EXCLUSIVE: “I’m starved, I haven’t eaten all day,” is the first thing Leonardo DiCaprio says when he arrives in a backroom at a downtown restaurant in New York, where he is barnstorming the imminent debut of The Revenant. In a moment, DiCaprio has ordered what feels like everything on the menu. Even a few minutes in, you feel like you’re having dinner with a regular guy, albeit one better looking than any guy you’ve ever met, and who’s also the world’s biggest movie star. What becomes clear is DiCaprio has just as voracious an appetite for teaming with the best directors as long as they’ll challenge themselves to take the biggest possible creative risks. That is the connective tissue between Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, all audacious, ballsy films which became the biggest-grossing hits of those directors’ careers. The focus on The Revenant has shifted away from its $135 million budget, after the film’s global gross passed $327 million and is still climbing. DiCaprio seems comfortable wearing the fame he’s had since Titanic, using it to empower passion projects and create awareness on climate change and other global environmental issues. The Revenant is DiCaprio’s fifth Oscar-nominated performance and as we head into the home stretch, he looks back over how he got to this point.
Paramount Lands 'Conquest'; Plan To Re-Team 'The Revenant's Leonardo DiCaprio And Scribe Mark L. Smith
DEADLINE: The Revenant is a masterpiece; an auteur filmmaker at his creative peak who invested the currency of his last Best Picture winning film into a preposterously difficult and ambitious shoot where every day you traveled hours to find pristine, snowy landscapes to shoot a scene in natural light. Only to wake up the next morning and do it all over again. I am glad I wasn’t there, but the result was singular.
DICAPRIO: Alejandro prepared us from the onset for what a painstaking challenge we were taking on. I don’t think we ever could’ve imagined all the difficulties, the weather, the logistics of getting there. That opening scene? He originally wanted to do a series of tracking shots with Tom and I, like he did in Birdman… He wanted to do almost a Birdman style, virtual reality, continuous shot from both Tom and my sight lines. But logistically, he realized when he got there it was never going to work. If you re-watch the opening sequence, he wanted to get into the mindset of each lead character, right off the bat. So it starts traveling with Tom, and then it starts traveling with my point of view, then it goes to the American Indian’s daughter who gets taken away, back into some wandering guy who shoots a horse, back into my point of view. It was all this one snaking, fu*king shot that lasted 15 minutes. That’s why we had so much rehearsal. He had set the bar so high with that sequence that everything else we did, we felt we couldn’t back down—that we were all in.
DEADLINE: Sounds a little like Scorsese’s Goodfellas nightclub entry scene…
DICAPRIO: We did this Q&A recently after a screening, and Marty wanted to ask the questions. Alejandro and I were both like, “Oh my God, the maestro, this national treasure, is asking us about cinema. That is what he is, particularly to us. I grew up watching his work, and Alejandro did, as well. Marty said this was like silent cinema, like a silent movie. When I first met Marty, when we did Gangs of New York and The Aviator, he was showing me silent films, a lot of Buster Keaton and Chaplin stuff, original silent gangster movies. He would talk to me about the art of being a silent film actor, and then I go do this movie, which is, for the most part, silent film acting. Alejandro tells me he first met Marty after Amores Perros. He always gives you DVDs, and he gave him I Am Cuba, and a Kurosawa movie, either Yojimbo or Sanjuro. Alejandro said it was like God, handing down the keys to what he was to become. Alejandro said it dawned on him, sitting there in that press conference, that his style is based on those DVDs Marty handed him at the beginning of his career, in his office. When he said, ‘hey kid, you’re a great young director. You should check these movies out.’ Alejandro said that his tracking shots here were right out of I Am Cuba, and these other scenes are like Sanjuro or Yojimbo, and these others are Tarkovsky, whose movie Marty also gave him.
DEADLINE: What did you learn watching those silent films with Scorsese?
DICAPRIO: He was always talking to me about pushing a narrative without words. He often watched rushes without sound, to see what the actor does, without words. He told me it was something I could explore, that he thought it was a strength of mine. Every movie that he does, he has these great screening sessions, it’s the coolest thing in the world. You get to sit in a theater, he talks about the print, the editor, what the film meant historically. How, for The Aviator, we saw His Girl Friday to get the cadence of the speech of all the actors, and how they should be overlapping each other, like the dinner table sequence at the Hepburns. He wanted all the characters to just be overlapping each other, on top of each other, quick witted, snapping comments, that kind of ‘40s stuff.
