The cynical among us might suggest that all you need to become a successful actor these days is a six-pack and a fierce publicist. It’s surprisingly easy to forget what real acting looks like; the finely-tuned Hollywood conveyor produces new stars daily.
Dane DeHaan, however, is truly one of the new greats. His performances burn themselves into your memory, full of depth and scope, and delivered with apparently no effort at all. In twenty years, look back at the most important films – there is no question about which leading man will have defined them.
James West: Hey Dane, how you doing?
Dane Dehaan Good thanks, how are you?
James: I’m actually freezing, I thought I’d come out and sit out on the balcony and it would be nice and relaxing, but it’s cold.
Dane: Where are you, in London?
James: Yeah. It’s fine, I’ve got my jumper on and I’ve got a cup of tea so I’ll cope. Where are you?
Dane: I’m in Charleston, South Carolina.
James: Oh wow, what are you doing there, are you working on something?
Dane: No, my wife is shooting a TV show here, this is where I’m spending my downtime but I leave tonight to start a bunch of Kill Your Darlings premieres.
James: Is it a constant stream of press and interviews for you or do you manage to keep it contained?
Dane: Well, it comes in spurts but when it happens it’s pretty constant you know? Like Toronto leading into the Metallica premiere was pretty crazy and then I had like a week off. Now I’m going to do all the Kill Your Darlings stuff and that’ll be intense.
James: It’s already getting a massive reception it seems, is that your perception?
Dane: Yeah, it’s been really exciting. Certainly for a movie of this size, the perception it’s getting is huge in comparison, which is always what you hope for.
James: I just saw they pushed the UK release date back a bit, I think it’s coming out in December here now.
Dane: Oh yeah, I just saw that too on Twitter.
James: So, how was it working with Daniel Radcliffe, had you met before the film?
Dane: I met him at my audition. It’s really wonderful, Dan is probably the best friend I’ve made making movies. Sometimes the movie-making process can be such a fleeting thing that you make these friends for like nine weeks or whatever and then – it’s almost like summer camp – you’re like, “Oh we’re going to keep in touch,” but it kind of never pans out that way. Dan and I really hit it off while making the film and have maintained a friendship since. It wasn’t just that we were both making a movie together and then, you know, you just become friends because of the circumstances you’re thrown into, we’re actually very like-minded people with like-minded interests and goals.
James: I was going to ask you actually, I know you’re a bit of a movie buff but are you much of a reader too? I get the feeling you’re a switched-on kind of guy.
Dane: Yeah I read as much as I can but unfortunately, at the moment, I just read scripts and that kind of takes up all of my time. When I’m not reading scripts I’m reading novels that might be turned into scripts, or books about things I’m working on. So my reading now is definitely dictated by my work, but every once in a while I’ll try and slip in something for pleasure. At this point in my life it’s a rare thing to be honest.
James: That’s a shame. The Kill Your Darlings movie was based on the Beat poets and they represented a massive set of ideals in literature and history, were those ideals something you were interested in before the film or have become interested in since? Or is it just something you get wrapped up in while you’re filming and move on from?
Dane: Well I was certainly aware of who the Beat poets were and what they stood for in a general sense, but I wouldn’t say I had a specific idea of their ideals. The movie is about discovering those ideas and I think, in many ways, I was discovering the specifics of those ideals and exactly what they were trying to accomplish while we were making the film.
James: You’ve obviously played a diverse set of roles, but this is a real-life character which is something you’ve not done quite so much I guess, does that change the way you approach the role?
Dane: It does. I mean, Lucien Carr is definitely the least documented character out of all of them, but there is definitely a whole sea of actual information that you can pull from, you’re not just relying on the scripts like when you have a character you have to invent. When you have people that have actually written about the person you’re playing, it’s almost like some of the work is done for you. You can read who this person actually was, I guess that’s the difference. And then there’s the responsibility to honour these people.
James: That’s what I wondered…
Dane: You do your best to really find out as much as you can. I think if Lucien Carr knew this movie was being made today he might not be really ecstatic about it, because the events are something he seemingly worked the rest of his life to distance himself from.
James: Right, he moved on to a bit of different career.
Dane: Yeah. And not only a different career but he just never really talked about it. I mean, he became a completely different person afterwards. You know Howl [the Alan Ginsberg poem that was the subject of a high-profile obscenity trial in 1957], the original version was dedicated to him, and he had his name removed from all subsequent publications.
