As Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious recast of The Great Gatsby is released, we hear from the man taking the eponymous role.
Rightly celebrated as one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, adapting F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to the screen is a far from weightless task. Four previous film adaptations have tried, and largely failed, to capture its heady evocation of the swinging 1920s Jazz Age, or the charming, romantic, misunderstood Jay Gatsby at its centre. Having controversially recast Shakespeare with Romeo + Juliet (1996), it’s safe to say Baz Luhrmann is a director who doesn’t frighten easily. We spoke to Leonardo DiCaprio, 38, about playing The Great Gatsby.
When Baz Luhrmann first approached you about playing Jay Gatsby, what went through your head?
I’ve known Baz since I was 18 years old. He first approached me to be in Romeo + Juliet, reinventing the Bard, so to speak. So I knew that he is an incredibly ballsy filmmaker who dreams big and is very ambitious. That’s what I admire the most in him. He’s so incredibly inspiring when you sit down with him and you’re able to be infected by his enthusiasm. The fact that these pieces of literature are so iconic dissolves when you sit with Baz. He aims big. It’s not easy to take on the great American novel that is The Great Gatsby.
How did you come to see Jay Gatsby as you started the journey into portraying this character?
When I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I actually did a report on it. I remember watching the  Robert Redford version on a VHS tape in my classroom. I felt sort of isolated or disconnected from that world because it was nothing that I’d ever heard of. I didn’t delve into the tragedy of Gatsby’s story. Baz handed me an old copy of The Great Gatsby. He just laid it on my table and said, ‘I’ve gotten the rights to this and I want to do it with you.’ And when I read it again, I was like, wow, now I get it. Now I get why this is a novel that people are still talking about. Why it’s still so pertinent today. The tragedy of what Gatsby is was so powerful to me.
This is the first time that you’ve worked with Tobey Maguire in a long time. Did he do anything that surprised you in his performance as Nick Carraway?
I think he brought such truth to Nick. I’ve known Tobey since I was 13 years old. Part of the reason that I did this movie was to be able to work with two great old friends and roll the dice in trying to tackle something this ambitious. It’s not an easy thing to say you’re going to portray the central figure in one of the greatest American novels of the 20th Century. You need that support mechanism. And Tobey is such a talented actor that I’ve seen develop through the years. It’s going to be a pretty eye-opening experience for everybody to see how he portrays Nick, because he brings so much humanity to the character. It’s amazing.
What do you think Carey Mulligan brings to the portrayal of Daisy?
We met a lot of different women for this role. Gatsby says, ‘I never understood what being in love with a nice girl could be.’ Daisy needed to have this innocence to her, but, at the same time, this sort of bourgeois, almost blueblood past that she can’t get rid of. Carey had the sophistication and intelligence to pull off that other side of Daisy, but simultaneously, there’s this beautiful, young, innocent girl. When she came in and auditioned for the role and we met with her, she just captured all of those things immediately. She’s terrific in the movie.
We wanted to ask you about the big party at Gatsby’s. What was that like to shoot?
To see the footage of the 1920s and the age of the flapper and these insane parties where everyone [indulged] too much and weren’t contributing that much to the world – its America’s excess. We see it today. We can relate it to many different eras since then. And then boom, the big economic crash happens, but during that time period they were the wildest, craziest, most outlandish parties you could ever imagine. And with Baz, with his theatre background, it was incredible to witness all this stuff come to life.
The Great Gatsby is released on Thursday May 16.