversation?” After settling on the latter, she answered, “That would be miserable. Yeah, be able to take back anything I say definitely be able to take back anything I say! Why am I even hesitant about that?” Stone was quick to answer the second question: Would you rather kiss a jellyfish or step on a crab? “Kiss a jellyfish.” Lastly, would you rather have a foot long eyelash you could never pluck or have an earlobe the size of a basketball? “Oh my god, foot long eyelash. That would be terrible! Look at that. [Gestures the size of a basketball near her ear.] Look at that! As opposed to a hair. You could at least like wrap it around maybe, you know?”
Now it’s back to business and on to Stone and Daniels’ future plans. Daniels recently opted to return to the Broadway show “God of Carnage,” for which he was nominated for a 2009 Tony Award. Rather than stick with a good thing, Daniels is opting for a challenge, forgoing his original role and taking on the other male lead. “It’s a little weird, but you go in knowing it’s going to be a bit hallucinogenic so, Dylan Baker’s playing the role I played a year ago and so you know that Dylan’s got to do his own thing with it. So, get out of the way.” He continued, “Meanwhile, you’ve got to do your own thing with this and that’s got to be just because you’re two different people, it’s got to be different than what Jim Gandolfini did with it a year ago.”
With his stint in “God of Carnage” lasting until early July, Daniels already has plans post-curtain call to focus on his music. “I’m going to go out for probably about five months and play a lot of clubs. I’ve done it all over the country, but I really wanted to devote part of the year to that now.” He added, “I’m going to go play these 300, 400-seaters and just enjoy life for a while.”
Stone has future plans as well, but hers aren’t nearly as solidified. When chatting about the highly anticipated Zombieland 2 she explained, “Oh man! I know about as much about it as anybody. They’ve announced it, but we haven’t really heard that much as a cast since then, so if they’re making it I sure as hell hope we’ll be there.” When asked if she’s planning to solidify arrangements and take a role in the adaptation of The Help, she said, “I think so, I think so,” but urged, “Don’t read the character with me in mind because just don’t, just don’t.” She laughed, “She’s way cooler than me.”
Paper Man opens in limited theaters on Friday, April 23.