How Did “Love & Mercy” Stars Paul Dano and John Cusack Prepare for Their Roles? Why Cast Both?


Paul Dano, one of the stars of Love & Mercy (2015), looks remarkably like the film’s subject, Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, did in the 1960s. Round in the face and long in the hair, with a couple extra pounds in the middle, Dano not only captures the physique of his character but does a fabulous job with the mannerisms. As Brian Wilson’s bipolar schizoaffective disorder increased in severity during the time period Dano’s characterization represents, he became gradually more detached from reality, often lost within the music and sounds frequently pulsing through his head. Dano’s performance reveals a character who is prodigiously in-sync with his artform but progressively out of tune with his life.

John Cusack plays the same person within the film, but Cusack’s Brian Wilson lives two decades later, during a period in the 1980s when Wilson was detached completely from The Beach Boys, his family, his children, and anyone else not deemed suitable by his domineering doctor and caretaker, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Wilson appears broken, existing like a child with the resources and lifestyle of an adult, heavily medicated and completely controlled by Landy, down to the drugs he takes and the soup he is and isn’t allowed to eat. The story of Wilson’s life during this time includes the beginning of his relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the woman who would rescue Wilson from Landy’s manipulation and go on to be his second wife.

Many critics note that while Dano looks like Wilson in the 1960s, Cusack doesn’t look like Dano—nor much like Wilson. But that wasn’t a real concern for director Bill Pohlad, who sees the vast physical difference between Dano and Cusack as representative of the distance between the person Wilson was at each of the two points in his life.

As The New York Times says, “One might say that Brian Wilson, who was later found to have bipolar schizoaffective disorder, was two different people before and after his years in seclusion.”

That is the very thought on which Pohlad hinged his risky creative decision. To further the distinction, the two actors never worked together during the film, so each could not sway the others’ interpretation of the artist. They were told to portray Wilson the way they felt was organic and appropriate for the time.

To the Glendale News Press, Dano said, “Bill believed that if we just followed our respective Brians and their story then it would work out. It’s important to see the juxtaposition of the two people, especially when you see Brian in the studio so vital, and then see the older Brian quiet, almost traumatized. There is a mystery there, how did that person become that?” Dano also chose to not meet Wilson initially. “I didn’t want to meet him right away — he is very different now than he was in the ’60s. I felt he was such an open and honest person and I didn’t want to mimic him or grill him about unnecessary details of his life so I took a lot of time doing my own research and learning about his music and how to play it.”

That research included learning to play piano while immersing himself in The Beach Boys’ music, particularly the legendary “Pet Sounds” album. He spoke with former members of The Wrecking Crew, the famed collection of studio musicians who Wilson worked with on the album, about their memories of the man at that time in his life. Recording “Pet Sounds” is the highlight of Dano’s scenes in the film.

“When Brian would talk about the younger version of himself,” Cusack told the New York Times, “he was completely dispassionate, like it was someone other than him — in a more extreme way than other people look back on when they were 21. Seeing him talking about it, he just had no ownership of himself.”

It’s a bold move having two actors play the same man, especially when the man is real and as well-known as Wilson. Biopics typically have a daunting enough challenge finding one actor to convincingly embody a well-known popular figure, so employing two actors and instructing them to offer their own divergent takes on someone is unheard of. But it’s that separation within the man himself that makes the choice work for Love & Mercy. It wasn’t just for thrills or marketing appeal; the tactic became the story’s catalyst and carried a thematic message in its construction.

The Guardian says, “The two-actor approach is a shrewd way of conveying the dislocation and disconnection suffered by Wilson and by those who knew and worked with him: many forced out of his life by fate or professional duplicity.”

Eugene Landy is the perpetrator of that duplicity. He took advantage of the diminishing Wilson we see in Dano’s segments, and Cusack shows us the results. One character becomes two.

Brian Wilson was involved with the film and was pleased with the accuracy of the story’s events and the performances of the actors who played him. Wilson said, “I felt very close to the movie because the actors who played me, played me very well…Paul Dano absolutely captured the way I produce records. He even sang like me.”

In fact, Dano had to sing for Wilson as part of nabbing the role.

The two-actor concept was a bold approach, but one that seems to have paid off, as critical response to the film has been very positive. And those behind any biopic always hope for the approval of its subject and their family, which Pohlad’s film has overwhelmingly received.