We met Dempsey—family man, successful actor, experienced race car pilot, and attentive manager—at the 2017 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Aside from 100°F heat wave, far above average for the month of June, we had one thing on our minds: getting through the race track security to speak to him about his massive investment and performance as a team player at the service of his crew. “My motivation is looking for richer, deeper experiences,” Dempsey says. On the hunt for an adrenaline rush, always looking out for ambitious new goals, Patrick Dempsey revealed his need for balance with such a fast paced life, the inevitable compromises success demands, as well as his obsessive work ethic in obtaining his goals.
In the television series Grey’s Anatomy, you played one of your most iconic roles as Doctor Derek Shepherd…but more recently, you’ve turned to cinema, particularly in Bridget Jones’s Baby. What did it feel like to jump into a movie after doing TV work for so long?
Cinema is a different process than TV. There’s a clear beginning, middle and an end. TV is on-going, it’s about endurance in a way. You have to be very careful to pace yourself because there’s no end in time. Like racing in many ways, it really forces you to be in the moment. It’s a much stronger way of approaching life.
You’re a successful actor, but you’re much more than that. You’re a devoted race car pilot. In your mind, what do acting and motorsports have in common?
Motorsports, like acting, demands awareness and presence. Maintaining a sense of presence in the moment is a big challenge in both endeavors. More than acting, though, racing demands situational awareness. You can’t have noise in your head because it distracts you. It doesn’t allow you to be present. For me, working with Porsche, not just their philosophy but also their company culture, is all about that presence, about being in the moment and making necessary adjustments to the set-up in front of you. When you’re racing in multiple classes, you have to be aware of what’s in front of you, what’s beside you, and what’s coming down the road behind you. There’s something that brings you back to your breathe and it becomes a religious experience and an emotional experience because you’re so connected to your breathing. That sense of living you get on the track has become my addiction. It’s a great place to live. You’re so present that that feeling of lightness becomes a place. It’s a challenge and the risk on the track is so high. People seek out that risk in motorsports, they’re willing to sacrifice a lot to achieve that feeling. But you can’t get there without presence, and that’s a mental muscle. That mental muscle is portrayed in motorsports, but it’s also translatable to my experience in Hollywood, to film and television.
Your number one passion today is cars, especially Porsches. But you also have a lot of commitments outside the racing world. How do you manage to combine your career as an actor and your passion for motorsports?
The key to combining the two is focus and compromise. That applies to most anything in my life, whether it’s racing, acting, or even my own family. Focus means setting goals, and then working towards them. Our racing team achieved a win in the Fuji round of the 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), but our real focus was Le Mans, where we placed second. We’re certainly doing well within the whole WEC. It was simple. We made it our goal to do well at Le Mans, and to be able to complete a full season. I knew that would take 100% commitment and great sacrifice to many other things in my life. In order to succeed, you need to be focused 100% on your goal. Collectively, we—Patrick Long, Marco Seefried, Porsche, and the team itself—had a clear approach to our process in achieving those goals. The team taught me that what I really want now is to achieve my professional goals. In my personal opinion, I haven’t achieved the quality of the experience that I’m looking for in my career. It takes a lot of discipline. It means not having too many different activities, and something has to be sacrificed in order to sharpen your focus. With television, you’re always racing to get to a deadline. You don’t have the time to step back and really ask yourself poignant questions. Films and limited series’ give you the time to stop and pause, to ask questions and get answers. It becomes a deeper, richer experiment. I’m looking for those experiments now, and racing has taught me that. But what I’ve learned certainly applies to other aspects of my life, including how I raise my children, the focus that it takes to raise 3 children and to maintain our relationships. All of these things have been enhanced by my opportunity to race, and my experience with Porsche and their philosophy.
2016 was a very important year for you. You focused on your family, your wife and your kids. How important is it to strike a balance between a successful career and a happy family life?
It’s about choices. Every choice is a sacrifice, in some way. Spending time at work means time not spent with your children, and vice versa. You have to be able to make those choices, in the best way possible when you have to make them. Racing takes a great toll on those who have families because you’re constantly on the road. These are the kinds of challenges that you encounter. You need time with your family to stabilize it, nurture it and develop it. Then, you go off and something has to be sacrificed in order to succeed, whether it be for your career or for your family. It’s very hard to be able to do it all. You need to have great discipline. It’s the sort of challenge that I’m in right now. How do I balance it all? How do I achieve it? I think what I learned from racing, and from the motorsports community, is that sense of discipline and focus, in order to help me strike a balance.
You recently jumped into a new adventure with Dempsey-Proton Racing. How does it feel to work from a new perspective, especially in Le Mans this year?
It’s really great and incredibly satisfying to stay awake for the entire 24 hours, to follow the race from start to finish. As a driver, you get into the car, you drive a few hours, you rest, you really live the race…but when you’re not in the driver’s seat, you try to recover, calm down, and pace yourself to make it through the race. Going into this season, I wanted to give a number of drivers the opportunity to learn, and to move up the ladder within Porsche. It’s gratifying to see talented young drivers competing in their first Le Mans. The Le Mans course is fascinating because of its sheer size, its history, the special atmosphere, and the level of competition. It’s rewarding to be there for them, to watch them, watch their professionalism and their presence in stressful situations. I was amazed by their maturity. They inspired me. I wanted to know what I could do to support them, to help them and help the team on this effort to have the best results? I think it goes back to being in the moment. Of course, we had issues that came up, but it was great! This is a long race. It’s important to never give up. The drivers managed to come back by just keeping their heads down and focusing on the race. That’s what I really enjoyed. Witnessing the entire race across all categories, being involved on a personal level with my own team, gave me a lot of satisfaction. Then, the greater sense of team and family within Porsche itself is what drives us all.
As a manager, what would you say are the keys to building and motivating a successful team?
Providing support. Being sensitive to your team. Being aware and stepping up to help them if you can. Having kids has helped me learn to not not be distracted by other things that you have to do, to try and be there and allow your team to experience things in their own way. That’s a lesson my own son has taught me. I think it’s how we should approach life, allowing everyone to learn and experience things their own way. With Porsche, I try to encourage our drivers best I can. Sometimes, the drivers get out of the car, they have a horrible stead, and you have to point out: “You did an amazing job. Look at the time you were running, look where you are now, look at your position for the rest of the championship.” You give support through encouragement, looking at the positives.
Read the full interview in Swenson Mag Vol.01
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