The legend – one of many – of James Dean is that he only made three movies.
The truth is that he appeared in six films but only starred in three and only one, East of Eden, was released before he died in a car crash in September 1955, aged just 24.
Thus Dean’s impact came in death. Sixty years later he remains frozen in time. The myth has mushroomed and it is practically impossible to separate the reality of the man from the status he now commands as one of the lost boys of 20th century cinema.
In Life, a film that charts the relationship of Dean and photographer Dennis Stock during 1955, there is a genuine attempt to look beyond the façade created equally by the studio and Dean himself.
Dane DeHaan plays Dean with an uncanny knack for delivering his eccentricity, voice and peculiar physicality. Asked what makes Dean so popular six decades on, he says: “He was such an open vessel that he tapped into human nature in a way that people responded to. There were not that many actors – Marlon Brando, Paul Newman – who were doing what James Dean was doing. They were acting in movies like people actually act in real life. Really revolutionary.
“Rebel without a Cause and Giant didn’t come out until after his death so it just left people wondering what would have happened. James Dean would be 83 today. He could be here. What would he be doing?”
DeHaan, 29 but looking like a teenager, had three months to prepare to play Dean. He gained 25lbs in weight, acquired a trainer and a dialect coach and worked closely with a make-up artist to look like the long-dead star. He’s called it “the biggest challenge of my life”. Robert Pattinson saw Stock as a balance to Dean: an ordinary man witnessing the birth of an extraordinary star and being present to capture it on film. “I thought Dennis was a timeless character: someone who’s trying to be an artist and his fear of not being as good an artist as he thinks he is... I think that’s quite a timeless story. Very 20th century anyway.”
He adds: “There was something about Dennis Stock, outside of him being a photographer. His personality was strangely similar to mine, or the darkest parts of my personality. And then after meeting his real son in real life… it was weird. He was just how I imagined him to be. I just sort of connected to him.”
Director Anton Corbijn, himself a photographer who segued into making movies, presented Pattinson with an old Leica camera and left him to it. “It was important [that] he familiarised himself with an old-fashioned camera and made it feel like part of his body, in a way. By the time it came to shooting it was a natural instrument around the body. Dennis Stock was a photographer who was always ready to shoot something.”
DeHaan recognises that playing Dean puts him in an exclusive category. And he laughs when he thinks back to his early days as a young actor on the audition circuit.
“A lot of actors have their ‘James Dean phase’: every audition, no matter what the part, they come in and do a James Dean impression. I definitely had one of those.
“I wake up every day and I’m amazed at how lucky I am: that I do what I love to do, which is to act. What I love is to act and I think that’s what James Dean loved, too.
“I’m not really one to believe so much in fate but I do look at the opportunity that Anton gave me as a huge gift and a really rewarding experience.”
n Life (15) is on nationwide release.