Dane Dehaan took his role as the titular hero in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he allowed himself to just cut loose and enjoy every moment.
Dehaan admits that he would’ve said yes to just about anything that visionary filmmaker Luc Besson might have offered him, but it was a special treat when he was asked to headline the film based on the long-running French comics character that Besson had dreamed of making since he was a boy.
It was a heady responsibility for the actor, but as he reveals to CBR, he landed on an approach to playing Valerian that made all the difference – thanks to a little hint from co-star Ethan Hawke.
CBR: I bet this was as much fun as it looked.
Dane DeHaan: Yeah. I hope it was as much fun to watch as it was to make.
What lured you in in the beginning? What was the thing about it that made you say, “Yeah, I’m on board”?
To sit across from Luc Besson, and for him to say, “Hey, I’m making the movie I’ve wanted to make my entire life, and I want you to star in it,” it was like winning the lottery. It was a dream scenario. Also, I like doing different kinds of things, and I haven’t done a movie like this, and I haven’t played a part like this. That was just kind of an added bonus. I feel like it could have been any movie with Luc, and I would have been on board, for sure.
What were the fresh challenges, once you were in the thick of it, that you found, “Okay, I’ve got to figure out, how do I do this?”
I think it was important to stay kind of in peak physical condition. There was a lot of physical challenges. Also, just the amount of blue screen was challenging, and that I kind of just had to tap into my imagination in a way that I haven't in a long time. Almost going back to like playing pretend as a kid. There was just so much that wasn’t there that I had to pretend was there. It was just, honestly, like a constant reminder to not take myself too seriously and to have fun. I feel like I’m the kind of person that can really take themselves too seriously, and this was the kind of movie where it was all about having a good time.
Ethan Hawke was there the first week, and he said that to me. He was like, “Hey man, you’ve got to [have a good time]” – and not that I wasn’t. He was like, “Sometimes I watch these kinds of movies, and I feel like people are just taking themselves too seriously. You need to just let yourself enjoy this and have a blast.”
I think with him giving me that advice, and also being around Luc and Cara, who are so much fun to be around, I feel like I rediscovered the joy of doing this by making this movie.
Luc’s enthusiasm and longtime passion for Valerian – this is part of his childhood, in essence. How did that affect you?
I would show up every day on set, and Luc would like give me a big hug. He was just so happy to be there. You could tell his dreams were coming true. It was just surreal to be a part of that. That was infectious.
Luc, he’s such a hands-on director. He operates the camera. I’ve never worked with a director that operates their own camera. He has his hands on every piece of this movie. I think it’s one of the things that makes it so unique. It’s unfiltered Luc Besson, and it gives it this unique feel that I feel like you wouldn’t even be able to accomplish with an American studio system, because it’s so ambitious on so many different levels.
I think, for Luc, it’s like his artistic masterpiece, and he was so careful with every single brushstroke that every detail was there. I just felt lucky to be there.
Did you look at the French comic books for inspiration at all? Or did you just follow Luc’s lead?
I looked. I read the ones that you can get in English. I read those. Yeah, they were helpful for sure. Just kind of in more understanding Valerian’s character. The more you can read, the more helpful it is.
From what I understand, there’s a shift at some point where he’s a little less intellectual than maybe when he started out. He’s a little more of a gut-instinct kind of a character. Was that what you found with him?
Yeah, I think so. I like to describe him as blindly ambitious. His confidence and his cockiness comes from the fact that he has a perfect track record, but he doesn’t understand how lucky he is. He thinks it’s all him, but it’s not. It’s luck and it’s Laureline. Those are the two things he has.
He kind of has no fear, and he has this cockiness about him. I think it’s because he can run at something full force and not worry about what’s going to happen next. And Laureline’s always there pick up his slack if something goes wrong. He doesn’t really realize that she’s always there to catch him.
As you well know with some of the projects that you’ve done, it helps to be conversant in comic books in Hollywood right now. Do you have an affinity for the genre? Have you developed one? Or did you always have one?
I like making the movies. I’ve always liked the movies. I never really read comic books. But I always watched comic book movies growing up, for sure.
Was there a moment or two while making this, even with all the green screen and blue screen stuff, that you were like, “I think I really am in the middle of a French comic book at this point?”
There were very few practical sets and costumes. But I know, like the alleyway, kind of leading up to Rihanna’s part, was done practically, and it was all these people in alien costumes, and they all had a very, like you see in the movie. But it was the first time I was kind of amongst the aliens. They were actually there. I wasn’t imagining them. That was a pretty surreal moment, for sure.
How much actual Rihanna time did you get in your sequences?
I think I had two weeks of Rihanna time!
What was fun about working with somebody who’s a huge star, a modern pop icon and obviously super charismatic and magnetic, as she’s entering a new field?
