Asked to assess what it meant to get Leonardo DiCaprio for his first starring role since his Best Actor Oscar win for The Revenant, Quentin Tarantino is blunt: “He is one of the most if not the most talented actor of his generation, and the most naturally gifted actor I’ve ever worked with.”
Tarantino’s first written part for DiCaprio was an awful slave plantation owner named Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino cast DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a fading TV series leading man struggling with the realization he is a falling star in a changing moment in 1969 Hollywood. That turn is counterbalanced by the adventures of Dalton’s longtime stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and Dalton’s next-door neighbors Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, for a Pulp Fiction-like pastiche of stories that connect in the final act.
Quentin Tarantino Digs Deep On 'Once Upon A Time In Hollywood' As He Fears
While Pitt’s stuntman is an indestructible screw-up who stares down everyone from Bruce Lee to the Manson family on Spahn Ranch, the villains that DiCaprio’s Dalton stares down are mostly inside him. He is a bipolar, alcoholic actor mostly powerless to stop his free-fall after his Western TV series Bounty Law is canceled. Perhaps the most touching moments in that free-fall come when he initially flounders in a co-starring role on Lancer, and is challenged by the director and the charming child actress his character kidnaps and holds for ransom. The auteur Tarantino is the first to admit the guts of those scenes came from DiCaprio.
“I supplied him with a list and the work of numerous actors from that period, but he needed more to play here,” Tarantino said. “Some of his ideas I liked and some I didn’t, because I had other things in mind, but then…I had to say, ‘OK, you son of a bitch, you’re right.’ And I went his direction.”
That included the pivotal scene where Dalton has reason to drown in anxiety when he blows his lines in front of the director and cast. “Leo said, ‘I think I need to f*ck it up and forget the lines,” Tarantino said. “I just wanted to do my Lancer scene, a way to do this Western through the back door. He said, ‘I know I’m kind of f*cking up your scene, but I think that would be good for the character. I saw it as him ruining my fun, basically, but I say, ‘Fine. I’ll write a version, and we’ll do the Lancer scene straight, and with the f*ck-up, knowing that in the editing room I was going to do what I wanted to. As soon as we did that second version, the take that is in the movie, I was like, ‘OK, OK, we’re obviously doing this now.’ He was right. It was terrific and it gave the whole thing an arc that worked wonderfully.” They conspired to add an improvised scene where Dalton trashes his trailer in frustration in what Tarantino said is his Travis Bickle sequence. And the stage is then set for a moment of redemption for an actor circling the drain.
“I said when you come back, maybe you’d been a bad actor, but now you’re going to be a slightly better bad actor who rises to the occasion,” Tarantino said. “What it meant to the movie was, it became clear that his biggest enemy is himself. He’s not facing a bunch of bad guys in a Western anymore; his bad guys are his own demons. When he does that Wild Bunch walk to the Gilded Lily on the Lancer set, he’s facing his Mexican army, which is himself.” Tarantino said it underscored the filmmaker’s Western symbolism, and juxtaposed well with the long walk Pitt took as Booth on Spahn Ranch, surrounded by Manson family acolytes who were indeed dangerous people. The result?
“It’s the meat of the whole middle part of the movie, if you ask me, the whole arc of his character for that middle section of the movie,” Tarantino said.
DiCaprio doesn’t do many print interviews, but sparked to this opportunity because it was about the film and his, Tarantino’s and Pitt’s work that has put them in the center of the awards race. The 45-year-old who grew up in front of the camera to become arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, also wanted to discuss how movies are changing in the disruptive digital age. He steered clear of viral soundbites, and so didn’t want to discuss beyond his issued statement a recent bogus charge by the president of Brazil that he was starting fires in the rainforest, not wanting to throw gas on that momentary media blaze. The fact is, the global warming issue is an overriding concern in DiCaprio’s life and he continues to produce and finance documentaries to bring attention to the issue and to endangered animal species.
