Leonardo DiCaprio on 'Wolf of Wall Street': 'We Don't Like These People' (Q&A)

Issue 44 FEA Leonardo DiCaprio Crop - H 2013
Wesley Mann

Issue 44 FEA Leonardo DiCaprio Crop - H 2013

As critics and moviegoers emerge from The Wolf of Wall Street -- a film that Leonardo DiCaprio developed, produced, appears in for all of its 179 minutes and regards as one of his "babies" -- many are debating whether he deserves to take home his first Oscar or be stoned for his performance as stock trader Jordan Belfort. But the actor, taking it all in stride, forcefully rejects any notion that he or director Martin Scorsese are laughing with -- as opposed to laughing at -- their protagonist and his cohorts. "Look, it is a cautionary tale," DiCaprio told me when we spoke by phone on Monday.

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"It is an indictment of this world," he explained. "We don't like these people, you know what I mean? But we very consciously said, 'Let's insulate the audience in the mindset of what these people's lives were like so we better understand something about the very culture that we live in.' We very purposely didn't do the traditional approach of cutting away to the people affected by this."

Back in 1997, DiCaprio was -- you'll forgive me -- "the king of the world," thanks to his starring role in Titanic. Having grown up in Hollywood the child of two hippies who divorced when he was a year old, he'd became an actor at an early age. But what he did over the next 16 years was fairly astounding. He morphed from an enigmatic Hollywood heartthrob (think Robert Pattinson, kids) into one of the most respected and admired actors of his generation. Now, less than a year shy of his 40th birthday, he has starred in five Scorsese films: Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and now Wolf. He has added two more Oscar noms to his tally, for The Aviator and Blood Diamond, which also includes a supporting actor nomination for 1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape. And he has also done standout work in a wide variety of other acclaimed films including Catch Me If You Can, Revolutionary Road, Inception, J. Edgar, Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby.

Q&A: Martin Scorsese Defends 'The Wolf of Wall Street': 'The Devil Comes With A Smile'

During our conversation, he recounted how he and Scorsese first began working together and how he sold the director on Wolf; he described what it was like to step into Belfort's skin; and he acknowledged that an Oscar for his performance would be meaningful not only to his fans but to him as well.

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Do you remember when you first tried acting, even if it was just for fun?

Yeah. I grew up in the Silver Lake area. My parents were kind of hippies and in the '70s I just remember a lot of dressing up, you know what I mean? Like, there were these things called the Doo Dah Parades and my dad would make an outfit or we'd dress up as mud men. I didn't really live in a performance-art kind of household but that whole sort of underground culture that my dad lived in was kind of prevalent around us. I guess that my earliest memory was of either imitating my dad's friends or going to some festival and just doing some made-up monologue. I was always kind of doing that. It was in our household. And I carried that into school a lot, which got me into a lot of trouble. But I didn't really understand -- even though, ironically, I grew up in L.A. -- that you could ever become an actor and do it for a living until I was like, 11, 12 years old, when they started asking us what the hell we wanted to be in our life. And then somebody said, "Oh, yeah, you can do this as a profession." So I started saying, "Well, I'd like to do that. I'd like to do that rather than be a travel agent" -- which was my second option, or a marine biologist.

My sense is that acting was initially just something that you found fun to do. But I know that today you take what you do very seriously and are a real student of film. How did that evolution take place?

