A theater junkie from the first time he played Tiny Tim in a production of "A Christmas Carol," Dane DeHaan still can recall a scolding by a high-school teacher for spending too much time doing what he loved.
"I was in a production of ‘The Miracle Worker,' and we were touring schools with it," recalls DeHaan, who was born in Allentown and raised in nearby Zionsville. "Some of my teachers at Emmaus High School were very angry about me missing classes to do theater, and one of them pulled me aside and told me that I should quit acting because he knew I'd never be able to make a living at it."
Less than eight years later, DeHaan is touted as one of the hottest up-and-comers in Hollywood. According to such publications as Entertainment Weekly and British GQ, DeHaan has the talent and the charisma to go all the way to movie stardom.
To say DeHaan is in demand is an understatement. Since making his film debut in John Sayles' 2010 film "Amigo," he's shot six films, including the Beat-era drama "Kill Your Darlings" with Daniel Radcliffe and Michael C. Hall and "Devil's Knot," the Atom Egoyan thriller about the wrongful conviction of the West Memphis Three. Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon co-star.
This fall, DeHaan also will pop up in "Jack and Diane," a lesbian horror romance starring Juno Temple and Kylie Minogue, and "The Place Beyond the Pines," a gangster saga in which DeHaan plays the love child of Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes.
"Jack and Diane" opens Nov. 2, and "The Place Beyond the Pines" will premiere at September's Toronto Film Festival.
"My life is going a whole lot better than I ever thought it would go," the actor, 25, says. "I can't spend too much time thinking about it because it becomes overwhelming. I try to take it day by day, and, literally, every day there's something very exciting for me to do. … It can be exhausting. But getting to give so much of yourself to something you love is an incredible feeling."
First up for DeHaan is the Prohibition thriller "Lawless," which does much to confirm the promise he showed in "Chronicle," the low-budget superhero movie that shocked Hollywood by earning $126 million. "Lawless," which opens Wednesday, is set in Franklin County, Va., in 1931. It centers on the true story of the Bondurant brothers ("Dark Knight Rises" star Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Shia LaBeouf), bootleggers who must defend their business from a crooked lawman named Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce.) DeHaan plays the small but pivotal role of Cricket, a shy, crippled teenager with a knack for making cars go fast and hooch taste good.
Cricket becomes key to the plot when LaBeouf decides to sell moonshine to Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska round out the cast.
Director John Hillcoat credits DeHaan with elevating the character of Cricket beyond a mere caricature.
"Dane completely nailed the part in his audition tape," the director says. "It was just like, ‘Oh there's Cricket.' "
He had a very hard role to pull off. The hillbilly character is so entrenched in popular culture that there is real baggage to it, and he had the brunt of it. There was the fact that his character had rickets, the fact that he had this huge spirit and was extremely bright.
"(Cricket) basically invents NASCAR. NASCAR actually came out of the running of moonshine and outrunning the law. One might think at first glance that Cricket was insubstantial and dumb, but Dane beautifully conveyed Cricket's heart and intelligence."
The movie is set in a time, not unlike today, when the gap between the rich and the poor seems ever-widening. DeHaan sees other parallels as well.
"I think moonshine (stills) are like the equivalent, in a way, of modern meth labs," the actor says. "Just like moonshine, meth is cooked in secret and is sold illegally, untaxed. Obviously, meth is a whole lot worse for you than moonshine, but just in terms of the culture of it, there's clear similarities."
Before shooting began, DeHaan prepared by researching Rickets, the condition that left Cricket with twisted, bent legs. In an attempt to get a feel for Cricket's pain, DeHaan tried, literally, to walk in his shoes.
"I worked with the costume department to develop these shoes that on the inside were on angles so I could more consistently maintain a bend in my legs," he says. "I wanted to make (his limp) as subtle as possible because I didn't want the focus to be on his disabilities but on his strengths."
After he read the script, DeHaan was eager to foster a friendship with LaBeouf, who plays his buddy in the movie. Worried about how to create a bond in only a few days, the actors opted to drive across country together from Los Angeles to the film's set outside Atlanta.
"The characters have known each other their whole lives, and that's a hard thing to act," DeHaan says. "I have to actually get to know the person. And Shia felt the same way."
The actors took a southerly route, stopping for dinner at a Shreveport, La., gumbo joint on Valentine's Day. LaBeouf was recognized at nearly every stop along the way.
"Shia couldn't even run into a gas station to go to the bathroom without someone going, ‘Hey, wait a minute, aren't you …?' But he's used to that. I guess."
In the five short months since "Chronicle" was released, the actor has noticed changes in how he's perceived in Hollywood. The success of "Chronicle," he says, "gave me permission to say no."
He explains: "I believe that if I fight the good fight, good projects will come along. I don't have to take the next ‘Twilight' movie out of desperation. I can wait until something I really believe in comes along."
DeHaan is an admitted theater geek who can't remember a time when he wasn't "obsessed" with performing. He studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and landed his professional job on "Law and Order: SVU" three weeks after graduation. He made his off-Broadway debut in "American Buffalo" and followed it up with an Obie-winning turn in "The Aliens." From there, DeHaan played the role of a disturbed teenager on HBO's "In Treatment."
DeHaan's performance drew raves from Variety, which described it as a "revelatory breakthrough." So well-received was his "In Treatment" turn that filmmakers the caliber of John Sayles, John Hillcoat, Atom Egoyan ("Sweet Hereafter") and Derek Cianfrance ("Blue Valentine") started calling.
Even Metallica's Lars Ulrich, of all people, is a DeHaan fan. After checking out "Chronicle" with his teenage son, the heavy-metal drummer asked the actor to appear in an upcoming 3-D movie.
Of all his recent good fortune, DeHaan considers his recent marriage to high-school sweetie Anna Wood the highlight. The pair hooked up in North Carolina and have been together since.
"Anna and I are so lucky because we met each other before all this madness began," he says. "She knows who I really am, and I know who she really is. She's my rock."