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On Movies: Taking on the role of his tragic film idol

Here's an odd bit of trivia about Lehigh Valley-born Dane DeHaan: Thus far in his relatively brief career, the 28-year-old actor has had two major screen roles previously owned by James Franco.

Dane DeHaan (left) is James Dean and Robert Pattinson is photographer Dennis Stock in “Life.” (Caitlin Cronenberg)
Dane DeHaan (left) is James Dean and Robert Pattinson is photographer Dennis Stock in “Life.” (Caitlin Cronenberg)Read more

NEW YORK - Here's an odd bit of trivia about Lehigh Valley-born Dane DeHaan: Thus far in his relatively brief career, the 28-year-old actor has had two major screen roles previously owned by James Franco.

One is Harry Osborn - a.k.a. Green Goblin - the troubled scion of the founder of the sinister global conglom Oscorp, and Peter Parker's friend-turned-foe. DeHaan plays Harry in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which opened everywhere this weekend. Back in the aughts, Franco was Harry in the three Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Mans starring Tobey Maguire.

In 2001, a year before the first Spider-Man, Franco portrayed James Dean in a much-lauded TV biography. DeHaan has just finished playing the '50s screen icon in Life, which follows Dean and Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock (played by Robert Pattinson) on a trip back to the star's Indiana hometown before the 1955 New York premiere of East of Eden.

"It really is strange," says DeHaan, noting the parallels with Franco, the famously industrious actor/director/scribe/poet/teacher/Ph.D. candidate/Instagrammer. "Because I don't even see us as similar types of people."

Indeed, it's clear from even a brief chat that DeHaan is not interested in enrolling in four or five universities, dashing off a couple of tomes, and making himself the prized stalkee of Perez Hilton, TMZ, Gawker, and Vulture.

All he wants to do - all he's ever wanted to do - is act.

DeHaan joined his first theater program - the now-defunct Stage Door Workshop in Allentown - when he was 4. He was back there every summer until he was 16.

"It was this really amazing theater camp for kids where we would take classes and then we'd do a play," he says, his blue eyes, capable of being as cold as ice onscreen, aglow with fond memories. "It was like a mini summer conservatory."

DeHaan, who grew up in Zionsville, son of a computer programmer and a furniture company executive, went to Emmaus High School. He appeared in school plays, to be sure, but also in community theater. Evenings, weekends, whenever. For his senior year of high school, he went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and stayed on, graduating from the drama program in 2008.

"If I could, I would stay there forever," he says of the Winston-Salem school. "It's a very safe, wonderful place."

Instead, he headed for New York. He understudied Haley Joel Osment in the short-lived revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo, and played a credit card thief in a Law & Order: SVU episode.

He won attention for his recurring role as a rageful teen who has sex with older men in the third season of HBO's psychotherapy series, In Treatment. Like the show's other younger cast members - Mia Wasikowska, Alison Pill - DeHaan's weekly appearances opposite Gabriel Byrne led to film offers, and Hollywood.

DeHaan was one of the trio of high school pals who suddenly gain superpowers in the 2012 found-footage sci-fi feature Chronicle. He had a small role as a Union soldier in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. And he played Ryan Gosling's son in the third chapter of Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, which also starred Bradley Cooper. The scene of DeHaan's character riding a just-bought motorcycle down a country road - Gosling's character was a motorcycle stunt rider - ends the film.

In Kill Your Darlings, released last year, DeHaan was Lucien Carr, the 1940s Columbia student who fell in with Beat Generation luminaries William Burroughs (Ben Foster), Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).

"There's something incredibly cinematic about Dane," says Marc Webb, who cast and directed him in Amazing Spider-Man 2. "He can be surprisingly funny, and it's weird because when you watch him, there's something a little off-balance, a little dark, but then you start talking to him and he's the sweetest guy in the world. . . . It's disarming."

For Amazing Spider-Man 2, DeHaan gets to turn more than a little dark. As Harry, reluctant heir to the Oscorp fortune, he finds himself rekindling his friendship with Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker, only to square off against Peter's Marvel superhero alter ego. The final, furious face-off in the giant-screen spectacle pits Spider-Man against Green Goblin - Harry with a hideous skin ailment, demonic eyes, wild hair, in an armored suit whooshing around on his electromagnetic Goblin Glider.

"The last fight between me and Spider-Man was definitely the most physically challenging part of the whole six-month shoot," DeHaan says. "The set was like 110 degrees at least, and I'm wearing a 50-pound suit and covered in prosthetics. In between takes, they were literally pouring buckets of ice water down my back and it was turning to steam - my brain was melting.

"It was crazy. But still really fun."

There are no 50-pound suits in Life, the James Dean movie DeHaan wrapped in February. Instead, the pressure came from inside.

"It was the biggest challenge of my life, for sure," says DeHaan, who is married to actress Anna Hood, also a University of North Carolina School of the Arts alum. "Dean has always been one of my favorite actors. I've had a poster of him on my wall since I was in college . . . . I would tell someone that I was doing the movie and they would immediately tell me something about James Dean - and most of the time they were wrong."

DeHaan laughs.

"And there was so much about him that I found out that I was wrong about, too. It was this really interesting journey of taking this guy that has been on my wall and making him human, and figuring out who he actually was and trying to embody that."

215-854-5629 @Steven_Rea