DEADLINE: Quentin Tarantino had you come to his house to read this script. This was your first film since the ordeal of The Revenant. What made this the right return project, and how much did you give him when you finished?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Well, first off, I’m a huge fan of films about the industry. Something that was so finite and specific could only come from a mind of somebody that acutely is aware of cinematic history, and the cinematic culture in particular in Los Angeles. Who is celebrating a time period that is a transition from the ’60s into the great golden…not golden era, but the era of the director’s medium. I sensed that right off the bat. It was this celebration of what once was, through the perspective of these two guys, which I thought really clicked and really worked. The fact that he used two outsiders. It was almost like…I told him it was like Nick Carraway. It was like a Gatsby within and without. Within the industry, but they’re also completely detached and hanging on by a thread, and didn’t really belong anymore, which I loved. Two kinds of working-class guys that are…
DEADLINE: So, it’s like the opposite of the Howard Hughes you played in The Aviator…
DICAPRIO: Right. They’re watching as…this crystal castle next door exists and they don’t belong to it, and then Sharon Tate and all of the Hollywood elite are rolling through those gates. That’s the Hollywood they want to belong to, or at least Rick is desperately hoping to be a part of. Just that aspect coupled with his acute knowledge of…I was astounded by Quentin’s knowledge of television. I couldn’t believe that he knew all of the highlight episodes of Ralph Meeker, the actor that I cued into. We looked at a lot of different actors as a template for who Rick might be, from Edd Burns to Ty Hardin, and then I sort of…in watching all of this television and all of these B films, like The Guns of the Magnificent Seven. I’d watched a lot of different Westerns, but I started to delve into television because I was like OK, this is what happens to Rick afterward. I wanted to know about what Rick is doing now, and the fact that he belongs to this generation of actors that didn’t really study the craft. This guy came from the Midwest, hung out in Hollywood and tried to get a foot in the door, but didn’t try to necessarily elevate. And he’s pissed off at the industry that they don’t recognize his talent and his potential. That’s what this little girl sort of represents, and I thought it was his great celebration of our culture in Los Angeles, and cinema, and those people that never quite made that transition. I was really touched by the beauty of his relationship with this young, who is like, aren’t we lucky? Yeah, you didn’t make the Steve McQueen transition from television to movies, but nonetheless, aren’t we lucky to be working in this town? I really queued into that, and then of course the great relationship between Rick and Cliff.
Brad and I did a lot of improvising in the movie, but our relationship clicked right off the bat. I made the choice to be this character that had a massive alcohol problem and is going through his own realization that he’s completely mortal and that all of this could disappear. I could see he’s not making his transition and he needed that relationship in his life with somebody that will consistently be there. Brad said this thing early on. “Hey, you’re Rick f*cking Dalton and don’t forget it.” I was like ah. I get our relationship. He’s not just the assistant, the roadie, the security guard, the stunt man. He is literally my therapist through this journey in the industry.
DEADLINE: Did you commit right after that reading?
DICAPRIO: I told him it was great and that I loved what he did. And I was already on track of thinking, OK, what are we going to do with Rick Dalton? Because in the original draft, there were some things that I needed to understand about who he was. He was this template for the industry at the time, and so much of his character had to exist within the context of watching television, or watching movies, or watching him act, and the times where you did get that relationship is with the little girl, but I wanted to back up and try to figure out what the hell he was going through at this place in his life. I remember just immediately talking about what that meant.
DEADLINE: Rick Dalton had a most interesting system of preparation. Mixing that drink in the blender. Taping his lines and sitting in that lounge chair in his pool. Do you have a ritual for learning your lines?
DICAPRIO: I don’t have a ritual like Rick, and honestly when I saw what his ritual was, I was like, actually, that’s quite f*cking clever. You hear him say, Spanish, Spanish, Spanish…leave a gap in the recording for your line. I’ve never done that. The point is, it’s like what Bob De Niro says when asked his advice to young actors. Know your lines, implicitly. Make it second nature to you, because then you have room to improvise and exist within this scene and not have anxiety thinking about what the hell you’re going to say next. It’s an amazing piece of advice because when that’s second nature to you, you’re living in the moment. You’re actually listening to the other person and you’re reacting to them, and you can steer off course and come right back onto the tracks.
DEADLINE: When Rick Dalton forgets his lines, and has that meltdown in the trailer with this stream-of-consciousness vow to quit drinking…we see you as a fully formed movie star, so where did you find that character’s desperation in that scene? Can an actor be his best self without insecurity and internal adversity?
