Michael Mann shares why his James Dean biopic fell apart

In a long and detailed interview about his career, thriller director Michael Mann was asked about his James Dean biopic that never came to fruition

James Dean

While Michael Mann has made several thriller movies based on true stories, including Heat, The Insider, and Public Enemies – the only traditional biopic he has made is Ali starring Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. However, he almost made a movie about James Dean – the 1950s movie star who tragically died in 1955.

Mann is currently busy with several projects, showing no signs of slowing down at the age of 79. He has just worked on HBO Max TV series Tokyo Vice. His novel called Heat 2 has just been published, and he is very much planning on turning it into a movie sequel to his 1995 masterpiece which brought Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro head-to-head for the first time.

Mann is also busy filming Ferrarri starring Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrarri, and Penelope Cruz and Shailene Woodley as the women in his life. In a very long and detailed interview with Deadline, Mann spoke about his career and current/upcoming projects. The last question was about his James Dean biopic that never came to fruition.

Mann responded by saying; “That was so weird about James Dean. It was a brilliant screenplay. And then it’s who the hell could play James Dean? And I found a chap who could play James Dean, but he was too young. It was Leo [DiCaprio]. We did a screen test that’s quite amazing. I think he must’ve been 19 at the time.”

“And from one angle, he totally had it with him. I mean, it’s brilliance. He would turn his face in one direction and we see a vision of James Dean, and then he’d turn his face another direction and it’s no, that’s a young kid. I found the absolutely perfect act of the play, in about three years from that.” Dean was only 24 when he died in a car accident, but DiCaprio was quite baby-faced well into his 20s.

If DiCaprio was 19 at the time, this would have been in 1994 when he had just starred in This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). The two roles that made DiCaprio a huge star were Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Titanic (1997) when he was closer to the age that Mann was looking for.

Check out our guide to the best thriller movies to see if any of Michael Mann’s brilliant films made the cut.