Actors are fond, perhaps a little too fond, of describing their work on a play or movie as a journey, but with A Free Man of Color the use of the word has some especially heightened meanings. This week, as the creative team traveled from their LCT-bottom-floor rehearsal room up to the Beaumont stage, where tech was beginning, I chatted up the actor Paul Dano, who is portraying the character in the play most associated with journeying: Meriwether Lewis.
Dano, a young actor who says he is most associated with his work in two movies, Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, has been researching Lewis as part of his role preparation. Like many of us, he knew about him from his role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but much less so in his role as President Thomas Jefferson's secretary.
"Lewis knew Jefferson for most of his life," Dano said. "So when the President asked him to work for him, it was a logical extension of their relationship." The two had many common interests. "They were both interested in the West," Dano said, "and both were obsessed with maps."
Jefferson, of the generation of 18th-century geniuses who knew a little (or a lot) about everything, taught Lewis about botany, but Lewis's interest in the outdoors predated that tutorial. "Lewis was a great hunter," Dano said, "and had been since boyhood." Working as Jefferson's aide, the actor continued, "took Lewis away from nature. He had to do a lot of menial tasks, like copying letters."
Dano's own upbringing was more urban than Lewis's. He grew up in New York City and its Connecticut suburbs, and made his Broadway debut at age 12, in a revival of Inherit the Wind starring George C. Scott. "I wish I'd had a better appreciation of George C. Scott when I was in that play," Dano confessed. But at the time he said he was as interested in basketball as in acting. A firm decision to become an actor didn't occur until he was a freshman at the New School's Eugene Lang College.
Dano's humanities background in part informs his understanding of his current assignment. "Meriwether is a romantic figure," the actor said. "I learn new things about him all the time."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.