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Patrick Dempsey | Image: TAG Heuer

INTERVIEW: The Striking Duality of Patrick Dempsey


Even in Hollywood, Patrick Dempsey is a rare breed. Bright-eyed and full of vigour, the 58-year-old actor has the unique ability to bounce between conversations with an unfaltering exuberance, seemingly without ever taking a breath. He moves through a crowd like water, leaving a trail of perfectly-timed quips and candid smiles in his wake. But it’s not his mastery of the mingling arts that sets him apart from his peers. It’s not his propensity for small talk or even his ability to ask your name and actually remember it. No, what separates Patrick Dempsey from the swathe of good-looking actors with suspiciously good hairlines is something much more uncommon.

An anomaly of sorts, Dempsey is one of Hollywood’s last true good guys. An actor who has escaped the furores of celebrity by retreating into his passions, the American star has managed to carve out an enviable career that has spanned almost four decades. And yet somehow, despite the accolades, the undeniable talent and that pesky ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ title, he’s managed to fly remarkably under the radar.

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In another life, he could have been a Gable or Bogart, such is the blend of charisma and screen charm, but instead, Dempsey has spent the better part of two decades splitting his time between his charity, the Dempsey Centre for Cancer, and his Tudor United Sports Car Series racing team. That’s right, when he’s not behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 GT3, the effortlessly handsome Primetime Emmy Award-nominated star is raising much-needed funds for medical research. Truly, if ever you needed to feel inadequate, an afternoon sitting across from Patrick Dempsey will do the trick. And I would know.

I recently caught up with Dempsey in Sydney, where the actor was in town to help launch the new TAG Heuer flagship boutique. A long-time ambassador for the iconic Swiss luxury watchmaker, Dempsey has made no efforts to hide his passion for horology and his choice of timepieces on the red carpet has drawn widespread acclaim from the watch community. But the connection between the actor and watchmaker goes far beyond the standard working relationship. In fact, the two were first bonded over a mutual lover affair with the track.

“When I was a kid, my dad was really into cars. He was a car owner and was really passionate about motorsports, so I grew up with it,” he tells me. “Ten years ago, TAG Heuer joined as a sponsor for my race fund and the team. To me, it was perfect, with the history with the Le Mans, McQueen, the Monaco watch, all of that, so very special.”

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A lifelong motor racing fan, Dempsey’s first foray into the sport came a long time after his initial on-screen success. In 2013, the actor, best known for playing ‘McDreamy’ on the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy joined the Porsche motorsport family and immediately set to work on proving the doubters wrong.

A fourth-place finish in the GTE-Am class at the Le Mans 24 Hours in his rookie season put the competition on notice and he followed it up with two more podium places that same year. As much as they may feel like opposing worlds, Dempsey reveals that he drew much of his confidence in the driver’s seat from his previous life in the spotlight.

“Acting helped me with being private in a public situation. Sometimes when you’re in a race situation and you’re well known, there are a lot of eyes on you and you have to be able to block that out,” he says. “I find it easier to drive than it is sometimes in front of the camera. You’re in the moment, you’re present. It’s very zen in that respect. And I think that’s what’s so cleansing about it.”

There’s a freedom of mental noise when you’re in the car, there’s a clarity there.

“That level of concentration when you get out after a long test or a long race, there’s just no other feeling like it. Of course, the camaraderie and the challenge of ‘Can you push yourself into the break zone a little bit deeper? Can you get in there and make the car go faster?’ The sensitivity of it. If the car is set up nicely, then it’s an extension of you and your thoughts.”

Dempsey can now consider himself part of a rare family, namely; actors turned racecar drivers backed by the famous Heuer name. For decades, the watchmaker has staked its claim on motor racing, forging unique partnerships with Porsche, sponsoring teams and releasing commemorative timepieces to mark pivotal anniversaries within the sport. It’s all part of the TAG Heuer DNA and while no one embodied that more than former brand ambassador Steve McQueen, Dempsey is happy to follow in his footsteps, even joking that he has one up on the fabled King of Cool.

“Well, Steve McQueen never raced at Le Mans, so I beat him there,” Dempsey laughs. “He did get on the podium at Sebring. I think he finished second with that and he had a broken foot at that time. Then Paul Newman raced Le Mans once and he was on the podium, where I did it four times, so I beat him. If they were alive today, it’d be great to see who would be the fastest out of all of us.”

