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Published: Monday, 7/4/2011

Patrick Dempsey drops his McDreamy image to have fun with robots

BY CINDY PEARLMAN
NEW YORK TIMES SPECIAL FEATURES
Patrick Dempsey attends the premiere of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" in New York last week. Patrick Dempsey attends the premiere of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" in New York last week.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

A man can be only so sensitive.

Yes, Grey's Anatomy fans, even Dr. McDreamy wants to punch somebody now and then.

"I can be the … action guy," says Patrick Dempsey, who resurrected his near-moribund career, and set millions of heartbeats racing, when he was cast as Dr. Derek Shepherd, aka Dr. McDreamy, on Grey's Anatomy in 2005. "Let's face it, Grey's Anatomy is a very female show -- and I love it, but that's not all I am. I can be a macho guy. I can fight robots. I can drive fast.

"It's not like I get to drive a Ferrari through the hospital corridors on Grey's."

That's why Dempsey signed on for Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third in Michael Bay's highly successful series based on the 1980s toy line of adaptable robots.

"This is my masculine moment," the 45-year-old actor says, "and it's the most fun I've ever had on a movie."

Dark of the Moon, which opened Wednesday, finds the noble Autobots and the evil Decepticons racing to retrieve a Cybertronian spacecraft that has been hidden on the Moon for ages. Series stars Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, and Tyrese Gibson return, with Dempsey joining fellow newcomers Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Ken Jeong.

"I play an investment banker," Dempsey says during a telephone interview. "Shia's girlfriend works for me. My character thrives on making the two of them feel uncomfortable.

"I think I'm a good guy," he adds with a laugh, "but ultimately you have to see the movie to decide."

Dempsey's hobby is racing sports cars, which is how he met Bay and ended up in Dark of the Moon.

"I ran into him at a Ferrari event," the actor recalls. "Michael and I started talking, and he said, 'There is a role in the new Transformers that's perfect for you. Why don't you come in for a meeting?' So I came in, and he told me how he worked and what he expected from his actors. Then he gave me his script.

"I was really excited by the possibilities," Dempsey says, "so I said, 'I want to do it.' The next thing I knew, I was in Chicago."

He was eager to join the Transformers universe, he adds.

"I've seen a little bit of the finished movie," Dempsey says, "and it's really action-packed, but it has character development. That's what I feel has to be strong, even when you're running from robots."

Bay is known as a demanding, even dictatorial director, but Dempsey has no complaints.

"I actually had a great time in Chicago," Dempsey says. "It's changed a lot since the last time I was there, which was when I did a movie called With Honors (1994) many years ago. It's a romantic place. My wife and I ended up going up and down the river in a boat for our anniversary. We spent time at great restaurants. I don't care what kind of diet you're on, you need to have a little bit of pizza in your life if you're in Chicago."

For his part, Dempsey savored the difference between the movie and his day job on Grey's Anatomy.

"It was quite amazing to stand there and pretend that you're looking and talking to Autobots and Decepticons," he says. "Some of that was done later with special effects, so basically I was just looking at pictures of these things on a really long pole. My job was to interact with the pole.

"But Michael was great about showing you the animations," Dempsey adds. "He would say, 'This is where you fit in. This is what you're reacting to in this scene. You're terrified.' It actually took me a bit off guard, because he was so detailed in his description of why I had that emotion. I didn't think I would be offered that much."

The actor used to play robot games, he recalls, while growing up in Buckfield, Maine, as the youngest of three kids. Academically challenged because of dyslexia, he dropped out of high school but found himself on the ski slopes, winning a state championship and dreaming of a place on the Olympic team.

Another dream got in the way, however: Dempsey was drawn to performing from an early age, first as a juggler, then as an actor in local plays. After leaving school he went pro, and at 17 was touring the San Francisco area in Torch Song Trilogy.

He made his film debut as a Catholic-school hunk in the 1960s comedy Heaven Help Us (1985), and a nation of teenage girls sat up and took notice. Suddenly Dempsey was on bedroom walls all over America and starring in a series of teen comedies and romances such as In the Mood (1987), Can't Buy Me Love (1987), Some Girls (1988), and Loverboy (1989).

When he graduated to more adult roles, however, the transition proved bumpy. Mobsters (1991) and J.F.K.: Reckless Youth (1993), in which he played future president John F. Kennedy, failed to click at the box office, While he continued to get supporting roles in such films as With Honors, Outbreak (1995), Scream 3 (2000), and Sweet Home Alabama (2002), Dempsey was no longer on the A-list, and as he neared 40 his career seemed on the verge of extinction.

Then came Grey's Anatomy, and suddenly Dempsey's long-ago fans, now adult women, realized that he was as hot as he ever was, if not hotter. The show became a hit, and fans made clear that Dr. McDreamy was a big reason why. Dempsey was back on Hollywood's radar, and lead roles in such films as Enchanted (2007), Made of Honor (2008), and Valentine's Day (2010) followed.

Lately there have been rumors that the 45-year-old actor would like to step away from Grey's Anatomy to focus on his big-screen career. He insists, however, that he isn't letting go of the source of his new success.

"It's pretty remarkable the run we've had with 'Grey's,'" Dempsey says. "It's been an amazing ride, and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of it. Literally that show has transformed my life and my family."

In other words, he has no plans to check out of Seattle Grace Hospital.

The fact that movies take him away from his Los Angeles home is another attraction of the small screen. Dempsey is married to makeup artist Jill Fink,and they have three children: 9-year-old Tallulah and 4-year-old twins Darby and Sullivan.

"To me there is nothing better than just staying in town and hanging out with my kids," he says.



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