Gifted young actor, Dane DeHaan, overcame his fear to essay one of his biggest screen idols, James Dean, in the moving new drama, ‘Life’.
When Dane DeHaan was doing his time at drama school, James Dean was an icon for the young actor. “I know that for my friends who I went to college with, at an acting conservatory, those dudes were everything,” he reveals. “James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman… their movies were the ones we watched, and referenced and we wanted to act like them. It was a huge inspiration.”
That immense respect for James Dean meant that when DeHaan was asked to step into the shoes of his icon for Anton Corbijn’s Life, his first reaction was to back away. “I was unbelievably nervous,” the actor says. “I was really afraid of it. I said no to the movie about five times until I eventually realised that I was operating out of fear. All these times, I sit in interviews and say, ‘I want to do the most challenging things, I want to do the thing that seems impossible and is going to scare me the most’. Then when the thing that scares me the most is presented, I’m running away. If I really do want to challenge myself the most, then I need to practice what I preach.”
What also aided DeHaan – who broke out with his impressive performance in the sci-fi thrillerChronicle, and has since proven his talent in such acclaimed dramas as The Place Beyond The Pines, Kill Your Darlings and Lawless – was meeting with Life’s producer, Iain Canning. “He said that it’s a film about how a normal person can be turned into an icon more than it’s a biopic on James Dean,” the actor recalls. “He also brought my attention to the fact that a lot of young people don’t know who James Dean is, which to me is a travesty. If they can watch this film and then go off and watch James Dean films, then mission accomplished. East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause are movies that are made for people who are probably younger than me. They would still speak to the younger generation.”
Rather than a conventional biopic on James Dean, Life documents the friendship between the film star and his photographer, Dennis Stock, who shot a series of photos of the actor for Lifemagazine in 1955, which have since earned their place in pop culture history. These iconic photos proved crucial to unlocking the legendary actor for DeHaan. “There’s a lot of them, and they’re all something different,” he says about the collection of photos. “Certainly, the Times Square photo is the most iconic. It’s the one where he looks the most like the persona that has preceded him – he looks cool, doesn’t care that it’s raining on him, just smoking a cigarette. But then I remember the first time I saw one where he has his feet up on a desk and glasses on and he’s reading a book. It really changed my perspective of him because he looks nerdy and intellectual. There’s a really beautiful one of him where he’s sitting on the stage of his high school auditorium. It’s a really powerful image that reflects what the movie is about – going back home and wishing that you could maintain a part of that life but it being empty to him.”
In a sly casting twist, Robert Pattinson, who launched to superstardom with the Twilight films, plays the photographer, while it’s DeHaan essaying the famous actor. “It was interesting. It was a lot like the relationship between Dennis and Jimmy in the movie,” the actor says of his relationship with Pattinson. “We’re both artists, we’re both actors, and I have a lot of respect for him. As a person he’s a really nice guy. But we do go about things in different ways. As we were working on the film, we got to watch another artist do something in a different way but still succeed at it.” DeHaan also admires his co-star’s career choices post-Twilight. “It’s a great gift to be a part of a franchise like that. I’m sure it can be tough going through it, but now that he’s done with it, the choices that he’s making are very impressive and I really commend him for it.”
While not quite on the same level of popularity as Twilight, DeHaan experienced his own brush with the studio franchise when he starred in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which has since been shelved in favour of yet another reboot of the series. “They’re not consulting with me on these big decisions,” the actor says of the studio behind the franchise. “It’s a tangled web over there, but hopefully they untangle it and they’re happy with whatever decision they make. But I’m grateful to have had the experience, and I had a blast making that movie. If I don’t make another one, I’ll always be grateful for the experience because it’s also provided me with a lot more opportunity.”
Those opportunities only look set to continue for the promising young actor who reveals that he doesn’t struggle with the pressure of fame in the same way that James Dean did. “It doesn’t beat me up in the way that it beat him up,” DeHaan reflects. “I do think it’s interesting that people really want to categorise actors into one thing or another. My goal is to be seen as an actor who can do a lot of things, and not a person who only does one specific thing. It’s a tough thing to accomplish, but easier than it would have been in his day.”
Life is released in cinemas on September 10.
This interview was first published in the September/October 2015 issue of FilmInk.