DEADLINE: You took a turn into adulthood with The Aviator, which you were first going to do with Michael Mann, and then you made with Marty. Why was Hughes so important to you?
DICAPRIO: At that time, these aviators were like space travelers. To me, Howard Hughes represented the iconic new man out west, who came into Hollywood with all this wealth, who dated all the hottest actresses in the world, but who, at the end of the day, was this hardcore aviator that was really looked upon at the time as these frontiersman who were going into outer space. That obsession, his fascination, coupled with him being consumed by microscopic organisms that took control of his entire psyche towards the end of his life…it was just the most fascinating character study I’d ever heard of. It was John Logan and Michael Mann that developed it, and it took ten years to write that script, over 30 different drafts. Michael went off to do Ali and I had just done Gangs of New York with Marty and I asked him if he wanted to it. At first, he wasn’t interested.
DICAPRIO: He looked at the title of the screenplay and it said The Aviator, and he said, ‘Eh, I don’t really care about aviation,’ but then he also said, ‘I didn’t really care about boxing either when I read Raging Bull.’ So he picked it up and he thought it had a fascinating take on this man’s life, how here you have him driven so far forward in the world of technology, movies, aviation that made him this giant mogul, but the simultaneous degradation of his mental stability is the exact opposite. He thought it was one of the best screenplays he’d ever read, and of course he’s in love with that era of Hollywood too, and he started talking to me about using this 30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s color processing with the film.
DEADLINE: What was the benefit of that?
DICAPRIO: The opening scene of The Aviator has this strange, almost sepia, color that is two-tone blue and red and evocative of that decade. Most people don’t pick up on it, but the next decade features this completely different type of color processing. Marty started to obsess about this, and about the whole Howard Hughes’ story, and that is how the movie became what it became.
DEADLINE: Appian Way has become an ambitious production company but when Mann decided he wasn’t directing, that was your moment to be a producer. Scorsese was a nice rebound. How did that happen?
DICAPRIO: It was always Michael’s film, until he went to do Ali. He told me, ‘Look, you’re free to do what you want with this; I just did this crazy biopic, and it’s not my head space right now.’ It really became the first movie that I got to champion. I came into the industry and to that point I regarded the producer, and the director especially, as the father figure. I came from the auditioning process of, ‘Am I going to get this role?’ Being able to say, wait, this is something I believe in, and then going to ask a director of Scorsese’s caliber? That was not only nerve wracking, it brought a whole different sense of responsibility. I wasn’t an actor for hire. It felt like, ‘Holy sh*t, if this falls on its ass, if it’s a failure? That’s a huge reflection on…not me as an artist, but certainly my taste, and what I think is interesting.
DEADLINE: It must have been a huge relief when Martin Scorsese read that script and started obsessing about color processing.
DICAPRIO: Still to this day…there are two movies that I get very nostalgic about, that and This Boy’s Life. But Aviator…I suppose it was having some sense of control, involvement beyond just being asked to walk in and act, that makes me feel an emotional attachment to it. I find that even today, I get slightly offended if people say something bad about The Aviator.
DEADLINE: The race by Hughes to realize his ambitions before mental illness destroyed him was heartbreaking. Knowing his brain was failing, and trying to hang on. When an actor develops vehicles for himself as a producer, how much is it for those onscreen moments?
DICAPRIO: But it was all there and so much more, in John Logan’s script. Marty and I didn’t do our own research until the movie was green lit. I had just read the book, and we came in with heavy notes for this daylong session with him. Everything we brought up, John had thought of, and figured out the right solution. Marty and I literally changed like two lines in the entire screenplay, at the end of this long day. We realized, we can’t expand and go further into this man’s life. He does touch upon the madness, and you really don’t want to see the descent. You get what’s going to happen. You get what “Way of the future,” means for this guy. That’s the beauty of working on a screenplay that has been thought out for 10 years. You could not rip it apart. John knew everything about this man’s life and it was created this beautiful comfort zone for us.
DEADLINE: You mention nostalgia in your experience on This Boy’s Life, which started your upward progression and teamed you with Robert De Niro. Every tow headed kid went for that role and tried to impress him. What did De Niro see in you?
