A decade of playing movie villains has darkened Dane DeHaan. The 34-year-old, who came to prominence as a Beat Generation genius who murders his lover in Kill Your Darlings (2013), says that something has changed since he starred in that film. “I’ve come to realise there are people in the world who are just bad people.”
Since making his film debut as a matricidal murderer in 2010’s At Risk, DeHaan has made a living coaxing the humanity out of even the most troubled souls. Beyond Kill Your Darlings’ Lucien Carr, he has played a bullied-teen-turned-telekinetic-predator in the found-footage superhero film Chronicle (2012) and a vengeful Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Less monstrous but just as damaged were the gun-toting, Oxycontin-stealing son of Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) and the tragic movie star James Dean in Life (2015).
Even the most amoral of those characters had trauma in their past, though. One was abused by his alcoholic father, another desperate to stop his own death from a degenerative illness. Aren’t some people bad for a reason?
Nope. “A lot of the villains I’ve played, I was coming from an idea that everybody is, in their hearts, good, and somehow that goes wrong,” he says. “But that’s not how I feel now. I think all bad people justify their behaviour to themselves, but that doesn’t make their behaviour justifiable, and they’re not all victims of their circumstance. Some people,” he says, more firmly this time, “are just bad.”
We’re speaking a few days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, as Donald Trump’s presidential regime is in its death throes. I wonder if his misanthropy was fuelled by the election of a real-life supervillain. “It’s definitely something I arrived at within the past four years, if you will,” he says, smiling. He is at home in Woodstock, New York, where he’s isolating with his wife and two young children. With his boyish face, deep-set eyes and wiry frame, he has posed for Prada on more than one occasion. But today he’s sitting stock-still and there’s a blue-fog-effect backdrop hanging up behind him. I feel like I should be taking his school photo. “If you leave a bad person up to their own devices,” he continues, “and they have the freedom to do whatever they want, bad things can happen. If you have a good person, hopefully wonderful things will happen.”
Where, then, do the characters of ZeroZeroZero land on the morality spectrum? “Well we’re all bad guys,” he says. “There’s no good guy on the show. We’re all involved in highly illegal, dangerous behaviour.”
You can say that again. Sprawled across three continents, five countries and six languages, the gritty drama series is set in the volatile world of drug-trafficking. Inspired by Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano’s book of the same name, it plunges the depths of crime and corruption, following five tons of cocaine from creation to ingestion – Mexican cartels and corrupt special ops teams manage its production; a warring Italian family handle the distribution; and a well-to-do New Orleans family, the Lynwoods, handle the money and broker the deals.
“The stance that the novel takes on the subject is that drug trafficking is a part of the world's economy,” says DeHaan. “Even though it’s not on the stock exchange, it’s still as much a part of the economy as Coca-Cola. It’s never gonna go away and the world’s economy would crash if it did. But because it’s technically illegal, it becomes violent and it becomes dangerous really really fast.”
DeHaan plays Chris, the youngest of the Lynwoods. Battling a progressive brain disorder called Huntington’s Disease caused by the defective gene he inherited from his mother, Chris has been confined to gardening by his overprotective father Edward (Gabriel Byrne), while his sister Emma (Andrea Riseborough), who runs the family company, is adamant that they should stop coddling him. For reasons I won’t go into, Chris soon has to step up to the plate.
Researching for the role, DeHaan spoke to people at various stages of the disease. “It does affect everyone very differently,” he says. “Certainly a lot of people that have the disease end up dying by suicide” – according to a 2019 study, rates are 12 times higher among Huntington’s patients than the general population – “but others end up appreciating life and trying to savour every moment they have.”
If a parent has Huntington’s, you can choose to take a test to determine whether you are going to get it too. “It’s such a devastating but fascinating scenario to be in, to have that choice,” says DeHaan. “Basically you can know: is this eventually what I’m going to die of, or is it not? Or you can make the choice to leave it up to fate.” Has he thought about what he would do in that position? “I think I probably would take the test. Most people don’t but I feel like I probably would. Who’s to know? I’m very grateful I don’t have to make that decision.”
It is, regrettably, still noteworthy that Riseborough’s character is the strong one in the family. “I’m seeing more of an opportunity to be a part of female-driven shows in which the male is playing a part that you would more traditionally see a female play,” says DeHaan, “and I’m all about that. I’m happy to be a part of that world. I…” He thinks for a second and then laughs. “I prefer working with women. So anything that I can do to help from my role as an actor in this business, I’m more than happy to do.”
Why does he prefer working with women? “I think they’re... well, I think, um... I love my mother.” He laughs again. “I’m a momma’s boy. I’ve always got along better with women; they’re generally speaking more peaceful, more collaborative, more caring, and they think more from the heart, you know? It’s a more nurturing environment. I think that has a lot to do with it. Just, like, emotional intelligence, you know? When you’re an actor and you’re trying to delve into the intricacies of human behaviour and human emotion, to go on that journey with a person who’s more emotionally intelligent is a more gratifying experience.”
As a 28th-century interplanetary agent in Luc Besson’s bonkers space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, DeHaan plays the damsel in distress to Cara Delevingne’s Sergeant Laureline. That film – the acid-fuelled lovechild of Avatar and The Phantom Menace – was the most expensive European and independent film of all time. There were spaceships. There were fusion missiles. There was a burlesque-dancing alien played by Rihanna. It tanked. Hard. While it’s not the biggest box-office bomb of all time, it’s on a list of them on Wikipedia.
With the air and swagger of a young Leonardo Dicaprio, DeHaan was good in the film – but there is something about him, some ill-at-ease restlessness, that makes the romantic lead seem like an awkward fit. “I look back on that experience with honestly such… It was the most fun I’ve ever had making a movie!” he says. “It was so fun! And like, the fact that it came out and bombed… it was a hard part of my life, but making the movie, and the six months that I was living in Paris and working on these massive sets and being treated so well, it was such a magical time in my life.”
Valerian was supposed to vault DeHaan to megastardom. But perhaps it’s a good thing it didn’t. Both on-screen and off, he seems to thrive on the periphery. “I’ve never reached a level of fame in which it’s overtaken my life or it’s seemed inescapable,” he says, sounding relieved. “So I can’t really speak to what it’s like to be Harry Styles or whatever. But more than anything, I’m grateful to be able to be an actor. I hope to be able to make movies for the rest of my life at the highest level of my profession. And if that means that when I’m walking down the street, people tell me they like me a lot,” he smiles, “that’s OK with me.”
ZeroZeroZero premieres on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on 4 February