interview by Moonah Ellison
words by Chesley Turner
photography by Michael Müller
Patrick Dempsey is not a heartthrob.
He digs deep, he gets dirty, he sweats with competitors, he seeks truth, he respects the earth, and he is never afraid to embrace those who need to feel loved.
So take off your blinders. See the man for who he is, and not what you want him to be.
We won’t be talking about Mc-Anythings on these pages, so if that’s what you’re looking for, keep flipping. We want to tell you about a man who’s trying a million things at once, who’s desperate to ignite passion in himself and in others, so he’s spinning his wheels in more ways than one.
“Sometimes when you have so many things going on you wonder, are you balancing it out and are you getting anything at the level you want it to be? Or is everything getting sacrificed?”
See, Mr. Dempsey is more like you than you thought, facing the daily challenge of getting everything done, but done well. “It’s really important to focus on being present, being in the moment, hitting your marks. Especially when things get hectic, you really have to remember that.”
It starts at home, and luckily, all is good for Dempsey on the home front. The wonderful instability of a wild schedule and three children and a dedicated partner is actually the stability from which he attacks each day. “It’s a very fine line to balance one’s individuality with being a couple. How do you keep each individual solid so that when they come together, they’re a much stronger couple? I think that’s the real challenge and that’s what we strive to do. I go off and do my racing and she goes off and does her things, and when we come back, we can settle back into home base.”
Life’s a race. But so is Dempsey’s latest passion. Over the past few years, he’s taken up competitive – and companionable – racing. Think aerodynamic cars, maxed-out speedometers, tire tracks on hot asphalt. “The racing, when done well, is very satisfying. There’s a great relationship with your fellow drivers: how you compete with them, how you race them…I really love that. I love the multi-classes that you race in and the camaraderie of that.”
And then, from life on the track to life with a loved one. “All the encounters that are in your life inform the relationship you’re in, and how you communicate. It keeps evolving, that’s the thing. A long-term relationship keeps evolving and changing and adapting to what you are in your life at that moment.” You have to be open, trust yourself, and live an honest life, he asserts.
And as with relationships, just so with career. Dempsey is chomping at the bit to sink his teeth into something new, something different, something outside the white-coat-and-baby-blues role (that we shall not mention). It’s served him well, but there’s so much more to give than dreamy looks and perfectly-scripted lover’s remarks.
“I don’t even see myself as a good-looking person. That’s something they’ve kind of manufactured in the media. It’s in the way they’ve manipulated the character on the show.” But, like we said, Dempsey is not a heartthrob. “I’m trying to find things that engage me, that can show me in a different light. I’ve never been really satisfied creatively in anything I’ve ever done. And I don’t think that’s really all I’m capable of doing in front of the camera. And I find it extremely frustrating. Trying to find the material that allows me to do that is very challenging. And then finding it, developing it, and getting it out is another challenge.” Dempsey’s career is a relationship that keeps evolving and changing and adapting, too. “I feel I’m in a transition period and the frustration comes from this creatively not being satisfied. Because I can do more.”
A #1 way to vent some of that frustration? The race track. “That’s why I find so much more satisfaction in car racing. It’s a complete challenge, mentally and physically. Going to Le Mans has really changed me, psychologically, physically, and in many ways personally too, because of what it takes to go. That’s what that journey’s been all about.”
Dempsey’s got derring-do. And there’s a capacity for growth, a willingness to transform, the unmitigated thrill of able, raw acting grit just waiting to be mined, crafted, and channelled into something truly redefining. The right impetus just hasn’t come along yet. “I’m in this transitional period. I need to take steps to change. I haven’t yet worked with someone who can really get me and get it out of me. Or the material, for that matter.”
Keep your theatre venues; Dempsey’s not one for the stage, and here’s why: for him, it’s about the action. “I think I prefer film as a medium because it’s so visual. I’m much more comfortable through action than I am through saying something.” Hear that, prospective writers? “I’m not verbal in that way. I constantly talk to the writers about, ‘Well, why can’t we just show this in the behavior?’ I like to see behavior. Film is about behavior; it’s about images; it’s not about what’s being spoken. At least in my opinion.”
Acting isn’t the only place Dempsey has skin in the game. He’s also raising three children, faced with preparing them for the world–and to take care of the world – while letting them recognize their individuality.
“I think travel is the best education, quite honestly. The more you can expose your child to different cultures, different experiences, the more they learn. You can learn a lot from a book, certainly. But I think, for me, I’ve learned more through travel and interacting with other people. It opens you up. It allows you to be less judgmental.”
Right about now, we want to be a Dempsey child. “How great would it be to travel around Europe and just hire a teacher, so we’re all learning along the way?” Really, really great. “Formal education stops, but depending on what tools you get from school, your real education truly begins when formal education ends. So what does your tool box look like?”