DICAPRIO: I still don’t know. I saw Michael Caton Jones recently in London. He said, “I’m sorry I was so mean to you when you were little.” I said, “Are you crazy, you were the greatest big brother I could ever have during my first giant cinematic process.” I said, “You talked me through everything. You told me all the fundamental basics. Like a little league coach, literally telling me how to run the bases, because I had no idea.” I was this kid that came from television and TV commercials, and I had no idea how to conduct myself on a set. I had no understanding when to…shut up. Like when you see Robert De Niro preparing, and I’d get a squeeze in the arm from Michael if I was telling too many jokes, or cracking up, or trying to converse with the crew members. He let me know. “An actor prepares, Leonardo.” “Oh, right, right. Yeah, yeah.”
He literally walked me through the process because I really was this wild child. Very outspoken, ballsy, and I think that’s probably why I got the role. I think it was probably always the little guy thing too that helped in the audition. In school I would always talk back, and if kids were bigger than me, I’d get in people’s faces. I was 15 years old, and I remember somebody telling me…“Do you realize how important this role is, this is a starring role, and it’s Robert De Niro, and you’re the lead. This doesn’t happen, historically, ever.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, shit. Okay. Yeah, I think I get it.”
DEADLINE: Sounds like you weren’t convinced you got it. How did you get the role?
DICAPRIO: I remember there was this mustard jar sequence, and just thinking to myself, “Shit, I’ve got to do something…memorable. I’ve got to do something to just rattle these people’s cages.” I went in and they were doing the mustard jar sequence, and [De Niro]’s like, “Is it empty, is it empty?” And I just stood up and threw my chair down, or something, and screamed at him, “No, it’s not empty.” And then Bob had this smirk on his face, and just started slowly busting up, laughing in my face. And then he looked at everybody else, and the whole room starting laughing.
DEADLINE: What did that feel like?
DICAPRIO: I was like, “Holy sh*t, I blew it. I blew this. I blew this whole opportunity,” but I guess at 15 you misunderstand. I guess they kind of liked it, because Bob was like, “That kid was…there’s something interesting there.” And they brought me back.
DEADLINE: People who’ve acted alongside De Niro have told me they think he’s doing nothing, they’re wondering when he’s going to do something. Then they watch the dailies and feel foolish as he stole every scene. How does a 15-year old process the experience of working alongside him?
DICAPRIO: I watched him like crazy. I came onto that set having seen everything Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had ever done, every single film. I remember, at 15, putting myself through this self-inflicted cinema history lesson, obsessively sitting in my bedroom watching every VHS tape I could rent. Just going to the video store all day long.
DICAPRIO: I’d started doing that before the audition, watching their work, and all this stuff from the ‘70s. That led me to foreign films, and all that stuff. He was only there for half the shoot, but when he was there, it was just so completely different. I came from television, a sitcom where everyone’s hanging out, joking, laughing, and then, “Action,” and you just roll right into the scene. I did a year of Growing Pains, and they let me out to go do this movie. And then it was like a culture shock. It was like being in the big leagues, right away.
DEADLINE: What were the differences?
DICAPRIO: I remember how seriously he took everything, how focused he was, how he would play with…he’d just sit there, and you’d have to sometimes realize you were in the scene, because you’re just watching him do an improv riff. And you’re like, “Holy shit I’m on camera, that’s right.” You had to remember to be in the moment.
DEADLINE: Considering you grew up in the business, struggling to find your way in the dark, it’s remarkable how well adjusted you are. From Michael Jackson to River Phoenix, there is a long list of showbiz kids who didn’t transition as well as you have. How were you able to avoid those pitfalls?
DICAPRIO: I suppose it’s a combination of things. These are all individual stories and a lot of them, unfortunately, are either about lost childhood of the lack of support while you’re going through something as shocking as becoming recognized around the world, immediately. And then the last one is probably drugs. Unfortunately, all of this can put you into a state of insecurity, or vulnerability. You feel like you need to be able to handle every situation, even though every situation can be incredibly difficult to navigate, and drugs unfortunately have given people an alternate reality, or some other way to cope, and I just…
DEADLINE: Never crossed that line.
DICAPRIO: No. I literally grew up with that everywhere. Everywhere I looked.
DEADLINE: This was in LA?
DICAPRIO: Literally, I would walk outside my house and it was everywhere, full on in my face. Crack heads everywhere, and it made me think twice. It was a great lesson, and I’m not saying that’s what kids need to see, in order to run away from it. But it was just never going to be an option for me.
DEADLINE: That doesn’t mean you were an angel. How does a future Oscar nominee get fired from Romper Room?
