Dane DeHaan admits that the very idea of playing his acting hero, James Dean on screen, was a “terrifying” idea.

Indeed, when DeHaan was first offered the role in Anton Corbijn’s Life – which focuses on Dean’s unlikely friendship with photographer Dennis Stock – he turned it down.

“James Dean is my favourite actor, so the idea of playing him in a film was a pretty terrifying thought. I had a lot of excuses at the time, but looking back on it, I think I was just afraid,” he says.

“I think it was just a fear-based decision to keep saying ‘no’ to the film. But luckily I have a lot of supportive people that I surround myself with, and the more I talked about it, the more I thought about what the film was about, and what the opportunity really was I realised that it was just my own fear that was getting in my way.

“I feel like I’m always telling interviewers that I want to pick the most challenging parts, the hardest parts, the parts I’m really afraid of, but when really the pinnacle of that thought came, I was like, ‘Oh, no thanks!’” he laughs.

“I had to realise that I was just scared and I had to practise what I preached, because that is what I want to do, but obviously I’m a human being, so my own fear gets in my way sometimes.”

DeHaan was at college when he first discovered Dean’s films and he was a huge influence on the young aspiring actor, just as he has been for countless others.

“I think he was one of the first to really act in a realistic way – the way that people act, or try to act, today,” he says. “There’s certainly the part about him that he only made three films, and two of the films are targeted towards a younger audience: East of Eden is for younger people, and Rebel Without a Cause is for younger people, so not only was he acting in a realistic way, but he was very much the voice of that generation.

“He was such an open, emotional, vessel, that people really felt for him and really related to him. And then he died. Rebel Without a Cause and Giant came out after his death, so it just left the world wondering, ‘what could have happened if he was still around?’”

 

He finally decided to take on the role after talking to colleagues and family who urged him to accept the challenge. “I sat down with the producer, Iain Canning, and he explained to me that to him, it wasn’t a biopic on James Dean, it was about how a normal person can be turned into an icon, which I thought was true and a really interesting topic.

“He also brought up the fact that so many young kids today don’t know who James Dean was, which to me is just a really sad thought, so if this film can inspire younger people to go back and get in touch with those movies, I think that’s a really wonderful and important thing.

“Then it was talking to my manager, and talking to my wife, and them just being like, ‘you like the script, you love the director, it’s a challenging part – these are the things you always say you want to do, so why aren’t you doing it?’”

Corbijn’s film, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, focuses on the brief, intense friendship between Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) then a struggling photographer trying to build a reputation with the Magnum agency, and the fledgling star wary of the studio controlled publicity machine.

Dean eventually allows him to take revealing, intimate pictures, including shots with Dean’s family on their farm in Indiana, which would launch Stock’s career when they are published in Life Magazine. Those images became some of the most famous photographs of the 20th century.

“Everyone knows that photograph of him in Times Square,” says DeHaan. “If they don’t know anything about James Dean, they know that photograph, and those photographs certainly helped him stand the test of time, and continue to represent what he represents to people today.”

After finally agreeing to do the part, DeHaan had four months to prepare. “The decision was like, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do this, I need to make sure I’m prepared and if I’m really going to be James Dean, the thing that I’ll need to do is I’ll need to gain some weight. I’ll need to look like him as much as possible, and I’ll need to sound like him as much as possible, so how long will it take to do that? And how long will it take to feel like I’m fully prepared by the time I show up on set?’

“I had about four months and it was plenty of time. I gained 25 pounds, I worked with a dialect coach, and I worked with a make-up person to help develop the look. It was a pretty full-on process.”

Despite those initial reservations, he’s very glad that he did take on the challenge of portraying James Dean.

“Yeah I did enjoy it,” he says. “I mean, the shoot was hard; It was during the polar vortex in Toronto. There were some days where we were shooting outside where the wind-chill was -35 degrees, so that part of it was tough.

“It’s crazy cold, and obviously it couldn’t look like it was -35 degrees, so we had to act like it wasn’t. It was fun. It was the biggest challenge of my life, absolutely, but also probably ultimately the most rewarding, as an actor. Not always easy, but looking back on it, it was definitely fun.”

