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Welcome to Hollywood 2014, Dane DeHaan. The rising young star has gone from grappling with angst-ridden, spider-powered superheroes to tangling with a girlfriend with an increasing taste for human flesh.
After breaking through with films made by an emerging avant garde – including Josh Trank’s Chronicle, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and Josh Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings – this year the 28-year-old actor has starred in two very of-the-moment genres, first playing Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s childhood pal turned homicidal supervillain Green Goblin, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and now appearing opposite Aubrey Plaza in the zombie comedy Life After Beth.
In the film, from writer/director Jeff Baena, DeHaan is Zach Orfman, a man grieving the sudden death of his about-to-be ex-girlfriend, only to have her re-enter his life as a transitioning zombie whose growing raging issues are soothed by jazz and sexual contact.
DeHaan, who next appears in the biopic Life, playing film icon James Dean opposite Robert Pattinson’s magazine photographer Dennis Stock, spoke with Spinoff Online about playing the straight man to a flesh-eating paramour and her denial-minded family, decoding Dean and what he hopes the future has in store for Harry Osborn.
Dane DeHaan: Well, I really wanted to do a comedy more than anything, and I got to do it with some of my favorite comedians. That’s what it was about. You know, I’ve done so many different genres of movies, but I’ve never done a comedy movie until now. I did a comedy off-Broadway when I first got out of school, but that’s kind of what it was about.
You were working with so many different comedy pros of different ages and different levels of experience. What did you learn from watching this cast of greats that got assembled for this movie?
Yeah, it just depends, but I think that the biggest thing I took away from it was that – at least for me – it’s still about truth, and it’s still about giving yourself over to the circumstances. It’s just in this movie the circumstances are very funny. And, I think some people are just born really funny: inevitably when John C. Reilly does something or Molly Shannon does something or Aubrey does something, chances are you’ll want to laugh more than if anyone else would do something, because they’re just born funny. There’s something about them, their perspective on life is comedic. And even those three, and everyone else in the movie, when they gave themselves over to the truth of the situation, it was their essence that made them funny not them trying to do some kind of comedic thing.
How did you find what was funny about your role, Zach, as even just as a character who reacts to the others?
Well, I don’t know, I think, yeah. it’s about creating the character without getting too boring about it. You just kind of look at “Who is Zach?” and “Who is Zach?” comes from “What does Zach do?” and I think it’s pretty clear that Zach is kind of this college kid that doesn’t know how to express himself, but is put in a situation where his life is crashing down. Like everything is happening to extremes, and he’s forced to go through these circumstances that force him to express himself to extremes, and he’s not comfortable doing that. But, given over to the circumstances, he has to. I guess maybe that’s where the comedy comes from: somebody being forced to be super-expressive in extreme circumstances, when they’re not even comfortable having a normal conversation.
You’re really getting to sample a lot of different elements of acting in Hollywood: You’ve done a big superhero blockbuster, serious dramas, a comedy, you have a biopic coming up. What’s it been like being able to take on all of the diverse opportunities coming at you right now?
First and foremost, it’s a dream come true! I consider myself so incredibly lucky, and it’s kind of mind blowing that not only do I get to work at this level of my profession, which I never expected to. But you’re right: I went from a comic-book movie, to a zombie-comedy, to this pretty serious James Dean biopic, and I just did a 17th-century romance. To me, that’s mind blowing. And I think, somehow – not many people are given the opportunity to do so many different kinds of things. But I do always want to just be seen as an actor and not as a specific kind of actor, and I always want to grow as an actor. I think the way to grow is to continue to challenge myself in different ways, and so I kind of just set my sights on a project. And sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I’ve been really lucky to kind of pick ones that have mostly worked out and have provided me an opportunity to do a wide variety of work and learn a lot along the way.
A character like this exists within the context of this movie, the script, and if you have questions about his history, you can just ask the director and the writer. With somebody like Harry Osborn, a fictional character, and somebody like James Dean, a real person, how do you go about researching them, and the aspects of them that you want to bring to your performance? Or do you not?
Well, I think, yeah, all of those are very different, right? So Harry has been around for over 50 years, there’s been many incarnations of Harry, and this was a new incarnation of Harry, but he is always the same kind of archetypical character and there are elements that make him Harry Osborn. No matter what era he’s in, no matter what incarnation of the story you’re seeing, there are certain character traits that I found should be there, and then it’s about “Where does that fit into modern day?” This was a completely fictitious character, so it does come down mostly to the script, and about what the character’s doing in the script, and how that informs who he is. And then James Dean only existed at one point, was a real person, but also what’s interesting about James Dean is he’s been turned into this kind of mythical icon. And when I would tell somebody, “I’m playing James Dean in a movie,” they would almost always come back to me with something that they thought they knew about James Dean. And as I was reading as much stuff as I could on him, I realized that there’s so many different versions of James Dean out there. All these people have different ideas of who he was, have different ideas of what he did, and that was a really interesting process of sifting through all that information and trying to find, to me, what was actually true. You know: What perspective was this book written from? What perspective was this book written from? And how does that influence what they’re saying about this person that actually existed? And who was he actually? Not through the filter of somebody that knew him, but gathering all of the facts together and trying to assimilate who he was as a person, not just who he was as an iconic figure.
Was there something you learned about Dean that helped you turn the key as far as what you wanted to do in your performance?
I think he was somebody that – he went through a lot as a kid, a lot, and I think there was this sense that even though, in the end, he kind of had a familial situation and people to take care of him, he did feel like he kind of had to take care of himself. And, you know, fuck the world before the world fucked him. And I think that was a big driving force in his life.
Now that you’ve done some comedy, are you bitten by the comedy bug? Do you want to do a lot more?
Yeah, well, I don’t want to spend my year only doing comedies, but I really hope that this shows people that I can do it and it affords me more opportunities to do it, because that variety is great, and to come off of a really serious movie and to be able to let loose and be in a comedic, fun environment, I think is not only good for my career, but good for myself as a human being.
Do you want to play the crazy one next time, one of the characters that’s a little bit more outlandish?
I don’t know. I don’t know that I could do that. But maybe that would be the challenge, ‘cause it is always the ones that I say that I don’t know if I could do that, that is the ones I want to do. So maybe that would be fun to try.
Did you have any sort of fondness or affinity for the zombie genre? Or was it, it sort of happened to be part of this movie for the central joke?
Yeah, mostly it just happened to be part of the movie. I didn’t want to do it [just] because it was a zombie movie. And I really liked 28 Days Later, but I won’t definitely see [any] movie if it comes out and has a zombie in it.
With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we got a taste of Harry Osborn, but we’re expecting to see more of that character. What do you want to do with him next? What areas do you want to get to explore about Harry, if it was up to you?
Gosh, I don’t know! You know, I think that’s a good question and not something I’ve had a lot of time to think about, because I’ve been really busy. But at this point, I’m just hoping that they have me back and that I get to keep going, because I had such a blast doing that movie and that was such a dream come true and the people involved are so great. But I don’t really know what’s going on and I don’t really want to put an expectation onto what I want to go on. I think it’s all in good hands, and I trust the people over there. I just hope they let me keep playing.
Opening Friday, Life After Beth also stars Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler and John C. Reilly.