DICAPRIO: I have very faint memories of it, but I remember my stepbrother had dabbled in acting when he was young. Romper Room was the big hit show, and there I was. I remember running up to the camera, looking into it, and slapping it. They had to sit me down multiple times. And when the host said, “Hey, kids, it’s story time,” I am screaming, at the top of my voice, “Yeaaah!” And then they fired me. I’m afraid I deserved it. They had to kick me out.
DEADLINE: You kept going, though, doing commercials. When did you realize this might be a life?
DICAPRIO: Since my stepbrother had done it, I knew there was this group of kids who were auditioning for things, and I kept pressuring my parents to let me do it. I lived in West Hollywood, near East LA. My dad lived in Silver Lake, and I got accepted to this elementary school, UES. They chose three kids a year to sponsor and fund their education, and I was one of them. There was a Mexican kid, a Hindu kid, and me, that year. There was no bus going there, so my mother drove me all the way across town, 45 minutes each way, back and forth. Three hours a day just to take her kid to this better school. I saw the way the other world lived. I want to say this carefully, but…my playground was a junkyard. Maybe I shouldn’t say it like that, because it’s going to become a thing. Like ‘My playground was a junk yard. And I lived in a van…down by the river.’ But I did get to see how the other half lived, and I’d go to friends’ homes and think, Wait. You have a pool? With a waterfall? What is Beverly Hills, Bel Air, what is all this? Right after that, I had to go back to the public school system, and I was like…
DEADLINE: How do I get back to that other reality?
DICAPRIO: On career day, they’re like, “All right, what do you want to be? Choose something. Travel agent? You should decide now, so you can start taking classes for it.” I’m like, I don’t want to do any of this shit. So I would push, my parents, and they would take me on auditions. There were casting directors that wouldn’t accept me because I was break dancer, or I had the wrong haircut. But it really was me pushing my parents to give me some sort of way out of the world that I was in. I went off on a tangent and don’t remember, what was your question?
DEADLINE: I don’t remember, but I’m glad I asked it. Back to The Revenant, for a moment. While you were on this endless shoot, people in Hollywood said, “Leo never worked this hard making a movie, and he might never put himself through something like this again.” I thought that your turn as the manic Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, because you were all in on that one.
DICAPRIO: Yeah, but on that one, I was in New York City. And I got to do this [he waves at the food on the restaurant table], every night.
DEADLINE: Still, you were so exhausted you took a break. The Revenant was a much harder shoot. Has it left you spent, or rejuvenated?
DICAPRIO: I don’t want to commit to one or the other, as far as taking a break. Tom Hardy is off doing something else, but Alejandro and I both feel like, “Oh my God.” We have no idea what’s next. We’re still recovering, I think, especially him. Me, I did the movie. He had to sit in the editing room, and work with sound mixers, doing frog background noises for months in the post production. It definitely gave us a feeling that we had been on a massive journey that swept us away, a real endurance test. Just psyching yourself into getting back on set every day. Because the challenges were so immense. Once you start the process by setting the bar so high like he did, you had to continue like that. Did you know that we rehearsed that opening sequence for almost a month?
DEADLINE: We’ve all read the stories of hardship and just watching told you how miserable and cold it must have been, walking through ponds and mud in freezing weather. How did he pitch all that to you, and did you know what was in store?
DICAPRIO: When I first sat with him?
DEADLINE: That first pitch.
DICAPRIO: It was more what he didn’t say, because he couldn’t really articulate it. There was a real sincere passion, and yearning, to get lost, and that’s what got me. It was a calling, to him. He couldn’t really articulate what it was that made him so attached to this specific screenplay, but it was something about documenting wilderness, and a time period that was so raw and simple. I think he loved the simplicity of the story. A lot of people might look back at this movie and think, “Well, it’s just a revenge story… There should be a more complex political this and that.” Or, “There’s got to be more on the nose things that he’s trying to say spiritually about…” No. No. This story comes about from the process of doing what we did. He wanted it to feel like a documentary. He had a blueprint, but he wanted to put us in these situations and see what the fuck happened to us. He didn’t want to have all the answers beforehand.
