He’s known for his seduction scenes, but behind the scenes, Patrick Dempsey prefers playing daddy. That’s the main reason this Grey’s Anatomy star auditioned for Enchanted, Disney’s delightful fairytale about an animated princess who comes to life in New York City.
“I wanted something that was non-violent—that was positive yet unusual,” Dempsey said. “It’s hard to find original stories, and certainly stories that are positive, in a world that’s not so positive. It’s something that I could take my daughter to go see, a family movie. I see a lot of family movies these days—more than anything else.”
That wasn’t always the case. The 41-year-old burst onto the Hollywood stage in 1987 in the hit teen comedy Can’t Buy Me Love for which he won a Young Artist’s Award for his dorky high-schooler role. The same year, Dempsey married Rocky Parker, mother of his best friend, actor Corey Parker. She was 48. He was 21.
The marriage lasted seven years and, after just one successful film (Loverboy), ushered in a decade-long career drought for Dempsey, during which he played mostly small television parts. After notable appearances on Will & Grace and Once and Again beginning in 2000, however, Dempsey landed the role of Reese Witherspoon’s fiancé in the 2002 hit, Sweet Home Alabama. His star was on the rise.
In 2005, he agreed to film the pilot for a new ABC-TV drama series. One year later, Grey’s Anatomy was dominating the ratings—and Dempsey was dominating the headlines. He’s since been nominated for an Emmy, two Golden Globes and was the 2006 SAG nominee for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series for his work as Dr. Derek Shepherd, aka “Dr. McDreamy.”
Dempsey has been married to makeup artist Jillian Fink since 1999. The couple has one five-year-old daughter. Earlier this year, Fink also gave birth to twin boys. They’re his real raison d’être, said the actor, who spends his days playing “McDreamy” and his nights changing diapers.
In Enchanted, which opens November 21, Dempsey is Robert Philip, a cynical divorce lawyer who falls for Giselle, a real-life princess played by Amy Adams (Junebug). He’s hampered in his quest for true love by Prince Edward (James Marsden), an evil stepmother (Susan Sarandon) and a conniving servant (Timothy Spall).
Dempsey recently met with reporters in Los Angeles, where he talked about Enchanted, his first marriage and why he makes sure to always watch movies with his pre-schooler—even Disney movies. Here’s what he had to say:
You know you’ve finally arrived in Hollywood when you get your own E! True Hollywood Story. So what’s it like to go from McDork to McDreamy?
Well, I haven’t seen the piece yet. So it’s like reliving your whole life, and I don’t necessarily want to go back to some of those periods in my life. It’s like your yearbook picture. Do you want to go back and see that? Not necessarily. But I’m amazed, though. I really am.
At this second chance for a career?
Unbelievable. You read about it and you see other people going through it and then, to be on this side of the table—it’s humbling, beyond belief.
What did your daughter think of Enchanted?
She thought Pip (the animated chipmunk) was wonderful. And that says it all. She’s five and half and she loved the animated part of it. She liked the first musical number. I think it bogs down when it gets to the romantic side of things. Other people like the romantic part. It depends upon your generation—what you like and what you don’t like.
What was it like working with Amy Adams?
That was the best part of the experience. Amy resisted me leading her. She’s very strong, and we came to a moment when I ripped her toenail off because she refused to wear her shoes and let me lead her. We stopped talking for about 15 minutes. She went in her corner and I went into mine, and then we came back and we started dancing again. I felt her vulnerability and I had to really take care of her—and she had to surrender to that. But that’s when things started to take off.
What do you think of your [Disney] doll? Does your daughter have one?
Yes, she does, and it was sort of surreal going home the other night. All of a sudden, my face popped up behind my shoulder. My daughter was acting out our voices and the scenes from the movie. We were like, “Oh my goodness, what has just happened?”
Susan Sarandon (who plays Giselle’s future stepmother, an evil queen) said that the good guys—the charming princes—are always the most difficult to play. What did you do to keep your ‘Prince Charming’ from becoming a dullard?
It was hard. It wasn’t a fun part to play, most of the time. Everybody else was having a great time. Jimmy [James Marsden as Prince Edward] comes flying in with big shoulders, wearing these tights, and gets these rounds of applause. It was like, “Great, Jimmy. Thanks a lot! You’re perfect looking—and you get all the laughs.” That was really hard. But then you realize what your role is, in the greater scheme of things. I think the real challenge … I was trying to find the moments of humor when I could, in the one-liners, you could throw in. And yet, at the same time, keep the emotional foundation to the piece. It’s not necessarily the most enjoyable, but it’s the certainly most challenging, to keep that balance within yourself. There was that moment in the restaurant where he reveals where he’s coming from. That was fun to not get caught in the melodrama – to feel it, but not to show it, to not get caught up in the melodrama. And certainly the musical numbers and the dancing—at the end, that’s when I felt I could finally cross over.
What do you believe about true love?
