Leonardo DiCaprio is enjoying a run working for Hollywood’s greatest directors. With his current J. Edgar, DiCaprio was moved to brilliance by director Clint Eastwood in his portrayal of legendary FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. After portraying Howard Hughes in The Aviator for Martin Scorsese, we cannot think of a better choice to bring the U.S. historical icon to life as DiCaprio has in J. Edgar.
DiCaprio and Eastwood recently sat down to discuss their film, what Eastwood thinks about acting again, and how DiCaprio sifted through all the rumors and hearsay to channel a performance worthy of an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Movie Fanatic: Did you learn anything about J. Edgar Hoover that altered your perception of the man?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I think the screenplay that Clint and I initially responded to by Mr. Dustin Lance Black was a very fascinating portrait of this man. I think all us actors were very fascinated with these characters that had devoted their life to government service and that meant not having any kind of personal life whatsoever. They were the representation of the FBI. That was their church. It’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, to completely sacrifice any sort of love in your life, to never experience that on a personal level. All three of these characters lived a life of service to their country.
Movie Fanatic: And what most compelled you about Clint Eastwood and his vision for J. Edgar?
Leonardo DiCaprio: What I was fascinated by was his take on entering J. Edgar Hoover’s career during a time of almost a terrorist invasion by Communists -- the Red Scare -- that sort of paranoia that was infused in our country and the lawlessness of these bank robbers that were going from state to state and becoming free men when they crossed state lines. J. Edgar Hoover really transformed the police system in America and created this Federal Bureau that to this day is one of the most feared, respected and revered police forces in the entire world.
Movie Fanatic: What do you think, above all us, J. Edgar should be remembered for?
Leonardo DiCaprio: The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that Communism was an evil thing. He wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country -- but when the Civil Rights movement came along, he saw that as an uprising of the people. He didn’t adapt or change to our country. He stayed in power way too long and he didn’t listen to his own critics. He was a staunch believer in his moral beliefs and his beliefs about what was right for our country, and therefore his career ended on a failed note, in my opinion. Clint’s portrait of this man was a very complex one and a very interesting one, and I just loved the research that he did and the take that he had on J. Edgar Hoover’s life. Because, you can’t deny that he wasn’t a patriot, at the same time his tactics were pretty deplorable.
Movie Fanatic: Clint, you have a reputation for only doing a few takes. Is that true, or just one of those Hollywood myths?
Clint Eastwood: It just depends. You’re looking for the highlights. You’re looking for the best elements of the scene, but preferably you’d like to have one good take that would go all the way through. But I’m always trying for it on the first take. That was Don Siegel’s favorite thing. He says, “I may not get it, but I’m always trying for it.” I’ve got this reputation for shooting one take, which is a wonderful reputation to have but it’s hard to live up to. If I did it, it would be kind of shoddy, I think. What I do is whatever it takes, it takes. Sometimes you see a scene right away and a take looks great so you might print that and you might print a couple more and take elements of all three.
Movie Fanatic: How for you as a filmmaker, did you see the aging process playing into the storytelling in J. Edgar?
Clint Eastwood: I think the best example we had was when we did J. Edgar Hoover going in to see the president. You’d see Leo going in as a young man and then at the final one when he goes in to see President Nixon, he goes in and he does the exact same gestures, but just as an old man. If you put those two pieces together, you see a dramatic change.
Movie Fanatic: Leo, in preparation for the older versions of your characters, did you take a closer look at older people and how they move or is it something that just comes naturally as part of the acting?
Leonardo DiCaprio: The challenge for me was not just the prosthetic work and how to move like an older man would move, but more so how to have 50 years of experience in the workplace and talk to a young Robert F. Kennedy as if he was some political upstart that didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Thankfully, Clint set that up for the last two weeks of filming. We got to prepare for that and we got to get our footing in our characters and then came to set. And the last few weeks, we sat in the make-up chair for five or six or seven hours sometimes. I think a lot of us had our own research on how to do that, but there was a lot of prep time for that. But, thankfully, Clint creates an environment for all of us to really focus on the acting and the drama and the interaction with the characters.
Movie Fanatic: Is it safe to say that Clint is an actor’s director?
Leonardo DiCaprio: His style of directing, it’s so catered for actors because he has almost like this splinter cell unit of people on set, the bare minimum. It’s like an elite squadron of Marines that are there and they sort of fade away, and then that third wall sort of disappears and you start to feel like you’re actually submerged in reality and you’re really there. For doing difficult stuff like that, it’s incredibly helpful as an actor to feel like you’re immersed in that environment.
Movie Fanatic: Leo, why are you drawn to characters stemmed from our history, such as in J. Edgar and The Aviator?
Leonardo DiCaprio: For me as an actor, I just loved researching this stuff. We got to take a trip to Washington and I got to meet people who knew him and really understand and capture this guy to the best of my abilities. That’s half the fun of making a movie for me. To me, you couldn’t write a character like J. Edgar Hoover and have it be believable. I mean, he was a crock pot of eccentricities. The fact that this man was, if not the most powerful man in the last century, one of the most in our country and he lived with his mother until he was 40 years old. He listened to his mother for political advice. The more I dug deep, you understand the history of the child and what motivated these people at a very early age. She wanted the Hoover name to rise to great glory in Washington, so he was this incredibly ambitious young genius that really transformed our country and created this Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yet he was a mama’s boy. He was incredibly repressed emotionally. His only outlet was his job. He wasn’t allowed to have any kind of personal relationships, or he felt that. No matter what his sexual orientation was, he was devoted to his job and power.
Movie Fanatic: Clint, how are you so active and astute? Give us an insight into aging gracefully.
Clint Eastwood: I think aging, so far, has been okay. I think it’s been good. A lot of people regret because we live in a society that reveres being at the prime of life and everything. You have certain primes at certain times, and mine happens to be…
Leonardo DiCaprio: From an outsider’s perspective, it’s amazing what he does. If he’s not directing a film, he’s acting in it or he’s composing the music for that film. His commitment to what he does is astounding -- for all of us to witness. It’s inspiring, actually.
Clint Eastwood: I do believe if one keeps busy, it’s very good for a person. In fact, people are always rushing into retirement and we read in Europe that people there are talking about their retirement age and moving it to 67 or something. Oh, I’ve passed it, haven’t I? [Laughs] And so you keep in shape, you keep yourself mentally in shape. And if you keep yourself mentally in shape, chances are physically it will follow suit.
Movie Fanatic: Clint, would you consider acting again? You had previously said that you were done.
Clint Eastwood: Actually, it’s based on material. I was just telling somebody a few minutes ago that I’d been trying to retire to the back of the camera for quite a few years. And then in 1970 when I first started directing, I said, “You know, if I could pull this off, I can some day just move in back of the camera and stay there.” I never was able to pull it off because somebody offered me a role. Once in a while they come up with a grumpy old man thing and they say, “Okay, let’s get Eastwood for that.” So, we’ll see. Every once in a while somebody writes a script, but even regardless of what age you are, most actors would all agree that it’s all based upon material. The material has got to spark with you. It may be great material, you just have to make that judgment and if you feel in the mood to do it.
Movie Fanatic: Lastly, Leo, how do you handle playing what many believe is such an unsympathetic character?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I don’t have to sympathize or empathize with a human being in order to be able to portray them. I mean, some of the greatest roles that actors have been able to play haven’t been the most endearing on screen.