Leonardo DiCaprio on Embodying J. Edgar Hoover

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Photo Source: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Leonardo DiCaprio has been a star for so long, it can be easy to forget he is also an actor—an amazing one at that. He is an instinctive talent whose first major film role was opposite Robert De Niro in "This Boy's Life" and who earned his first Oscar nomination at 19 for his flawless portrait of Johnny Depp's mentally challenged brother in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Although the 1997 phenomenon "Titanic" turned him into a worldwide celebrity, DiCaprio never took on the kind of easy paychecks that might have tempted others. Even from a young age, he seemed determined to seek roles that challenged him personally and paired him with top filmmakers—Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood heading the list.

But it often seemed that even though DiCaprio is beloved by the masses, his most solid work has gone unnoticed. He was praised for lending his star power to "Inception," Christopher Nolan's art house film disguised as a big-budget blockbuster. Yet his heartbreaking performance remained largely underrated. Accolades and awards are often lavished on his co-stars, be it Daniel Day-Lewis in "Gangs of New York" or Kate Winslet in "Titanic" and "Revolutionary Road," while DiCaprio has consistently made his job look easy.

Instead, DiCaprio is an inherently talented actor who studies and prepares intensely for his roles. His abilities are currently on display as the title character in "J. Edgar," a biopic about FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), whose contributions to crime fighting might be overshadowed only by his controversial tactics. For that role in the Eastwood-directed film, the actor took a fraction of his $20 million fee and studied every angle of trivia, including assertions that Hoover was gay and a cross-dresser. It's a bravura performance, one that's sure to net him his fourth Academy Award nomination, if not the win. After all, DiCaprio gets the golden trifecta as Hoover: He gets to play gay, age 50 years, and die.

Back Stage: You started in commercials at a young age; at what point did you realize acting was a career?

Leonardo DiCaprio: I've used this quote before, but I really mean it: I always felt like being an actor was an elite club I never really belonged to. My stepbrother was an actor in commercials and TV shows all throughout my youth, and I loved acting. I loved imitating people I loved drama class; I loved joking around with my parents and creating different characters. I liked doing my own little homemade skits. I always wanted to be an actor, but no agent would accept me for many years. I tried to go to many different agents, and they didn't want to accept me. I think because I was break dancing at the time and had a weird, punkish haircut and dressed like a street kid.

Back Stage: When did you finally get a foothold in the business?

DiCaprio: I finally got accepted by an agent when I was 12 or 13 years old. If it wasn't for the fact I lived in Hollywood, I don't think I would be an actor. I grew up in the heart of Hollywood, on Hollywood and Western, for the first nine years of my life. It was kind of Prostitution Alley back then. But I got to go to this really wonderful school, which was University Elementary School, UES, which is a magnate program of UCLA. They accepted me on scholarship. So my mom sacrificed her time every day driving from Hollywood to Westwood, stuck in traffic every day. It would be a 45-minute ride there and back every day; she had to pick me up because the bus didn't go there. And when I started to be an actor, she let me go on auditions and would drop me off. If I was born in Ohio and had the dream of being an actor, I don't think I'd be here today. Financially, we couldn't have uprooted and moved here.

Back Stage: Well, it might have happened; it just would have taken longer, don't you think?

To be honest, I think that life is a series of being incredibly prepared for that one opportunity. And that one opportunity may have never come along for me, you know? I had that one opportunity with "This Boy's Life," and I was lucky enough to have gotten that role. I was in the right place at the right time.

Back Stage: Is it true Robert De Niro handpicked you for the role of his stepson in "This Boy's Life"?

DiCaprio: It was the director, Michael Caton-Jones, and De Niro. It was a very coveted role, there were hundreds of kids auditioning for it, and it came down to the wire with myself, Tobey [Maguire], and one or two other kids. I just got lucky that day. We did this final audition with De Niro and Michael, and luckily, they saw something in me. I believe it was De Niro who said they should go with me, but you'd have to ask him that question; I don't know exactly how that went down. And when you ask him, I'd love to hear the answer! [Laughs.]

Back Stage: Is there anything that stands out about that audition that might have helped you snag the role?

