Dane Dehaan is James Dean in Life

Dane DeHaan admits that the very idea of playing his acting hero, James Dean, was ‘terrifying’.
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. He was a huge influence on the young aspiring actor’s life, just as it had 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 were 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.