In the new film Life (currently in theaters), Dane DeHaan plays the legendary James Dean, and while the two actors may not look alike they both seem to comport themselves in a similar way. DeHaan is a young, handsome actor who has spent more of his career honing his craft and challenging himself than he has spent giving a crap about public image or marketing. They’re also both inscrutable, relatable, and immensely open performers who are more happy to converse than they are to “be interviewed.” There is a compelling, casual feature to DeHaan’s character that makes you want to be a friend.
Dane DeHaan (and it’s pronounced like Katherine Hahn and not “hand”) sat down with CraveOnline to talk about Life, about James Dean, about his varied career (like, what was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 all about?) and about how sometimes, just for sanity’s sake, one has to back away from intense roles.
CraveOnline: It’s a pleasure to meet you, and it was a pleasure to see you play James Dean, as – and I’m sure people have pointed this out to you – there are parallels between his character and yours.
I’m older now than James Dean ever was, unfortunately. [Laughs.] But thanks.
Did you have any relationship with James Dean before Life?
Yeah, I had the utmost admiration for him. He’s always been one of my favorite actors, and when I was at acting school, he was a person whose movies I was introduced to and someone whose movies I watched over and over again and again. I had a poster of him on my wall since I was in college. So I’m a fan of James Dean.
Surely playing James Dean is a threatening task. I hear you even turned down the role a few times.
Yeah, I did. And it was because it was so threatening, you know? Because he was a hero of mine. It was kind of person, holy material in a way. But I do these interviews, and I say I want to do the most challenging roles, the ones that scare me the most. And when that opportunity actually came along, I couldn’t turn away from it. I realized that if I wanted to practice what I preach, I gotta step up and take this opportunity that is being presented to me.
How does one go about preparing to play James Dean? How does one make such a known icon original and relatable?
A lot of things. It’s really challenging. I had to put on weight for it. I tried to capture his voice because he had a unique voice. I don’t think most people even realize that. So I worked with a dialect coach for that. I worked with a makeup artists I had worked with previously to figure out what we could do to make me look more like James Dean.
All these things are the more surface-y things, though. The real challenge – and the real fun – was trying to figure out who he actually was as a person. And going through all these biographies – of which you can read almost anything about him to figure out what was true and undeniably a fact. And what does that show me about who he was as a person? And then trying to bring that to life. No pun intended.
Sorry if this question is vague, but how would you sum up James Dean’s character?
I think that James Dean wanted to fuck the world before the world fucked him.
James Dean was at the forefront of a new Method of acting in 1950s Hollywood. Do you think the Method is still relevant? Do you subscribe?
Well you have to know. Yeah, do I subscribe to the general idea of the Method that was happening in Hollywood at the time? Yes. Do I go about it in the same way as James Dean? No. I don’t. But one thing about that Method is there were a lot of different ways of teaching it. So James Dean did it different than I learned how to do it. His being a more Strasberg thing. My mentor, who studied with Bobby Lewis, who was a teacher at the Actors Studio at the time. All of which were aimed – Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, others – all these people aimed at the same goal of living as realistically as possible in imaginary circumstances. But all had a slightly different way in.
Did you do any research into the history of the time? Did you study Hollywood of the 1950s?
I’m sure [Anton Corbijn] had to study it a lot. For me, it was all about James Dean. That’s my part of the job. But it was interesting to learn about Hollywood at the time, and how studios worked at the time, and what exactly that would mean, and all that. The music. These were all things I look into. But they were all background to the fact that I was playing James Dean.
How is Hollywood different now than it was back then?
Oh, it’s super-different. Back then studio would pick a handful of actors to be in their movies, and you would only work for one studio. You would live at the studio. And you were completely controlled by the studio. They would literally take people and say “Okay. This guy, he’s named James Dean, and we’re going to project him into the world as this rebellious cool guy. And this woman, Marilyn, she’s going to be our Blonde Bombshell. This guy, like Brando and Newman, he’s going to be our leading man.” And so, in a way, you didn’t have any control over your career in a way that you do today. And you had almost no control over the image you projected.
Which is a lot of ways why I love this movie. It tries to to show what this guy was like as an icon, but also tries to show who he was underneath all that as a human being.
So… You got to meet Metallica. That’s pretty cool.
It was cool. Undeniably cool. It was a really exciting phone call to get. “Metallica wants to make a movie with you. Do you want to go hang out with them in Vancouver for two or three weeks?” Answer: Yes. It was awesome. Those guys are cool. It was really interesting to see all the different members individually. Who they are as humans vs. who they are as Metallica. They’re really a great group of guys. I still text with Lars [Ulrich] now and then. But yeah! Lars is actually is friends with Anton [Corbijn, the director of Life]. I think they’re all friend with Anton, who did their videos and album covers. So even in making this movie, I think Lars was really talking to me and to Anton about how we should be working together. So it’s funny how everything got interconnected.
You’ve done a lot of soulful, powerful indie dramas that are all very performance-centric. But there is a big outlier in your career, and it’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. What took you to that level of filmmaking?
I just think it’s fun to do a lot of different kinds of movies! I think that my “in” into the business… I think that as I was coming up in the business, I was really lucky because I looked like I was really, really young, but I was a classically trained actor. So I think that was a fortunate combo to have. Auditioning against people who were younger than me, who hadn’t really been to acting school, and there were all these great parts for younger people. So that was my “in” into the business. What I really love to do is act. And I really want to make all kinds of movies.
I’m about to make another big blockbuster movie. I just got done making my first horror movie. Before that I made another soulful indie movie. Before that, I made a 17th century romance. Before that, I made the James Dean movie. So for me, I just think I will get better if I challenge myself in different ways, in different genres, playing different parts.
There will always be a part of myself that wants to make that soulful indie drama, but, honestly, if that were all I made, it would probably kill me. Because those movies take so much away, those movies demand so much of me psychologically, that I honestly don’t think it’s healthy to sustain myself doing only those kinds of movies. Sometimes, I need to challenge myself in different ways, and give the psyche a break. I will always make those movies! But I can’t only make those movies. Not if I want to stay healthy and take care of myself. They demand so much of me, that it wouldn’t be healthy to make only those.
But I have a great one coming up. It’s called Two Lovers and a Bear. And it’s a super-soulful movie starring Tatiana Maslany and myself, directed by Kim Nguyen. And I’m super-excited for that movie because that was definitely a movie I did for myself. And it was an amazing journey. I’m really excited for it.
Did you find your youthful appearance to ever be a detriment when seeking more adult roles?
No. That’s what I started to do. I look older now than I did six years ago. I think that was my “in” into the business, and I think it was a great gift, but I haven’t played “young” for a while. My last movie, I was a businessman on Wall Street. Luckily, I haven’t played anyone under 25 in the last three years. And those movies haven’t really come out yet! [laugh] For James Dean, I took advantage of that. Like I said, it was a great “in” into the business, to look like I was 16 when I graduated college. I still look young, but I don’t look as young as I used to. I’ve been given opportunities to play older people for sure.
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
It was a CD at the time. I think it was Ace of Base. “I Saw the Sign.” I would have been five. Maybe it was “Weird Al.” “Weird Al” was my first concert.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The Robot’s Voice, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.