James: I heard that.
Dane: There was definitely a big effort on his part to distance himself from these events and distance himself from the person he was. In this case it’s not my job to portray the Lucien Carr that Lucien Carr would probably want to see, because truthfully he was a different person back then.
James: And how do you ensure, when there are films that take real-life events and dramatise them, that you don’t trivialise the character?
Dane: Well I mean ultimately any time I create a character, what it really boils down to is how I find out who the person is by what the character does. I think when you really look at Lucien Carr at this point in his life there are some great clues into who he was as a person based on the kind of things he would do. Him and David [Kammerer] would run away together at night – they were in boarding schools – and they would go onto the deck of a ship and sink it, just so he could feel what it felt like to be on a deck of a sinking ship; he would be drinking wine at a bar and he would chew off bits of the glass just to get a reaction. So there is definitely this very daring, extroverted, seemingly unafraid quality to him.
James: Did you try any of these things, did you feel like you needed to have some similar experiences to mentally gear yourself up?
Dane: No, because I think ultimately, for me at least, it’s not about having to do those things, it’s about understanding who a person is that does those things and allowing that quality of person to inform the choices I make. So obviously a person who does those things will do them a lot differently than the way boring normal married Dane DeHaan does things. I certainly didn’t sink a ship in the making of this movie!
James: Fair enough! There’s one idea I know Lucien Carr and Alan Ginsberg had a shared interest in at the time, and that was the potential of American youth. The world has changed a lot since then, but do you think the idea of youth as a conduit for progress is still important?
Dane: Well sure, that’s totally important, and will continue to be important as long as youth continues to be youth and new generations continue to take control. I feel like every generation is like, “Oh I’m so worried about the generation before me,” but ultimately everyone finds their voice eventually. There haven’t been many generations that have disappointed. Younger people are so much more in touch with society, with what is happening here and now, and their lives are affected by that, especially today.
James: And you’re definitely part of the new, younger generation in Hollywood, are you optimistic that movies can still shape people’s ideas and change the world, or do think it’s become much more of a money-making industry?
Dane: I think it has always been a money-making industry, I mean ultimately you have two different sides of the coin, right? You have the artists that really want to do things that mean something and speaks to them, and then you have the people that afford those artists that opportunity, which are often times people that would also like to make money in the process, you know? [laughs] I think there are a lot of people paying for movies today, like Michael Benaroya that paid for this film and Lawless, and Megan Ellison who’s making Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies and Spike Lee’s movies, and these people are in their twenties but they’re just making really great choices with the money they’re lucky to have. I think as so many tent-pole movies are being made and made and made, and so many of them are failing, maybe one day people will start waking up to the fact that, “Oh the ones that are succeeding are mostly the ones that are actually well done,” like, “Not only did we spend $200 million making it, but it also has a great script and has great actors and it also means something.” You can make big tent-pole movies that will ultimately make a lot of money and you don’t have to sacrifice the artistic qualities of it, you just have to make sure someone is there to pay attention to those details. But you can also still make small movies and people go and see them, like Place Beyond The Pines has made a whole lot of money for such a small movie.
James: That brings me back to Chronicle, that’s where we first saw you. It really floored me, I’d never seen anything quite like it, and it doesn’t seem big budget. The acting from the entire cast was phenomenal, but the way it was put together… someone’s really thought that process through. How much was that film improvised?
Dane: I’d say 0% of Chronicle was improvised.
James: Really? That’s crazy.
Dane: Yeah, it was a really great script and a really brilliant idea for a movie, and again here you have a bunch of twenty-somethings that 20th Century Fox afforded the opportunity to make this film because they saw that it was a good idea and there were passionate people behind it. And, you know, we did the script as written. The director had a very clear vision and all the actors really put their heart and soul into the project. Obviously it was very inventive and it’s one-of-a-kind in its genre. I think a lot of times ‘money people’ have these formulas that they think they can plug a person’s name into and calculate the amount of profit the movie’s gonna make. For my money, the movies that I would invest in are the ones that I believe in, and the ones that I think I can get a lot of really great people involved in. Those are the movies that live on and on.
James: Obviously you have Spider-Man 2 coming up, and that’s about as blockbuster as you can get.
