AGE: 46 GIG: Actor and racecar driver DREAM ROLE: The Grey’s Anatomy star will race in the IMS’s inaugural Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series event on July 27 as part of the Super Weekend at the Brickyard.
Early on in life, I wanted to be an Olympic skier. I was trying to improve my balance, so I started riding a unicycle. The town I grew up in, in Maine, was a hotbed for all of these vaudevillian performers. I started performing in a troupe, and that took me away from skiing and into acting.
I’ve made tons of mistakes. I wish I’d stayed in school. I was 17 when I dropped out, and I never finished high school. I was 21 when I got married the first time. It was to a much older woman. Those relationships never ultimately work.
It’s one thing to have an affair with an older woman but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend marriage.
You know when you love someone; the question is do you love them for their strengths and their weaknesses, and can you live with them—not try to change them.
As a parent, I think you understand what true love is for the first time.
Kids help you understand what life is all about. You realize how quick life is, how fragile it is, and also how important it is to live in the moment, because the stages of their development go by so quickly.
I had a lot of success very early on, and then it went away. I had to go back and take acting classes to continue to develop my skills. I wasn’t going to return home to Maine. I was going to do whatever it took to improve as a person and as an actor.
I started worrying less about outcomes and more about the process of what I was doing. Actors are subject to lots of rejection, so you have to be very strong.
You can’t do it because you want to be famous. You have to have a blinding passion for what you do in the sense that you won’t take no for an answer. You cannot give up.
The worst thing is when people sense desperation. You get eaten up by people who have more confidence.
Being on Grey’s Anatomy has changed my life. But my next chapter is to transition out of the show and try to be perceived differently. Don’t let Hollywood define me, but try to define myself. Can I move on from the McDreamy moniker?
My mom has been battling ovarian cancer for over 10 years. She’s a fighter. She’s a remarkable woman in terms of her desire; she isn’t going to give up and waste away on a couch. When she got sick, it made me realize how short and fragile life is. You have to go after what you want.
My dad was a big race fan, and I kind of inherited his love for the sport. The Indy 500 was a big ritual for us, to sit down and watch the race.
When I started racing [cars], it reminded me of ski racing. They’re both one turn at a time.
I can’t wait for Brickyard. It’s hallowed ground. The experience, the fans, the history, and what it represents. There is nothing more enjoyable than being at that speed, with all these other drivers around you in very close proximity.
To go fast, you need to slow down inside yourself and really focus on one corner at a time, which is an incredible metaphor in life as well.
Do things that fulfill you as a person. That will make you much more interesting.
—as told to Dave Seminara
>> BONUS: See extra shots from Dempsey's photo session here.
Photo by Alex Martinez.
An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the July 2012 issue.