EMPIRE INTERVIEW WORDS IAN NATHAN PORTRAITS JOHN RUSSO
Leonardo DiCaprio has worked with some of the greatest living directors: Scorsese, Spielberg, Nolan, Cameron. Now he adds Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to the list with The Revenant: his toughest challenge since Titanic
40 below. So cold that even your eyeballs hurt. Try crawling into a freezing river there, while swathed in a 150lb bear pelt. It’s like an electric shock knocks the breath out of you, jamming your nervous system. Now try staying in character. With a wry
smile, Leonardo DiCaprio admits it was pretty tough.
Making Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant was a titanic quest for the authentic. If it was humanly possible, it wasn’t faked.
A few weeks previous to Empire meeting with DiCaprio, Inarritu showed him a working cut of The Revenant. The film relates the tale of raggedy frontiersman Hugh Glass this “campfire legend” of the 1820s who, at a pivotal juncture, is mauled by a grizzly bear and then helpfully buried alive by his companions. Donning the hide of that fallen bear, Glass embarks on a journey of unimaginable hardship across the wilderness to catch up with his former comrades. Settle the score.
DiCaprio, famed for windbags like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf Of Wall Street, is still trying to find adequate words to express what he saw. There has been no film like it, he keeps repeating, comparing Inarritu with Scorsese (the highest compliment he can pay). “From an audience perspective, that bear sequence alone is going to be cinema history,” the actor exalts. “It stimulates other senses. You can feel the breath of the bear, the sweat of the character…”
Sitting in a warm New York hotel, surrounded by the spires of civilisation, he talks with calm authority. Then you remember he has been acting since his early teens, and at 41 has 28 feature films to his credit, including some of the most
Above: Seeking revenge as real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass in this month’s The Revenant. Opposite: On location with Revenant director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (left).
SFOOTNOTES O Ironically, Inarritu had the film blessed in a Native American ritual before the film started. “We all sort of joined hands together,” says DiCaprio, “and there was a prayer blessing the movie and the land.”
challenging and dynamic cinema of recent times. From teen idol to Scorsese’s muse, DiCaprio has experiencedjust about everything the movie world can summon up to challenge a favoured son, with the exception of that elusive Oscar win. Still, he freely admits he has never made a film like this before. And as far as he’s concerned, it’s the film that matters.
If TheRevenant is an extraordinary measure of the creative stamina of one of the leading filmmakers in the world, it is also a shining emblem of the drive within its leading man. DiCaprio seeks “cinema history”. The list ofhis collaborators reads like the case for auteur theory: not only the Mexican wizard, but Cameron, Spielberg, Tarantino, Nolan, Luhrmann. And there’s that special relationship with Scorsese. You don’t see many romantic comedies on his CV, and he remains unswayed by the lure of the superhero elect. DiCaprio can only see one way: no pain, no gain. The impossibly famous superstar determined to be an artist.
It’s a simple place to start, but howjust how hard was it to make TheRevenant!
No-one is going to lie and say it wasn’t an incredibly difficult film to take on. The sheer logistics of the locations were challenging in their own right. Add to that Alejandro’s technique of rehearsing for months beforehand, Chivo’s
(cinematographerEmmanuelLubezki) all-natural-light technique, the poetry and existential aspect theybrought. Alejandro and Chivo work with this meticulous dance of the camera and the actors, and what they accomplish in the movie is pretty profound. And then coupled with the 10,000lb gorilla which was nature… If you want to immerse yourself in the natural world, have that almost be a character in the film, you are beholden to what comes.
And what did come?
There were these extreme weather patterns. We had a day that was 40 below and the camera wouldn’t even work and actors couldn’t act because it was too cold and we couldn’t feel our own hands. That coupled with times where we had eight feet of snow out in the vistas that disappeared within five hours because of a heat wave. We were dealing with unprecedented weather events that have never happened in Canada’s history #. Nature was sending us this crazy message. All the preparation that you can do as an actor is constantly changing because you are adapting to the environment. I have never been part of a film like it in my entire career. It was tough on everyone and everyone worked really hard to accomplish this goal. I don’t know how many movies will be made like this again, to tell you the truth. But it is all up there on the screen. >
Do you feel comfortable in nature?
