How Paul Dano Approached Playing His Horrible Character In 12 Years A Slave

One of the best performances in "12 Years a Slave," the heavy period drama following a free northern Black man as he's kidnapped and sold into slavery, was Paul Dano as Jonathan Tibeats. A sadistic plantation overseer, Tibeats would regularly beat the slaves he was in charge of for his own personal amusement. He made the main character Solomon's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) life in particular a living hell, because Solomon was educated and self-assured.

"People who are abused often abuse their animals, people who lack authority take it out in other places," Dano explained. "When a slave is more educated than he is, and gets respect he doesn't have, when you see a slave get respect when you are not respected, I would imagine that would be a huge insult." In the film, Tibeats' hatred of Solomon escalated to the point where the plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) decided to sell Solomon to another plantation, because he knew Tibeats would eventually kill him if he stayed. 

It was important for Dano, when becoming the character, to understand exactly where his character was coming from and why he did everything he did. As he told Collider: "What makes this person angry or spiteful, or why did he seem constantly irritated, or why this? You just start to try to turn up every stone. Then, you feel like you've got a whole human being with you, and you can just let the scene happen."

Embracing a truly vile character

The role of Tibeats, which involved engaging in regular, horrific acts of violent racism and a copious amount of racial slurs, took a lot out of Dano. As he explained: "I got sent the script. I read it. Of course my first inclination on reading that script is, s**t, you wanna help."

But like the other white actors in the film who had to play truly reprehensible people, Dano understood the importance of putting his feelings aside in service of embracing a realistic, gripping performance. "I don't want to treat somebody like that," he said. "You go in there and do it. You nut up." And sure enough, Dano rose to the challenge and gave us one of the most detestable characters from any film in recent memory. The scene where Solomon snaps and beats up Tibeats is incredibly satisfying; even as we know Solomon's digging his grave as he hits Tibeats with his own whip, we still root for him to keep going because the guy is just that horrible. 

It helps that Dano has, by his own admission, a very punchable face, which might be why somebody beats the s**t out of his character in seemingly every movie he stars in. The most important thing for Dano's acting career, however, is his embrace of delusion:

"You had to delude yourself. I left all that at the door when I showed up on set. Singing a song in front of black men dressed in rags was not what I daydream about doing! That's something you somehow delude yourself and go do it."

It's this attitude that helps him encapsulate so many different memorable characters, so many of which are deeply unsettling to watch in action. With his other performances like Alex in "Prisoners" or the Riddler in "The Batman," we can always count on Dano to play a believable creep.