A lot of my closest friends to this day -- and I've known them for over 20 years -- are actors. I met a lot of them -- Tobey [Maguire], for example -- on auditions. It was, actually, at that age, an incredibly competitive atmosphere. I mean, kids would psyche each other out, try to intimidate one another. Just to be able to get a job, and work as an actor and do it for a living was a challenge in its own right. I would've been happy, just to be able to do it at all, in any capacity. But it was really that one huge audition for [Robert] De Niro in This Boy's Life -- I was 15 years old. I had done two television shows. I was on a television show at the time. And then it was like this immediate education of like, "OK, there's this audition coming up. Are you prepared to understand a little bit about the history of cinema?" You know? I remember having conversations with my father about that. And from that time period on, I just remember for a year, all the way up until the film started, just incessantly watching movies, every single day, two or three films, for a year. It became, to me -- I've said this before and I think that Marty talks about this a lot, too: When you're at that very vulnerable, impressionable age and you see the mastery that has been done before you, it is so incredibly daunting and it's so intimidating because so many people have done such great performances and such great movies that you could only wish to do something even close to that good that it becomes this void that can never be filled. (Laughs.) You just keep wanting to make more and more movies and push yourself. So I think at 15 is when I really said, "Oh my God," you know, "I'm about to work with one of the greatest actors, if not the greatest actor, of all time," in Robert De Niro. And it wasn't really until I got on set with This Boy's Life that I really understood the process of how he got to the performances that he got to. You know, you come from a certain world and there's a lightness on set -- but, boom, the second I got to This Boy's Life and I walked in that door and they knew Mr. De Niro was coming on set, everyone just went silent. And you know, we saw him work and dissect a scene. I kind of realized, "Oh, OK, there's a lot of specificity that goes into this stuff."

You were just 19 when you got your first Oscar nomination for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and then four years later was all of the Titanic mania. In the last year, I did a very long interview with Kate Winslet and she said that one of the things that really impressed her about you was that you didn't and don't seem to really care about what anyone else had to say, what anybody else's views were about you or your work except for the people that you really sort of counted in your inner circle. Was that the key? And, if so, where did that come from?

You know, to tell you the truth, in this world and being an actor, you have to expose a lot of vulnerability, and you open yourself up to an incredible amount of criticism and, you know, it is difficult. It is difficult in that realm. I'm not comparing it all to other way more difficult jobs but I think it takes a certain type of sensitive person that wants to become an actor in the first place. And then the ability to continue on even if your work is criticized. To me, I always kind of look at criticism as something that I can learn from, ultimately, and something that fuels me, really, to do more. But I suppose it's just been in my nature, too, to say, "Look, I've grown up around actors. I know how incredibly lucky and fortunate I am to be in this position. And I know that I have to make the most of it. And whatever people think about the work that I do or the movies that I choose or whatever, I have to make the most of this time period in my life because I've really, through a series of very lucky things that happened in my life, gotten to be in a privileged place, and I'm not going to squander that opportunity." So you just kind of go with it and constantly think, what the alternative is -- and the alternative is something that I don't want to do. I want to keep working.

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Do you feel that being famous, though, particularly on the level after Titanic, has made your job as an actor more difficult? I mean, I imagine one of the things that makes a great actor great is the ability to take note of human behavior and draw upon it. But if people no longer behave in the same way that they normally do when they're around you, that must complicate matters …

Yeah. I mean, I always had a perception, when I was younger, of what it would be like to be very well known. And I remembered feeling very sorry for those people. (Laughs.) I remember thinking, "Ah, they can't walk down the street." You know, "Who do they trust?" "They can't enjoy the simpler things in life." And, you know, the truth is, now that I'm a relatively well-known person, you adapt to everything in life. You just adapt to it, and you seek out and find people in your life that you want to surround you, that are going to be honest with you. But if you're talking about the time period during Titanic and the choices that I've made since then, I think that I've known the type of work that I want to do ever since I was 15. I really did. And that's the one thing that kind of hasn't changed. So, even when the great success of Titanic came around, to me, it was just all about getting the record needle back on track again and saying, "OK, let's reinforce what I started out wanting to do. This was a departure that ultimately is going to be incredibly beneficial for me, and what can I do with that?"

When did you and Martin Scorsese first cross paths? And why is it that you two have hit it off together to the extent that you have? I think that you have worked with him as much as anyone other than De Niro, at this point.

