– Dwayne Hoover, Little Miss Sunshine

This was the first word many of us heard come out of actor Paul Dano’s mouth. It comes about halfway through 2006 indiewood hit Little Miss Sunshine, in his breakout role, as his character Dwayne realises that his life’s dream of becoming a fighter pilot is no more, thanks to his just-discovered colour blindness. Having taken a vow of silence until this goal is complete, he silently but hysterically demands the van be pulled over so he can break his now-defunct vow in the most spectacular way possible. It’s a heartrending and emotional scene, with Dwayne’s hopelessness and rage played absolutely to perfection by a barely twenty-year-old Paul Dano. And what an explosive introduction to the world of cinema for someone who would turn out to be among the best (and most underrated) character actors of his generation.

With an acting repertoire ranging from his early role in The Sopranos to his recent portrayal of actual living legend Brian Wilson in this year’s Love and Mercy – via his turn in Little Miss Sunshine and career-highlight clashes with Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood – Paul Dano has proved himself time and again to be an outrageously gifted and versatile performer. His unique (and, let’s be honest here, slightly gawky) look and quavering voice could have easily led to his being pigeonholed into an array of awkward teens, nerds and weirdos – however his talent and power as a character actor has seen him break free of these potential confines to portray a vast range of deep and nuanced characters from all walks of life, in everything from prestigious “Oscar” films, to big-budget studio fare, to genre-bending indie oddities.

His extraordinary range can be deduced from a quick look at some of his roles – Nietzsche-reading wannabe fighter pilot who has taken a vow of silence? Check. Prodigious writer with a God complex who can create life through his writing? Check. Dumb adopted son of a murderer who is tortured for her crimes? Check. Despicable and arrogant slave owner? The list goes on. In these roles and all others, he imbues his characters with a tangible “realness” through their insecurities – which even if attached to a contemptible character, as with Tibeats in 12 Years a Slave – gives them an undeniable and understandable level of humanity. As Tibeats berates the helpless Solomon we know he is an awful human being, but we can recognise why he feels the need to impose his authority in such a way – his obvious inferiority complex and his insecurity about it is made clear by Dano and helps us to understand (if not empathise with) such a vile character. Whoever Dano plays, they always avoid becoming one-dimensional or over-simplified.

Dano’s finest work to date came opposite a Daniel Day-Lewis at the top of his game, as the idealistic but weak young preacher Eli Sunday in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Originally cast only in the smaller role of Eli’s brother, Dano was quickly given the role of Eli as well after the original actor Kel O’Neill dropped out, amid unconfirmed rumours that he was intimidated by Day-Lewis’ famously intense on-set presence (the once-brothers were hastily rewritten as twins). It is a testament to Dano’s innate strength and acting abilities that, still in the early stages of his career, he was able to go toe-to-toe with a terrifying and arguably career-best Day-Lewis for many of the film’s most thrilling and climactic scenes – and absolutely hold his own. Day-Lewis would of course go on to win virtually every award going for his monstrous and eye-popping performance as Daniel Plainview – and deservedly so – but it seems cruel that Dano went virtually unrecognised for a performance some consider its equal. See one of their iconic and fiercely intense shared scenes below, and brace yourself – it’s Acting with a capital “A”.

Dano also excels in less heavy roles – for 2012’s Ruby Sparks (which he also exec-produced) he teamed up with his real-life girlfriend Zoe Kazan to film her script with Little Miss Sunshine directors Dayton and Faris – and the result was a wicked subversion of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope with equal parts rom, com and drama, with a good dose of meta-weirdness. Ruby Sparks proved Dano’s romantic leading-man credentials, as he nicely balanced his comically foolish moments and genuine affection for Ruby with his moral quandary over the undeniable creepiness of his control over her.

So other than the imminent Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, what’s next for this wonderfully versatile character actor? One upcoming project has him reuniting with 12 Years director Steve McQueen for Codes of Conduct, an HBO-produced miniseries about high-society New York. Another, the recently-announced and highly intriguing Swiss Army Man, will see him opposite Daniel Radcliffe and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a story about a man befriending a corpse in the wilderness. He’ll also be gracing British TV screens later this year as part of the cast for BBC Cymru Wales’ six-part take on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We can rest assured that no matter what sort of characters he’s playing – be they heroic, evil, genius, dumb, or just plain weaselly – Dano will expertly bring both light and shade to them, as he always has.