Based on the long-running French comic book series Valerian and Laureline, Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets is a passion project of director Luc Besson, who has wanted to adapt the series since he made 1997’s The Fifth Element, which was heavily inspired by the Valerian books. With filmmaking technology progressing enough in the ensuing two decades for Besson to realize his vision, he independently financed this movie to the reported tune of $180 million.
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne star as Valerian and Laureline, two law enforcement agents who travel time and space 700 years from now and are based on Alpha, a distant space station (born out of our own space program) that now serves as a home or way station for thousands of alien species — until our two heroes uncover a deadly conspiracy that threatens not just Alpha but the universe itself. For DeHaan this is his second starring role of the year after A Cure for Wellness and finds him playing this kind of character — a cocky, confident yet frequently awkward space opera hero — for the first time.
We sat down with DeHaan recently in Los Angeles to talk about working within the mind-blowing expanse of the Valerian universe, what it was like to have pop superstar Rihanna — who plays a shape-shifting alien — dance for him, and his thoughts on the aborted Amazing Spider-Man series, in which he briefly played Harry Osborn/Green Goblin.
Den of Geek: This is one of those movies that you have to see on the big screen.
Dane DeHaan: Yeah, I agree.
One of my favorite things was that opening sequence where Luc really ties it to the beginnings of the space program. How we built the space station, how it kept getting bigger and bigger, and eventually getting to where you guys are in the far future. Does that help to set it up for audiences, especially if they haven’t read these comics?
Yeah, I totally think the opening sequence is amazing, and I think it does really set the tone for the whole movie, and I think when you see Alpha being built from today’s space station, it’s a really amazing way to put you right there. To say like, “Hey, this could happen.” 700 years from now we could be in touch with alien beings, and the space station will have grown. It’s just a matter of how much. There’s no reason that Alpha couldn’t exist, you know.
What was your take on it when you were approached about it by Luc? Had you heard of comics at all?
No, I didn’t know them at all. I just kind of met with Luc and he talked to me about it. I think my first impression was just the amount of passion that Luke had about it, and it was just exciting sitting across from Luc Besson, and him saying, “I wanted to make this movie my entire life, and I’m finally making it, and I want you to star in it.” I was just overwhelmed by the entire thing. I grew up with The Fifth Element, so I had that as a reference point while reading the script, in terms of what he’s capable of in this kind of movie, but I certainly wasn’t familiar with it until he started talking to me about it.
When you were a kid, did you run around with like a stick or something after watching Star Wars or even after watching The Fifth Element and thinking, “Yeah, when I’m an actor I want to be in movies like this”?
I mean, yeah, totally. Maybe it wasn’t like, “When I’m an actor I want to be in movies like this” but I loved playing pretend. I loved dressing up as like superheroes, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Dick Tracy, or whatever. Peter Pan, whatever kind of the flavor of the week was. That’s how I spent my time as a kid.
Do you remember when that sort of flipped into thinking, “I’d like to do this as a real profession”?
Well, I feel like it’s just always what I’ve liked to spend my time doing. I don’t know that there was ever like an “Ah-ha” moment of like “This is what I want to do for a living.” I think I just always liked doing it, and I grew up in a place where there was a lot of community opportunity to do it, community theater, and school plays, or whatever, so that’s what I’d spend my time doing. I think in high school I started to take it really seriously, and I started thinking about going to school for it. I always wanted to go to school for it. That was always really important to me. I always wanted to go to a conservatory and learn how to do it, I guess, or learn a way of working, and it was just kind of all I ever spent my time doing. Then it wasn’t until I got out of college that I even really had to think about doing it professionally, because then I needed to pay my rent.
Always a good incentive.
Yeah, so it’s like if you want to do it, now you kind of have to do it professionally. And I wanted to, and I felt finally I was ready to, but that was just kind of the evolution of always doing it, and then being out of college, and then trying to do it. You know what I mean?
Cara spoke in a press conference today about your work ethic. Is that something that you developed in school?
Yeah, for sure. Yeah, I mean, the school, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, when I was there that’s what it was all about is developing a way of working, and a way of breaking down a script, and getting into a character, and not only like specifically this is how you have to do it, but finding your own way. Honestly some of my favorite parts of the job are like that work, and developing the character, and the work that goes into something before you show up on set so that when you show up on set you don’t really have to think about much. That in a lot of ways, that’s my favorite part. That’s why I do it, because I love the work so much.
How do you apply that to something like this where there’s so much blue screen and there’s not a lot to grab onto except the actor in front of you — if there even is an actor in front of you?
