During the Berlinale we met the actor, who talked about his new movie LIFE, bad fathers, and photography as art and frost bite on fingers.
What was it like to play a photographer under the direction of a legendary photographer like Anton Corbijn?
(laughs) Luckily I didn’t really see Dennis Stock as a photographer in the beginning. For me he was someone who wanted to be an artist but wasn’t sure if he had what it takes to be an artist. I had the feeling that the camera was a means for him to express himself.
How did you work with the camera? Did you only pose with it or did you really use it?
The great thing was that I got the camera a couple of months before we started shooting. It was loaned to us from the Leica museum and it’s the same camera Dennis Stock used. There aren’t many original old cameras left, but they are great and I used mine extensively.
What did you photograph?
I started doing the Werner Herzog film 'Queen of the Desert' right after that and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the location. I took hundreds of pics of the sets and Marrakesh. I didn’t really do it seriously or because of the movie, but more because it was fun. I figured I could ask Anton how to use the Leica correctly later, but he couldn’t really help me with that (laughs)
But he did show you some tricks, didn’t he? I mean he has to be the best teacher for that.
That’s what I thought, that he would show me how to hold the camera and move it, but Anton told me that I needed to understand the camera myself. Eventually I understood him because he is a different photographer than Dennis Stock was. Anton loves photography, he likes moving on the sidelines and observe everything as oppose to Dennis Stock, who acted more like a painter. Stock wasn’t only focused on his counterpart but also on himself and he was looking for validation. He didn’t really enjoy his role as a photographer because he wanted to be more extravagant.
Is that the reason you were interested in the role?
To be honest the first thing that interested me was that he was a bad father. Usually at my age there aren’t many father roles to play and in this one the father doesn’t love his kid and doesn’t understand why. There is this beautiful scene where James Dean is playing with his nephew and Stock is watching them and wracking his brains how Dean can be so natural and loving with a child. That broke my heart. Another thing is, that everybody thinks that someone like that is an asshole and I thought it was exciting to present him more likable despite of that. Contrary to that Dennis Stock’s pictures are full of feeling.
You can really see that, in his own way, he really loved James Dean. He couldn’t really tell him that but it seems like Stock put a crown on James with the pictures. At the same time bitterness and jealousy also shine through those pictures and one could also see the influence James had on him. I love Stock’s pictures from that era, the jazz musicians whose pictures showed how much he admired them. I think photography was a way for him to show his love for others.
Did the role change your view of photographers that follow you all the time?
Not really. Even if a photographer wanted to be paparazzi back then, it wouldn’t have been easy without a lot of knowledge and skills, especially trying to use the flash (laughs) Apart from that people like Dennis Stock had a different aspiration to photography. They were searching for a new imagery and they wanted to present people in a different light. They want them to vibrate and discover new sides of them and the reader’s wanted that as well. Today one doesn’t really need to do a lot to push the release and paparazzi are kind of trying to humiliate people. It’s as if they don’t really like what they are doing themselves and so they look for the bad things in others. I don’t really understand it and it’s annoying.
Is that really Anton Corbijn standing on the red carpet playing a photographer in the movie?
Yes, that’s him and he used more takes for his scene than any other in the movie (laughs) He would say ‘Oh I didn’t do that right’ and we shot until 10 am. It was crazy.
Is James Dean still important for young actors today? Is he still a role model?
I still remember when I was 16 and he was one of my idols. Everyone knows the picture on Times Square and he was the ideal model of understatement. When I started acting I was very timid and I didn’t want to overact. I wanted my acting to be more like his: calm and full of feelings that he was able to internalize.
Was there a James Dean scene for you in the movie?
Yes, especially where the staying calm is concerned (laughs) we shot the scenes on Dean’s farm in Toronto and it was -40 degrees and I really couldn’t understand how one can shoot outside in that cold. The camera froze to my fingers and I had to stand in front of a heater to get it off my fingers. We were really close to getting frostbite and I started to get annoyed, but then I was over that and I got really calm.
Dennis and James. A photographer on the brink of bankruptcy and an artist on the crest of a wave. Tell us about the dynamics of their friendship.
The story of these two has a very original dynamics. James Dean is a character so emphatic and Dennis, is not. There’s a moment that, for me, sums up this diversity. There’s this scene where James Dean is playing with his nephew, and Dennis just says, ‘I do not know how you can do it.‘ Basically he is saying ‘I do not understand what they’re feeling’. Dennis had a son, of course, but he does not love him and that’s just awful. He is constantly permeated by negativity, so full of anxiety, to the point that he becomes really irritating. You can hardly believe that these kinds of people exist, you can’t believe the fact that they say they are not able to love. He’s kind of a horrible being, but in his tragedy he’s also an extremely fascinating character. And as I said the dynamic between them is really interesting.
James Dean is a myth. Has he ever had an influence on your career?
I have long admired his work. I believe that a lot of 16 year old actors have had their ‘James Dean’ stage and for most of them, the important thing is not the role to play but being part of the fantasies derived from the myth – and I also have experienced one of the two phases. He is certainly still an icon but Dane (DeHaan) would be able to answer that question better than me because he is more tied to James Dean, his figure, the myth.
Would you have been interested in playing the part of James Dean?
Oh no, absolutely not (laughs) Dane did a great job.
How did it go with Anton Corbijn?
Working with Anton Corbijn has been a great honor and his first film Control (about the life of Ian Curtis, leader of Joy Division), was the reason why I decided just to accept the part. I loved that movie. I love the style of Anton and I knew that LIFE would have followed the same path.
And with the camera?
To practice at best, I took some pictures on the set of LIFE and of the other film that I was shooting The Queen of the Desert where I worked with Nicole Kidman. Then for a few months I took a number of wonderful, horrifying pictures with a Leica M1 of 1953. It wasn’t the personal one used by Dennis, but the same model. It must have been a model that came out some time before Stock’s. It’s beautiful, and it works perfectly. I think that will never break. ”
Who was Dennis Stock?
Dennis was always worried that everything could go wrong. He felt haunted by the possibility that the public would not follow him, that they wouldn’t be on his side. But at the same time, I thought he was a modern, contemporary character. The story is about someone trying to become an artist and the fear of not being able to achieve his dream is the saddest and demoralizing part of his life. Dennis is the kind of artist who is so afraid of not being good enough for his profession that he would use excuses for anything. When he sees Jimmy for the first time, it’s fun because he has precisely this undeniable effect. Being close to someone who is reaching their potential is a very nice process to witness. Relating to James Dean and everything that was happening to him allowed Dennis to believe a little more in himself too.
Do you believe then that James Dean had a positive influence on the photographer?
Absolutely yes. Sometimes you just need a little encouragement and the fact that Jimmy told him ‘These are great ” while he showed him the pictures he had taken of him was a huge source of pride. I think at that specific time Dean clearly showed and paved the way for Stock. He regarded Jimmy as a true artist who had a profound impact on his life. And so, when Jimmy gave his approval, well, that’s all you need sometimes – this is all it takes to start believing in yourself. And I think that’s what happened. For Dennis, the encounter with Jimmy was fundamental and has changed his life and certainly his work.”
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