It was press day for the Texas Chainsaw 3D and I found myself seated at one round table after another with reporters focused not on me (the mere director), but the hulking man cast for the lead role 20-some months ago.
"Surreal. Just surreal. That's the only word I can think of." It was Dan Yeager's best attempt to make sense of it all.
Surreal indeed. Dan's menacing image is now plastered on bus benches, walls, billboards and buildings of all sizes around the country. He's the new Leatherface -- the iconic centerpiece to a franchise with a central throne in the pantheon of horror. Hollywood has a rich history of discovery stories. John Wayne was loading a prop-truck on the backlot, when discovered. Lana Turner was lounging at the Top Hat Cafe after skipping high school typing class. Natalie Portman with marinara smeared on her cute, 11-year-old face was eating at a Long Island pizzeria. Pamela Anderson was caught on the jumbo-tron at a Canadian football league game. Charlize Theron was pitching a fit with a Hollywood bank teller. My friend Paul Walker was hanging in the waiting room of his buddy's modeling audition. It goes on...
As for Dan, his "discovery" took place a little over two years ago at a holiday party hosted by Carl Mazzocone, the producer and force behind the Texas Chainsaw reboot.
There, I was talking with Mark Burg, college friend of Mazzocone and producer of the Saw horror series, when I began to falter in the conversation. In true Hollywood fashion, I kept looking past Mark, staring over his shoulder, to the point he annoyingly blurted, "I hope she's really good looking, otherwise you're an asshole." My response caught him off guard -- "I think I'm staring at Leatherface."
Burg wheeled around and we shared a look at this socially-removed (forget awkward), 6'6" man in his mid-40s. He was 270 pounds of pure farm-boy contempt, with salt and pepper stubble, a cinderblock forehead and recessed eyes that were impossible to read. The imposing man stood, back to the wall, almost hidden by the door, gazing without emotion at the human interaction before him. Spooky, if you noticed him. His lip moved slightly -- an imperceptible smile or a snarl of disdain? I couldn't tell.
I immediately went to Mazzocone who filled me in. The huge, social introvert was actually a trained architect with a general contractor's license and experience building houses. A loner by nature, he'd recently been assisting Mazzocone in fixing up his Hollywood Hills house. Big Dan and Mazzocone had become friends in the process, and Mazzocone thought it only fitting to include the guy at his holiday soiree. Me? I figured if this scary looking dude could skillfully operate a circular saw, he damn sure could wield a chainsaw. I had to meet him.
A week or so later, I sat down with Dan. And, man, I could never get comfortable. He has that look. I mean something country or backwoods (even though he's a great guy). Like he's just staring at goldfish. We talked. He grew up in Columbia Station, Ohio, before his family moved to Las Vegas when he was 16. He's always had a penchant for acting but his vocational high school offered nothing in theater. He made the move to L.A. in 1989 and has made a living in construction while involving himself sporadically in community theater. In 2009, he decided to "make a run at movies" -- he was the art director on a friend's short film before garnering his first (and only) film role -- "Cop 2" in the unreleased indie, Metal Heads (an official 2011 selection of Anthem, the Libertarian Film Festival).
His resume didn't matter to me. The guy was all I was looking for: earth-strength huge, could present as damaged/inbred/stunted and possessed strains of sympathy all the while remaining hauntingly lethal. So I chucked the stack of "bad guy" body-builder headshots and shut the door on casting for the character Leatherface. Dan was the man.
When it was time to go to work, Dan intensely studied Gunnar Hansen's portrayal of Leatherface from Tobe Hooper's crazy-good, 1974 classic. We agreed to build off of Hansen's presentation. We worked on the walk, the truck driver stomach, the opportunities for empathy, and innate confidence with the chainsaw -- all while wearing one of Leatherface's disturbing masks. During filming, Dan went above and beyond. He weathered the extreme heat (107 degrees on average) while dressed in a heavy, winter grade, full-sleeve shirt with the iconic leather apron strapped on top. Upon arrival on set, he never broke character until he heard "wrap." And he never complained when asked to run and carry his heavy trade tool -- the chainsaw -- for long stretches at all hours of the night. (Try carrying around something weighing 20+ pounds for an hour -- good luck!)
Dan is another in the long line of Hollywood discovery stories. Another unknown to billboard icon. Check him out when Texas Chainsaw 3D opens wide tomorrow.