Leonardo DiCaprio: "I was close to death"
If Leonardo DiCaprio wins the highly deserved Oscar for his role in Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant, the internet will probably have a meltdown. Thanks to the endless memes about Leo's five Academy Awards losses, it's something of a running joke. But with a Best Actor win at yesterday's Golden Globes in the bag, the path is clear for a long-deserved Oscar victory. Here, the actor chats to Nellee Holmes about making filmmaking, family and alternate career paths.
I'm always fascinated by the things that actors are called upon to do in a movie. You ate raw fish and buffalo liver in The Revenant. Was it real? And what can you say about your survival skills in general?
Well, first of all, yes, it was a real buffalo liver. Talking about extreme situations in my life... I've done a lot of extreme situations whether it be scuba diving or sky diving, etc. But after seeing this movie you could certainly never compare any kind of extreme to this struggle in [the] wilderness. At the end of any shooting day I got to go to my hotel room and thought I would never be able to endure what these men did. I've been in a lot of situations which were sort of near death experiences but nothing like this, no.
How did you get prepared for the role? Did you study any special material?
I had a journal for reference, it was called The Journal of a Fur Trapper. There was a whole era in American history which wasn't actually documented - a severe era of fur trade. We created a story of a certain man - Hugh Glass - who was sort of Paul Bunyan epitome. While getting into the material I was just shocked and amazed of the human spirit and the triumph of the will to live.
What are your thoughts about some of the extremely violent scenes in the movie?
Well, it seems I have a penchant for doing films that have extreme violence in them. So I don't know if I'm desensitised to it, but for me this film is an accurate depiction of that time period. Without getting into this violence, you can't be authentic in these sort of movies. I really like these kind of strong stories. I think it's a perfect fusion of violence and beauty at the same time. It's portraying nature as it is.
What was the most difficult thing to handle during the whole process?
For me the real challenge was the cold - it was a constant struggle. It was down to 40 below and sometimes to the point where the camera actually couldn't operate. So you could imagine how our fingers and faces felt. I mean, the hands were a constant source of pain. I think they even had to invent machines for the actors not to get hypothermia after every single take that we did. I knew what I had signed up for and that was part of the, I don't want to say fun, but it was part of the intent of making the movie - to experience that as closely as we could, without having done what these fur trappers did, it was very difficult.
What did you like most about working on The Revenant?
I've never worked on a film like this - it was very, very unique. It took months and months of rehearsals and every single day was like a little bit of theatre. We would rehearse all day long in order to work like a Swiss watch during shooting because at the end of every day we had only an hour and a half of magic light when everything looks most beautiful and impressive. And there are so many things that were happening behind the camera and so many people working in coordination with one another, but they achieved this incredible intimacy and these close-up moments with these characters that make you feel like you're really immersed in this movie. You should feel characters' breath, their sweat and blood. To me, I've never quite seen anything done like that, and it's almost as if they were trying to achieve a virtual cinematic reality.
How does this fight for survival that took place 200 years ago resonate today?
It's interesting because this whole era of American history is undocumented, so in a lot of ways it was like doing a science-fiction movie and reconnecting with a part of America that was not yet America but very much like a lawless territory where you had French and English fur trappers and indigenous native people fighting over these resources. We had to piece together what this world would be like and how these characters would interact, but at its core the movie is obviously about the relations between man and nature.
It's interesting that while we were doing this film, I was also doing a documentary on climate change and travelling all over the world. I found out the same story is happening. We destroy nature for oil and mining, we are kicking native people off of their lands and sacrificing their entire culture to extract these resources.
And I especially like the way Alejandro portrayed the native American people without making them a caricature or a stereotype. I think he brought a great humanity to these people and the diversity of the tribes. The whole story to me is about all the different characters that are striving to live and survive and that's very thematic today.
Aside from being a realistic film this is also a spiritual journey with nature and god, so did you feel that connection when you were doing the film?
Being out in nature for that long is a sort of an existential journey and yeah it was spiritual in a lot of ways but that was our exact intention to create such a story. There were certainly moments in this movie where it was so incredibly difficult that you had to pull from some other imaginary place. The story, by and large, is very linear: a man gets screwed over and loses his son and then he goes to attack the dude that screwed his life up. But to me and Alejandro it was these great bookmarks for what would happen when he and I started to figure out the poetry of who this character is and what he goes through and being influenced by everything that happened in nature. Nothing is fake in this story.