Yeah. It was amazing to be around Rihanna. She is incredible, and so prolific, and works incredibly hard. Obviously, it’s not a hard day at the office when your job is to sit in a chair and watch Rihanna dance. But it was amazing just to watch her come to set and take it so seriously, and want to be open, and learn, and just deliver, and do a good job.
I think both Rihanna and Cara are where they are today because they work so hard. Rihanna was on set all day long, and then would leave and go to the studio all night long. She doesn’t sleep. She just goes and goes and goes. That’s where she gets the lyrics for “Work Work Work Work Work,” because she does. She is a really incredible woman.
You and Cara have to have a certain chemistry and specific dynamic from the get-go. Tell me about finding that with her and having her as an acting partner throughout the whole thing, because you guys are only separated a little bit.
Cara is just so much fun to be around. She has this like infectious energy, and she does have this joy of life, that I think is just awesome to be around. She would show up every day, and she would be pushing my buttons, and joking around with me, and she would just bring a lightness to the set that was really a breath of fresh air.
It’s another reason I had so much fun. She’s awesome to be around. She’s fun to be around. I wanted to hang out with her. I feel like that’s why it comes across on screen.
How much did seeing Luc bring this dream of his to life inspire you in some of your career goals? Do you have some things that you’re like, “I’ve always knew I’ve wanted to do it, and now I think I have to do it?”
To be honest with you, I never thought I would get to this point in my career. So I’m just enjoying every second of it. I just feel really lucky to have had all the opportunities I’ve had. I think this is definitely like a high point, being a part of this. I’m just kind of enjoying the ride. I just want to keep doing different stuff, and keep challenging myself in different ways. I hope to be given this opportunity for the rest of my life. So yeah, for me, it’s just about doing good work, and doing different kinds of work, and keeping going.
Hopefully this movie will do amazing box office, like everybody involved wants it to. But it’s definitely going to be a classic. People are going to revisit this movie over and over because of Luc, because it’s a very well-made, well-crafted, fun-to-watch movie. Did you have that feeling while making it? Like, “I’m probably going to be talking about this movie again in 20 years, 25 years?”
It was the hope. I trusted in Luc, for sure. You never know. I can’t think that far into the future. I try not to be result-oriented. So for me, it was just about enjoying the experience and trusting in Luc.
I could tell what he was making had the chance to be something really special. When you take kind of a risk like he’s taking with this film, he’s taking a risk in a lot of different ways. Here and now, today, it’s exciting. It’s so exciting that people are watching the movie and they’re loving the movie. That’s awesome.
Hopefully that means people will go and see the movie. Hopefully that means people will always remember the movie. I would love to be a part of something special like that. You’re starting to feel in the air that maybe you could be that. But you never know.
On the “enjoying yourself” side of it, was there a sequence that was just a delight for you? You get to do a lot of different, amibitious things in this movie.
Yeah. We spent so much time in front of blue screens, and then I think the last couple weeks, they built the practical set of the Intruder, our spaceship. I remember walking into like the spaceship for the first time. Luc took Cara and I in just like by ourselves, and was like, “This is your spaceship.”
That was such a cool feeling, because suddenly there was something real that we could play with, and we could be in, we could exist in. And at that point, we had lived in the characters so long that there was something just really special about that moment, and the week or two that we were filming in the spaceship, and sitting in our seats, and pressing the buttons, and all that, that was so much fun.
Do you find when you do a movie that’s like this, where there’s so much spectacle to it, do you act in a different way than when you’re doing something that’s a little more grounded and a little more indie in spirit?
My acting teacher always said “Style is knowing what play you’re in,” or in this case, what movie you’re in. So I think it helps to understand the tone that the director is going for. But ultimately, I’m trying to bring it to life in a truthful way. The truth of a Luc Besson space opera, it’s just a different world than that of like Place Beyond the Pines. You know what I mean? I think it’s just about understanding that, and then bringing that to life.
It’s almost like a style thing, with ultimately the same end goal, bringing it to life in a truthful way. But I think if I gave like, if the performance was just like gritty, natural performance, it would jar with the world that Luc’s trying to create.
There’s so much Valerian material to draw from. If Luc wanted to make more, and financing was right to make more, is it a character you’d love to keep revisiting?
Yeah, I really would. Like I said, it’s exciting right now that people are liking it. I hope that means we get to make more. I know Luc wants to make more, and I hope the world embraces it in the way I think they should. To go on this ride with Luc another time or another two times would be awesome.
Is there a genre that you’re still dying to get a chance to do?
I’ve done a lot of different genres of movies. I would like to do all of them. So I haven’t really done a Western, I don’t think. Lawless was kind of Western-y, but I don’t know if I would truly consider it a true Western. I don’t know – a movie musical I haven’t done. I’d like to do all of them.
Are those skills you have? Do you have the singing and dancing? Would you have to work on it?
I grew up doing musicals, so I’m not saying I’m like Fred Astaire, but I can sing, and I can kind of dance. I would give it a shot for sure. I think I could pull it off.