Patrick Dempsey on Tackling New Challenges, Stepping Into the Unknown, and His Great New Documentary ‘Hurley”
Dempsey talks about telling the incredible story of racing driver Hurley Haywood–and about the value of reinventing yourself.
Hurley Haywood (left), and Patrick Dempsey. CREDIT: Courtesy The Orchard
If you're Patrick Dempsey, you've worn (and wear) a lot of hats. You're an acclaimed actor; the nickname of one of your more famous characters is now cultural shorthand. You founded The Dempsey Center to provide cancer education and support for individuals and families. You're a race car driver who has stood on the podium at the Rolex 24.
And you're a film director and producer; you love to tell stories.
All of which means you could not resist co-producing the just-released -- and outstanding -- documentary Hurley (streaming on iTunes, Amazon, cable providers, etc.).
Hurley is the story of Hurley Haywood, one of the most remarkable figures in motorsports history. Haywood won Le Mans three times. He won the Rolex 24 six times. He won Sebring. He won championships. One of the world's most successful endurance racers, Haywood was a fan favorite.
And he was also hiding his identity as a gay man during an era when the climate was far from LGBTQ-friendly. (In fact, the now 70 year-old Haywood only opened up about the subject in his 2017 autobiography.)
Hurley tells the story of how Haywood walked the tightrope between career and sexuality. And it also tells the story of Peter Gregg, Haywood's incredibly successful racing partner, who struggled to overcome injury and later took his own life.
In short, Hurley is great.
Which made it the perfect time to talk to Patrick about making the film, about the nature of identity, and about the power of change.
Why did you decide to tell Hurley's story?
It all started with Derek Dodge, the film's director. He did some social media work with me for LeMans in 2014, and as we were working together said, "Would you be willing to support me if I approached Hurley about making a film?"
Of course we respected Hurley's right to keep it private. But if he wanted to tell his story...
So I told Derek I was with him 100 percent and would be happy to get the project across the finish line.
Five years later, we reached the finish line. (Laughs.) It's been a slow, steady journey, and we're really proud of the result.
Hurley explaining why he decided to make public what had been private is a powerful moment in the film.
You're right. A high school student interviews Hurley for a term paper. They talk about racing, about Hurley serving in Vietnam... and then the kid says he's been bullied for his entire life and often thinks about committing suicide. They talk for a while, and Hurley tells him it's not what you are, it's who you are that really matters.
Later the boy's mother called Hurley to tell him he saved her son's life.
Hurley decided it was time to tell his story, that it was important for him to speak up. Fortunately our timing was right. (Laughs.)
Deciding you want to do something is one thing. Actually doing it is another. It had to be extremely difficult for Hurley to open up after so many years of keeping his private life to himself.
That's one reason this was a five-year journey. Derek spent considerable time getting to know Hurley and building his trust and confidence. Today they are very close friends because of that.
Derek captures that struggle in the film. There's an interview very early on where Derek asked Hurley for the first time, in front of the camera, "Is it true...?" and Hurley answers the question.
In that moment you see his discomfort and vulnerability... and then throughout the film you see him become more and more open.
One of the toughest parts of telling a story is deciding what to leave out. That's especially true when you're telling the story of an iconic figure... and when you get the kind of support you received from the racing community.
The sanctioning body was extremely supportive. The racers were extremely supportive.
And it was incredibly satisfying to be able to give Derek the tools to realize his vision as a filmmaker, to work with Veronica Brady to gather archival footage that shows the history of the sport... to tell the story of the Brumos racing team, of Porsche, of LeMans...
And of course there's Peter's story: A dynamic team dominated endurance motorsports and to all outward appearances looked like they had everything going for them... but behind the scenes faced a number of internal struggles.
So yes: There was a lot of story we could tell. (Laughs.)
So we constantly trimmed. We constantly fine-tuned. Ultimately everything comes down to advancing the story: No matter how great the footage, no matter how great the interview... if it didn't advance the story, it needed to go.
No matter how painful that was. (Laughs.)
What was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was structural. Showing Hurley as a racer, as a mentor, as a team manager, showing his journey... and then showing Peter's journey, and balancing that out structurally...
Then we needed to structure the film in such a way that people who don't know anything about the sport can see the beauty, the history, the meaning of the sport, to know what the drivers and teams do and the massive sacrifices they make...
The Peter Gregg portion of the documentary was fascinating. He seemed to base his entire identity on being a race car driver.
The issue of identity is something lots of people struggle with.
Whatever your profession -- but certainly in sports -- you can build your whole life around one specific discipline, and when that is taken away from you, as it was from Peter... it's hard to deal with when people have always perceived you a certain way.
And when you have long seen yourself in a certain way.
But none of that ultimately matters. What you do, at least professionally, isn't who you are.
Like Hurley told that teenager, it's not what you are, but who you are, that matters.
That raises an interesting point: You've reached an extremely high level in a number of fields: Acting, racing, owning a team, producing... what would you say if I ask, "What are you?"
When I left Grey's Anatomy it was like shedding an identity. When I left racing it was like shedding an identity.
Now I'm trying not to have an identity.
That's the real key: To keep challenging yourself, to keep finding new things to do, to keep finding new challenges in life. You reach different benchmarks at different times... and you have to make that transition and adapt and change.
Change is the hardest thing for all of us. Stepping into the unknown? It's really hard. But change is where you can shed one skin and grow another.
It's almost like you had a plan for life after racing -- yet one that still involved racing.
Absolutely. When I was racing I thought, "I'm going to take all this in... and when I've finished my racing career, I'll tell some of these stories."
Of course that means being patient. On September 27th we will release The Art of Racing in the Rain, a piece I bought for myself to star in... but I had to let go being the star because I got too old. (Laughs.)
So we worked with IMSA, worked with different teams... to accurately show that side of the sport will be incredibly satisfying.
Even though you may decide to shed a skin, you still take some of the skills and qualities you gained rom one pursuit into a new pursuit. What did you learn from racing?
Racing has taught me some powerful life lessons.
Like working with Porsche: To them, the process is the product. We'll work together as a team, we'll support each other on the good days and the bad days... and we'll make it work.
There's nothing more satisfying than being a part of a team.
That's true with Hurley as well: The success of Hurley is totally based on the team we built.
That's the big takeaway. Successful is never accomplished by one individual. The camaraderie, the teamwork, participating in a sport that in itself is very dangerous, that heightens the experience and requires you -- no matter what your role -- to be present and focused and come together as a team, lap to lap, hour to hour, race to race....
Assembling the right group of people around you? That's the key -- and the big life lesson.