In addition to film and television acting — notably his role as Dr. Derek Shepherd on Grey’s Anatomy, Patrick Dempsey has a second career as a race car driver for Porsche and owns the motorsports team Dempsey Racing. The actor spoke with The Hollywood Reporter Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show about the symbiosis between acting and racing.
There’s a great fraternity of gearheads in Hollywood, some of whom were or still are race drivers — Steve McQueen, James Garner, Paul Newman and of course yourself. What is it that attracts actors to racing?
There is something tangible in racing cars that you can see the fruits of your labor at the end of the day. It’s sort of, what is success? And, how do you quantify that? I think that’s why [actors] gravitate towards racing — you don’t think about anything else. There is some sense of control in a business where ultimately, is there any control at all?
Do you all know each other?
I met Paul Newman at Long Beach [Grand Prix] and we had a great conversation. We didn’t talk at all about Hollywood, we talked about what he was struggling with at Long Beach and his hay fever. He actually did quite well — finished second, in the rain. He came into racing quite late and was very methodical in his approach to it and I think has a lot of respect within the racing community for his accomplishments.
Do you worry that professional drivers think you’re a dilettante?
I’m aware that there’s that attitude out there. I’ve worked very hard at trying to gain respect and you gain respect by driving properly and getting credibility on the track. You have to put your ego aside when you do this. I do it because I truly love it. I’m extremely passionate about it. I’ve been very fortunate, with the support of Porsche, and they are really concerned about me developing as a driver. Certainly I bring visibility but the visibility comes with the results. And by being in a Super Cup race with the top GT drivers in the world is fantastic. I had my biggest breakthrough emotionally and physically as far as technique is concerned when I was in Germany with a great coach. And a driver coaching is different than an engineer coaching — an engineer is looking at the data, which is vitally important and the data doesn’t lie. But a driver knows how to get past that because it is an emotional feel of the car. And he just said a couple things to me that really just woke me up. He said, Don’t be so neat. Just be messy.
That sounds a lot like what a director might tell you as an actor.
If you have a good director who understands the emotional concept of the scene and you as an individual and what that character needs and can pull that out of you, there is nothing greater than that experience.
What do you love most about racing?
I like the camaraderie and the fellowship. There is something that is unexplainable because you’re out sharing the racetrack together, you’re racing competitively at very high speeds and there is a certain amount of respect and beauty to that. And there is an understanding that when you’re finished the race that you have a bond that is unlike anything else.
Because it’s so dangerous?
There is something really exhilarating, when you’re racing someone cleanly, and you’re giving them just enough room to race their line but not anything more than that. There is something really satisfying in that. I wouldn’t say it’s combat but it’s a dance that I think is really quite beautiful.
Car racing seems similar to downhill ski racing: tiny adjustments can mean the difference between success and disaster.
It’s very similar. My first goal in life was to be a ski racer. That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to race at the Olympics. I think [car] racing really reminds me of that period in my life. I never really wanted to be an actor. I just fell into it accidentally.
What comes first: acting or racing?
The racing is coming first at this point and I’m getting tremendous support from [Grey’s Anatomy] to allow me out to go do what I need to do. I think it helps the show and it helps me because I’m around the world, traveling. I was in Brazil a few weeks ago and there are fans there that come out and get exposed to racing who may not necessarily know anything about it but then they kind of get the bug.
You bought a Porsche with your first big Hollywood payday, from Can’t Buy Me Love.
I still have it, my 356. It was on the street in Santa Monica. The woman who owned the car was doing ADR on Top Gun at the time. They had used that car for sound [of Kelly McGillis‘ Porsche Speedster].
Your favorite racing movie?
Le Mans really captures the essence of Le Mans. As a narrative I think it’s completely lost but having been there as a fan and as a driver, it really captures the essence of it completely.
Wasn’t Steve McQueen originally going to be cast?
Can you imagine had he done that movie? I mean James Garner does a great job and he was also a very good driver and a passionate driver, but it would have been a completely different movie.
What do you drive when you’re not racing?
I have the [Porsche] Panamera, which I really enjoy. I have a long commute, 45 miles, and it’s great in traffic.
The Panamera is a fast car. Any issues as a civilian driver?
Well, this is the problem with America — we don’t have the Autobahn so you can’t really enjoy the quality of a car. You know what the capacity is but you can’t touch it. I live in Malibu. I am on a first-name basis with all the policemen.