DeHaan was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts. After working on stage and in television, he made his feature film debut in John Sayles’ Amigo in 2010. His other films include Chronicle, Lawless, The Place Beyond The Pines, Lincoln, Kill Your Darlings, Life After Beth and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

WATCH THE TRAILER FOR LIFE BELOW

 

Q: We read that you were apprehensive about taking this role. Why is that?

A: Well James Dean is my favourite actor, so the idea of playing him in a film was a pretty terrifying thought. I had a lot of excuses at the time, but looking back on it, I think I was just afraid. I think it was just a fear-based decision to keep saying ‘no’ to the film. But luckily I have a lot of supportive people that I surround myself with, and the more I talked about it, the more I thought about what the film was about, and what the opportunity really was. I realised that it was just my own fear that was getting in my way. I feel like I’m always telling interviewers that I want to pick the most challenging parts, the hardest parts, the parts I’m really afraid of, but when really the pinnacle of that thought came, I was like, ‘Oh, no thanks!’ (Laughs). I had to realise that I was just scared and I had to practise what I preached, because that is what I want to do, but obviously I’m a human being, so my own fear gets in my way sometimes.

Q: When did you first see one of James Dean’s films?

A: It was in college. I hadn’t seen them until college. The acting teachers would tell us, ‘go home, watch Marlon Brando movies, watch James Dean movies, watch Paul Newman movies,’ so that’s what we would do, and the first time I was probably in a dorm room with some friends when I watched one. It was probably East of Eden, but I don’t know exactly.

Q: Why do you think he remains such a powerful influence on young actors?

A: Well, I think he was one of the first to really act in a realistic way – the way that people act, or try to act, today. There’s certainly the part about him that he only made three films, and two of the films are targeted towards a younger audience: East of Eden is for younger people, and Rebel Without a Cause is for younger people, so not only was he acting in a realistic way, but he was very much the voice of that generation. He was such an open, emotional, vessel, that people really felt for him and really related to him. And then he died. Rebel Without a Cause and Giant came out after his death, so it just left the world wondering, ‘What could have happened if he was still around?’ And today there are these photographs. Everyone knows that photograph of him in Times Square. If they don’t know anything about James Dean, they know that photograph, and those photographs certainly helped him stand the test of time, and continue to represent what he represents to people today.

Q: How did Anton talk you round to the project?

A: It was actually the producer. I sat down with the producer, Iain Canning, and he explained to me that to him, it wasn’t a biopic on James Dean, it was about how a normal person can be turned into an icon, which I thought was true and a really interesting topic. He also brought up the fact that so many young kids today don’t know who James Dean was, which to me is just a really sad thought, so if this film can inspire younger people to go back and get in touch with those movies, I think that’s a really wonderful and important thing. Then it was talking to my manager, and talking to my wife, and them just being like, ‘You like the script, you love the director, it’s a challenging part – these are the things you always say you want to do, so why aren’t you doing it?’

Q: When you finally did say yes, how long was it until you started filming?

A: I had about four months. So the decision was like, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do this, I need to make sure I’m prepared, and if I’m really going to be James Dean, the thing that I’ll need to do is I’ll need to gain some weight. I’ll need to look like him as much as possible, and I’ll need to sound like him as much as possible, so how long will it take to do that? And how long will it take to feel like I’m fully prepared by the time I show up on set?’ I had about four months and it was plenty of time. I gained 25 pounds, I worked with a dialect coach, and I worked with a make-up person to help develop the look. It was a pretty full-on process.

Q: When you’re putting on weight like that, do you just eat all the time?

A: It’s more controlled, because you have to gain the weight in the right places (laughs). You can’t just gain any body fat. Especially when you’re playing a specific person. I would look at pictures of him without a shirt on, and I would look at it with my trainer, and he would say, ‘what do we need to do? How can we change your body to look like his body?’ I think he was 5 ‘8”, and 155 pounds. He’s two inches shorter than me, so I figured if I was 162 pounds and the proportions were correct, then I would be pretty much the same. So I ate a lot, and I ate specifically, and I took the protein, and all that stuff. It was pretty full on. I had to eat every two hours, and it was a lot of eating, and a lot of lifting weights.

Q: What about the haircut?