Look, I love nature. I am an environmentalist. I love going to these exotic, amazing places. These mountain men were just a different era of human beings, like primal cavemen living off the land. All this western territory was like the Amazon rain forest. The Northwest and the Southwest territories had not been inhabited yet. There were really no historical records. There is very little to know about these people. There are no photographs, only etchings, journals of fur trappers. Hugh Glass embodies the American spirit in the wilderness, the will to survive, and the triumph of man succumbing to nature and also prevailing. So it was like doing a science-fiction movie, almost.
How easy was it to get into the head of Hugh Glass?
This was a unique movie for me because it was almost like mime work. I have so little dialogue, almost nothing. I looked at that as an interesting challenge as I have played so many incredibly articulate characters. This was a lot about the preparation beforehand, but it was also about trying to react to my surroundings and this man’s will to survive and this vengeance that is the current of the performance. But done as if nobody was watching, as well. I learned everything I possibly could. Not only about muskets, but how to trap animals, how to create fires, how to survive among the elements. You planned as much you can, then you have to throw yourself into the environment. The main thing you find out in the cold is that your hands are victim beyond anything. I made a choice early on to not have gloves, as I don’t think he would have them. Every day was a challenge to keep my hands warm, because they would lock up. I enjoyed it…
I mean I enjoyed that challenge.
How did your fellow cast members cope with the adverse conditions?
The actors Alejandro put in there, he wanted to disappear into the landscape, for it to feel incredibly authentic. But it was hard on all of us. From Domhnall (Gleeson) to Tom Hardy, we were basically bearded and hairy from a year living in log cabins.
The entire crew, we were all just a bunch of hairy men living up north, trying not to go crazy.
As an actor, do you ever reach a point where you think,
“I can’t do this, this is my limit”?
Sure, absolutely. There are moments when you are sitting amongst nature and creating something and you are in awe of what is in front of you, and there are moments when this stuff is incredibly hard to pull off and it makes you not want to work sometimes. But when I say that to myself, I have to slap myself in the face and say, “Are you out of your mind? You’ve been given this opportunity.” It is important not to get too spoiled. Because it is a gift, it really is. People who have had long careers do look at it that way, as a gift. And if you treat your position in the industry with a flippant attitude it will come back and bite you in the face. If you build it, it will come, so to speak. If you want to be difficult, if you want to be pessimistic about the opportunity you have and I feel blessed in mine I think the industry will find a way to make you not work.
In terms of physically taxing shoots, how did The Revenant compare with Titanic?
(Laughing ruefully) They are pretty neck and neck. I couldn’t choose between them. They are apples and oranges, though. One had a lot of stages; the other was in nature. But the film time was equivalent. Let’s put it this way, they were both difficult for different reasons. Although, both had cold water.
That whole Titanic era must seem like a strange dream now…
It was certainly a surreal point in my life. You become this sort of independent actor and then you are in this one film that for whatever reason connects with people on a worldwide level. And you are at this young age and you really don’t know how to react to it. My immediate reaction was to stop everything and take a break and let it settle down. But it has affected my personal life ever since. I don’t think you ever get used to the type of attention certainly the media has on you. At the same time, I have absolutely nothing to complain about it has given me these crazy opportunities. I mean, I am getting to work with Alejandro Inarritu on this film, the type of film that the studio system doesn’t make that often, if ever. So I celebrate this opportunity.
Early in your career there was talk of you doing a Spider-Man film with James Cameron. How close did you come to making that?
Not very close, but there was a screenplay W. I know he was semi-serious about doing it at some point, but I don’t remember any further talks about it. We had a couple of chats. I think there was a screenplay that I read, but I don’t remember. This was 20 years ago!
SFOOTNOTES 0 Hugh Glass is a genuine 19th-century fur trapper who was attacked by a grizzly. Before setting out after his fellow trappers, he set his own broken leg, and prevented gangrene in an open gash by laying it in a rotting log and letting maggots eat the dead flesh. He was previously portrayed by Richard Harris in Man In The Wilderness (1971).
Can you imagine what your career might have been like if you had made that movie?
I’m not sure anything would have changed. I have the same outlook on movies that I had when I was 15. For whatever reason, whatever I saw from cinema’s great history, I said to myself, “Hopefully I will do a movie as good as some of these that I have seen.” But I would have been happy to be a working actor, period. Holy shit, I am so lucky. It was only working on This Boy’s Life with De Niro that gave me the foothold A. I would be a complete twat to waste the opportunities that I have been given. To me it is a responsibility in some ways. I don’t want to miss out on the opportunities to work with great artists. But the type of movies I want to do has been the same since I was 15.