Well, I think there’s work I can do beforehand to understand who Valerian is, and try to bring him to life, and what drives him forward, and I can still do all of that work. Prepare for it physically. I got to set like two hours early every day, and I went to the gym, and that helped me kind of get into the mindset of Valerian. It’s kind of like what I like to call “space bro” mentality. But once you show up on set, and you’re in front of a blue screen, that’s when it kind of goes back to playing dress up as a kid, and bringing your imagination back to life, and trusting in Luc, but also being able to just use your imagination and let it run free, and having fun in that. There still is a lot of work I can do that I was taught at school, but then once I show up on set, it’s just about trying to bring it to life.
Did Luc send you a big box of Valerian comics to read?
I got them myself. He didn’t. The stuff he gave me was more like, he had kind of this bible of all of the alien species that are in the movie, and like bios on them, and where they’re from, and what they breathe, and what they eat, and that kind of thing. He definitely gave me that information, like a lot of visuals, and backstory on Valerian, but I found the comics myself. I just bought them off Amazon and read them.
Anything in there that caught your eye, and you went to him and said, “Hey, can we work this in somehow?”
I think the script itself, in terms of plot and stuff, was already there. For me I learned stuff about Valerian as a character and just kind of about how lucky he is, how luck is really on his side, and how he really relies on Laureline and on luck to be successful. Not that he’s not physically capable, which he is, but he has this cockiness about him that I think comes from the fact that he’s just one lucky motherfucker. There’s one comic in particular where he goes back in time and he’s competing against gladiators in some kind of games, like an Olympic games kind of thing, where they’re all trying to survive one another. He ends up winning, and he’s by far the smallest, weakest one of them all, but he gets lucky. I think that’s a really interesting, cool, and funny character, because he’s not the alpha male, but he still always saves the day.
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It’s not every day that a guy gets a private dance from Rihanna. What was it like doing that sequence with her, and also working with her and Cara in general, since they come from such different background than you do in terms of doing this?
Yeah, Rihanna was there like the first two weeks, and we spent almost all of those two weeks filming that sequence. I was really just kind of like sitting in a chair watching it happen. It was fairly incredible. It was definitely a pinch-me moment. But I think what impressed me about her is that when she showed up on set, she was really there to get the job done. I think both Rihanna and Cara are two of the hardest working people I have ever come across. Rihanna was on our set all day long doing her thing. She was there, she was present. She wanted to do an amazing job, and she would leave, and she would go to the recording studio all night long. She was really working around the clock. She was just finishing up her album. It hadn’t come out yet. It’s amazing.
Cara would leave on the weekends and go and do a modeling gig or something in a very faraway place, more than one time. It’s like they work so hard. Their lives are cool and exciting, but they’re successful because they are ballers, and they are hard workers. Their dreams come true because they fight for them, and I think that’s amazing. I’m a very singularly focused person. I left Paris to go home a couple times, but I do one thing, and I love doing it, and that’s acting. The way that both of them are able to apply themselves to so many different things, and succeed at them, it’s pretty mind blowing.
Are you up for more of these, if this hits and since there are a lot more comics to adapt?
I would love to. Yeah, I really would. But I would only do it because I want to do it. I have no contractual obligation to do more. This is the most fun I’ve had making a movie. It was so much fun, and I’m really excited now that it seems like people are watching it, and having that much fun watching it. It’s exciting. It’s a movie I kind of went into just trusting in Luc, and feeling really lucky to help make his dream come true, and the fact that people are into it, and embracing it, and excited about it, that’s super exciting. If the world wants us to make another one, I’d love to do that.
You were involved with another franchise a couple years ago, Spider-Man, and now they’ve rebooted that again. Any regrets or thought on the way that The Amazing Spider-Man iteration turned out?
I don’t think I would be in Valerian if I had to keep making Spider-Man movies. I think it can be weird the way those things are handled professionally. It would’ve been nice to actually have talked to people about it, and be kept more in the loop rather just one day getting a phone call to my agent and then finding out we weren’t doing any more. How impersonal it was towards the end was weird. But that movie, I think, did amazing things for my career, and it was an awesome opportunity, and it was my first time making a movie of that size. I’m sure that if we were still making them I would not be available to make Valerian or make any other movie that I’m making now where I kind of have more of the main part of it. I really just look at it as a huge gift. I had a great time making that movie, and in a way I’m glad we’re not making more, because I honestly think Valerian‘s more exciting and original.
Do you think Harry Osborn would have gone full villain, or would he have been redeemed? Did you get any inkling of where they might have taken that character?
I have no idea. I think they wanted to do that Sinister Six thing or whatever, but yeah. I never really talked to anybody about where they were going with it.
What do you have going on next?
There’s a movie I think I’m going to make in the fall (update: at press time, DeHaan had been confirmed to star as gunslinger Billy The Kid in The Kid, a Western directed by Vincent D’Onofrio), but I’m not really saying what it is yet. I just had a daughter, so that’s been my focus. I’ll go back to work when the time is right, but right now I’m in full-time dad mode.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens this Friday (June 21).