Dane: Well again, I think the producers of Spider-Man are really intelligent in that they hired a director who puts character and artist process first over explosions and special effects. The script definitely has really clear messages, just like comic books historically always have. They’re not just banking on that fact its Spider-Man so people will see it regardless, what they want is to make is a movie that people will be talking about forever.
James: Was it frustrating to work on roles that were younger than your real age in your first movies, even though they were complex characters emotionally?
Dane: Well it wasn’t frustrating at all, I always wanted to go to acting school and I always wanted to train classically as an actor, that was always my first priority before I entered the professional world. When I got out of acting school I still looked really young, so I was able to have my young career. But I think also because I was classically trained and had a way of working that is maybe rare compared to young people who don’t go to acting school, the parts that were being brought my way were the most complex, interesting people that I could imagine. So I never thought, “Oh man, this guy is seventeen or eighteen years old”, it was just like, “I’m getting to work with Derek Cianfrance and this part is awesome.”
James: A lot of the roles you’ve played are these characters with inner torment, are you drawn to those people that have something a little bit darker happening inside?
Dane: I think that the more complicated and impossible the project seems, the more I’m into the idea of doing it. But also I think all the characters I’ve played have also been very different, they’ve all been complicated and been going through really hard things. If you take Andrew in Chronicle and compare him to Cricket in Lawless, and then compare him to Lucien Carr, they all have their demons but they’re completely different people. You go from the extreme introvert to the extreme extrovert – somebody that doesn’t have any friends to someone whose best quality is being able to make people fall in love with them. It’s definitely the complexities of a person that draw me to a character, but I also don’t know many people in real life that don’t have problems you know?
James: So can you just drop all that when you walk off set, or do you carry it with you?
Dane: I don’t try consciously to take what’s going on on set home with me, but it does inevitably affect me. During shooting there are always qualities of the person I’m playing that creep into my life, just subconsciously because I’m spending fourteen hours pretending I’m someone else, and then I’m going to sleep. So I’m spending more hours a day as someone else than I am as myself. But then when its over I can usually shed it fairly quickly.
James: I hear you’re a golfer, is that right? Does that help you get out of a character?
Dane: Yeah, honestly it does [laughs], I mean golf to me is like a meditation. When I’m on a golf course all I think about is golfing. I went golfing yesterday the whole time my cell phone was off, so I knew no one was going to call me. It’s just like a very calm, serene, meditative thing.
James: Do you have a full-on set of golf clothes with those hideous check trousers or are you a cool golfer?
Dane: [laughs] I do have clothes that I wear specifically for golfing, yes I do!
James: That’s good, I think it’s very important. So you have some projects coming up, Life has been announced recently – what stage is that at, have you started shooting yet?
Dane: No no, it’s really just in its embryonic phase. I’m playing James Dean, so I’m just starting the process of wrapping my mind around who exactly he was. I’m going to probably have to put on a bit of weight for it and you know, I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of the character.
James: It must be daunting to be playing someone who’s so idolised?
Dane: Yeah, incredibly daunting and it definitely won’t be an easy thing at all. But I look for things that are going to terrify me and this is definitely the most difficult, terrifying task that has been put my way.
James: Do you feel a need to continually develop your acting skills, or are you happy now that you know exactly what you’re doing when you step on set?
Dane: Well I went through five years of acting school where I kind of was able to form a way that I like to work, and the more I do it and do it, the repetition of it, the better I’ll get at it. For me acting is something I can do my entire life and I’ll never be as good at it as I want to be – I’ll constantly be striving to get better. But at this point I’ve just been given so many opportunities to work with great people, and work on these great parts, and the doing of it is hopefully making me grow. Traditionally actors would just join a theatre group and there would be really great actors there, and they would learn from doing it and learn from watching other more experienced actors.
James: How do you start to prepare for a new role generally? You’ve mentioned you have a process, and I think that’s quite an interesting thing for those of us who don’t really understand how acting works. Sometimes people think you just get up there and do it.
Dane: Well there are key elements that I always try to work on. I spend a lot of time thinking about what the general theme of the script is, just to put it in my consciousness. Then it’s about working out what is the driving force of the movie? Why does this script exist and why is it not over? Why does it keep going and going, what do all the characters all have in common that is driving them forward? And then I try and make a brief summary of the story just to be able to explain it and be able to understand what happens in the shortest way, so my mind isn’t spinning around the script. Then I work more on the character itself – what kind of things do they do, and don’t they do, and why do they do those things instead of those other things?
