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Actor Dane DeHaan, who plays James Dean in the new film Life, has been a fan of Dean since his teens.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Looking at Dane DeHaan's face, whose soulful blue eyes and pouty lips call to mind a young Leonardo DiCaprio; listening to his sleepy voice, which sounds as if it's being pushed through silk; and scanning his filmography, which is full of artists, romantics and outsiders, you might make assumptions about him. You might think that he gravitates toward certain roles, or they to him, because he has in him that same kind of troubled innocence – Lucien Carr, one of the original Beat Generation, in Kill Your Darlings. Jason, Ryan Gosling's tortured son, in The Place Beyond the Pines. Timbo, a slinky werepanther on True Blood. Jesse, the manipulative, vulnerable teen who peddles drugs and sleeps with older men on In Treatment. And now James Dean, the poster boy for doomed glamour, in the new film Life (which opens Friday). But that would be an oversimplification, and DeHaan, 29, will call you on it.

"I feel that was James Dean's problem, too," he says in a phone interview. "People want to put you into categories, to make you quantifiable: 'You are this kind of person.' I just want to be seen as a human being, an actor. You could take a couple of my roles and draw comparisons, but I don't think it would be fair."

That's what Life is about, he continues – "This guy who's now known as the epitome of cool, what if he was just a human being? What if he wasn't all the things the world wants him to be, and has put on his shoulders? What if he was a completely different person, but because of certain photos, and the roles he played and the image the studio projected of him, this is the cross he bears?"

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Life, directed by Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man), tells the story behind the now-iconic images shot by Magnum photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) just before Dean's premiere in East of Eden, as the pair travelled from New York to Los Angeles and Dean's family farm in Indiana. Hollywood is already trying to commodify Dean, but he's resisting. (A Canadian co-production, it was shot partly in Toronto.) The Dean that emerges is thoughtful, amused, wary, unreliable and hard to pin down, but not especially troubled or dark.

DeHaan's been a fan of Dean since his teens – "He pioneered the kind of acting most people attempt to do today," he says. So he "immersed" himself in as much Dean as he could for four months, reading books, watching films, listening to his voice. "I had a lot of feelings about him, but I didn't know a lot about him," DeHaan says. "Which I feel is how most people are. He's such a myth. So many people think they know him. But if you read biographies of him, one will say one thing, and the next will say the exact opposite."

DeHaan had to decide for himself which Dean stories felt believable and which were sensationalized. "People love to latch on to things they've heard about him that are dark," he goes on. "They certainly sell books and make good headlines. But I think that side has been blown out of proportion. And because he died so young, he couldn't control that."

Dean's presence still resonates today because of his talent, DeHaan maintains, not his personal life. "He was an amazing actor," he says. "Any great artist's blessing and curse is that they're in touch with humanity, probably on a deeper level than most people. Human nature will always be human nature, no matter what the time period, and Dean was able to bring that to life in a way that echoes universally and forever. He captured the angst of youth. His characters went through things gracefully but also with such vulnerability; they managed to be macho and feminine at the same time. He made them Everymen."

DeHaan is working hard to do the same. "I love doing what I do," he says. "It's what I've always wanted to do. The fact I get to do it on the level I do blows my mind every day." Fame doesn't beat him up the way it did Dean – "If I get some high-fives when I go to the grocery store [in Brooklyn, where he lives], I don't see how I can complain," he says wryly. "As long as the work is there and challenging, I welcome anything that comes along with that." Upcoming films include Tulip Fever, in which he plays a 17th-century painter; Two Lovers and a Bear, an indie romance opposite Tatiana Maslany; and A Cure for Wellness, a supernatural horror film that was shot in a German castle.

Although DeHaan doesn't stay in character off set, whatever he's working on becomes "an all-consuming task. I take what I do maybe too seriously." Aspects of his roles creep into his life and affect him – not by choice, he insists – but he doesn't realize how much until after the fact. While playing Dean, for example, "I was always telling people, 'Be cool,'" DeHaan says, laughing. "I was so sensitive. I was crying all the time. And more paranoid than I usually am."

He also had dreams about Life, including dreams in which he was Dean – but that's not unusual for him. "I have to be dreaming about what I'm doing," DeHaan says. "It's really important for me to dig into my work, not only on a conscious level, but also on a subconscious level. So when I'm dreaming about it, then I feel it's working on a level I'm not in control of. That puts me at ease, knowing my conscious work is also affecting me subconsciously."

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So committed is DeHaan that if he's not dreaming about his work, "I'd be worried," he says. "I'd be like, I need to work harder.'"

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