A: Well I mean he has better hair than me. He has better hair than anyone. Instead of being in denial about that, I recognised that he had the best head of hair there ever was (laughs). So it was a wig. My make-up person, Sarah Rubano, works with a really amazing wig maker, and he made a really amazing wig that looks like his hair, that we could still change. People always think he had the same hair, because he had that iconic haircut, but his hair was always different, especially in these photos, so it was about looking at the photos and then modelling the hair after what it was actually like on that day. ‘What photo is getting taken this day? What does his hair look like in that photo? Let’s try and recreate that for this day.’

Q: In terms of his voice, did you only have his films to go on?

A: So there’s one recording. I guess it was probably like the first ever secret recorder, it was a watch and it had a microphone in it, and it had a chord that ran from his watch, up his arm, and then a wire ran into a machine that he strapped to himself. He actually took it with him on this trip to Indiana, and he recorded a conversation he had with his family around the dinner table, and it’s really amazing. It’s not like his voice is that much different than it is in his films, but it is different. He is from Indiana, so he does have a bit of a southern thing going on, but not exactly. It doesn’t seem like he had a specific accent, it’s just James Dean. You just have to sound like a specific person, which in a lot of ways is more difficult than having an accent, because an accent is specific about where exactly it’s located, but aside from that, it’s your own person. For this it was about recreating his own voice, so I worked with this really amazing dialect coach named Nadia Venesse, and we worked on the voice, and trying to get it as close as possible.

Q: What did it feel like getting onto set after that journey?

A: I’m trying to remember what the first day was. I honestly don’t remember, but I feel like because I had the four months and because I had such preparation, and because the production was so great about making sure I had the tools I needed to prepare, that by the time we were on set, I felt like I didn’t have to worry about it as much. I got myself into a place where it was like, ‘Okay, on looking back at the past four months, there is nothing more I could have done. I have exhausted every option. I’ve done it. My body is right, my make-up looks good, the costumes are right. I have looked over the script millions of times, and there is nothing more I could have done.’ So the pressure in some ways was off, because I knew I had done as much as I could.

Q: Did you enjoy it?

A: Yeah I did enjoy it. I mean, the shoot was hard. It was during the polar vortex in Toronto. There were some days where we were shooting outside where the wind-chill was -35 degrees, so that part of it was tough. It’s crazy cold, and obviously it couldn’t look like it was -35 degrees, so we had to act like it wasn’t. It was fun. It was the biggest challenge of my life, absolutely, but also probably ultimately the most rewarding, as an actor. Not always easy, but looking back on it, it was definitely fun.

Q: Did you learn anything about James Dean that surprised you?

A: Yeah well I didn’t really know much about him. My reference for him going into this was watching his films and admiring him as an actor, and the poster I had on my wall. Actually I found that when I was in college – it must be a still from East of Eden, or something – but it’s a really interesting colour poster that I found behind the wall of my closet in college. I guess it was from students like 20 years ago. It was a really cool poster. To me, he was the iconic James Dean, as he is to everybody, so getting to know him as a person, there were so many surprises. I didn’t know anything about his childhood, and how difficult it was. I didn’t really know his relationship with acting classes. He worked so hard to get into acting school, but once he started doing the classes, he really hardly ever went. He went to one class and did a monologue and [Lee] Strasberg ripped him apart, and James Dean didn’t like to be told he wasn’t good, so he barely ever went back. I find it really interesting that he then takes Dennis Stock there to take his photo, like, ‘Look at me, look at what a good acting student I am.’ I think that’s because of the image he was trying to project, and I think he thought it would be cool to get some photos of these acting students thinking he was the best thing ever (laughs).

Q: Could you relate to that sense of being on the cusp of fame?

A: I think in a lot of ways I could relate to this film on a personal level more than any film I’ve done. We were filming it right before I did the press tour for Spider Man, so I did have this kind of looming, ‘What’s it going to be like?’ thing that was going on in my life, while I was filming the film. I could relate to it on a personal level way more than I can relate to a guy that turns into a goblin, or a guy that murdered someone, or any of that stuff. I definitely felt like I had a lot in common with him, especially at this point in his life and at that point of my life.

Q: Are the problems that James Dean faced with the press the same as those facing an actor today?