DICAPRIO: I think everyone feels that to a certain extent. I don’t know many stories of people of this industry where everything was immediately easy, navigating yourself through the industry. I grew up in this town, tried a lot to get into this industry when I was younger. I know who these guys are. I got my one lucky shot, and knock on wood, it went very well for me. But I know inherently the psychology because I am one of them. I am an actor and I know that internal doubt that you need to…that voice, that dialogue, it was just about bringing that out, and that scene, in particular, was like a bit of performance art almost. It started from the whole idea of Rick f*cking up. He’s going through this turning point in his life where he’s realizing after this Marvin Schwarz meeting…
DEADLINE: Where Al Pacino explains Rick’s downslide unless he heads to Italy to do Spaghetti Westerns…
DICAPRIO: Which by the way, was a much longer, robust scene making people understand the state of the industry, as the longhaired androgynous types who were coming into fashion now. You belong to the guys in the ‘50s with the pompadours, and you’re part of a different era, and now you’re a f*cking dinosaur. There’s a whole new wave with this hippie revolution, and it’s a director’s medium now. Things are changing, and here is Rick caught between a rock and a hard place, realizing that he’s got this limited time for this massive transition. Quentin and I tried to make him bipolar to some degree, and subduing that with substance abuse and alcohol, and then coming onto set on the job that he doesn’t want to be on, where he plays the bad guy. And having done his work, and rehearsed his lines…I said, let’s have him f*ck up.
Let’s see what happens to Rick where this director has said to him hey, look, I hired you as an actor. I respect your work, and there’s this young girl talking to him about the craft. She’s like a young Meryl Streep, talking about the craft. What would happen if he f*cks up his lines? We took it from there, and that whole sequence was amazing. I responded to it, and I think a lot of other people responded to it. It’s this real turning point for Rick. Here he is, face to face with the new hot sh*t swinging dick in Hollywood television who’s got his own show that Rick used to have. And Rick can’t get his lines out. He can’t do it. What’s so amazing about Quentin is, you bring up one idea like that, and then this whole other Pandora’s Box of possibilities opens up. He makes it a Western, within a Western. He says, we have to have Rick re-preparing himself, and then walking down that Western set to do a shootout with his adversary, but the shootout is within the context of a scene…
DEADLINE: Quentin said he’s facing down his own demons…
DICAPRIO: That was what we were both simultaneously trying to navigate. How do we create Rick’s narrative within the context of an actual set, acting on a B television show, and that led to the whole trailer moment, which was performance art. We rounded up all these subjects, and just improvised a few hours and he spliced it together in a very creative way.
DEADLINE: One might imagine Tarantino being precious about his dialogue and scenes, and the expectation you do it as he wrote them…
DICAPRIO: I will absolutely say that that is simultaneously true. When there is a scene that he has in his head, you hold it as a modern-day type of Shakespeare dialogue. But if there’s a scene that is in his head that is written a specific way, you say those lines as they’re written. But then there’s also simultaneously the leniency to be able to go off and do your own things.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that you had your break. That was This Boy’s Life, acting with Robert De Niro, right?
DEADLINE: There seems such a randomness to success. Those producers at Growing Pains might not have let you out to film that role; Tom Selleck couldn’t do Indiana Jones because of his Magnum, P.I. commitment and it changed the course of his career, for instance. Every actor your age wanted that role, to work with De Niro. How often do you look back and think, wow I am lucky to be here?
DICAPRIO: Not only do I look back and say I’m lucky, I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I, at the time, didn’t realize how thankful I should be to the people of that show, including the late Alan Thicke, along with the rest of the cast and producers who championed me to have the ability to go do that movie. I had a couple more episodes to do, contractually. Here they let this 15-year-old go do this film that I was lucky enough to get. I mean, are you kidding me? Without that opportunity, I don’t know. I don’t know what my career would’ve been, so I am thankful at how goddamn lucky I was. And appreciative, too. I mean, as an adult you say, goddamn am I appreciative.
DEADLINE: That theme is laced through Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Rick is asked whether he got an audition for the Steve McQueen role in The Great Escape and we see him acting a great scene from that movie, and what could have been. Besides This Boy’s Life, you turned down life-changing money for the lead in Hocus Pocus to instead take far less to star in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which proved to be the other building block on a road that led to Titanic. This movie revels in those career-defining crossroads. Do you believe in the movie gods?
DICAPRIO: No, but I do believe that opportunity presents itself at certain points in your life, and it’s that old saying…you’ve got to be focused and prepared enough to seize those opportunities and be extremely lucky to be at the right place in the right time. You have to be ready and recognize those turning points in an actor’s life. I don’t know if I said this to you in the last interview we did on The Revenant, but as a guy in his mid-40s now, you do start to think back on what is now 30 years ago. Weirdly enough, I have the same attitude that I had when I was 15.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
DICAPRIO: I am talking about being able to go do movies, which I never thought was a possibility. I auditioned for everything. I left my senior year of high school midway to go do a television show, and I was going to try to make it. And movies along with everything else were these…they were out there but you never know if you’re going to get a starring role in anything. In preparation for This Boy’s Life I gave myself a weird at-home tutorial on cinema history. At 15 years old, I said, OK, I have this one ticket and I know this is my opportunity. And I’m going to lock myself away for months at a time and just watch VHS tapes obsessively.
