Leonardo DiCaprio On The Hard-Knock Film Education That Led To ‘The Revenant’

“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. 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. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, all audacious films which became the biggest-grossing hits of those directors’ careers. 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 [the result of] an auteur filmmaker 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.
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… 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 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.

What did you learn watching silent films with Scorsese?
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. 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. 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.

You took a turn into adulthood with The Aviator. Why was Hughes so important to you?
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.

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.

When Mann decided he wasn’t directing, that was your moment to be a producer. Scorsese was a nice rebound. How did that happen?
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, ‘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.

It must have been a huge relief when Martin Scorsese read that script and started obsessing about color processing.
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.

You mention nostalgia in your experience on This Boy’s Life.
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 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, sh*. Okay. Yeah, I think I get it.”

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?
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.

He was only there for half the shoot, but when he was there, it was just so completely different. I came from 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.

What were the differences?
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 sh* I’m on camera, that’s right.” You had to remember to be in the moment.

Considering you grew up in the business it’s remarkable how well adjusted you are. How were you able to avoid those pitfalls?
I suppose it’s a combination of things, either about lost childhood or the lack of support while you’re going through something as shocking as becoming recognized around the world, immediately. 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…

Never crossed that line.
No. I literally grew up with that everywhere. Everywhere I looked.

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.

When did you realize this might be a life?
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. I got accepted to this elementary school. 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…

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. So I would push, my parents, and they would take me on auditions.

The Revenant was a hard shoot. Has it left you spent, or rejuvenated?
It definitely gave me 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?

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 f** happened to us. He didn’t want to have all the answers beforehand.

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.” That’s why, I think people are going to look back at this movie and see it in a different way. 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.

What were the five hardest moments out there in the wild?
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?”

Did you say, do you know who I am?
[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 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.

Titanic seemed like a hard shoot, with all that water. In a hard moment, how did James Cameron react compared to Alejandro?
Well, look…

It’s not like you’ll cost yourself a role in the sequel…
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.

Who was more sympathetic to the adversity being suffered by his actors?
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…suddenly they were like student filmmakers in Mexico with an 8mm camera. 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.

You and me, we’ll watch these f**ing 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.

You turned down what would have been your first sizable payday on a studio movie to instead do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Why?
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.

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, “I’ve got one shot to be in this business, and I got a movie with Robert De Niro. I won the f**ing lottery. So what are you going to do with that, kid? You have this path in front of you…’ 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.

You were once going to play [James Dean] 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.
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.

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 Baz Luhrmann. It stalled when Oliver Stone’s film with Colin Farrell beat it to the start line. How disappointing was that?
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.

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.
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. 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.

Tom Hardy 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?
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.

Then 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 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.

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?
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.

You haven’t been afraid to play flawed characters, even some loathsome ones. You played Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. What’s the key to playing a character you detest?
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.” 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.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Deadline Feb.2016.

February 1, 2016 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links