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Paul Dano serves up a jewel with his latest film, Ruby Sparks.

Famously noted, there is no I in team, so how lovers fare when they collaborate on the big screen is often a mixed bag, privately and creatively. Just ask Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor or Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The news, both on- and offscreen, is happier for Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan (above), a real-life couple who work together on this summer’s winsome, off-?kilter fairy tale, Ruby Sparks.

“It started with Zoe writing on the couch of our home. I was reading every page as she wrote it,” says the 28-year-old Dano, who met Kazan doing an off-Broadway play four years ago. “It was this perfect thing, and we sent it to some friends, and we ended up making the uncompromised, ideal version of what Zoe wrote. That never happens.”

Those “friends” are filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a husband-and-wife team beloved for their groundbreaking music videos for the Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M., as well as for the award-winning feature film Little Miss Sunshine, which starred a poignant, mostly mute Dano. The young actor’s performances are usually indelible, from his turns in There Will Be Blood to ?Being Flynn, which have paired him with some of cinema’s greats (Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro among them), even if he’s yet to become a household name.

“Surprise is a good thing for an actor,” Dano says. “I don’t party hard or do fancy or flashy things, so maybe people don’t know my face like they know some actors’. I’m just looking for the right script or character or filmmaker to ask me to step up my game and do something thrilling.”
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Actress/writer Zoe Kazan stars as Ruby and actor Paul Dano as Calvin in Ruby Sparks.
Merrick Morton/Fox Searchlight

Ruby is such a project, starring Dano as an author struggling with loneliness and writer’s block who, quite literally, brings to life the woman of his dreams (played by Kazan). To prepare for the role, Dano — also guitarist and lead singer for an underground band, Mook — listened to a lot of Paul Simon, Bon Iver, Ray Charles and tango music. “Music’s a jump-start to an engine for me,” he says. “It helps me stay focused and inspired and, really, to be somebody else.”

At the end of the day, Dano and Kazan are back to the couch as young lovers, having survived the oft-treacherous terrain of mixing business and pleasure. “We survived and came away stronger for the collaboration,” he says. “I think we did all right. And we made a movie we really love.”