DEADLINE: What did that give you?
DICAPRIO: You get this overwhelming understanding of what has been accomplished before you, and you get that at 15 years old. And you get this understanding of what kind of films you want to do, what type of work and performances you want to aspire to. Weirdly enough, that self-inflicted moment at 15 years old gave me an education and appreciation of all the greatness that came before me. My attitude has not really wavered since then. I’m just so f*cking blown away by the accomplishments of the great directors and actors, and I hold them to such a high standard.
DEADLINE: In that tutorial, what actors did you hitch your wagon to, in terms of wanting to emulate what they were doing onscreen?
DICAPRIO: There were a lot of great actors I really fell in love with, but if I were to pick two, from different generations, it would be De Niro and James Dean. There was something about [Dean’s] vulnerability. I watched a documentary and Dennis Hopper said it best. Maybe you know the quote, maybe everybody does.
DEADLINE: I don’t.
DICAPRIO: He said, you have Monty Clift, on one hand saying help me, and on the other hand, you have Brando saying f*ck you. And somewhere in the middle is James Dean. That’s a good quote, right? I just saw the vulnerability of this young actor and the rage in him, too. In particular, East of Eden, his first major role. I was just so cued into what he…so connected to him as a young man. And also in watching Bob, and Malkovich…I could cite a million different names, but if I had to queue into one, it’s James Dean. Which is interesting because you talk to a lot of people of this generation and you say James Dean, and they’re like oh…Isn’t he just a good-looking guy with blond hair and the red jacket? Isn’t he just a sex symbol?
DEADLINE: There was an ease in Rick Dalton’s relationship with his stuntman Cliff Booth. Whether it’s competitiveness or something else, what did acting with a fellow Alpha male superstar like Brad Pitt bring out in you?
DICAPRIO: What was very interesting about working with Brad was this strange inherent comfort and ease that we really both clicked into day one. It didn’t need a lot of prep work. We talked about the script, and we instinctively knew that dynamic and relationship, and who these guys were to one another. We both have been in those situations and have had and have those relationships on set. Also, these two guys go off and spiral off into their own side stories, and then they reconnect. But with Brad, he’s an incredible professional. There was a lot of improvising between us, and neither of us had this sense…I don’t want to speak for him but I will because I know it will be the same answer. There was no, I’m going to try to top you, or I’m going to piss all over this parade. It was, how do we make this a realistic dynamic because we were going off and doing our own side stories. I did a whole other film, and then Brad did a whole other film, and then I’d come in weeks later and pop back and say what’s up to him, and do a scene together. After we had done two completely different movies. It doesn’t seem that way but it’s really what happened. I went off and did that whole Lancer set thing for months, and then he did his whole thing.
DEADLINE: Spahn Ranch, the fight with Bruce Lee. When you saw his performance in that movie what most surprised you? The Spahn Ranch scene with the Manson clan was…creepy and atmospheric.
DICAPRIO: Yeah, that’s what is so interesting about what Quentin does, with the fairytale aspect of this story and how he did that with Inglourious Basterds. People know that Hitler wasn’t killed like that. But he again integrated in this almost forensic way, he looked at the murders that night and set it up in a way that is just so chilling all the way from Spahn Ranch to that house, but back to Brad. We were doing two completely different films, and then we got to merge together. What I was so impressed with about Brad’s performance was it is a very particular craft and skill to be able to do that kind of completely contained quite cool, Alain Delon or Steve McQueen, and hold the screen like that. I was like, holy sh*t. It was so incredibly impressive what he was able to do with that character. We had our own dynamic on set, but watching the movie, I was like, wow.
DEADLINE: That scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee. His daughter and some of Lee’s friends complained. I processed the scene differently and didn’t see it as a slight to Lee. We saw, from Cliff Booth’s perspective, how he had blown his last chance to be a movie stuntman. He was saying, I am such a screw-up. I was already almost unemployable and all I had to do was keep my mouth shut as Lee pontificated about Muhammad Ali. Next thing you know, I’m fighting him and wrecking the car of the stunt coordinator’s wife…
DICAPRIO: I don’t want to comment on how the family felt about it, but I saw it more like you did. I just saw it through the eyes of Cliff and I just kind of cued into both of these characters and their outlook on being the outsiders of the industry, and how they must’ve looked historically, or what people must’ve thought about them.
DEADLINE: You weren’t born in 1969, but the movie reflected Quentin’s memory of hippie culture and movies at that time. You explored the movie business in the period of Howard Hughes for The Aviator. And you see all the disruption going on right now. What’s better or worse about that glamour of old Hollywood in 1969, compared to today?
DICAPRIO: I mean, if we’re going back to the ‘30s and ‘40s the thing that people often take for granted is how most actors were under contract to do movies, and as much as we think they had all of this artistic choice it was a constant battle of the studio system to let yourself out to go do a passion project. It was a chess game for how you employed, and they were churning films out like there was no tomorrow. That, in comparison with today, I think that we have a plethora of opportunities now, with the exception of the ability to watch them theatrically in a communal experience. I mean the types of films that aren’t major tentpole experiences.
DEADLINE: The film business has been turned on its ear. You see what is happening as a good thing?
DICAPRIO: I actually am looking forward to…not necessarily looking forward to, but I think they’re going to find a way to be able to give some of these great artists the ability to give people a true communal experience of watching a movie. Much like the concert experience with music, but also, through a subscriber-based model say, to have a plethora of wealth to finance new and intriguing ideas, and do a film like The Irishman, where I wonder if a lot of the other players out there in the industry would’ve financed that film.
DEADLINE: I don’t think Scorsese could have made that movie the way he wanted to. The optics of such a high budget and P&A spend would have been different than it has been as a Netflix film.
DICAPRIO: When I first heard about it, I was like, please f*cking make this movie. This has all of the guys I want to see in one epic master orchestra led by Marty. I don’t know if it’s him saying farewell to that genre, but it’s a completely new mind-blowing experience. This was the way it got done. You take that type of film mixed with a bunch of other films that might not get financing to the tune that they need, or might completely disappear as far as a theatrical audience is concerned. There has to be this mixture figured out where you get the at-home engagement and you get the theatrical experience. I think it’s happening, and that right now a lot of new creative ideas, and things that are out of the box and more difficult to finance, it might be better now and in the future for those than it ever was.
DEADLINE: The optics at Netflix are better for The Irishman, whose budget would have been scrutinized based on opening-weekend grosses. At Netflix, the focus is on an opportunity to see a Martin Scorsese crime epic exactly the way he wanted to make it at the price he wanted to make it. Now, you produce a lot of stuff…
DICAPRIO: So, I ask you, what’s wrong with that?
DEADLINE: Well, what does it mean for the future of the moviegoing?
DICAPRIO: That’s the thing that I’m saying has to be figured out. Because to me, the theatrical experience, besides the zing and the pow of seeing some of these major budget tentpole films, that communal experience that we have of seeing a really engaging Hitchcock or Scorsese or Tarantino film…that palpable energy that you feel, coupled with the fact that you’re watching it on widescreen format with that sound, seeing truly the director’s vision, is what I don’t want to be lost. That’s why these guys have to figure it out. At the same opportunity I’ve, in my career, watched the inability to make even some of the movies that I wanted to do. It’s incredibly difficult to get some things made, and now it’s seeming like there might be a whole new opportunity for a lot of filmmakers out there who have great and engaging ideas to not be fighting against the massive slate of things that the studios want to push out into theatricals. That is what needs to be figured out.
DEADLINE: Let’s consider the downside of this disruption. Right now this is a business in turmoil. The writers have fired their agents as the agencies fight with the WGA and a whole new negotiation looms next year between unions and studios that prize streaming above everything. They’re pushing deals there where there are either no backends or pre-negotiated backends, eliminating the chance for many to profit in success.
DICAPRIO: We’re in a massive transition right now. All of the negotiation of how studios have to still exist because for me they’re the treasure trove of great material, and the capital of this industry always lies in great ideas. It really starts with that. How and when this transition happens, is not what I’m concerned with.
DEADLINE: What are you most concerned about?
DICAPRIO: It’s honestly that we still have a place for great artists, great stories and that the theatrical experience that isn’t limited to a massive flashy concert experience where only certain types of films monopolize theaters around our country. We need to be able to give people that experience theatrically, of really unique artists. I think that can happen coupled with this transition.
DEADLINE: Your next film is with Scorsese and De Niro, Killers of the Flower Moon. It hasn’t yet been set for distribution even though it has financing. If Marty tells you that the best move here, like The Irishman, is to do this on a streaming service. You’re a big movie star, one of the few left. What would you say?
DICAPRIO: To be honest, there wouldn’t be that much that I would say to Martin Scorsese, if that’s what he wanted to do. But honestly, I’m open for anything. I’m not here to be some vestige of holding on to the old guard. It’s kind of weird given the film we’re talking about, but considering the silent film to talking transition, or something like that…you have to go with the inevitable flow of where technology and this industry takes you. What’s the use of being the last vanguard of some old form? I rarely think about those things. I just think, who can I make a great movie with? That’s it. I’m not here to make any statements.
DEADLINE: It is funny though that the two directors you worked most closely with in the past decade, Quentin and Marty, they’re all about preserving film even though digital is cheaper and more expedient. Scorsese is the one who bristled at the notion that there might not be room for anything other than superhero movies and other spectacles in theaters. Maybe he is concerned that the next crop of filmmakers in school are eyeing those films as the ideal.
DICAPRIO: Without getting into that debate, the thing I’m in complete agreeance with, is we need the theatrical experience and seeing a film on-screen with the proper sound, with the proper scale, and the vision of a great artist is what is entailed. And we need to have a place that isn’t cannibalized by these slots that studios have for their tentpole films. It needs to be both, and if a lot of these films aren’t going to get financed by the studio system, we’ll have this new vanguard coming into town. We need to integrate some of these great artists and visionaries who have so much to say about our society, our culture, our world, to make great cinematic art. Because it is an art form and we need to give audiences an opportunity to see their work in all its glory.
But let me ask you. Why do you fear all of this? We made the transition to video cassettes, to DVD, to this transition we’re in right now. We survived the move to talks from silent films. The advent of television that was supposed to hurt movies.
DEADLINE: I find myself concerned about how good mid-budget movies sink like stones at theaters. The P&A costs are tough. And while movies used to be the prestige business, now that is television, underwritten by a lot of good movie writers whose movies Hollywood didn’t want to make. But then again, I look at Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, Marriage Story, Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Parasite and others in the awards race, and it’s auteur cinema at its finest.
DICAPRIO: At the end of the day, isn’t that all we care about? And some of those great ideas were financed outside the traditional studio system. My only argument, like you, is some of the most transcending, transformative experiences, I want to watch theatrically. I’ve watched a lot of stuff at home, too, but to me, that’s the only big question left. Will there be enough of that communal theatrical experience for really unique artists that want us to see their films in the way they imagined them? That’s what I fear in that, but I honestly think there’s negatives and positives to it. But what’s the point of being afraid of this transition, because it’s happening. Right now. Given the inability to find DVDs and VHS tapes anymore, I just want to make sure that there’s a great home for classic cinema, too. Oftentimes I’m trying to look for an old Cagney movie and I can’t find it. I miss FilmStruck, that site that got shut down? I am for film preservation. This is one conversation, the future of cinema, but what about its past? I hope that people still have a curiosity for what’s been done in the past, too, and they have access to it because a lot of these things feel like they’re getting lost in the sauce. But we used to go to the video store and not be able to find certain movies as well. Hey, like you said, it’s all going to happen. What are we going to do to stand in the way of anything, or fight it? It’s all happening. The one key thing about all this that I’m excited about is that I think a lot of very unique ideas might get financed now. The director of Parasite made the film Okja, about the giant hippopotamus.
DEADLINE: That was a $50 million film that Netflix made.
DICAPRIO: Would that otherwise get financed to that degree? I don’t know.
DEADLINE: No way. This was a movie that started as a charming film about a young girl and her giant pig. And then it was like the pawn shop scene in Pulp Fiction…
DICAPRIO: So it’s an insane concept of this giant hippo with this kid, and then they’re making sausages. I’m like, what? I’d love to see that being pitched at a traditional studio. I’d love to see the looks on faces of the executives. And that ending of it walking through this industrial slaughterhouse? Oh my God. That’s some dark sh*t. I’m beating a dead dog with my point. We are primates at the end of the day. We exist in a communal experience. I mean, it’s the concert like feeling of watching a great auteur do their craft, and I don’t want that to be cannibalized. By only things that make…are guaranteed to make money.
DEADLINE: Back to this movie. As a self-educated film guy, you got to be on a set with Al Pacino, Bruce Dern and Burt Reynolds, before he passed away following rehearsals. Was there anything that made you feel like that 15-year old kid, renting all those videos?
