FROM A GROTESQUE GREEN GOBLIN AND MURDERING POET TO A CRIPPLED BOOTLEGGER AND GRIEVING RAVER, IN THREE SHORT YEARS Dane DeHaan HAS ESTABLISHED HIMSELF AS HOLLYWOOD’S GO-TO MAN FOR COMPLEX, FLAWED OUTSIDERS. THIS YEAR, THE 29-YEAR-OLD TAKES ON THE ULTIMATE BIG SCREEN MISFIT: James Dean. NOVELIST, SCREENWRITER AND A MAN WITH AN EYE FOR HOLLYWOOD MYTHOLOGY Bruce Wagner SIZES UP THE YOUNG STAR…
You’re an actor and he’s an actor, he’s more than an actor – he’s a fading celestial poster beside Einstein’s and Monroe’s – people your age don’t even think about him really or know about him, your secret fear is they never will, you’re proprietary of his memory and legacy, he’s your hero, he’s always been your hero, and this smart old Dutch filmmaker keeps approaching you about him, about memorialising James Dean, but not really, he wants you to become James Dean, he’s a shockingly smart old Dutch auteur who worked with Nirvana for fuck’s sake and directed that amazing Joy Division thing called Control and Phil Hoffman’s exquisite last turn, A Most Wanted Man, this flying Dutchman keeps asking you to play Dean, keeps coming back even after you’ve said no five times, he and his people keep saying they want you on film, as Dean, forever, but you’re in a quandary. Because any actor who’s asked to play a real person is in a quandary, sort of, even though there are a million precedents, a dilemma presents, reason being that actors are loathe to consider themselves impersonators, they want to be alchemists or be considered as such, as the best, in truth, often are. It’s what they aspire to be. But young rising-actor-playing-young-dead-more-than-famous-actor presents a hellish, challenging riddle. It isn’t a Capote or a Jake LaMotta or a Cheryl Strayed or a Stephen Hawking – it’s acting like a famous actor! The sticky, inherent vice of the puzzle isn’t the dreaded “meta” aspects of the task at hand but the sheer potential shameful TV movie biopic horror of it. Actors act so they may disappear – how to disappear into the cartoonily calcified myth of an estate-copyrighted representation of the best (intuitive shapeshifter) and the worst (commodified, caricatured) of one’s trade?
Richard Burton once said an actor is less than a man but an actress is more than a woman.
Does an actor who signs on to play James Dean become less than less of a man?
“I was at a loss as to why I should do it, and I think for a good reason. Scared of it, ultimately. Big task. I’ve had a poster of Dean on my wall since I was in college and still do now. I said no five times but they kept calling. My wife was trying to convince me, my manager was trying to convince me. I sat down with the producer and he explained that the movie wasn’t a biopic, not a standard film. It tries to show how a normal person can be turned into an icon – what that means. The journey of that. And there’s a new generation of people who don’t know who Dean is, and that’s sad to me. Anton [Corbijn, the old Dutchman] seemed really chill. You know, the amazing thing about Dean was that he only made three films and then he was gone.”
The conundrum: filmmakers make ultra-violent films then assert their films are statements against violence. Filmmakers make biopics and assert they aren’t biopics. In the end, the only thing that matters is Art. And this is, after all, Anton Corbijn.
James Dean was gay. JD wasn’t gay. JD had a sexual relationship with his pastor after his mother died. JD fucked Pier Angeli on the beach at their secret cottage hideaway. JD loved men and wanted to sleep with them because his father was a prick. JD loved women and wanted to sleep with them because his mother, whom he adored, upped and died of uterine cancer when he was nine. JD had sex with men only for money or favours that advanced his career. It is impossible, says a friend, through the tule fog of celebrity tabloid history, to imagine Dean having a fulfilling sexual relationship with a woman. It is impossible, says another headlight in the fog, to imagine him not. Like Kerouac and everyone else, Dean’s sexuality is eternally in the eye of the beholder.
There are no grey areas about Dane DeHaan, who finally agreed to be James Dean in a film called Life by Anton Corbijn. It’s about the friendship between the eponymous magazine’s photographer, Dennis Stock (Rob Pattinson) and JD. Stock was hired to do a photo essay of the actor before East of Eden came out and the two travelled together from LA to Indiana to New York; many of the iconic images of the rebel were taken during those two weeks, the more well-known ones in Times Square. You can’t get much out of DeHaan, and not because he’s cagey. He presents as a true American innocent, polite, thoughtful and untormented. It’s almost uncanny, shocking. Young, and married – he’s 29 and has been wed since bride and groom were 25, which feels young for an ascending male star to be hitched – Dane went to musical theatre camp from the age of four to 16. Four to 16! That’s almost like being in a cult. His tastes in reading and film and music are middle-of-the-road, middle school syllabus-worthy.
If you ask him what book or film or work of art transformed him, he’ll say, “I guess I never had an aha moment.” He says it like a farmer, not a farm boy, and the guilelessness overcomes and refreshes. He’s no Depp, no Penn, in search of demented and perverse suicidal fathers – no Bukowski and Hunter Thompson for this kid. He doesn’t have a pretentious, bad boy bone in his body. There will be no marathon 3am to 6am phone calls with tender, sadistic, druggie genius littérateurs, anecdotally suitable for future talk shows and memoirs.
