Playing his favourite actor in forthcoming biopic Life, young Hollywood’s fresh-faced poster boy Dane DeHaan faced his thoughest test to date
It took film director Anton Corbijn months and months to persuade Dane DeHaan to play James Dean in big-screen biopic, Life. It wasn’t that DeHaan lacked enthusiasm for the part, it’s that he was dreading stepping into the skin of his idol. Shitting it, in fact. “I’m the one that goes around saying I want to challenge myself all the time,” he tells me from the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his wife and fellow screen performer, Anna Wood. “Then when the opportunity really came along, I got scared. This is the biggest challenge of my career.”
Hollywood needs more young actors like DeHaan. Here’s a guy who’s as comfortable playing a ballistic, gas can-wielding heavy metal roadie (2013’s anarchic thriller, Metallica: Through The Never) as he is a heartbroken 17th century painter (forthcoming drama, Tulip Fever). He changes his colours quicker than a Rubik’s Cube, knows when to say no to work and, as I learned, rarely lets his guard down in interviews. Since his film debut in 2010’s Amigo he’s averaging five roles a year, each as diverse as they are demanding. Though he often plays youths dealt a tough hand in life — most notably in cult, halogen-lit Ryan Gosling vehicle Place Beyond the Pines — typecast DeHaan is defiantly not.
“You have to be a strong individual,” he says with the deadpan inflection of a Daria character that never was. “I know what I want, I don’t want to just shine bright and then burn out, I want to have a slow-burner of a career. For me, the challenge is just keeping it about the work and trying to let it speak for itself.”
One thing’s for absolute sure: when DeHaan is certain of a part, he’ll wrap his life around it like a boa constrictor. To land his stint as the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, he asked co-star Andrew Garfield to recommend him to director Marc Webb. He pursued the role for months and when he got it, based his character on the typical, moneyed pseudo-intellectual he’s used to meeting in New York. “It’s undeniable the positive effects doing a movie like that has had on my career,” he remarks. “If you do big movies, if you put yourself in the public consciousness in that way, it allows you to do whatever movie you wanna do next.” Hop-scotching between projects humble and humungous, DeHaan’s keeping his options wide open. “It comes down to this balance – I don’t always want to be doing big movies, or small ones. I think if I just did one of either of those it would really start to wear away at me physically, mentally. With Spider-Man, I had never been in a movie that big, but I loved the people involved. I wanted it selfishly, but I also wanted to work with Andrew.”
When, after five failed attempts, photographer-turned-filmmaker Corbijn finally twisted DeHaan’s arm for Life, the actor was put on a demanding diet plan. Gaining a skin-splitting 25 pounds in three months and crunching his vocals flat to mimic Dean’s infantile rasp, DeHaan’s performance is studied and compelling.
He’s hardly a plaster-cast lookalike, but he never tried to be. “It’s not like I didn’t spend a tonne of time on his voice, but the most important work, I think, is trying to figure out who he was, what drove him forward,” he muses, counting out the biographies he read in prep.
The film, out in the UK this autumn, follows the slow-burn relationship between Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) and a pre Rebel Without a Cause-starring Dean. Following him for the photo-series everywhere from New York’s seediest nightspots to his family home in Indiana, Stock captures the 24-year-old in his playful prime: passed out drunk on a table beside a buxom blonde (To Rome With Love’s Alessandra Mastronardi), playing the jester on a farm, and sharing a close moment with his son. His favourite of Webb’s series — which shows Dean sitting alone on the stage of a high school auditorium — didn’t make the film.“I was in college [when I saw it], and that was the first time he became human to me,” he laughs. The scene where Dean follows Stock into a drizzly Times Square to pose for one of his most iconic portraits, is as powerful as acting gets. As DeHaan cracks Dean’s wily, ear-to-ear smirk for Pattinson’s Leica SM, ex-Final Fantasy songwriter Owen Pallett’s soundtrack simmers underneath.
Years before Life, DeHaan had spoken at length about “misunderstood” Dean.The film portrays him as a mischievous, limelight-averse visionary – a million miles away from the coy country boy he’s thought of as being. “Everyone knows that photograph of James Dean in Times Square. It’s such a strong image, but nobody is just one thing. Nobody is just a rebel, nobody is just cool. He was so much more than that. Hopefully, this film shows that.”
Whipped up for an Annie Leibovitz-shot Prada menswear campaign last year, he must know what it feels like to be labelled a young, mysterious icon. I think it does a really good job of showing how a normal person can be turned into an icon,” he ponders. “How photographs can change the way the world views a person. You can t just think of two of my movies and categorise my entire person. Luckily, I’m not like the people I play in my movies. I feel like I’m a lot more of a sane, normal person than a lot of the times I’m portrayed on screen.”
Off-set, DeHaan often unconsciously stays in character. Wood had to repeatedly remind him to snap out of his Dean persona, he recalls. “It is full immersion. I feel like my characters leak into my personal life because they’re all consuming.” Indeed, there is something uncanny about DeHaan’s casting, especially in the scene where he demands to be shown “only good movies”, to accept honest, upstanding projects alone.
In 2017, he and Cara Delevingne star in Valerian, Luc Besson’s first film in three years. Based on the graphic novel, DeHaan plays a time-travelling 28th century protagonist in one of the most anticipated sci-fis of the decade. He’s not slowing down, then. In fact, you get a sense that now, more than ever, Dane DeHaan is as high as he’ll get. But what of the bigger roles he’s turned down? “I just don’t see any real reason to answer that question… its too dangerous,” he rebuts. “It’s not what I don’t do, it’s about what I do do.”