The Nine Lives of Leo DiCaprio

by Robert Capps for Wired | Photographs by Dan Winters | December 2015

LEONARDO DICAPRIO DOESN’T always survive. Titanic? Dead. Django Unchained? Unalive. The Departed? Departed. Romeo and Juliet? We won’t spoil that one for you, but you get the point. His new movie, The Revenant, takes the struggle not to die and really, really goes with it.

In the film DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a real-life 1820s fur trapper who got mauled by a bear, was robbed and abandoned by his companions, and then spent months crawling to safety through the untamed American wilderness.

WIRED: Watching the opening of The Revenant, all I could think was, “That looks really cold.”
DICAPRIO: It was physically grueling for everybody. 

What drew you to the role of Hugh Glass?
Glass was a campfire legend—and it’s all true. He survived a savage bear attack, was left for dead, then traveled through this uncharted territory of interior America, crawling through hundreds of miles of wilderness on his own. So to me the story was a simple linear story, but in Alejandro’s hands, of course, it becomes a sort of visual, existential poetry. I reread it and met him again, and I decided to embark on what I would characterize as more of a chapter of my life than a film commitment—because it was epic in every sense of the word.

So you’re filming outside, it’s cold, it’s dirty, it’s brutal. What was that like for you? Were there times when you asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
Moments? Every single day of this movie was difficult. It was the most difficult film I’ve ever done. You’ll see, when you see the film—the endurance that we all had to have is very much up on the screen.

What was the worst part?
The hardest thing for me was getting in and out of frozen rivers. [Laughs.] Because I had elk skin on and a bear fur that weighed about 100 pounds when it got wet. And every day it was a challenge not to get hypothermia.

How prepared was the crew for that? Did they say, “Well, we’re going to throw DiCaprio into a frozen river, we better have some EMTs here”?
Oh, they had EMTs there. And they had this machine that they put together—it was kind of like a giant hair dryer with octopus tentacles—so I could heat my feet and fingers after every take, because they got locked up with the cold. So they were basically blasting me with an octopus hair dryer after every single take for nine months.

And there were a lot of takes.
Alejandro and Chivo had this vision to shoot in natural light. We had months of rehearsal beforehand, but every day was like doing a play. Each actor, each bit of the set, needed to be like gears in a Swiss watch, because the camera was moving around and you had to have your timing perfect. So we rehearsed every day, and then we had a two-hour window of natural light to shoot.

I heard you had problems with snow.
We had a lot of complications while shooting, because it was the hottest year in recorded history. In Calgary there were all these extreme weather events. One day we were trying to do a scene and it turned out to be 40 below zero, so the gears of the camera didn’t work. Then twice during the movie we had 7 feet of snow melt in a day—all of it, within five hours—and we were stuck with two or three weeks of no snow in a film that’s all snow. So we had to shut down production multiple times. That’s what happens with climate change; the weather is more extreme on both ends.

You even had to wrap early and resume filming when you could find snow again, right?
We had to go to the South Pole!

We had to go to the southern tip of Argentina, to the southernmost town on the planet, to find snow.

Do you have a lot of outdoor experience? Are you a survival school kind of a guy?
I love being immersed in nature and wild places. I love scuba diving, and I’ve been up and down the Amazon. But as far as dropping me off with a small bit of rations? Before this movie I wouldn’t have known the first thing about it.

I heard that you’ve had a couple of brushes with death yourself, though.
My friends have named me the person they least want to do extreme adventures with, because I always seem to be very close to being part of a disaster. I mean, there was the shark incident …

A great white jumped into my cage when I was diving in South Africa. Half its body was in the cage, and it was snapping at me.

How the hell did it get into the cage?
They leave the tops open and you have a regulator line running to the surface. Then they chum the water with tuna. A wave came and the tuna sort of flipped up into the air. A shark jumped up and grabbed the tuna, and half its body landed inside the cage with me. I sort of fell down to the bottom and tried to lie flat. The great white took about five or six snaps an arm’s length away from my head. The guys there said that has never happened in the 30 years they’d been doing it.

Did the shark just get itself out and swim away?
It flipped itself back out again. I have it on video. It’s insane. Then there was this Delta Airlines flight to Russia. I was in business class, and an engine blew up in front of my eyes. It was right after “Sully” Sullenberger landed in the Hudson. I was sitting there looking out at the wing, and the entire wing exploded in a fireball. I was the only one looking out at the moment this giant turbine exploded like a comet. It was crazy. They shut all the engines off for a couple of minutes, so you’re just sitting there gliding with absolutely no sound, and nobody in the plane was saying anything. It was a surreal experience. They started the engines back up, and we did an emergency landing at JFK.

The other one was the skydiving incident. It was a tandem dive. We pulled the first chute. That was knotted up. The gentleman I was with cut it free. We did another free fall for like another 5, 10 seconds. I didn’t even think about the extra chute, so I thought we were just plummeting to our death. He pulled the second, and that was knotted up too. He just kept shaking it and shaking it in midair, as all my friends were, you know, what felt like half a mile above me, and I’m plummeting toward earth. [Laughs.] And he finally unravels it in midair. The fun part was when he said, “You’re probably going to break your legs on the way down, because we’re going too fast now.” So after you see your whole life flash in front of your eyes—twice—he says, “Oh, your legs are going to get broken too.”

That didn’t happen?
No, we did, like, this barrel roll. We got bruised up, but no broken legs.

Do you still skydive?
No. No, I do not.

This is sort of a meta question, but you’ve obviously spent pretty much your whole life in the public eye—how have you survived that?
You know, the truth is, it’s very surreal. I don’t think anyone really gets used to being recognized around the world. It kind of feels like a videogame at times, especially with paparazzi and people following you and things of that nature. But it’s part of who I am now. It’s part of my life as long as I choose to do what I do as a profession, and I love what I do. I think I survive because I don’t limit myself. If there’s some experience I want to have or a place I want to go, I do it. I think that’s how I bring some semblance of normality to my life.

Of course, any talk of survival has to include talk of climate change, and you are a vocal environmentalist. How did that start?
So there was a period in my career, post-Titanic, where I took a break and I wanted to reevaluate the other great passion in my life—I’ve been interested in science and biodiversity ever since I was very young, probably from watching films about the rain forest at the Natural History Museum.

I’m not from the country. I lived in downtown LA, in the Silver Lake area, which is close to the Natural History Museum. So I got exposed to the wonders of nature through film—Imax documentaries and such. It was something I always loved, and after Titanic I decided to explore that interest by getting more involved in environmental issues. 

You got any tips for surviving an interview with a journalist?
[Laughs.] Only talk about what you want to talk about, no matter what the question is.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Wired, Dec.2015.

December 12, 2015 | Interview , , | this post contains affiliate links