“You must be sick of me by now — what the hell do you want to hear me say?” Leonardo DiCaprio laughed as we began a phone conversation late last week. He was joking, but it’s not an uncommon thing to hear an actor say that after they’ve been through the promotional ringer of an exhaustive awards season. He was in New York, where he had just participated in a retrospective of his work with Martin Scorsese (he did something similar the week before at the Santa Barbara Film Festival), and would be shortly heading to London for the BAFTA awards, where he was nominated for Best Actor (he lost to 12 Years A Slave‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor). But the fact is since early December and the first screenings of The Wolf Of Wall Street DiCaprio has been very visible — much more than the norm when he’s had a new movie to promote or an Oscar campaign to deal with.
But this one, for which he has already won a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award (both in comedy) is special to him. He not only stars in Wolf but also was a producer. He has received his fourth and fifth Oscar nominations as a result for the movie that is up for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and the fiercely competitive Best Actor category. He worked for six years to figure out a way to bring to the screen Jordan Belfort’s candid autobiography of his spectacular rise and fall on Wall Street. He wouldn’t give up until Martin Scorsese said yes to directing and until he was convinced they could make the movie their way. It became controversial but it also has now become Scorsese’s most successful movie ever.
DiCaprio previously did a detailed interview with my colleague Mike Fleming for Deadline, and he’s also encountered me a lot on the trail this season. But, with just two weeks to go until the Oscars, he’s still on that trail and very pleased — particularly for Scorsese’s box office milestone. “I am incredibly proud of that. I knew this movie would have to be framed in the right context for the public because, like I’ve said before, it’s punk rock, a major Hollywood epic about hedonism and debauchery and putting this culture up on screen. So I’ve been trying to support it as much as possible, in large part because I want to make movies that take chances like this. I want studios eventually to say ‘Hey, look at what Wolf Of Wall Street was able to do’. Maybe they’ll take a chance on this kind of material in the future even if it doesn’t fit the sort of criteria studios feel is bankable. I really hope if I bring something to a studio or want to develop it in a certain way they will use this as a reference point at the very least,” he said.
Of course the reported $100 million film was independently produced through Red Granite and then distributed by Paramount. Its success was obviously very important to DiCaprio, which might explain why the normally press-reticent actor has really been banging the drum for this one. With the state of the tentpole-obsessed industry he’s not just out there to promote a single movie, he’s promoting a type of adventurous filmmaking he says is not easy to get accomplished, at least in the studio system. And it’s become harder even in the last few years. “It’s good to do films that have something to it that doesn’t rely on a franchise, that are about the world we live in,” he said. “I got to do films like The Aviator or Blood Diamond. Films like that. You would be hard-pressed to get Blood Diamond made right now. I can understand ultimately how studios look at it. They are more risky but ultimately I think audiences are yearning for something that, as long as boundaries are pushed and chances are taken, they are going to be coming to the theatre to see what all the talk is about. In a lot of ways the controversy over this film has helped the box office. It’s created a dialogue,” he said.
Paramount has done a huge awards campaign for the film, as big as any this year, and recent ads have been promoting it as “bold, iconic, the movie of our times” with the “performance of a career.” Does he agree this is the performance of his career? “I wouldn’t state it like that, but I would say this is a culmination of a lot of the work I’ve gotten to do with Marty, and it took a lot more risks than anything I’ve ever done,” he said. (Here’s a look at a new two-minute featurette focusing on DiCaprio’s performance that Paramount plans to run on TV as the race enters its final week):
It’s also taking DiCaprio back to the Oscars. He recalls the first time exactly 20 years ago, when he was just 19 and nominated as Supporting Actor for another Paramount film, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? in 1993. “Things just happened so quickly. Out of nowhere a nomination came about and I remember being completely shocked. My first reaction was being terrified of ever having to go up onstage in front of a billion people. Someone said ‘a billion people watch this’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s not like doing a movie where you get a second or third take’. Everyone’s watching every word that you say. That was my initial reaction to it. It’s a nerve-wracking thought,” he said.
Since finishing the film he says he hasn’t set foot on another movie soundstage and still doesn’t know what he wants to do next. In a way Wolf has raised his own bar and it’s a tough act to follow. “I don’t know when the next one is going to come up that I am equally obsessed with…. Right now I am just waiting for something to move me,” said the actor, who is turning 40 later this year. What he says he wants to do in the immediate future is another environmental documentary that focuses on the crisis around climate change. That seems to be where his professional passion is at the moment, and he talked in detail about the need for such a film at this time. And what about another project with Scorsese? It would be their sixth in a collaboration that began with Gangs Of New York and has included The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island in addition to Wolf. At one time he was mentioned for a possible Frank Sinatra project Scorsese has bandied about. “I think there was some complications with that. We’re always discussing one thing or another. We’ve got a lot of ideas in development. I think his passion right now is with Silence. It’s something he has wanted to do ever since I met him, like the Holy Trinity of religion and his attachment to being a priest. It’s been a big passion project of his for a while after doing The Last Temptation Of Christ and Kundun,” he said.
As for the Oscars , and possibly facing those “billion people,” DiCaprio has it all in perspective. “As you know my friend, no one knows what is going to happen. Everyone has their predictions about everything. I’ve no expectations whatsoever for anything or anyone. All I am doing at this point is doing my best to showcase a project I love very dearly and am very proud of. Winning an Oscar, or even getting nominated, can do a great deal for the success of the film. For me I don’t have any expectation. I don’t feel like I deserve anything but it feels good to just be in the conversation and have your peers say, ‘OK, this is at least worth talking about’. As far as predictions I would never be as presumptuous to know what’s going to happen,” he said.