I’m doing a documentary right now about climate change and I can’t write the ending narrative. I wanted to call it Are We Fu*ked? Because that’s the question that I walk away asking myself after every person I’ve interviewed. Usually, you write a movie, you come up with the ending and you think, “Wow, that’s a great conclusion to my story.” This is the closest thing to, “Let’s submerge ourselves, push ourselves to the limits, see how you actors react, and see what comes out while we’re there.” And it could be something that’s not spoken. That’s why, I think people are going to look back at this movie and see it in a different way. Because it’s not trying to do more than be completely representative of who these people are. It’s not trying to be ultra-literate, or present ultra-spiritual characters. These are just men, trying to deal with the most primal of issues. It has to do with love, and survival. Everyone in this movie is just trying to survive. It’s a very honest movie. Hugh Glass is this guy who has survived every possible thing you could imagine. What Alejandro was going towards is something about us, that keeps pushing us forward, and making us adapt and want to live.
DEADLINE: What were the five hardest moments out there in the wild?
DICAPRIO: There was this one day in particular. The coldest I’ve ever felt in my life. I don’t know if the shot was even in the movie, because the camera wouldn’t work. I remember seeing everyone’s eyes kept blinking because their tears would freeze. It was something like 40 below. The eyes would water up and then freeze. It was the one day where I stepped forward and said to Alejandro, “All right. What are we doing?”
DEADLINE: Did you say, do you know who I am?
DICAPRIO: [Laughs] No. I endured everything else and did most things with a complete understanding that we were there to portray realism. What I said was, “The camera’s jamming up, dude. We’re not even capturing what we’re supposed to capture.” And he agreed, and it was actually a crazy storm that had come and shut down our entire set for a week because it had become like a giant popsicle.
DEADLINE: It isn’t hard to imagine Inarritu being so dialed in that he needed you to say, “Hello?”
DICAPRIO: Well, I have to say, it was some beautiful imagery that day, as me and my son were out there, shivering and chattering. It looked like we were cold, and there was a hail storm that was unbelievable. But I did have to say, “Look dude, the camera’s not functioning.” Five things? I can name 20.
DEADLINE: A couple more, then.
DICAPRIO: The bear sequence was obviously really tough. The river sequence was very tough, especially just getting out of the water. There was this one day, it was right before the buffalo sequence, where I grabbed the fish; that was all one shot. And the bear fur got wet. And when it’s wet, it was like 100 pounds. We did that sequence, over and over. The Tom Hardy fight sequence was tough. And the crawling in general…because of the hands. I made a choice to not wear gloves, and so the hands, just they lock up as you’re crawling. And the stunts? I enjoy doing them once you’re actually on set. But they’re so nerve racking, because you never want to hurt other people, and there were so many people. And you don’t want to get hurt. It was so nerve racking, especially when you have bear furs on, and leather.
DEADLINE: Titanic seemed like a hard shoot, with all that water. In a hard moment, how did James Cameron react compared to Alejandro?
DICAPRIO: Well, look…
DEADLINE: It’s not like you’ll cost yourself a role in the sequel…
DICAPRIO: No, I’m not [he laughs]. Look, Jim was…it was a different set of circumstances. They were both big budget movies, but at the time, Titanic was one of the most expensive movies ever made. Jim had to be this captain who drove a giant mechanism, forward. We were basically in one location on Titanic. A ship that was on hydraulics that plunged into the ocean, and moved it around. Logistically, a very difficult shoot, because everything went wrong that could possibly go wrong, with not only the budget, but the mechanics of it. The Revenant was completely different, more self-inflicted, I would say.
DEADLINE: Who was more sympathetic to the adversity being suffered by his actors?
DICAPRIO: Who’s more sympathetic? Alejandro’s just a more…I don’t know. Look, I have all the respect in the world for Jim, he’s a great filmmaker. But there was something about seeing Alejandro and Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] there in the snow, with a camera…I didn’t really understand them until this one day, where we got 20 extra minutes tor them to get their shot. Then I saw this little tingly look in their eyes, and suddenly they were like student filmmakers in Mexico with an 8mm camera, running around trying to capture beads of water coming off of a leaf, or shooting a caterpillar. They’re going, ‘Leo, look!’ It just got me so enthusiastic. They took you away from the burden of the giant production, of budgets, and having to make your day.
They made it really awesome and cool, because each location was like a new canvas for us. I’d be like, “Look at that ice cave,” and then we’d go over there. It wasn’t like an independent movie, because 200 people had to follow us with equipment. But there were so many of his little sequences, those dream shots that were all made by us having gotten our shot for an hour, and then rushing off to be little independent filmmakers. It made me fall in love with them as filmmakers, because of the fun they were having with it. It wasn’t about making their day, or a specific shot list, it was about the poetry of it. As freezing as it was, they had this crazy enthusiasm about making movies. It was an insane happiness and glee about getting a tiny little shot that didn’t seem like a possibility and then you’d hear them. “The beauty…the beauty.”