A: Well it was a different time, sure, but I think James Dean still had a complicated relationship with the press. He kind of invented the ‘Not doing press is cool’ thing, and he used to say, ‘The studio hasn’t done anything for me, so why should I do anything for them?’ He had this struggle between being an artist and working in the business, which in many ways still exists today. We’re all artists and it is big business. The other thing that was different at that time was that actors were much more controlled by the studios. The studios basically cast a roster of actors, and those actors would only work for that studio, and the movies they made were almost completely dictated by the studio, and the image they projected to the public was dictated, too. They were like, ‘I’m going to pick this person, and this is how I’m going to project them to the world.’ You didn’t really have control over that. These days, although press is much more immediate, and there’s Twitter and camera phones and all that, I feel like we have more control over the choices we make in our careers.

Q: Did you enjoy working with Ben Kingsley?

A: He was amazing. I think that was the second or third day of filming and he really just shocked me into the film. He embodied the character so well, and he was so on in the scenes, and he was just really giving it to me. For the first time, I felt like it was really happening, and in that way I feel like he really shocked me into the film. The other thing about Sir Ben, is that he would recite Shakespeare in between the takes (laughs), so they would call cut, and he’d be like, ‘All the world is a stage.’ It was amazing to act with Ben, but just as amazing when they called cut and he started reciting Shakespeare (laughs).

Q: Did you meet Robert beforehand?

A: We hadn’t met before. I mean, we met before we started filming, but we met in Toronto, and we hung out a couple of times, had some dinners together – that kind of thing. But you know, the film is about two very different artists that are getting to know each other over the course of the film, so I think it was more helpful for us to get to know each other on set, working with each other, than it was to have a couple beers and pour our hearts out to each other. Maybe if we were playing best friends in a film, that would be the appropriate thing to do, but I think given the nature of our relationship in the film, it made a lot more sense to get to know each other through our work.

Q: Did you get on well with him?

A: He’s great, you know. He’s like a really, really, nice guy. He’s a great hang, and we do do things in a different way, but that’s great too, to see somebody succeeding at acting, and doing it in a different way than you do. You learn from that, ultimately.

Q: Did you know anything about Dennis before?

A: No I didn’t. I didn’t know the name Dennis Stock. I knew those photos, and I remember the first time seeing a photo of James Dean with glasses on, reading a book, and being like, ‘Oh, that’s not cool James Dean.’ Even those photos make him more into a human being, and I do remember seeing him in a whole new light for a second, but I wasn’t familiar with the name Dennis Stock.

Q: Did Anton know Dennis?

A: Oh yeah, I think he was very aware. He is a very intelligent man and got a start as a photographer, so he’s very aware of the world of photography. It was amazing making the film with a person that is also a photographer as the director, because he does have a different perspective than your average director.

Q: In what way?

A: He has a really amazing collaboration with the DP. He spends a lot of time on the composition of the shot. It’s a really impeccable and careful way of setting up a shot, and that kind of thing. I think he sees things as photos where as actors see things – or at least I see things – almost in actions. He would often say, ‘Would you move your hand there?’ or, ‘Would you move your head up there?’ My response would be ‘Why would I be doing that?’ and to him the answer could be, ‘Well because the light hits your hand and it looks so beautiful, and that helps tell the story visually,’ and I might be like, ‘Yeah, but why would my hand be there? My hand is here!’ (Laughs). It was a really interesting collaboration.

Q: Is he an actor’s director as well?

A: He creates an amazing environment for an actor. You feel very safe there, and in many ways he gives you a lot of freedom and a lot of space. His films have a really nice European pacing to them, where he allows things to happen, which I think is an amazing gift for any actor – a director that is allowing things to happen and not trying to force things to happen. I think that’s how you get the best results, is by not trying to get results.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m doing this film called Two Lovers and a Bear. It’s directed by a man named Kim Nguyen, who directed this film called War Witch. That was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars a couple of years ago, and I think won a bunch of awards at Berlin. Anton was telling me when he was on the jury here, he gave it Best Cinematography. War Witch is a great film about children in Darfur. This is about two people that are in love with each other, who live way up in the Arctic and decide to journey even further north to start a new life together. Oh, and I can talk to Polar Bears (laughs).

LIFE is at Irish cinemas from Sept 25th