When Dane DeHaan was around 12, he played Toto in a summer-camp production of The Wizard of Oz. Growing up in Pennsylvania, DeHaan (who was named Dane by his parents after the sexy priest in the best-seller and TV miniseries The Thorn Birds) had always wanted to be an actor. “But when I told my parents, ‘I’m going to audition for Toto,’ they were upset,” DeHaan told me on a rainy winter day in New York. “Why were they sending me to a summer camp if I was going to be the dog?” He smiled. “But I fought hard for that part. And it was great: I wore onesie pajamas with spots on them, and a headband with ears, and I was always by Dorothy’s side. I was conscious of my choice to be Toto. No Scarecrow or Cowardly Lion for me—Toto was who I wanted to be.”

DeHaan, who was dressed in dark jeans and a woolly crewneck sweater, is so boyish (although he’s 31, he looks closer to 20) and has such clear light-blue liquid eyes, that everything he says has a dreamy quality. For most of his career, he has played some version of the charismatic iconoclast: Peter Parker’s estranged friend Harry, who morphs into the Green Goblin, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2; James Dean, in Life; and, most notably, Lucien Carr, a seductive, diabolical writer who captivated the Beat Generation poets in Kill Your Darlings. In July, DeHaan will graduate to hero status, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, director Luc Besson’s dream project, which is, with a reported budget of $180 million, the most expensive European movie ever made. Based on a beloved French comic series—that DeHaan and most Americans have never read—Valerian is, to use DeHaan’s words, a space bro. “He’s very cocky and thinks he can do just about everything. Valerian doesn’t realize the amount of luck involved in what he does.”

While DeHaan talked about the bigness of Valerian, he was distracted by two dogs, who were fighting with great intensity over a pillow. We were at the office of a commercial film company in the NoMad neighborhood of Manhattan, whose owner, Zarina Mak, has run See Spot Rescued, a dog-rescue organization, for five years. She had brought two of her charges to meet DeHaan: Antonio Banderas, a black shepherd mix, and Emilia Clarke, a black and white spaniel mix. “They don’t seem all that interested in us,” DeHaan said, somewhat sadly, as the dogs tussled with each other. “I feel a little rejected.” He was only half-joking.

DeHaan lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his wife, the actress Anna Wood, who is pregnant with their first child, and Frannie, his own rescue dog. Frannie was found on the streets of Compton during the two-and-a-half years that DeHaan lived in Los Angeles. “I didn’t like the pressure of L.A.,” he explained, as Antonio Banderas figured out how to manipulate the handle of the door and let himself out of the room. “I plan to do this job forever, but L.A. can influence you, and I didn’t want the ‘industry’ to change what interested me. So we moved back. I’m much happier in New York.”

Since childhood, DeHaan has been committed to acting. In addition to his star turn as Toto, he did community theater, and, after graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2008, he began auditioning and found work immediately. “I’ve always looked young,” he said. “I mean, I was carded yesterday. I always have to remember to bring my ID. If I don’t, it can be a huge bummer. I just went to Miami, and my sister [named Megan, also after a character in The Thorn Birds] and I ordered a nice bottle of wine in a restaurant, and they asked to see my ID! I’m happy to report that it has been about a year since I was carded at an R-rated movie. Things are looking better.”

Because of his youthful countenance, DeHaan played high-school students well into in his 20s. “I like that I had to get in great shape for Spider-Man,” he said, as Emilia Clarke went off in search of Antonio Banderas. “I had never been asked to be healthy before. And I loved when they flew me to New Zealand to be fitted for the Green Goblin suit. They had to bolt me in and unbolt me to get me out of it. It was head-to-toe suffocation, but in the best way.”

His infatuation with the technical aspects of blockbuster-superhero filmmaking served DeHaan well on Valerian, which was shot in Paris. “I was there for six months,” DeHaan said. Most of the production involved a blue screen, which forced DeHaan to imagine the alien monsters and special effects that Besson would be adding later. “It was definitely challenging,” he recalled. “But, in some ways, acting like that becomes more childlike. You have to go back to when you were playing pretend and had only your vivid imagination. Luckily, I can still tap into that.”

DeHaan studied the dogs, who had come charging back into the room, for a minute. Mak gives all the rescues celebrity monikers, and these two were living up to their human counterparts: Antonio Banderas was channeling Zorro by brandishing a chew toy like a sword, while Emilia Clarke stared at him as if he were a dragon. (After meeting DeHaan, Mak named a terrier mix with beautiful eyes after him.) “You can learn a lot about acting by watching dogs,” said the man who was once Toto. “Look at these two: They follow their impulses, they’re dramatic, they have conflicts, and there is a resolution.” DeHaan beckoned to Emilia Clarke, who jumped up next to him, gave him a kiss, and then ran off in search of who knows what. “Like the best acting, dogs are unpredictable. I was right about wanting to be Toto: There’s some dog in every character.”

Watch a video interview with W's other April 2017 cover star, actress Anya Taylor Joy: