When Dane DeHaan was studying acting at UNC School of the Arts he had a poster of James Dean on his dorm wall.
DeHaan graduated in 2008 and has gone on to star in the HBO series In Treatment, and films like Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines, Kill Your Darlings and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 but one thing hasn’t changed.
“The poster is still on my wall,” he says on the line from his home. “I’m looking at it right now.”
In new film Life the twenty-nine-year-old actor plays Dean in 1955, just months away from the release of East of Eden. After a chance meeting a photographer played by Robert Pattinson becomes convinced the actor is the perfect subject. The two have an undeniable bond but Dean is hesitant, leery of exposing himself to the publicity machine.
DeHaan, who gained twenty-five pounds to play the screen icon, calls Dean one of his favourite actors.
“I was learning about acting and my acting teacher told us to go home and watch Marlon Brando and James Dean movies. I started watching them and he was just amazing. It was amazing to watch someone start the revolution of the kind of acting that most people do today but do it in such a beautiful way.
“It’s so exciting to watch those movies and see James Dean existing in this world with all these other over-the-top actors and just take them to school. The contrast was so jarring. Now you see a movie and there are obviously people who are better than others, but generally they’re trying to do the same kind of acting. In those movies that’s not really happening.”
DeHaan, who will soon be seen playing another real life character, Karl Rove in Young Americans, says “people think they know a lot about Dean but not many people really know much about him at all,” and hope Life will change that.
“Ultimately that was one of the reasons I took it on,” he says. “I realized that there are a lot of young people who don’t know who James Dean is, and that’s a sad fact. I would hope you would watch his movies first and then watch our movie or watch our movie and then watch his. I hope it opens a door for a lot of people to rediscover him not just as a persona but as an amazing talent.”
JAMES DEAN SIDEBAR:
Dane DeHaan joins a long list of people who have played Dean since the icon’s death in 1955
James Franco became a star, and won a Golden Globe, playing the rebellious actor in the TV biopic James Dean. Franco got so into character he went from non-smoker to a two-pack-a-day habit — in real life Dean smoked more than two packs of unfiltered Chesterfields a day — and learned to ride a motorcycle.
In 1976, Stephen McHattie won praise playing Dean in the TV movie James Dean written by William Bast, Dean’s best friend and roommate.
Also interesting is the video installation piece Rebel which features a female James Dean in the form of performer Nina Ljeti, and an Animaniacs episode featuring Slappy Squirrel giving Dean a class in method acting.
The story of “Life,” the new Robert Pattinson movie, begins with an assignment for LIFE magazine but the film isn’t about LIFE, it’s about the shared life of two very different men.
“Life” is told through the lens of Dennis Stock, a struggling photographer played by Pattinson. He’s a New Yorker slumming it in Los Angeles red carpets with dreams of returning to the Big Apple to do more important work.
James Dean (Dane DeHaan) is on the cusp of stardom, just months away from the release of “East of Eden.” After a chance meeting with Dean the photographer is convinced the actor is the perfect subject. The two have an undeniable bond but Dean is hesitant, leery of exposing himself to the publicity machine. “I lose myself in my roles,” he says. “I don’t want to lose myself in all this other stuff.”
The actor reluctantly agrees to allow Stock to photograph him for LIFE in the days leading up to the New York premier of “East of Eden.” When Stock’s early attempts to capture the actor’s “purity and awkwardness” don’t yield anything usable the two leave for Dean’s Indiana hometown. The resulting photos, coupled with a throwaway shot taken in Times Square, become a document of Dean’s last few moments of real life before he was overwhelmed by fame.
“Life” is a deliberate, thoughtful movie that details the heady days just before stardom consumed Dean. The story is uneventful, this is really a character study about two young men—in real life Stock was 26, Dean 23 years old—who find a way to define their relationship outside the parameters of photographer and subject. It’s about building trust, it’s about the connection between the press and the stars they cover and it’s about the bond between the photographer and the photographed. “Photography is a good way of saying, ‘I’ve been here, you’ve been here,’ says Stock.
It’s no surprise that “Life” was directed by Anton Corbijn, a photog-tiurned-filmmaker best known for taking iconic pictures of rock bands like U2 and Joy Division. He deeply understands the give-and-take necessary to capture interesting images and his experience bleeds into “Life’s” story.
It’s an interesting portrait of an exciting time. It’s too bad then, that there isn’t more to it. When Stock isn’t peering through his viewfinder the movie tends to fall flat.
DeHaan’s portrayal of Dean suggests the actor may have been an insufferable prat, self-absorbed and yet hiding behind a shroud of cigarette smoke. He mumbles his way through the first half of the film and doesn’t really transcend caricature until the story moves to his Indiana hometown. Its there Dean becomes a person and DeHaan seems to let go of the shackles of playing a legend. It is there the script allows him to be a person and not “the symbol of a new movement.” It is there we begin to understand why Dean is in no rush to let the public get to know him. Before that he is a ready-made rebel and not a particularly interesting one.
Pattinson continues his streak of taking on challenging roles that distance him from the heartthrob status that marked his “Twilight” years. As Stock he takes a backseat to DeHaan’s Dean, but makes a impression with a much less showier role.
In the end “Life” isn’t so much about Stock or Dean but about those moments captured on film that become legend.