I think there is a true love, a connection you find with someone. I don’t necessarily think it’s ‘happy ever after.’ It’s just a [heck of a] lot of work. I’ve been married for almost nine years now and I find that the more we work through our issues individually, the more we grow as a couple. As our family grows we grow closer together and our lives are improving. I think it comes with a tremendous amount of work and understanding and sacrifice. And it transforms you, certainly. I’m a much better person because of my wife and my children.
Did you know right away?
No, because I had been married before, obviously, in a very interesting marriage that I learned a lot from. But it prepared me for this one. It was really valuable experience.
Early in the movie, when Robert finally decides to let Giselle spend the night, he tells his daughter to come into his room. Was that to protect his reputation [from his girlfriend] or was he protecting his daughter from a potentially crazy person?
That’s the choice I made. I never really thought he was thinking in terms of sexuality at that point. The thing I had a hard time with—and it’s a Disney movie, and Amy Adams, so you believe it—was that you would never bring her home. You just would not do that! We kept laughing about that. If it wasn’t Disney, you’d have a hard time with the believability of it.
One of the difficult things with your part is that you were responsible for making the audience accept this crazy, animated princess in real life, to the point where you could believe that someone would fall in love with her in the real world. How difficult was it for you to make the transition from, “I’m meeting this nutcase who is knocking on the door of a billboard” into falling in love with her?
It was a real challenge. From day one, I was thrown off. How do you make this believable? How do you react to it honestly? I would go home and be completely depressed because, ‘Am I making this movie work?’ I was like, ‘Please just get me back to Grey’s Anatomy and let me fight with Meredith. I never felt completely comfortable or solid in the role. It always made me feel completely unstable and completely insecure. Amy had her issues, and we would talk to each other and walk each other through these things. You know, when the birds come in. Is it big enough? Or is it too big? It was trying to keep his pain and keep the honesty of that situation, as well as allowing yourself to get caught up in the magic of her, and to find those moments.
Was there a transition moment?
I think the restaurant is the transition moment, when she touches his chest and he goes in and sits down. That’s when he falls in love with her.
What do you think about all the references to Disney films?
It’s a love letter to all things Disney, and I think that the fact that Disney makes fun of itself is great to see. I think it also changes the myth of the princess story. If you look at it strictly from the male and female energy, the female saves the masculine energy, which I think is a great thing. It’s nice to see movies working on that level.
What do you mean?
Well she goes off with his sword and saves him and catches him. The heart saves the masculine. A woman’s identity used to be that she got married, she settled down and she had kids. That’s no longer true in modern society. You have a career, you get married and then you have kids. How do you find the balance between being a good mother, a good businesswoman and a good wife? I mean, it’s much more complicated now. That was what was most interesting to me. And certainly, having a daughter. It changes the whole dynamic of what a princess is anymore.
What are some of your favorite Disney fairy tales?
It’s funny. My daughter went through a period of nothing but Peter Pan—every night. Then it was Beauty and the Beast. You go through all of them and you watch them all. And you know, I’m amazed at how dark these movies really are. I mean, they’re violent! You have to fast-forward or talk her through it. So I make sure I’m with her. I experience the movie with her in order to give her a sense of what the story is about and why it’s there. It’s interesting. I like them all. I like Thumper in Bambi, although Bambi is tragic beyond belief. Wasn’t it voted one of the top ten saddest movies of all time? So you kind of have to be careful with the Disney movies!
Did your daughter want to be in this movie?
No, no, no. And I wouldn’t. No! I hope that doesn’t happen. You can start to see it, though. I look and my wife and I go, “Oh, God. Here we go.” No. I don’t really like children in movies. I think it’s a bad place to grow up. So I had my issues with that.
Do you think that there’s something about the time that we’re in right now that will make people more receptive to the movie?
I think so. I don’t want to go see a dark movie right now. I don’t think I’d go and see any of the movies that were released this weekend. I think we’re too close to be talking about Iraq. Those scars have not been healed, and I don’t think people are going to really listen. We’re not going to change anything right now. I think we can through a comedy. I think we’re going to reach more people that way, at the moment. It’s almost like the Depression is upon us, or it’s the 1930s or the middle of the war. You want to see screwball comedies or musical numbers. You want to see things that are going to make you escape reality for an hour and a half.
This movie is about a contrast between this dark cynicism that is reality and innocence. From your own life, where do you think this balance is?
That’s the interesting conversation that Robert has with Giselle in the park, right before she breaks into the song, “How Will You Know?” He’s like, “You’re crazy! You don’t fall in love with somebody overnight.” I think that’s interesting. That’s where we are right now. We’re not going to change the world by going at it violently. We’re going to have to find love and we’re going to have to find acceptance. The essence of all these religions, with everyone getting in the corner and fighting, is being lost. Isn’t it about love? It’s that simple—and it’s that complex. We’ve lost touch with magic and you need it—before we just kill ourselves.
Starring Patrick Dempsey, Amy Adams, James Marsden and Susan Sarandon, Enchanted is rated PG for some scary images and mild innuendo. It opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 21, 2007.