You are one of the most successful and finest actors on screen today, what haven't you done yet that you'd like to achieve?
What haven't I got yet? Look, I'm an incredibly happy and lucky person and it's difficult to imagine what I really want for myself. But there are a lot of things that I would wish for the world. I would really love for countries to come together and agree on something to curb this insanity that's going on out there with our temperatures. [Last] year we had the hottest October and July in recorded history and the hottest year in recorded history, it just seems like insanity and so much faster than scientific projections ever estimated. There are extreme weather patterns all over the world and it's actually terrifying. To me, it's what everyone on earth should be focused on. Really.
What film was the most inspiring for you when you were young?
When I was a young actor, one of the most transformative films for me was Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese. You get so identified with that loneliness and that longing of Travis Bickle, but then he ultimately betrays you. To me, it's still one of the greatest or even the greatest independent films ever made.
What about your private life - what are the milestones you want to reach as a man and a mensch?
I want to die like a man, like a mensch, like a good person. My dad always says, no matter you do, try to lead an interesting life and try to find a way to wake up every morning and just be happy you can put your pants on. I can't say that I am 100 percent there but those are my personal ambitions.
Do you have any special father-and-son stories with your dad? Does he influence your life in any way now?
My dad has always been incredibly influential not only in my career but as a person to follow. When I was in a public school some of my greatest education was just sitting down listening to my father. He is one of the most well-read and knowledgeable people I have ever met. I am really grateful to him for steering me towards non-obvious sort of characters and certain risks like playing Arthur Rimbaud at 17 years old. Now we're partnering in all kinds of environmental endeavors together.
What kind of relationship do you have with your mother?
My mother is like a fine wine in the sense that she becomes more blatantly honest as she gets older, and it's very German. As she is going into retirement right now she is absolutely, unbelievably, relentlessly honest in every scenario and it's becoming a badge of courage for her, some sort of bit of pride for her to be able to tell people exactly what the hell she thinks. And it puts me into a lot of situations where I have to explain afterwards what she truly means. It's amazing and entertaining and fantastic, but sometimes I need to quell her honesty.
I must confess, I have a bet on you. I bet if you ever marry, the girl will be an environmentalist...
Well, anybody that I would be with should have an environmental agenda or some sort of understanding of environmentalism, yes. I couldn't be with someone who didn't believe in climate change, for example.
What is your most favorite place on earth where you can just be yourself and relax?
One of the greatest trips I ever took in my life was down the Amazon river away from all civilization. It was so beautiful and reminded me of my childhood daydreams. I could see nature at its purest and that is something worth experiencing again and again. And my recent trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia was astounding, which I recommend everyone to go one day. Cambodia is one of the most magical places I have ever seen and the people there are so lovely and all those temples you can just get lost in for days.
If you weren't not born in Hollywood and didn't become an actor what would you do instead?
Life is all about being prepared for a certain moment in time. I got my first opportunity when I got the role in This Boy's Life. But if I hadn't lived in LA, if my mother wasn't driving me to auditions, I would have never been there for that opportunity. It's really important to be in the right place and in the right time. I would [have been] very happy as an environmentalist or a biologist dealing with science in some capacity and animals. That would have been very fulfilling as well.
Do you have any relationship advice to share?
Clint Eastwood said once and it is very interesting to me: "You can love a lot of women but you got to like them too". I like that bit of advice that he gave me.
What's your biggest temptation in life, and what do you splurge on?
Jackets. I have way too many jackets. I'm not a big fan of cars or private plane - I don't have those things. But I have many jackets. It's like women's passion for shoes: if I see a jacket, and for some reason I have one that looks exactly like it but the collar is a little different, I've got to have it.
What was the most expensive thing you ever purchased?
A house. Or a Warhol... But yes, it was my mother's house.
What do you do to stay fit and healthy?
To stay healthy, I do less extreme sports today. But I used to do it really often so from time to time I was close to death. The healthiest thing I can do is to moderately exercise, relax, and don't put myself in situations where I can die. And I love diving. It's one of my favorite things to do. It's a whole new experience when you're down there. You really disconnect from earth and got to a dream world. And I love watching basketball and mixed martial arts (but I'm not the avid American sports nut).
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