The Dempsey children toolboxes boast a variety of tools, we’re sure. But definitely included are spade and trowel, because their family home is on the farm. Literally. “We’ve decided to move out of the city and move to the country. On a farm, we can raise our own vegetables, we have animals, we have chickens and we can live off the land.” Swiss Family Dempsey? “I think there is a sense of having to return back to a simpler way of living – you’re seeing it happen. It’s like seed-to-plate mentality. So when my daughter is in there planting, and then harvesting, and then taking that harvest into the kitchen and cooking, it’s teaching her a beautiful lesson.” But it’s a philosophy that goes further than breakfast. “It’s connecting her to the land. And to me, the land is church. It is religion. It is grounding. It is what is so, so important.”
Earth consciousness is about more than creative food farming. It’s about recognizing cyclic life, and recognizing ourselves in the context of a much bigger schema. Our lives are bigger than the Hollywood Hills’ purview. “If you’re living on a farm, you see birth and death and re-growth. Seasons change. The younger generations really get that. They see there’s a reality and we need to adapt. I think it is a good thing, because we’re coming out of this whole thing of denial–like, ‘There is no global warming’ – that mentality. [The younger generation sees that,] no, we do have a problem.”
Eco-responsibility? Yes. But also the basic need of a child to run free. “I grew up in a small town in Maine, and I could get lost in the woods and travel around and find myself and entertain myself and be adventurous. And I really wanted them to have a hint of that. I really wanted to create an environment for them to have the freedom to run around.”
Despite having his own creative search to fuel, (not to mention his Porsche 911 GT3), and conscientious children to raise, Dempsey still manages to give in a remarkably selfless way, by helping others when there are no easy answers. Dempsey’s mother and sister are richly involved in an organization called The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing. The family runs a center to help those whose lives are affected by cancer, in whatever way possible.
“When you’re given that bit of information, it’s overwhelming. It’s very hard to process. That’s where our center comes into play. We’re not doctors, but we’re treating the whole person, so that they’re not alone.” Sometimes, this means the simplest thing: it’s not about the words, it’s about the action. “They have someone that’s going to hug them immediately, and help them feel safe.” Then come the words: “Then, ‘What is your concern, what is your fear? What can we do to help relieve you of that? How do we help you get through it?’ And then you specialize the care for them. It gets down to basically being hugged, and being listened to, and being treated like a human being.”
The Center for Cancer Hope & Healing recognizes the immense capacity of doctors and the training and knowledge that is involved in becoming an oncologist. But when doctors need to focus on the medical treatment, the center provides complementary care. “It’s transformed the community, I think. It’s probably the most important work I do, and really the most meaningful. And in returning home, in many ways, it’s also healing myself and who I am as a person.”
Dempsey’s on his way to the Grey’s set, and there’s no denying the connection here. “Doctors are human beings, with flaws and everything else. They’re well-educated, certainly. They’re informed in one area, but that’s why you need so many second opinions for things like cancer. The center – and the character I play – there’s a projection of a healer. I’m playing that archetype, and then I take that from what’s on screen into a real situation. And then I can use that platform in a positive way.” Dempsey enriches his character by understanding the context of those suffering from illness. “You are seen by a great many people, and then when you take the time and recognize them, it’s therapeutic for both sides. At the end of the day, people want to be loved, want to be held. They want to be understood.”
To raise money for the center, Dempsey eschews banquets. He prefers – you guessed it – a race. “We do it every year. It’s gonna be our 5th. It’s challenging individuals to do something they normally wouldn’t do, in support of a big group that will help carry them through. You feel that energy on the run, because people usually are riding from a place of mourning or celebration of life. They’re open to being with that spirit. Three thousand people riding bikes is just incredible. The beauty is that the barriers are taken down. There is no agenda other than to take care of the person next to you.”
But let’s get back to the Dempsey who has a big, daunting, formidable agenda: find a conduit of self-expression that takes him out of the charm-restricted roles of rote.
“I’m transitioning from something to something new. And I’m not sure what that is or where that is yet. But I definitely feel a change has happened. And I’m hungry for it.” Dempsey’s dabbled in documentaries, trying his hand at being behind the scenes instead of starring in them. “I have loved the editing process, and putting the team together. I love acting. Is that all I want to do? No. But it certainly is part of what I like doing. But I also like being behind the camera and leading and not being told what to do, or having to follow.”
And so the search continues: “I haven’t had the team, or the connection, or the space. It hasn’t come yet. The right director, the right writer – that’s what I’m looking to find; that connection.” Sometimes, an actor needs to recreate himself. He needs to step out of the box that he finds himself in, the box that we love to put him in, and demand to be recognized, challenged, pushed, inspired, re-imagined. We can’t help but think of Ben Affleck, and Dempsey agrees. “Well, there’s a guy who took control of his own destiny and said, ‘Look. I’m not gonna be defined by you. I will define myself, and then you’ll see who I am.”
We’re on the cusp of something big. Something great. Something so much more powerful than a dreamy doctor. We’re waiting for the catalyst that shows us more, that integrates the friendly and caring aspects of this familiar star with the grease and sweat and toil that will shock us into taking notice.
We’re waiting for that moment when we all say, “Oh. This is Patrick Dempsey.”