As he slips into the more comfortable title of sex symbol, the small-town Pennsylvanian and future James Dean is shedding the label of geek
Maybe it's the glassy eyes. Maybe it's his disarmingly slow, geeky warble. Either way, Hollywood's hottest property, Dane DeHaan – imported from the sheltered 'burbs of Allentown, Pennsylvania (pop. 118,974) – is finally on the verge of becoming a true sex symbol, after years spent languishing in the purgatory of being a “thinking woman’s crumpet”. DeHaan has just been made Prada’s latest poster boy, and bulked up comic-book-movie style (read: a gruelling six days a week at the gym for nine months) for the role of the Green Goblin in Amazing Spider-Man 2. He also plays a cocksure, Marlboro-lipped James Dean in Anton Corbijn's forthcoming Life, about a Life magazine photographer (Robert Pattinson) obsessed with the late icon. Surely he must be feeling like a sex bomb ready to detonate?
“I don’t know. God, I mean, there’s definitely a subconscious sense of confidence that goes along with it,” he smirks, adding a splash of milk to his coffee. He’s clearly bowled over by the idea that people would eagerly throw themselves at the former small-town beanpole. "People tweet…" He trails off, thumbing through his @-replies. "It hasn’t really reached an uncomfortable level of people throwing themselves at me in a way that’s uncomfortable. It’s just a whole lot of love. And that’s the really exciting part of it, I think." Don't waste your characters though, ladies. He put a ring on his high-school sweetie, fellow actor Anna Wood, in 2012. The couple live together in Brooklyn.
Dane DeHaan has already ticked off a good deal of boxes on the way to becoming a bona fide international box office draw. His first big role was in 2010 as troubled Bret Easton Ellis-type Jesse D’Amato in season three of HBO’s In Treatment, but he really made a splash in 2012 as rickets-addled southern moonshiner Cricket Pate in John Hillcoat's Lawless, a Nick Cave-scripted film about a 30s-era bootlegging brotherhood fronted by Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf. DeHaan and LaBeouf took a near-method approach to getting into the role of fraternal closeness – before shooting started, the pair took a four-day coast-to-coast US road trip from LaBeouf's hometown of LA to southern heartland Georgia.
So how was it spending the best part of a week with the 'Beouf? Did the infamous paper bag make an appearance? He says their main beef was over the car soundsystem. "I was like, uhhh, I don't really like rap music..." (DeHaan is more of a heavy metal kind of guy, and later appeared as Metallica roadie Trip in 2013 IMAX movie Metallica Through the Never.) It was a shaky start but gave way to a solid bromance – even if the unlikely pair were more Wayne and Garth than Thelma and Louise. "I think the bonding was over things we didn't have in common, you know?" DeHaan says. They even spent Valentine's Day together over a bowl of gumbo in "a really weird, nice restaurant" in Shreveport, Louisiana, where the two Hollywood outcasts were gawked at by formally dressed diners for their grubby road trip gear.
After Lawless, DeHaan appeared alongside Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines, before charming and flirting his way through his first real starring role, as the self-destructive Lucien Carr opposite Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg in Beat Generation love-in Kill Your Darlings. His onscreen kiss with Radcliffe lit up the messageboards and became something of an accidental career mile marker. “It was great, I guess,” DeHaan told us back in December. "If I were going into that scene thinking, ‘You’re about to kiss Daniel Radcliffe,’ I wouldn’t be doing my job. When we shot it, I was thinking, ‘I finally get to kiss the person that I love.'" (TEARS. ;_; Everyone go see this movie now.)
The son of a computer programmer father and Knoll furniture executive mother, DeHaan had an unexceptional childhood. “I don’t think that my upbringing in Allentown would make a very exciting film,” he admits. All incoming culture went through a marathon screening process. “If I wanted to buy a CD, my dad would buy it first and listen to it and let me know if I could own it,” he says, before rattling off a laundry list of blacklisted material. “Metallica albums, Green Day... They wouldn’t let me have the Green Day Dookie album. They wouldn’t let me have Bush! I mean, up to a certain age, I couldn’t watch The Real World.”
“Not that you’d want to, really…” I say, coming to his defence. “I did want to!” he retorts with a chuckle. “The Real World used to be cool.”