DiCaprio: I remember screaming at De Niro in the audition. We did a scene where he's ramming a mustard jar in my eye and yelling at me, and I remember he was getting really intense with me because, you know, the character is an abusive father. He was getting in my face, and I remember yelling at him. It wasn't in the script; it was improvised. And then there was sort of a chuckle in the room; I remember them laughing and not really understanding why they were laughing. I think it was because he got me really angry, and they liked how I responded. That's what my memory serves, but his could be a completely different interpretation. They could have sat there and said, "Wow, this kid's ridiculous, but let's give him a shot."

Back Stage: You were working with icons like De Niro at an early age, which had to be intimidating. By that same token, are you aware of how you might be intimidating to some of your co-stars?

DiCaprio: I definitely can see how people in the public eye can make others comfortable or uncomfortable, and I try my best to let things sort of happen naturally—on set and in life, too. I don't think about it that much, because I do consider myself a pretty relatively normal human being, although my life is incredibly bizarre. I sometimes try to figure out how people perceive me, but it's something you can never truly understand. I know how I feel amongst people who are in the public eye, and there's always a little bit of wariness around them—it's like there's an elephant in the room. So I try my best not to think about that type of thing, or I could be endlessly trying to figure it out.

Back Stage: Because you are a celebrity, do you ever feel you don't get the respect you deserve as an actor?

DiCaprio: I think that it's incredibly important to listen to criticism. I consider myself what I consider myself, and that is somebody that's always trying to be better. No matter what anybody thinks about my work, I'm constantly trying to improve, and I really do care about what I do on a very deep level, and it does affect my life on a very deep level. It is my life's passion. I'm very lucky to know this is something I wanted to do ever since I was very young. It's my earliest memory. And I feel fortunate for that. With every role that I've chosen or every movie I've been a part of, I always think about the unbelievable accomplishments of actors and directors in the past and how many great performances have been given, and how many great films there have been in cinema's history. And I have a great amount of respect for that. So I suppose my endless, unattainable goal is to do something that is as good as I see in cinema's past. And I don't know if I will ever, on a personal level, believe that I have accomplished that. I don't know if I'll ever sit here and see a film and say, "This is absolutely everything I ever dreamed of on a personal or cinematic level." But that's what sort of drives me. When I was 15 and I got that part in "This Boy's Life," I sat for a year and just watched every damn movie I possibly could, and I was just awestruck by what's been accomplished. From first seeing Jimmy Cagney in "Public Enemy," all the way to some of the great actors of today, there have been so many great performances.

Back Stage: From a young age, you've made interesting choices in your roles. Were you operating on instinct, or did you have a plan for your career?

DiCaprio: From the beginning, I considered it an honor, and I still do, just to be able to do what I do professionally. I never forget I came from a group of young actors, and not everyone gets to be so lucky to do what we do. It's a huge honor, and something I don't want to disrespect. I remember my second movie being "Gilbert Grape" I remember having the opportunity to do another type of movie at that time—I think it was "Hocus Pocus"—and I was offered more money than I ever dreamed of in my life in one go. But there was something about that role in "Gilbert Grape" that made me say, "You know what? I'm going to pass on this and go for this other role." I don't know quite where that came from as a 16-year-old kid, but seeing all those movies in that time period made me really want to play that Arnie Grape character. And for whatever reason, I was just hooked at that point.

Back Stage: Have you ever taken acting classes or worked with a coach?

DiCaprio: I took junior high and high school drama class. From a young age, I read a lot of books about the Meisner technique and Stanislavsky. But I never reconnected with it until I got to start working with Larry Moss in my 20s. Larry's class is an amazing one. He takes it from a psychological level of conquering your own fears and fighting your inhibitions and taking chances. We all have these emotions we carry around within us, but to be able to release them as an actor is fundamental. Acting and psychology are two sides of the same coin for him.

Back Stage: What was the first film you worked with him on, and do you still work with him?

DiCaprio: "The Aviator." And I consult with him all the time. If it's not a series of meetings, I always consult with him before every movie, just to bat around different character ideas and talk about the creation of what kind of decisions I want to make as an actor. It's incredibly beneficial to have that bouncing board and somebody to challenge you artistically like that.

