Leonardo DiCaprio talks about his life-changing experience on ‘The Revenant’
Going through the grit
A missing part of American history: that’s how Leonardo DiCaprio regards the events that inspired The Revenant, released in cinemas just a couple of weeks ago. Straying far away from the comfort of a suit and tie, DiCaprio takes on the freezing (and bloody) landscape of wild Louisiana, in a tale of survival and retribution.
Inspired by the real-life experiences of 19th-century frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass, DiCaprio embodies the legendary man who had been abandoned and robbed by his companions after being mauled by a grizzly bear. Directed by Alejandro G.Innaritu, DiCaprio describes the film saying, “nothing is fake in this story.”
In this interview with Buro 24/7 Russia‘s Nellie Holmes, DiCaprio talks about his experiences on filming The Revenant, the connections he felt with the film and its characters, and the authenticity it breeds in the world of filmmaking.
I am always fascinated by the things that actors are called upon to do in movies. Sometimes it’s a skill set like riding a horse or shooting a gun. But sometimes it can be something strange, scary or even disgusting, like eating a raw fish or a buffalo liver, which is exactly what you did in your new movie. I wonder, was it a real raw fish and a real buffalo liver? And what can you say about your survival skills in general?
Well, first of all, yes, it was a real buffalo liver. And while talking about extreme situations in my life, I have done a lot of extreme situations whether it be scuba diving or skydiving, 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 have 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 the 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 strong, 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 am 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 the 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 of course the cold, and 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 image how our fingers and faces felt. I am sure that’s what every actor is going to talk about – his hands. 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 part of the intent of making the movie was to experience as closely as we could, without literally doing what these fur trappers did.
And what about the positive excitement – what did you like most about working on The Revenant?
I have never worked on a film like this, and I don’t know if Alejandro cued everyone into the process of this movie, but it was very, very unique and unlike anything I have ever done before. It took 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 they achieved these close-up sort of moments with these characters that make you feel like you are really immersed in this movie. We all tried to achieve (and I think we accomplished) this massive, epic scope with a static frame and had the ability to weave in very intimate character moments. You should feel the characters’ breath, their sweat and blood. To me, I have 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 like I said, this whole era of American history is undocumented, so in a lot of ways it was like doing a science-fiction movie that reconnects 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 people fighting over these resources. And 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. A lot of the things that I think are in the underbelly of it are important and pertinent. It’s interesting that while we were doing this film I was also doing a documentary on climate change, and was travelling all over the world. And I found out the same story is happening: we destroy nature for oil and mining; we are kicking native people off their lands and sacrificing their entire cultures to extract these resources. And let me get back to your question about what I liked most and mention that 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 all around the world.
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 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.
One thing that was absolutely amazing to me was how your character has so few opportunities to speak. There was a lot of grunting and a lot of trying to speak but still more silence. How did this inability to express yourself through words influence your performance?
That was really one of the most exciting parts about the project in general. When I read the script I actually kept urging Alejandro to take even more lines out. I wanted less dialogue because that was the exploration of this character. Actually, Hugh Glass is a man who does not mince words and he gets straight to the point of what he wants to talk about and I don’t think he necessarily wants to communicate with that many people (laughs). But still keeping silence for so long, even for a man like Hugh Glass, is a real challenge. And that was a challenge for me as I had to make the story alive just through his eyes. The chance to tell the whole story without words seemed very exciting and that was one of the main catalysts for me doing this movie. I have done so many articulate characters that babble throughout movies that this was a new experiment for me.
You are one of the most successful and one of the finest actors on screen today, so what haven’t you done yet that you would like to achieve?
What haven’t I got yet? Look, I am 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. Honestly there is a lot of stuff that I would love to see happen with the planet that isn’t happening if I could give a wish. I would really love if this Paris climate conference finally had countries come together for the first time and agree on something to curb this insanity that is going on out there with our temperatures. This 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. We are moving faster towards two degrees than I think even scientists understand. 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. Because it’s the transformation of our planet for tens and thousands if not millions of years and it’s possibly irreversible.
What films did you watch to get prepared for The Revenant? Was there something that could help to set the proper mood?
A lot of different movies and Westerns, and Tarkovsky came to mind and other films of that nature but still The Revenant is really so unique. Alejandro created this epic story using all the cinematic poetry. It’s a really layered movie so each and every person will see something different. This is one man’s struggle against nature and at the same time it’s a revenge story that turns into something more existential. It’s really hard to compare this movie to anything that had ever been done. So you can’t get prepared for it – it will be your new experience in all the aspects.
What is your most favorite place on earth where you can just be yourself and relax?
I’ve done a lot of great travelling but two places come to mind now. 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. There I could see nature at its purest and that is something worth experiencing again and again. And then my recent trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia which was astounding and 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. And that was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and one of my most favorite for now.
If Leonardo DiCaprio was not born in Hollywood and didn’t become an actor what would he do in life?
I know quite clearly I would probably be a biologist or work with animals in some capacity. Actually that was my strong interest when I was very young. But I keep talking about 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 L.A, 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. If I wasn’t there for This Boy’s Life I would be very happy as an environmentalist or a biologist dealing with science in some capacity and animals. That would have been very fulfilling as well.
What kind of host are you? The Great Gatsby kind, or less flashy?
I am not that type of host, that’s for sure… Yes, I love to have friends over. I have Christmas parties and things like that but to tell you the truth I haven’t really been home for a year-and-a-half so I don’t even remember the last time I had people over to my house. So I’m looking forward to this Christmas finally to have a good party with my friends.
How do you celebrate Christmas?
I celebrate Christmas with my family. I usually hang out with my dad’s family. They have a gigantic Christmas tree so we all sit around and open presents and have a gigantic meal. I usually celebrate with my mom on the 24th and then with my dad on the 25th.
What’s your biggest temptation in life, and what do you splurge on? Aside from saving the environment obviously…
Jackets. I have way too many jackets. If it’s my biggest temptation. I am not a big fan of cars or private plane – I don’t have those things. But I have really 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.
Can you remember something particular that made you happy in the past year or two?
We did this great auction last year, which was amazing. I worked on it for almost a year while I was filming. It was for Christie’s. We got all these great contemporary artists to donate work, we went to all their studios, and we got the right people in the room, to bid this stuff up. As a result we earned thirty-eight million dollars for the environment. And the other thing is travelling. I visited amazing places in the past two years and I am still impressed by many of them. So, yeah, traveling and getting into the world of art – these two things I truly enjoyed recently.
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