For Dane, the most shocking thing about James Dean is that he lived in Santa Monica and Brentwood, and went to UCLA.
DeHaan himself grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He’s close to mother. “She’s one of my best friends,” says he, with endearing innocence. “We watched a lot of Disney in the house. When I turned 12, I was going to have a party and take everyone to Ace Ventura – loved Ace Ventura! – but we had to cancel it because one of the parents didn’t want her kid to go to a PG-13.”
The whole party, cancelled, out of prudence and decency! Who are these people? It wasn’t until he went to acting school that Dane began his education in film. His acting coach said, You should really watch this, so he did: Dean, Brando, Paul Newman, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller. “Forrest Gump meant a lot, it was more than entertainment. Its craftsmanship blew me away.” No Cassavetes, no Von Trier, no Altman for this boy. He wasn’t even aware of the Beats until he knocked ‘em dead as Lucien Carr in Kill Your Darlings. Then his education continued on a higher, less Gumpian plane: The Motorcycle Diaries, the Brothers Dardenne, The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. “Though I’m not really a big fan of horror.”
I believe it.
No serious injuries or illnesses when growing up, no deaths, no extremity. The only potentially soap operatic thing is, he never knew his grandfather on his mom’s side because she didn’t know the man himself. The traumatic event of his life was at 17: his parents’ divorce. The coming of age moment, more ugh than aha. A perfect childhood, then splitsville: it all came crashing down one summer. “I took the family role as ‘leader’” – he has an older sister – “at least for a few months. I stepped up. I think maybe I yelled at my father for a night or two. You know, if a friend’s in trouble, they can come to me, but I’m not good at giving advice. They can come to me for honesty and truthfulness but I’m not great at working through stuff. I’m not a worker-througher. They go to my wife for that.”
“You know, I’ve loved Dean all my life but I guess I didn’t really know that much about him. I read about him for the film, his early life. His mom and dad moved to Santa Monica for his father’s work when he was pretty young, then his mom died from cancer and his dad couldn’t really take care of him. He sent him back to Indiana to be raised by his aunt and uncle. He had kind of a fractured childhood. And it’s funny, I thought that because he came up in the time of Adler and Strasberg and the Method, I thought as an actor he’d be really into that. That he would have bought into it, into everything Strasberg was telling him. But he didn’t! He did things his own way and didn’t like to be told what he was doing was wrong or bad. I think he was kind of very insecure that way. He’d lock himself in his trailer for three hours until he felt he was ready. I guess the way that I work is, well, I enjoy the whole classical training thing. I do it as I was taught – the breaking down of a script. I do what I was taught to do and when it’s time to go, I toss all that out the window. I really do think Dean was afraid of being wrong. He worked really hard to get into The Actors Studio but when he did his first monologue he got totally torn apart and barely ever went back to class! He wasn’t like Brando, you know, the protégé of Stella. Dean worked really hard to get a spot in Strasberg’s class.”
When Dane became a young adult, he talks as if he awakened from an Interstellar-like slumber. “I finally read Vonnegut, Gatsby… the last book was The Goldfinch, I was obsessed. I think I read it in like three days. I haven’t really felt comfortable picking up another book since. I guess I’m still digesting the experience. I read a lot of scripts. I would like to do theatre, though.” Asked what dramatists interest him – Mamet? LaBute? Something old school? – he says, “The only writer in the last five years is Annie Baker. She wrote The Flick. I was in The Aliens in 2010. [And received a New York Times rave for his portrayal of a young high school misfit in the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production.] I’d love to work with PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Aronofsky, Nolan. I act because I love it. I’m obsessed with acting… because it’s something I can work at forever – it’s a never-ending quest. I do it for the work, I honour the work. There’s nothing else I really do. I love to golf but was never good enough to go pro. Golf is my meditation. I backpacked around Europe between my junior and senior years in college. Backpacked with my girlfriend, now wife. My favourite place is Paris. I’m not really drawn to darkness. I guess my shining moment was when I played the Rooster in Annie. [Strange. Isn’t that what “DeHaan” means, in Dutch? I read that somewhere but forgot to ask him.] Or maybe Sir Oakley in Anything Goes – I was 14. I don’t really listen to music that much. If I’m alone, I prefer silence. But I like the Avett Brothers. And The National and that new song by Hozier. I guess I just let life happen, and stick to my guns. I’m actually an incredibly grateful person. I’m really pleased with how my life has gone. I’d like to be a dad. But right now, I’m a ‘fur dad’. I have a dog that I treat like a human child.”
Dane is nearly five years older than Dean was when he died. He’ll crash on a couch, not in a Porsche, after learning his lines; he’ll never put a bag over his head that says “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE”; he’ll go on to do theatre without Birdman’s nudge-wink smarter-than-thou hijinks. And he will continue to evolve in that thoughtful, homespun, grateful, journeyman way.
What you see is what you get – except on camera, where the mystery really matters.