The story of Patrick Dempsey is a tale of two very different halves. On one side, you have the accomplished actor, known for his work in romcoms and dramas, and on the other, a philanthropist racecar driver with a serious need for speed. It’s almost impossible to conceive that those divergent career paths would ever intersect, but when he landed the role of real-life driver Piero Taruffi in Michael Mann’s hit biopic Ferrari, they did. You could argue it was fate, but in speaking with him, I get the feeling that Dempsey isn’t the kind of person who leaves things to chance.

“I was aware of the project for between 12 to 15 years,” Dempsey reveals. “Michael had got it from, I believe Sydney Pollack, in the late eighties and he’d been trying to get it made. Finally, I think because of the success of Drive to Survive and Ford Versus Ferrari, (racing) became certainly a commercial idea for studios. He got the funding and he finally got to realise that project.”

“It was a dream job. First of all, I was in Italy, had great food, great cars, period. And just working with Michael is an extraordinary experience, and Adam (Driver). That life experience and creative process was the best experience I’ve had. Certainly in the ’50s, ’60s, it was very dangerous but it was very exciting. The cars were beautiful and those different times brought out the romance of all of it.”

In playing Taruffi, the eventual winner of the tragic 1957 Mille Miglia that cost nine spectators their lives, Dempsey is uniquely qualified. A racecar driver who understands the dangers associated with the sport, he was able to broach the role with a level of authenticity rarely seen on screen. As he explains, stepping behind the wheel might not have been new to him, but bringing the ‘Golden Age’ of racing to life on-screen was unlike anything he had attempted before.

“I got the chance to do all the driving myself, which was absolutely terrifying because we didn’t have a roll cage,” he says. “The chassis was a Caterham chassis and they put the body on top of that. That was really quite scary because we were pushing pretty hard in all of those scenes, but really exhilarating and I loved it. You step back in time, especially when you’re following everybody, some of the night sequences and during the day, it just felt like you were back in the 1950s.”

Importantly, the period was also a Golden Age for watchmaking, with 1963 marking the launch of the first Heuer Carrera. Sixty years on, the collection is stronger than ever and it is heritage-inspired pieces such as the Carrera Chronosprint x Porsche that are helping to reignite a new passion for vintage offerings.

“Jack Heuer discovered the Carrera name when he was in the pits at Sebring talking to the Rodriguez brother’s parents,” Dempsey explains. “They were very happy that the boys were too young to race in that race because it was so deadly. But Jack was like, “That’s a great name; I’ve got to remember that.” Of course, it means racing or race and then at the same time, Porsche came out with the Carrera.”

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“With the Chronosprint, it’s really fun because it goes from 9.1 seconds at the beginning, which was basically zero to 60 in 1963, that’s how fast it was. That was pretty revolutionary, obviously not with what we’re doing now, three seconds with electric cars, but at the time, it was. So the watch honours that launch.”

For an actor with deep ties to the rom-com genre, it should come as no surprise that Dempsey is a true romantic, but it is his love affair with tradition that is truly striking. A father of three, the Hollywood star is starting to appreciate the sentimental moments, acknowledging that while times may be changing, his passion need not.

“The respect for the heritage and the past really directs the future. When you look at the consistency with the iconic image of Porsche, the silhouette has evolved, it keeps improving, but they haven’t lost their identity. And I think the same is true for TAG Heuer.”

All of the watches and the memories of what they represent, they’re more symbols of moments and experiences than anything else.

“For me, it’s about developing that collection. What I really like now is that my boys come in and they’ll go through the collection and they’ll ask, “What can I wear tonight?”. With certain generations, people aren’t wearing watches. They’re using their iPhone, things like that. It’s a great conversation piece as well as practical; it’s a piece of jewellery for a man. It’s nice to see them taking that on.”

Watching it in person, the connection between TAG Heuer and Dempsey is truly fascinating. As a brand, TAG Heuer has always been sports-orientated with a classy edge, a philosophy underpinned by tradition and honour. Dempsey, with his toes dipped in the world of auto-racing, film and philanthropy is like a Carrera model brought to life. A vintage model perhaps, but one that looks as good today as when it was first introduced to the world.

The new TAG Heuer Sydney flagship boutique opened to the public on Friday 1 March. The 114-square-metre boutique is located on the corner of Pitt Street and Market Street in the heart of the CBD. For more information on the new store and the maison’s latest collections, visit the watchmaker’s official online boutique.