Is it fair to say you could work with anyone you want to?
Listen, nothing is ever easy. Some films are very difficult to pull off. Both The Aviator and The Wolf Of Wall Street were screenplays that I developed for years. I found the financing for them and luckily got Marty to do both of them. Other ones have been developed by other people… Each one presents its own challenge.
Still, the list is impressive: Spielberg, Nolan, Luhrmann, Tarantino What do those experiences mean to you?
Having worked with Marty, who was a master of film history,
Spielberg is essentially the same way, he just chose to do different types of movies. They are both essentially professors of film history. Spielberg has a great love of actors, and gives to actors as Marty does… Chris Nolan is an absolute genius, somebody that has incredible stories locked in his head. As an actor it is amazing to try and dig into his psyche and draw something out during pre-production, because when you get there, you start to see things unfold in ways you never imagined. Baz envelopes you into his world. The way he investigates the Bard, the way he dissects The Great Gatsby, the way he is meticulous about everything, not just the actors, but the wallpaper. It is inspiring to be around, I truly love the man…Pi Tarantino, again: massive cinephile. If Scorsese has seen every movie ever made up until 1980 which is the rumour Quentin’s seen every B movie ever made up until today. He reminds me of Marty in a lot of ways, too. He’s one of those few directors out there that people truly go to because of his name there are few directors that become household names synonymous with their own style.
And Alejandro, in my opinion, has now become one of them.
You mention Scorsese a lot. Does your relationship with him remain the most significant thing in your career?
It is like we inherently know each other, but we go off and do our movies. He just did Silence, and I did this other film. To me it has been these great chapters in my life, but sometimes we don’t speak for long periods of time. It has been beautiful. Even in the hardest films we have done together, and it has been miserable at times, that misery loves company. And there is nobody I would rather be doing these sequences with, and being on set with, than him. He has been so much a part of my adult life. I don’t know how I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with him, and I hope to do it a lot morel. He has taught me so much about not only cinema’s history, and what it is to be an artist and an actor, but the importance of movies.
Do you have a checklist of directors you want to work with in the future?
No, I don’t have a checklist. There are a lot of directors I would love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, Ang Lee but to me it is always primarily about the character and the screenplay, and it must be something I feel like I can be of service to. I am completely open to doing a romantic comedy, but I never think about what would it mean to popular culture. All I care about as a cinema lover is whether I can get lost in that world. So you want to work with the best. It takes real talent to be able to pull off stylistic choices. To be bold enough to work with great artistry, and not just work with a static shot.
Which surely sums up everything Alejandro set out to achieve on The Revenant.
What I love about him, and identify with and it is the same thing that Marty has is this feeling of being an outsider. He is from Mexico, and he has watched America’s cinema history and he is here to make his mark, much like Marty was the New York filmmaker going to Hollywood. They both fight that much harder to achieve what they want. Alejandro is incredibly poetic and his reach is endless in terms of what he wants to accomplish cinematically. He’s got this incredibly vivid imagination and he is incredibly stubborn about making sure his artistry is put up on screen. That is the sign of a great filmmaker. He also happens to be incredibly pleasant to be around, which makes it tolerable. But he’s been this outsider that has now made his mark… When you see this film, you’re going to have seen nothing like it. [3
THE REVENANT IS OUT ON JANUARY 15 AND IS REVIEWED ON PAGE 36.
fFOOTNOTES W In1993Cameron wrote a 47-page ‘scriptment’,which potentially pitted DiCaprio’s17year-old Peter Parker against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Doctor Octopus.
It fell apart when Marvel went bust in 1996, but elements ended up in Sam Raimi’s 2002 adaptation.
When DiCaprio was nine, and said hewanted to act,his father took him to see Robert De Niro in Midnight Run, saying to his son, “You want to know what a great actor is? This is a great actor.” DiCaprio still calls This Boy’s Life his “seminal experience”.
DiCaprio once met with Luhrmann about Moulin Rouge! but was unsure about his singing voice. “It was me and him and a piano player, and we tried to sing a song together,” DiCaprio recalls. “When I hit a high note, he justturned to me [and said],
‘Yes, D,I don’t know if this conversation should continue…’”
W DiCaprio has lured Scorsese into a sixth collaboration with an adaptation of Erik Larson’s truestory The DevillnThe White City, about a serial killer who haunted the Chicago World’s Fair of1893. “I want to be in that one,” DiCaprio enthused to Variety. “That one is real.” He will play the killer,
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