I grew up a fan of the Golden Age of cinema which, to me and all of my friends, was the '70s and the great age of films where the director had control. We got to see some of the most memorable films and performances of all time during that era and everything since then has always been a reversion and comparison back to those films. Any one of my friends, whenever we talk about movies, we always reference something from the '70s. And to me, the greatest cinematic partnership maybe of all time, and certainly of that time period, was De Niro and Scorsese. In a lot of ways, they were a part of my upbringing and my childhood, as far as being a fan of cinema. So to get to work with him, being of completely different generations -- we just have a shared understanding that we're out there to do the same thing. I think that's taken a while to truly understand on his part -- not a while but, I mean, it's been a culmination of more and more trust with one another. And, in a lot of ways, I think [The Wolf of Wall Street] is the result of being able to work with each other on our films before it. We were not going to try to do something in a traditional sense in this film. We'd been given the opportunity to make a film that was going to hopefully be outrageous and daring and push the envelope a little bit. So it wasn't necessarily a dialogue about what type of movie we wanted to do after the experiences that we've had together. At this point, it was just about us reminding one another, with very specific character decisions or plot points. But, just to backtrack a little, I understand his mentality, too. You have to understand: This man is the greatest admirer of cinema as an art form of anyone you'll ever meet, and there's nothing in his life that he doesn't reference cinema to. He lives and breathes this. He's got such an admiration and appreciation for what's been done in the past. And he's got that hunger in him, as well, and that excitement for us to just be able to do the type of films that we want to do. The fact that, through the years now, we've trusted one another to know that we're not doing anything for our own self-interest -- it's more about making the best, most original movie we can -- has been an incredible experience for me. And I don't stop learning. I mean, every time I'm on set with him I learn more about the reason I make movies and the reason I'm an actor than anything I've ever done.

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I'm curious if you regard The Wolf of Wall Street as a personal milestone, in a way? I can't remember a performance of yours -- or very many others ever -- that required this sort of character arc, physicality and just plain energy level. The movie is something like three hours long and you're in every scene! Did you find it to be unusually challenging?

To tell you the truth, it was really the intoxication of being able to play somebody this reckless and having a director behind the camera that isn't passing judgment on these people. I mean, I think that if anyone missed the point of this film-- Look, it is a cautionary tale. It is an indictment of this world. We don't like these people, you know what I mean? But we very consciously said, "Let's insulate the audience in the mindset of what these people's lives were like so we better understand something about the very culture that we live in." We very purposely didn't do the traditional approach of cutting away to the people affected by this. To me, it was an intoxication of this insane ride, of this ship that just moves forward, and you don't see the wake of their destruction. These people are obsessed with greed, wealth, hedonism and consumption at all costs, and they don't care about anyone except themselves. So to be able to do a film like that, with a director like Marty, knowing that he didn't want to pass judgment on these people because he doesn't like this world. He doesn't like these people, but he's fascinated by this world. He's fascinated about what it is in human nature that makes us this destructive to others and ourselves. And that's why this is almost like -- I keep referencing the modern-day Roman Empire. It's getting people to immerse themselves in that mindset for a few hours and seeing what that does to you on a psychological level. And as far as being able to play somebody like that, I mean, I had been thinking about this stuff for six years. I came to Marty and I said, "We're never going to get the opportunity to do a movie that is this sort of radical ever again, I don't think, and we've got to take this opportunity and run with it." And when I finally got to do some of those speeches, you know, I felt like Jordan; I felt this feeling of being "on," like a cult leader, this guy that was pushing people out there to manipulate others and ultimately do what's only right for them. And I understood this guy. You know, I understood this guy. Jordan was much different back then than he is today, but I understood his mindset. And that, ultimately, I think, is why we wanted to do this movie, because this is in the very fabric of our culture, this mindset, and it's a very destructive one. 

You've never really talked about this, but I know that a lot of your fans are a little aggrieved about the fact that you've not yet been awarded an Oscar. I know that for a lot of actors, the inclination is to just kind of pooh-pooh the importance of something like that. But I wonder, would it be meaningful to you, if that were to happen? There's a lot of discussion about it for this performance.

Of course it would be meaningful. I think everyone wants to be recognized by their peers, absolutely, without question. But, the truth of the matter is you learn very quickly you have absolutely no control of what critics or audiences are going to think. You really just have to do everything you can to make the best film. That's the one thing that I do know. But, of course, you know, I would love for this film on all fronts to get some attention because there's only been two films in my entire career that I've really developed myself, really championed to get financed and got a director involved with, and that's been The Aviator and this. And so, in a lot of ways -- and I hate to use the term -- those two are my "babies." Those were the films that I really did everything I possibly could to get made in the right way. And I think that they're very difficult movies to pull off, especially with this one, a film that opens yourself and the movie up to a lot of criticism. So to get any kind of recognition would be amazing for this, absolutely.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg