Leonardo DiCaprio has been very busy this year, playing major roles in three movies back to back: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. It’s not uncommon for the veteran actor to wrap more than one movie in one year, but he admits that this has been a unique situation for him.
“They were all roles I really, really wanted to play,” he tells me when I meet him at the London Hotel in New York. “It’s been 3 movies in a row and usually I like to have a lot more time in between to think about them but it’s given me a lot of newfound sort of energy. It’s interesting because once you get into that mode of just constantly working and constantly focusing it’s like a basketball season; you’re just constantly playing. You have no time to stop or reflect, just go, go, go and it’s amazing. It keeps you in good acting shape,” he laughs, nodding his head.
But this hardship has taken its toll on the 38-year-old actor, who still retains a trace of the boyish look and demeanour that he is known for. Hence, he has cleaned his next year’s slate in order to take time off to reflect on everything in his life and refocus his attention on his environmental causes.
“I already have a few things lined up that are going to be very important things for me and for my foundation. I plan on travelling and getting even more involved with those issues as well as getting some rest and getting to see my friends again and being home.”
But the committed environmentalist will be around to promote his work and perhaps collect some awards for it before he retreats into his personal domain. Recently, he has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his supporting role in the anti-slavery movie, Django Unchained, in which he plays a vicious slave trader from the south, Monsieur Calvin Candie, who derives pleasure from watching his black subjects fighting each other to death or being mauled by a pack of hungry dogs.
Set two years before the US civil war, Django Unchained tells the story of a slave-cum-bounty hunter, Django (Jamie Foxx), who plots a plan with his emancipator and mentor, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to free his wife Broomhhilda (Kerry Washington) from Candie’s plantation.
Reading the script the first time, Dicaprio was stunned by the level of savagery depicted in the movie. “I asked Tarantino ‘Do we need to go this far?’ and he immediately said ‘People will resent you for not depicting the reality of what went on in our country, the atrocities of what happened,’ and at that moment I got it. I needed to go to that extreme.
“It’s a product of the time and it’s something that we as a society need to look at and remember and I commend the fact that there are films about this to remind us of what our history was like in this country.”
Indeed, as one would expect from a Tarantino movie, the film is imbued with hideous images of bloodshed, physical abuses and body mutilations and drenched with obscene racist language, dominated by the N word, which DiCaprio was not used to. “It was incredibly difficult for me to do these scenes and to treat people with this cruelty and have this viewpoint on race.”
Nonetheless, he did and did it convincingly, transforming himself into a malicious, spoiled, Caligula-like creature, who believed that Africans were not only genetically inferior to whites but a different species and hence treated them like a commodity for trade, in spite of having been raised surrounded by them. “Not that I have any connection with this human being whatsoever or I agreed with in any respect, but you have to understand that at the time slave ownership was their form of power. It was the equivalent of oil,” he stresses.
Immersing himself into researching that dark chapter in America’s history, DiCaprio was horrified by discovering that his character’s atrocities were relatively tame next to what occurred in reality. In fact, during the civil war, slave owners invoked phrenology, a science often used to examine human emotions and instincts by studying the skull, in order to prove that African slaves were a different species and justify slavery.
DiCaprio offered his findings and ideas to Tarantino, who enthusiastically embraced them and even pushed them to new extremes in the movie. “Those are the type of directors I love working with, ones that love that collaborative process and it was great to work with him in that respect.”
Indeed DiCaprio’s superstardom endows him with the privilege of choosing to work with Hollywood’s most prominent directors, most notably Martin Scorsese, with whom he has collaborated on Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and most recently on The Wolf of Wall Street. He has also worked with Steven Spielberg on Catch Me If You Can, Chris Nolan on Inception and Clint Eastwood on J. Edgar.
“I have an appetite to work with the greatest directors I can possibly get the opportunity and be so fortunate enought to work with,” he smiles contently. “I think that is paramount. I think that when you make a movie, these are the real decision makers, who shape a storyline and a performance, and if they have the talent to do so can make a movie great.”
Born and raised in Hollywood, DiCaprio began his acting career in commercials and TV at the age of 14, before he landed his first film role with Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life (1993), which he followed with another impressive performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) for which he earned his first Oscar nomination, when he was only 19 years old.
DiCaprio’s acting career continued to flourish in the early nineties as he was granted lead roles in major pictures such as Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Marvin’s Room (1996), but it was the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), in which he played an impoverished American artist falling in love with Kate Winslet’s young aristocrat, that catapulted him to instant superstardom and turned him into a teen idol, adored by millions around the world. He quickly reigned supreme as the biggest male box office attraction.
Although he enjoyed the perks of his international fame, DiCaprio was chiefly interested in transitioning from a child actor to an adult star, which he has achieved by judiciously choosing to inhabit tormented characters in auteurs’ movies instead of playing superheroes in summer blockbusters. His toil was duly recognized with multiple awards and two additional Oscar nominations for his lead roles in The Aviator and Blood Diamond.
“I don’t do a film because I feel it’s time to do a comedy, or science fiction or another genre. I do it because I’m motivated and I feel like I could be of service to that character and whether there are a lot more questions to be asked about him. If I read a screenplay, where the person is clearly defined and there’s nothing left for me to do then I usually don’t do it. There has been a consistent theme in my career of the types of characters that I’ve been drawn to, but that’s the way I am and that’s what I like to do and I feel fortunate as actor to be able to choose the type of work and I don’t want to squander the opportunities while I have them.”
Recently however, the 3-time Oscar nominee has been contemplating the thought of helming a project. But having endured the hardship of directing in 2006 when he made the global warming documentary 11th Hour, DiCaprio is still wary of committing to that idea.
“I don’t know yet,” he ponders as he pauses momentarily. “I have to get that piece of material that makes me want to sort of take a break from acting and commit myself because if I do something I know I’m going to be obsessed with it and I know no matter what the post production process is, I know how I am in the editing room. I am a little afraid of how obsessed I might become with it, because I know I want to get it as perfect as I possibly can. But I do want to try it someday, I do!”
In spite of his intense schedule and utter dedication to his craft, DiCaprio is notorious for partying hard and dating a multitude of supermodels from around the word, and he is yet to settle with one. When I ask him about any prospect of forming a family, he struggles to find an answer.
“What about you?” he facetiously asks. “I’ll tell you if you tell me,” I reply. “It will come, Man. With the right one at the right time,” he says half heartedly as his eyes drift. But I won’t suggest to any female fan to hold their breath. Several superstars are far older than him and still celibate, so I won’t be surprised if DiCaprio remains a bachelor for the rest of his life.
In the meantime, DiCaprio spends his holidays and Christmas with his parents, who split up when he was only 1 year old. “I usually celebrate Christmas with my mum on 24th and then my dad on the 25th,” he giggles.
DiCaprio is invariably sociable and friendly, but I’ve never seen him in such a high spirit. Obviously, the superstar is cheered by the prospect of his hiatus, but will he be left alone to reflect and contemplate?