DICAPRIO: Bruce Dern was reminiscing and he said that what you had to understand about all these guys is that they all knew the industry in and out. They knew which guy was doing which job. It was a real industry at that time, in the sense that everyone knew where they had to be, at what time, and in what place, and which actors were in line to get the parts that were coming out. He said those guys were really managing their portfolio and their own destiny and knew all the names and faces of everyone that was a part of a movie. It was a different culture. That really stuck with me, those industry conversations with him and with Al. Everybody knew everyone else’s business.
DEADLINE: Quentin wrote five episodes of Bounty Law just to create this mythology for you. He said the audience doesn’t need to know Rick’s backstory but they need to know that I know. What was the best thing he gave you that helped you shape your performance?
DICAPRIO: He gave me choices. He’d say, here’s Edd Kookie Burns and on his attempt to transition, he did a lot of these films and was the sixth guy on the call sheet. He was that pompadour type, but then that became Ty Hardin. And there was Steve McQueen, who made the transition. I watched this stuff for months and months before we started. We’d have screenings at his house and you’re sitting there, watching a movie when you’re waiting for that 10 minutes of that one actor. I did it, honestly trying to find somebody who, I don’t want to say talent-wise or psychologically, but had the soul of Rick Dalton. We focused on about five different guys, and I’d watch all of their work, and at first, in an initial reading, I was like, Rick is kind of talentless. There’s no shot for Rick, and then I realize well, the real tragedy is if there is a shot for Rick. That’s the real tragedy within himself, the always yearning for what could have been or what he could have had. Which means that Rick has to have this soul in his performances, this potential that that little girl queues into, and why that sort of victory lap of that final monologue that Rick does in front of everybody is him reaching f*cking really deep within himself, pulling out those demons and doing his best to knock it out of the park and show that he’s still got it.
DEADLINE: It is a defining moment for your character.
DICAPRIO: That is who Rick f*cking Dalton is, to me, and I found that through Ralph Meeker.
DEADLINE: A stage actor who was in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and a lot of movies that flopped. Why him?
DICAPRIO: There were a few shows, including one where he played an Indian. I’m feeling under the weather or I would think of it. There was an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode of his and a couple of films. An episode of Steve McQueen’s show, Wanted Dead or Alive. He’s one of the bad guys in it and I was like, wow, I want to watch more of this guy. One day I’m on set and I tell Quentin, I found my guy, Ralph Meeker. And he says, “Really? That’s interesting because Ralph Meeker is not only my favorite guy out of that bunch, he’s one of my favorite f*cking actors of all time.” I said, really, with all the greats out there? He said, no joke. And then he went into a whole diatribe of his career. Did Ralph Meeker make that transition that we talked about? No, he didn’t, but goddamn it, when you see some of those performances that he gave in television, of shows that I had never even watched, or co-starring roles that I never would’ve paid attention to, you’re like wow. It reminded me there are so many people in our industry that really, given the right opportunity, could’ve had some of the most amazing performances. I just cued into this idea of Ralph Meeker, and Rick is somebody that I think could’ve had that opportunity, too. That was why I didn’t want him to be somebody that was easily pawned off as…granted he’s lazy, he doesn’t try, he doesn’t give it all, or study his craft enough. But given that opportunity…it’s like a pinch hitter, like Kirk Gibson on the Dodgers, hitting that big home run. I wanted Rick to be that guy. That was the soul of who Rick Dalton was for me.
DEADLINE: You mention the young actress played by Julia Butters, and those scenes between you are so touching. Last time we interviewed, you talked about how you got fired from Romper Room because you were a ball of energy. That little girl seems an old soul. How close was the actress in the movie to who you were in your early years?
DICAPRIO: She was way more professional. Are you kidding me? That young lady is so incredibly articulate and polite, and wonderful, and engaging with the people that she works with. She knew her entire dialogue before the initial script reading that we had. I had no idea of how to conduct myself on a set when I started and, by the way, I was years older than her. I was there cracking jokes, and it wasn’t until This Boy’s Life and watching De Niro that I really understood the seriousness in which a lot of these actors approach the work that they do. She’s light years ahead of where I was, as far as maturity goes.
DEADLINE: The last time we met, it was right after The Revenant shoot, and you basically said to the waiter, just bring everything on the menu. It was clear you had been through an ordeal. You then took a long break, though you produced movies and documentaries. What was the most constructive use of your time in that recovery period?
DICAPRIO: Peace of mind. That’s all.
DEADLINE: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu hasn’t made a movie since.
