Things were going pretty well for Dane Dehaan before his car got stolen.
The boyish 31-year-old actor had wrapped a marathon six-month shoot for this month’s sci-fi epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a passion project of French filmmaking legend Luc Besson. He’d had big parts before—notably as Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2—but never this big. Never the lead in a major summer blockbuster.
Then, in April, he and his wife, actress Anna Wood, had their first child. A beautiful little girl named Bowie. Bowie turned DeHaan’s world upside down. Over dinner, a few blocks from his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he recalls the upheaval. “Everybody says it’s gonna change your life, and I kind of just cast them off, because I love my dog a lot. You know? I treated my dog like a human being. Or I thought I treated my dog like a human being. I was like, ‘Oh, having our baby’ll just be like having another Franny.’”
Dressed in a tank top and shorts, he doesn’t attract too much attention from the other diners, which may be due to the fact that he sounds like any other bemused and besotted new dad. “I think the most surprising thing is just the depth of love that I have for this child. How much I care for her, and I really will do anything for her,” he says. “I have this feeling of needing to provide for her—it’s not something I’ve ever felt before.”
In fact, he admits to being so consumed with the baby that he’s become a bit scattered. “Like, my car got stolen the other day, because I left it parked on the side of the street with the key in it,” he says. “I’m getting out of the car, and I’m so focused on putting her safely into the stroller … ”
“The cops haven’t found it?”
“They have not found it.”
The actor shakes his head.
“He scored, man. It was a nice new Lexus. The keys just sitting there. Crazy.”
Dane DeHaan may be on the verge of movie stardom, but that was never really the plan. He grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the son of a computer programmer father and a project manager mother. From a very early age, he wanted to act, though his interest was more in theater than movies. His parents weren’t artsy people, “but they could just tell it’s all I ever wanted to do.” There were school plays, community theater, theater camp, the whole thing. When he was young they’d take him to New York to see plays. When he got older he visited on his own. “It’s where I’ve always wanted to live,” he says.
It wasn’t until DeHaan attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts that he turned his attention to film, and even then mostly just to study the acting: James Dean, Daniel Day-Lewis, Marlon Brando, Philip Seymour Hoffman. These actors alerted him to the possibilities of the medium, and blurred his theatrical ambitions. “I remember in school, they said write down where you want to be in five years, and I was really uncomfortable. I didn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I had no idea.”
After graduating in 2008, he moved to New York. “I figured maybe I’d do some regional theater and wait tables, because that’s kind of the normal trajectory of someone like me,” he says. “I was just hoping I’d work.”
Before long, he’d landed an agent and a one-episode turn as a meth addict on Law & Order, which got him a credit and some rent money. “It was probably the most excited I’ve ever been about any part I’ve gotten,” he says. It was a small part, but he methodically broke down the character the way he’d been taught in college, and threw himself into the role with gusto: In clips of the episode, with his sunken, disinterested eyes, he certainly looks the part. “That was acting,” he says. “And makeup.”
After that, he got a string of meaty off-Broadway roles, often as alienated teenagers. In a Soho Rep. production of Sixty Miles to Silverlake, he tells me, he played a character who ranges in age from four to 17.
“You played the character when he was 17?” I ask.
No, he says, he played the whole range.
“Did they give you a big novelty lollipop to signify when you were four?”
“I did not rely on props!” he laughs. “I did not rely on props!”
It wasn’t long before DeHaan’s career took off. He landed a plum gig doing a season of HBO’s therapy drama In Treatment, and a three-episode arc on True Blood. He did four challenging, well-regarded films afterwards: the period crime drama Lawless, the low-budget sci-fi film Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines with Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling, and Kill Your Darlings, playing Lucien Carr, muse to beat writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. He also played James Dean in the biopic Life, and had a big break with The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Very often, DeHaan played variations on a type that endeared him to not only Hollywood, but also the art and fashion worlds—a pretty, willowy, androgynous blond kid with a tragic streak and ice-blue eyes often ringed with dark circles. The New York Times described his Harry Osborn as “a neurasthenic dandy with a dreamy, disquieting otherworldliness that can bring to mind the young David Bowie.” He drew comparisons to everyone from James Franco to James Dean, doing fashion spreads in GQ, Interview and T magazine. After two-and-a-half years in L.A. he became a legitimately sought-after actor, but in the right way, the way that speaks to his artistry and not his wattage, and that allowed him to move back to New York.
Through it all, DeHaan, a well-adjusted guy despite his many unhinged screen roles, has maintained an air of detached amusement. He loves the work, but he’s not in thrall to the industry. He’s pragmatic. He takes direction. He doesn’t vibrate to fame. He golfs avidly. The work stories he tells at dinner about the business are absurd and funny. Especially when bigger-name directors came calling.
He recalls a very brief appearance he made as a soldier in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. “I remember I was waiting to go on set,” he says, “and they were like, ‘Okay, Spielberg wants to talk to you and the other people in your scene.’ So we walked in and he’s sitting there eating these cheese balls. He was looking at the container, and the first words he ever spoke to me were, ‘Only 16 grams of fat in 32 balls!’” DeHaan laughs. “I’ll remember that forever.”
