For over two decades, from his first nomination, back in 1994, for the innocent Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to his most recent: 2014’s dribbling, monstrously magnificent Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio has been a kind of Hollywood version of an earnest bricklayer, diligently cementing his credentials as the actor of his generation.
Well, you know, if bricklayers dated supermodels…
He’s portrayed icons, crooks and legends, real and imagined, from J. Edgar to Jay Gatsby, and worked with a veritable convoy of A-list directors including Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes, Clint Eastwood, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese (five times!) yet still, those gold-plated britannium statuettes elude him.
Perhaps he’ll finally get his due this year with The Revenant, the latest from acclaimed director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose last film Birdman picked up four Oscars including Best Picture. A thrilling and uncompromising journey through the American wilderness of the 1820s, The Revenant (it means “someone who returns from death”) stars DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who is left for dead by his fellow hunters after a bear attacks him in the wilderness. It’s an immersive and brutal film, full of the stark realities of the period and some utterly stunning action sequences, and DiCaprio is as compelling as he’s ever been, a battered, aching presence (both physically and emotionally) who seeks revenge but ultimately finds redemption.
The film – which shot primarily on location, in sequence and using only natural light – proved a long, arduous shoot with some crew departing (or being fired) along the way. Even DiCaprio, who is fond of the phrase "Pain is temporary, film is forever," acknowledges it was a tough shoot.
“Yeah,” he grins, before emphasising the point with a few cheerful expletives. “We all worked incredibly hard. The entire crew went through really difficult circumstances. Whether it was the constant extreme weather, or the cameras not working because it was 40 below zero or the snow melting because of the climate change in that territory, causing the entire landscape to go dry and barren within five hours. You know, we shut down for weeks. I don’t think any of us anticipated just how challenging it was going to be.”
He says all this with not a trace of weariness, only the exuberant glee of an actor visibly proud of the film he’s promoting. We’re in the penthouse loft of the Soho Grand, a luxurious boutique hotel in downtown Manhattan. (Born and raised near Hollywood Boulevard, DiCaprio admits he enjoys “escaping” to New York whenever he can.) It’s a bright autumnal morning. The sun is shining through large windows and if The Revenant was a draining shoot, you’d never know it from DiCaprio’s demeanour, which is chatty and cheerful. In a casual (but well-cut and probably very expensive) T-shirt and tailored canvas shorts, he looks positively youthful. Slim and sun-kissed, he appears around a decade younger than his 41 years. An entirely different person to the grizzled loner that stares down from the film’s poster. So what drew him to play a bearded bear attack victim?
“Number one, Alejandro,” he says firmly. “He’s a great visionary. There are very few filmmakers left who can make a sort of poetic epic. Who can take a very linear story like the Hugh Glass story, which is something of a campfire legend piece of Americana: the American survivalist, the fur trapper, the mountain man mauled by a bear, travelling hundreds of miles through the harshest conditions, etc. But through Alejandro’s eyes it became something much more existential. About the triumph of the human spirit. And what it is to overcome massive obstacles. It became less of a revenge story and something, I think, much more profound than that.”
Such things matter to DiCaprio. A lot. He only works with directors “with a vision” and he only wants to make films with ambition. He doesn’t do superheroes or spaceships. He’s not looking for a franchise. In many ways he’s a very old-fashioned movie star, perhaps the last of an era. The legendary talent agent Lew Wasserman once said of DiCaprio: “Keep him in the dark”, meaning only show him in movie theatres, keep him off the small screen and out of the public eye. Even in an age of internet streaming and celebrity culture, it’s a policy the actor seems to have embraced. You don’t see him on the small screen, unless it’s to promote a film. He has a strict “no photographs” policy at any party or event he attends that isn’t promotional, which has given him an old-school mystique.
The truth is, we don’t really know much about him. He worries about the environment. (And spends a lot of time and money trying to improve things). He dates a lot of models (although that may say more about the circles he mixes in then any particular proclivity). He’s had primarily the same group of friends his whole life. He claims he’d like to settle down but you sense his passion remains the work. It seems strange now to recall that at the start of his career he was considered a teen idol. These days it’s rarely mentioned how fiercely good looking DiCaprio is. But there’s still a hint of the young Brando in his features, maybe even a touch of Elvis. In an industry that still banks on how well light reflects off cheekbones, his old school movie star good looks remain a currency, even if the actor does his best to bury his features in his characters. “He’s going to be a movie star forever,” says Christopher Nolan. “He has that timeless quality about him, like a Jack Nicholson or an Al Pacino.” “I just want to do good work,” says DiCaprio simply.
“To make things that interest me. With The Revenant, it was almost like making a science fiction movie because there was so little information from that time to work with. I mean, not only would cinema audiences not know much about this time period, I don't think historians know that much about it. Simply because America wasn't America. It was the Amazon at that time. It was inhabited by indigenous people and this is the first sort of infiltration of the white man into nature. And how he manipulated that for capitalistic purposes. The fur trade was before the gold rush. It was before the oil rush. It was the first bit of nature that we could extract out and send these furs to Europe. So you have the French, the English, the Americans all sort of instilled in what is the American Amazon at that time. And this is before Lewis and Clark, before we sent sort of explorers over there to understand what this landscape was like. It was truly nature in every sense of the word.”
DiCaprio gleaned what research he could primarily from the journals of fur trappers but he also had to go to “Boot Camp” with the rest of the cast to learn survival skills. “We had specialists to learn about the muskets we were using, which take a minute to reload. And how to start fires. How to eat, how to survive the cold temperatures. It was a different era of Man so to speak. And they were clearly incredibly tough. I mean, I love nature, I do environmental work, I do stuff in the wild all the time. But by no means would I ever be able to say I'm a Bear Grylls-type! I couldn't do what these men did.”
You wouldn’t know it from watching the film, DiCaprio is characteristically convincing as Glass, as believable with the gruelling physical aspects as the emotional ones. The latter often being communicated wordlessly as Glass spends spells of the film entirely alone or unable to speak because of his injuries.
“It was almost like silent film acting in a lot of ways,” admits DiCaprio. “Which was an interesting journey. I have very little to say in this movie. But I have to sort of articulate by emoting my struggle. And often there was nobody else to play off of: it's me alone in the elements. So that was challenging, but I have to say the surroundings we were in gave me a lot to react to.”
“Leo is more than an actor,” claims Iñárritu. “He is a filmmaker. He understands cinema as a whole, not only from his point-of-view. So he’s a great collaborator to have on your side because his comments never come from vanity or ego or insecurity.”
DiCaprio is equally complimentary about his director. “Truly, Alejandro is a genius when it comes to filmmaking. He’s developed his own approach and his own style to making movies throughout the years that has become synonymous with only him now. The way that he and Chivo [Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] have pulled off this epic intimacy, where you see the vast landscape, but at the same time, the camera snakes in on a small close-up of somebody to capture a moment… I don't think there's ever quite been a film like it. It's one of those highly ambitious movies that I don't think we'll see from Hollywood very often.”
Although if DiCaprio gets his way, we may get a few more ambitious movies out of the system yet. And perhaps at some point, one of them may even win him that Oscar.
The Revenant is out in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday January 7.