DEADLINE: Whether it was difficulty on The Revenant, or the Titanic’s budget, or if Jordan Belfort was actually repentant for his Wall Street crimes, cynical narratives drive press coverage. You just described two Oscar winning filmmakers turning into children in front of your eyes. How much does the cynical press narrative bother you?
DICAPRIO: It doesn’t. The only thing that I think is, it would be a shame for people not to understand the other part. But I think they do. The narrative here has been hardship. I hope, historically, that people understand the sincere effort that Alejandro put into this for authenticity, and that he went above and beyond to make something that, cinematically, is incredibly special. And that it is not something we see done very often nowadays. But it doesn’t even need to be spoken. You and me, we’ll watch these fu*king movies 20 years later, because it’s there. Because he strived for excellence and made something different and outrageous. The difficulty of making Titanic, or The Revenant, will all fade away. What you’re left with is what’s onscreen.
DEADLINE: It’s easy to look at you as this acting prodigy, a natural, and think your success was preordained. As is so often the case, much comes down to a gutsy decision, and a little luck on a breakout performance or two. You turned down what would have been your first sizable payday on a studio movie to instead do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Why?
DICAPRIO: That other movie was Hocus Pocus. This whole thing…there is a lot of luck, and timing. But that’s not all of it. You know that quote, “We stand on the shoulders of giants?” Had I not had a contemplation, or an understanding, of all the greatness that had been done in cinema, had I not given myself a cinematic history lesson, on my own, I wouldn’t have known what to compare it to. On Gilbert Grape, I remember jumping around with Toby Maguire and Kevin Connolly in the trailer of their TV show Great Scott. We were rocking the air stream, because I got the part in Gilbert Grape. I’d done This Boy’s Life, and they’d given me the offer for Hocus Pocus, and I’d told them no. I wanted this part in Gilbert Grape, and it was a gamble, because I’d never had any real money in my life, and it was the first real money offer I’d ever gotten. But the gamble paid off. I was 16 or 17.
DEADLINE: So you were celebrating taking a part for less money?
DICAPRIO: I really wanted that part. I look back and I don’t know how I, at that point, could have made that decision. I still didn’t have a home. We were renting a house. But after watching those movies, I just felt, “Holy sh*t, I’ve got one shot to be in this business, and I got a movie with Robert De Niro. I won the fu*king lottery. So what are you going to do with that, kid? You have this path in front of you…’ Who knows?’ Maybe that other movie could have been great, but that Gilbert Grape part…I decided to double down, risk not getting that or any role for a while and hope Gilbert Grape happened. This is beginning to sound like This Is Your Life, but honestly, everything I’ve done was informed by watching those movies. Everything.
I think doctors probably even talk about that age, where your mind is formulating into adulthood. Watching those movies at that time became part of my DNA. I knew what great acting and great movies were. I sat there feeling I could never, ever achieve something like that. But I knew what it was, and so I spent my whole life, trying.
DEADLINE: What performances stayed with you?
DICAPRIO: I remember being incredibly moved by Jimmy Dean, in East of Eden. There was something so raw and powerful about that performance. His vulnerability…his confusion about his entire history, his identity, his desperation to be loved. That performance just broke my heart.
DEADLINE: You were once going to play him in a movie Michael Mann was going to direct. I recall Michael waiting forever for you to mature into James Dean form, but you had a boyish look forever, and he instead went off and made Heat with De Niro and Al Pacino.
DICAPRIO: I did a screen test with him, I think I was 18. It turned out pretty well. We saw clips of Giant, and then he put me in the back of the car with that cowboy hat. But I was a very young looking kid, even when I was young. He decided to wait a couple of years, but I…looked really young.
DEADLINE: Movies falling apart is part of the game, but one I always wondered about was the Alexander the Great film you were going to do with your Romeo & Juliet and Great Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann. It stalled when Oliver Stone’s film with Colin Farrell beat it to the start line. How disappointing was that?