James: And do you keep all that in your mind while you’re performing? Do you try and physically turn those thoughts into specific actions or emotions?
Dane: No not at all, these are just the things I do at this point months before I start filming. And then by the time I get onto a set, it’s my job to not think about those things and to trust the fact that I’ve been obsessing myself with them enough that they’re now a part of me. So when I get onto a set I can just hopefully be free and play and let go, knowing that I have this bible of work behind me.
James: You’re going to turn into an even bigger household name soon with Spider-Man 2 and then Life. Have you actively thought about that fame thing, can you prepare for something like that?
Dane: Urm, I don’t know [laughs], I don’t have a plan, you know? I just take opportunities one by one as they present themselves to me, and ultimately, if I’ve learned anything from achieving this much success in the industry, it’s that at the end of the day the only thing I can really rely on is myself and the work and the passion that I have for it. So my choices hopefully will continue to be about challenging myself.
James: And after all this complicated emotional stuff you have a comedy coming out!
Dane: Yeah I already did it, I did a comedy! [laughs]
James: Was that a completely different experience or did you approach it in the same way as everything else?
Dane: Well I think the answer to both those questions is ‘yes’. I mean, there are certainly elements of it that are very different. Like when I’m working with Derek Cianfrance and I feel like laughing, I just laugh and I just let that happen. But because you’re making a comedy, and it’s like Molly Shannon standing across from you and she’s fucking hilarious and I can’t laugh, in that way I can’t be truthful to what’s actually happening, so in that way it takes an extra bit focus to do that kind of thing. But the work that I do beforehand all remains the same, it’s just a different world. I had an acting teacher that used to say, “Style is knowing which play you’re in.”
James: Do you ever look back on the things you’ve done and wish you could have played roles differently?
Dane: Well, I think that if I made a movie a year ago and then it comes out a year later and that’s the first time I see it, I really hope that when I watch it I think, “Oh if I did that today I could do a better job.” It’s about understanding that acting is a process. So if I look at something a year ago and I think, “Wow, I couldn’t have done that any better,” then that kind of defeats the purpose of why I do this. But as long as I know that, in that moment of time, I worked as hard as I could and I poured my heart and soul into the project then I can’t really be upset by the results, even if I fail.
James: It’s a good perspective to have. You don’t live in LA, is that a conscious choice to stay away from things?
Dane: Yeah, I lived in LA for two-and-a-half years and then I made a very conscious choice to move back to Brooklyn. I find it’s a really tough place for an actor to live.
James: Why’s that?
Dane: Because… there are a lot of reasons that I feel like I don’t get along with LA, but ultimately everybody there is obsessed. They are in the industry or trying to break into it. I’ve only made one film ever in LA, otherwise I was leaving to film on location, and then I was coming back to LA for time off while being surrounded by people that just wanted to talk about the industry. I didn’t want to do that. The weather is beautiful, but if every day is 75°F and sunny, time kind of stands still you know? Like a year will go by and you’ll be like, “I swear that was all the same day.”
James: With all the same people with all the same orange tans sneering at you over their coffees?
Dane: Yeah. The other thing about it is, I love Brooklyn and I love New York just as much as I didn’t get along with LA, I feel embraced by New York City as the place for me to be. I grew up going into the city, thinking, “One day I want to live here,” and when I moved there after school I loved it. When I moved to LA for professional reasons I was lucky enough to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish there in a very short amount of time. The world is small enough that it really doesn’t make a difference, if I need to go to LA I can for a couple of days, but Brooklyn is kind of just where my heart is.
James: I heard that Gabriel Byrne wrote you a letter when you were thinking of moving to LA, saying, “Don’t be afraid to jump of cliffs,” which is a great piece of advice. Are there any other moments or events that happened in your life which have radically changed the way you perceive things?
Dane: I remember when I was about to leave acting school and I had lunch with the dean, he was one of my acting mentors, Gerald Fried, and he said to me, “Don’t allow the way other people do things to hold you back. Be brave enough to go full fledge in the direction you want to go.” A lot of times you can get very influenced by the people around you and the way they think about things. I’ve always been a fairly opinionated person but he gave me the confidence to not be afraid to stick with that.