Haunting the halls of Emmaus High School for three years with a Ferris Bueller-like truancy record, DeHaan would get into bouts with teachers who thought school should come before his 'hobby' of acting. "I had this health teacher – which was honestly the least important class I could probably be taking – and he kept me after class one time, saying, 'You know, you’re missing a lot of class.' I was like, 'Yeah, I know, but I’m doing this play.' He said, 'Community theatre and all that, it’s great, but it’s not going to take you anywhere. Maybe you should stay in school.'"
DeHaan swapped the peeved teachers of EHS for some of his all-time heroes: the teaching staff at North Carolina School of the Arts. One man in particular was the Miss Honey to his Matilda: Gerald Freedman, the now-retired dean of UNCSA. "Gerald was a very foreboding presence to me when I first came to school," DeHaan said in a speech to commemorate the outgoing benefactor's retirement. "He seemed like a fire-breathing Dionysus that would strike me down the moment I forgot a line or didn't meet his expectations in a scene." For one of their first meetings, DeHaan struggled through the opening of Chekhov's The Seagull before he was cut short by Freedman saying, 'What are you doing?!'. "I was like, 'Well, I’m trying to impress the other character,'” DeHaan says now. “And he was like, 'You’re not doing that. What you're doing is you're trying to do a good acting scene so that I think it's good.' And I was like, 'Well, you’re right, actually…’"
Freedman vetted all new incoming students, and quite rightly saw something in DeHaan. "Personally, I kept thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this kid?!’" Freedman tells me over the phone. "He’s too old to play children, but too young to play adults. I knew he was special, but what was the business going to do with him?" At age 26, he hit rewind to play a drugged out delinquent in Place Beyond the Pines, went 17 Again as a greasy-haired pariah in Chronicle, and just last year re-enrolled as a college student in Kill Your Darlings. If he came to Freedman's class young and wide-eyed, DeHaan certainly got off the conveyor belt with a whole new idea of what it meant to act. "He was like, 'Start over, look at your acting partner," DeHaan recalls. "Think about what you want from him and say the first line, and then don’t say the next line until you’ve achieved the goal you want to achieve.' So I said the first line. I waited until I felt like I needed to say the next line. All of a sudden, for the first time, Gerald wasn’t stopping me. That was such a breakthrough moment for me in acting class, because it was really the first time I understood what it really meant to do something, not to act something."
Freedman tells me that it was "rumoured" that DeHaan and Anna never slept. DeHaan bursts out laughing. "Did he seriously say that?" he asks. "No, we would not stay up all night. I mean, we would stay up late and have fun with friends and stuff. I remember in my freshman year, I had a friend named Paul and a friend named Matteo who shared a dorm together and we called their dorm room 'Club PM' (for Paul-Matteo), and we would all take our mattresses from our dorm rooms and create a floor of mattresses, and we would just go there and play Halo all night long, and go get fast food and hang out…" He trails off. "Those were such fun times."
It’s uncanny how much his career seems to be mimicking that of the young James Franco. Both have played Harry Osborn in big-budget Spidey flicks, as well as James Dean (Franco in a TV movie). Franco – in all his experimental thirst – has even painted a portrait of DeHaan. Irrespective of artistic merit, being immortalised in acrylic by Franco is surely the penultimate step before a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. DeHaan will have to tread carefully.
"To be honest, I haven’t spent that much time thinking about the fame aspect of it," he says, fingering his wedding band. It sounds all too scripted, but he seems humble. "Certainly now that I am here, and Spider-Man 2 is about to come out, it’s starting to register that something is happening. But for me, what I focus on is the work, because that’s what I love to do and that’s the only thing that will always be there. I do what I do because I love to do it, and I love to do it because it’s a neverending quest. It’s an artform that you can do for your whole life and try to get better and better, and never be as good as you want to be. The fact that the world has embraced me in the way that they have makes my life so awesome and so cool. I never look at it thinking, 'It’s going to take away my privacy or make me really famous.' I just look at it as an opportunity to continue to try to master this artform."
Whatever his path to enlightenment, he seems to be on the fast track. Fame is just dawning on DeHaan, the Halo-playing nerd who became Hollyweird's poster boy. The kid who wasn't allowed to listen to Metallica, who traded health class for community theatre. As we're about to leave and DeHaan prepares to fend off throngs of females shoving at barriers for the Amazing Spider-Man 2 premiere, he stops short. "It’s so exciting that the world is embracing me, but I try as hard as I can to make it all about the work. I don’t know if I look at myself and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I just look at all these opportunities I’m getting, and I’m so thankful."