DICAPRIO: Baz is one of those directors that I will forever love, because he just gives you a nostalgia about the past, and a love of making movies, and an enthusiasm that is unparalleled. He wanted to make Alexander the Great, and I think that there were two competing projects at the same time, and that one got off the ground before ours did. Yeah, it was disappointing. But if you are going to tackle something that has a great desert epic movie like Lawrence of Arabia looming in its midst, you don’t want to jump the gun on it. You don’t want to just rush to production and green light something to beat another project, so the result felt like a natural thing to me. The whole thing is coming back to me now. Wow. I haven’t thought about that one in a good long time.
DEADLINE: Sometimes, they come back around. Like The Devil in the White City, about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and a serial killer, which Paramount bought for you to make with Scorsese. I thought that was a goner.
DICAPRIO: They’ve got a new take on it. I’m very excited by that world, the nostalgia of a turn of the century that was all about the promise of what America was destined to be. The industrial Revolution was kicking in, you had all of these massive corporate monopolies. I saw this amazing documentary, The Men Who Built America, and the whole time period is so fascinating to me because it just really forged, not only what America is, but what capitalism is today. All the innovation, all the promise of what the future was, was literally right there, and it all spelled out in what we see today. Those dreams of technology, and the machine age; we’re living that now.
DEADLINE: Your Revenant costar Tom Hardy had an amazing year, also starring in Mad Max: Fury Road and playing both Kray Brothers in Legend. He disappears into these parts, and I bet he hardly gets recognized on the street. You haven’t enjoyed that anonymity since Titanic. Are there enough benefits to make fame worthwhile, or do you envy Tom?
DICAPRIO: That’s an interesting question. Before Titanic, I had no conception of what any of that meant. It was shocking. People said, “Do you realize how big of a movie this is?” I said, “Yeah, it’s big. It’s a big movie.” They’re like, “No. No. No, it’s the biggest movie ever,” and I’m like, “Well, what does that mean? So it’s big.” They’re like, “No. No. No, you don’t get it. You don’t understand what this means.” I thought, okay, great, it made a lot of money, and people are seeing it.
DEADLINE: Then what happened?
DICAPRIO: My whole life became about things that weren’t about acting. Titanic was very much an experiment for Kate Winslet and I. We’d done all of these independent movies. I loved her as an actress and she said, “Let’s do this together, we can do this.” We did it, and it became something that we could’ve never foreseen. We never predicted that it would be what it was, and I said, “Okay, slow down. Let all this pass a little bit, and let’s get back to…find something that…I knew it was going to be an adjustment. I knew there was an expectation of me to do a certain thing at that point, and I knew I had to get back to what my intentions were from the onset.
DEADLINE: You could have been Spider-Man, or any superhero. You did The Beach. How did the Titanic experience forge which movies you wanted to make?
DICAPRIO: I had forged by then exactly what type of films I wanted to do. I used it as a blessing, to make R-rated, different kinds of movies, to throw the dice a little bit on things I wanted to act in. People would want to finance those movies now. I’d never had that, before Titanic. It was always, “Can I have this role, please? There’s a low budget movie, will you let me audition for the starring role?” I think there’s a yearning for adult movies out there that have some spectacle and some balls to them, and I’m a fan of those movies. I want to see these films being made. So if I can get them financed…I still feel that way and I still get excited about that.
DEADLINE: You haven’t been afraid to play flawed characters, even some loathsome ones like you’ll do when you play that serial killer in Devil In The White City. You played Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Between your character and Stephen, the slave who ran the Candie house, I can’t recall watching two more loathsome human beings. What’s the key to playing a character you detest?
DICAPRIO: I had to do it with a sense of humor, because he was just too detestable to even contemplate. I remember talking to Quentin about the phrenology stuff, because I felt like Calvin had to have a justification for it. We are all a product of our environment and our upbringing, and this guy really fancied himself as a bit of a scientist, a philosopher of sorts. He felt he understood the difference between species, like he was a Darwinist. I had to focus on that, otherwise there’s just nothing palatable or relatable about that kind of monstrosity. He had that whole speech about how people in the modern era didn’t understand what he did, and what he saw. It was so horrible, but enough people told me, “If you don’t make this guy as horrible as you possibly can, you’re not doing this part justice. And you’ll be resented for not going for it.” I was like, “All right. I’ve got my green light. Let’s do this.” [He is summoned to yet another appearance, but looks back before he goes] Thanks, bro. Nice to talk to someone who likes movies…I haven’t thought about Alexander The Great and some of this stuff, in a long time.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.