Back Stage: What sort of practical advice would you offer actors?

I've had young people come up to me and ask me about acting and how to get into the industry, and I always talk about preparation. Go to acting class; learn the fundamentals. Then go to L.A., where all the auditions are. Those are the first two things. And the third thing is, know your damn lines. Know your lines inside and out, to the point at which they become secondhand. Like everyone else, I'm a big fan of Stanley Kubrick; I really wish I could have worked with him. There was something about the way he worked with his actors, a certain exhaustion all his actors had and a certain naturalness in the way they said their lines. It's because they were doing 50 to 100 takes sometimes. There's no way they didn't know every next word that was coming out of their mouth. There was a certain calm and ease—even when you're insane like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining"—there's a certain ease that you have with your dialogue where you can play around. And the ability to play around comes with being prepared and knowing who your character is and what they're going to say. Then you can improv and do other things, because you have the roots and you can create the branches and leaves. But you have to know the fundamentals, and the most important fundamental is: Know what you're going to say.

Back Stage: What interested you in playing J. Edgar Hoover?

I'd been involved with another project for a few years, "Public Enemies," where I started to read up on Hoover. I was involved in the development process with Michael Mann, but I forget what happened. I think it was scheduling conflicts, and then Michael started developing it on his own for a while, and it became more of an all-Dillinger story as opposed to a two-hander. So the idea of doing a movie about that era and J. Edgar Hoover was always sort of in my subconscious. When I heard that Dustin Lance Black, who did "Milk," had done a script, I immediately got it and read it. It was one of those screenplays that brought up a million more questions for me—about his personal life, what motivated him, who he was, what he was involved with historically in our country and government. Dustin really captured the essence of him. And who doesn't want to work with Clint Eastwood? I knew it was a character I had to sink my teeth into. I started to research him immediately, even though I didn't necessarily have the role yet.

Back Stage: How did you go about getting into the skin of Hoover?

DiCaprio: It was incredibly challenging; I put a lot of research and preparation into it. I got to go to Washington, D.C., and retrace Hoover's steps, and go into his old house and see the place where he died in his living room. I got to go to the FBI and stand in his office and see the view and where he ate with Clyde Tolson every day in his corner booth. I got to fly down to North Carolina and meet Deke Deloach, the last man who worked with Hoover who knew him on an intimate level. It really was a lot of fun and really shaped the Hoover I tried to put up onscreen.

Back Stage: You've played your share of real-life people; what's the appeal for you?

DiCaprio: I do love playing historical figures simply because there's so much incredibly diverse interesting information about a character when you can research their life. A lot of the stuff you'd never be able to make up as a writer. You'd say, that's completely unrealistic—Hoover would never do that! It's just so interesting to try and embody somebody like that. It's a different process on something like "Inception," where it's more months of sitting down with the director and shaping the character's subplot and making up their history. I enjoy them both, but I must admit I love playing people where a lot of the answers are already out there, because it's shocking to find out what people have really done in the real world.

Back Stage: You've also played your share of unreliable narrators; any reason you're drawn to those roles?

Yeah. I like that term, "unreliable narrator." Recently, people have been asking me about the type of decisions I've made, and I think something I'm going to continue to do is not question why I'm drawn to certain types of roles or genres of movies. You feel like you have to be of service to something, and I feel like whatever it is about those characters—whether they're unreliable narrators or some sort of dysfunction, or have some sort of similarity to other characters—there's a reason I want to play them, and I don't want to question that. Like I said, I feel very honored to be able to pick and choose what I do. So I'm just going to continue not questioning it.


Received Oscar nominations for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "The Aviator," and "Blood Diamond" won a Golden Globe Award for "The Aviator"

Is shooting "The Great Gatsby" with director Baz Luhrmann, then set to film a role in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

An active environmentalist, he produced and narrated "The 11th Hour," a documentary about the global environment.

His company, Appian Way Productions, has produced such films as "Red Riding Hood," "Orphan," and "The Assassination of Richard Nixon."