DICAPRIO: No, he hasn’t. We’ve been talking about some things. But in terms of gearing up for these things, I’m not going to give you a massive song and dance about the difficulties. I get nauseated when I hear people talk about how difficult the industry is. That makes me nauseous because we’re so f*cking lucky to do what we do. But you want to have a real life that affects who you are as an artist, and you want to have a sense of normalcy. That’s all. And yeah, that movie was an exhausting experience, and then you do the whole campaign afterward, all that stuff. And then you go find what speaks to you. That’s all. Really saying OK, this is a unique filmmaker, and a story, and a character that I can really delve into. That’s all. Nothing really that profound at the end of the day.
DEADLINE: Right. But still…I live in this house where I finished six rooms in my basement, carried the sheetrock down myself, installed electric, drop ceilings, baseboard heat, everything. I go down there, look around now and say, how the heck did I do this? When you reflect on that movie, which was unprecedented in terms of battling the elements and all, aren’t there moments where you go, how did I do this? How did I survive?
DICAPRIO: Honestly, you’re so entrenched in making the movie you don’t think much about it. Trust me, there were moments where I was like oh my God, what are we doing? But it just gets folded into the mix, of you’re out there, you do it, and by the way you have all these people doing it with you. You’re not alone in the wilderness. You have an entire makeshift caravansary…and I love that word, caravansary, because it’s like a pop-up city in the middle of nowhere. That’s where we all were. We were all doing it together, and by the way, I had people taking care of me. We were all in these elements, but we were all there together. As for looking back on the movie? It takes me a long time to detach myself. I have to not watch anything from a movie that I do for at least 10 years to go oh wow, that’s what worked. That’s what didn’t work. Oh, that was actually terrible, or actually, that was an amazing choice that was made by the filmmaker, or the actors, and I could look at it with some objectivity. It takes me a long time to get rid of the memories of all of that, so I don’t know what to think of any…honestly, I’m the worst, because when I see a movie that I’ve done I have an immediate reaction, but I don’t have that detachment.
DEADLINE: You are developing promising films through your Appian Way banner to star in. Including playing Teddy Roosevelt, Da Vinci. And that serial killer during the Chicago World’s Fair, Devil in the White City, this collision between industrial revolution in the late 1800s, and this doctor who killed people. When you work on great scripts with filmmakers like Scorsese, Gonzalez Iñárritu and Tarantino, does it raise the bar on the projects you generate? Does that at all explain why these projects have taken so long? Do you become impossible to please?
DICAPRIO: No, I’m definitely not impossible to please, but…how long has Quentin been kicking this idea around?
DEADLINE: Years, including when he tried to write it as a novel.
DICAPRIO: It was something like 10 years ago where he saw an actor and his stunt man. These things take time. They really do. That’s not always the case, certainly, but some of these ideas…to me, it’s a matter of getting the right filmmaker to do a piece of material that has been really thought through, creatively. And then you have to creatively work with the director in conjunction with their schedules in between these gaps of films that they do, have it ready enough for them to then go re-work on it. They take time. You mentioned the Teddy Roosevelt idea. I want to get that done. I mean, The Men Who Built America. I don’t know if you ever saw that documentary. You must see it. It’s incredible. It’s about this industrial revolution, but that transition of all of these mega billionaires who basically…it’s a complete flip side of the coin, a mirror image of what’s going on today, the wealth being in the hands of so few. And then Teddy Roosevelt coming in as a major trust buster, cracking out on corporate monopolization, and then how all of these guys were competing with one another, and then they all became philanthropists. Anyway, with all of these ideas…hopefully, that filmmaker wants to do the movie with you and they don’t have their own piece of original material that they’re dying to make. The gaps in between your schedule and theirs. Hopefully I’ll get to do another one this coming decade that is the same kind of passion project that I had with Wolf of Wall Street and The Aviator.
I’ve never seen Mr. Scorsese have more fun on a set than Wolf. He was literally in hysterics laughing, completely energized the whole time. He loved it. I think he loved that experience. That and The Aviator were the two films that I just held onto forever because I knew they had to be made. I held onto those two forever, man. It was, I think, an eight- to nine-year process to get Aviator up and running through the different drafts, and then finally Marty got on board. And again with Wolf of Wall Street. It kept getting pushed. He had another thing to do, I had another thing to do, but I knew that he was the only guy to do it, and I waited, and I waited, and I waited. I’m so thankful that I got to do both of them. Often, it’s timing and a combination of putting all of the pieces together.