He also got a call from maverick director Terrence Malick, for Knight of Cups. “That was insane. He’s such a strange person.” The night before DeHaan was to report to set for his one-day shoot, Malick sent over 17 long poems, all based on different tarot cards. “He was basically like, ‘Hey, learn these, but also don’t learn these. Make sure you know them by heart, but don’t look at them at all.’ Everything he was saying, he was saying the opposite as well.” DeHaan memorized a few lines of each poem. It took him all night. On set the next morning, Malick sat him in a chair, gave him an earpiece and fed him lines from the poems to recite while a camera whirled around him.
“It was so confusing,” he says. “But by the time I was done with my one day of work, I felt I had shot enough material to either be the star of the movie or not in it at all.”
“So were you in it?” I ask.
“He cut me out of the movie completely. They emailed me later and said, ‘Hey, do you still want to be credited for being in this movie?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’”
DeHaan doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he tends to throw himself into roles, and that can take a toll. “It gets to me,” he says. “Not that I want it to.” While playing the unstable Lucien Carr, for instance, “I craved high drama. I kind of instigated fights probably more than I normally do.” Later, when he played James Dean in the melancholy biopic Life, he took a bit of a nosedive. “That movie is so much about the sacrifice that celebrities make. It’s the first time I really missed home a lot. It sent me into a dark, somber place. I was crying a lot.”
For a while, it looked like this would just be the way things went. All-in, recovery, repeat. It can wear a person out. But once in a while, something comes along that restores and reinvigorates, giving way to the thrill of possibility.
For DeHaan, that something was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It took Luc Besson less than a minute to decide that DeHaan was his man. The exuberant writer and director, best known for action extravaganzas like the Transporter franchise and The Fifth Element, first saw the actor in Chronicle. “He was amazing,” Besson says. “The eyes. When he looks at you—it’s like you feel the life. You feel the wound. You feel so many things.”
What is it about the eyes?
“There is a little sadness—like I’ve seen in some type of animal,” Besson says. “Where you feel the dozens of thousands of generations of what they went through. There is something hard. But it’s also like salt and sugar. As soon as he smiles, he has the lightness of a baby. The last actor I’ve seen with that was DiCaprio. For me he is really the new Leonardo.”
Besson had been trying to make Valerian, based on a series of 1960s French comics, for many years. The story hinges on Alpha, a city where beings from all over the universe live in harmony. When the city comes under threat, DeHaan’s intergalactic space agent, Valerian, and his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), are called in to sort things out.
When I ask Besson what made him think the indie darling was suitable for an action hero role, he takes me on a giddy detour: “I watched some interviews on the internet. He was a disaster. A disaster! Because he never feels good. He’s very ambivalent and very shy. I stopped watching the interview because it depressed me. But I was interested enough to meet him. Oh, and by the way, I love the voice also. The tone of his voice is amazing.”
With the casting underway, the director made an appointment to meet DeHaan for Sunday brunch in Brooklyn. “I sat down and he was very blond. He gave me a big smile. And we talked like 15 seconds and that’s it,” he says. “It’s him! That’s exactly Valerian.” He saw confidence and charm but also substance and genuine feeling. He saw an actor who could go the distance.
Besson gave DeHaan the script, and DeHaan called him back the next day and said he loved it. Besson was overjoyed. DeHaan was happy too, but also a little confused. “It was craziness,” he says. “I still wasn’t clear if he wanted to do it or not. I remember him saying, ‘I’m so happy! I’m so happy!’ I didn’t understand if that meant he wanted me to do it. But he did.”
“And that’s it,” says Besson. “That’s the beginning of a big love story.”
The shoot took place in Paris over six months. “We were in a studio every day,” says DeHaan. “We were working French hours. I was playing a delightfully uncomplicated character.” He was thrilled to work beside the likes of Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen, and grateful that he didn’t come away emotionally drained. “I was just happy and healthy,” he says. “Loving life and saving the world. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had shooting a movie. I learned the joy of it again.”
The transformation went beyond DeHaan’s psychological well-being. “He trained every day,” adds Besson, “and he physically changed a lot. When I met him he was really a shrimp. He had not so much shoulder. And now, believe me, when we start the film and he has no shirt, you know, you can see the abs, you can see the shoulder. He is strong.”
DeHaan emerged from Valerian with a six-pack and a brighter outlook on life, and Besson made the film he always wanted to make. “You can count on him,” he says of his new protégé. “The guy is ready. No matter what.”
DeHaan isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to be ready for next—save for getting a new car, maybe. After Valerian wrapped, he took a break. As of May, he hadn’t been on a movie set in a year. Up next is the period drama Tulip Fever, but then who knows?
“It’s like fishing,” he says of his chosen profession. “You never know when you’re gonna catch the big one.”
Dane DeHaan dishes on dad life
On outfitting his newborn daughter:
“Every time I dress Bowie, [my wife’s] like, ‘You dress her like she’s a rapper.’ It’s actually true, I do. I love giving her street style. She even has these little crocheted Yeezys.”
On naming her after David Bowie:
“I’m a Bowie fan. I like everything that he represents. But I also just like the name. I think it’s a cool girl’s name, certainly androgynous.”
On changing his habits:
“I bought this iPhone. This thing is so big and terrible, but it’s got a really good camera. I was like, ‘I need the camera, so I can take a picture of the child!’ I know it’s a small thing, but it’s a metaphor for every decision in my life now.”