For a while, it was uncertain whether Leonardo DiCaprio
would live up to the potential suggested by What’s
Eating Gilbert Grape. He transformed so completely into the mentally
challenged Arnie, even much more lucrative roles as a young stowaway on the
Titanic or an MTV version of Shakespeare seemed like average duties. Recent
roles in Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can suggested daring
projects, but still left debate about what his actual performance was
There should be no doubt after seeing DiCaprio play Howard
Hughes in The Aviator (CHUD review). Whether you
appreciate the film’s interpretation of his life or find it a
recognize that DiCaprio is as un-teen idol-like as Hughes as he was as Arnie.
Twitching, washing his hands into a bloody pulp and stewing in his screening
room for what seems like weeks, this is a balls out performance.
In person, DiCaprio seems so relaxed. He takes stage in
front of a room full of journalists not like he’s trying to win them all over,
but like he’s just ready to answer questions and do his duty for marketing. We
could have spent all day asking about The
Aviator, but here are the answers to the questions that did fit into the time
Q: What was it about Howard Hughes that fascinated you?
Leo: As an actor, you’re constantly searching for that great
character. And, being a history buff and learning about people in our past and
amazing things that they’ve done, I came across a book of Howard Hughes and he
was set up basically as like the most multi-dimensional character I could ever
come across. Often, people have tried to define him in biographies. No one
seems to be able to categorize him. He was one of the most complicated men of
the last century. And so I got this book, brought it to Michael Mann and John
Logan came onboard and really came up with the concept of saying, “You can do
ten different movies about Howard Hughes. Let’s focus on his younger
years. Let’s watch his initial descent into madness but meanwhile, have
the backdrop of early Hollywood, these daring pioneers in the world of aviation
that were like astronauts that went out and risked their lives to further the
cause of aviation. [He was] the first American billionaire who had all the
resources in the world but was somehow unable to find any sense of peace or
happiness.” It’s that great see-saw act in the movie that goes
on. On one side, he’s having all the successes in the world and on the
other side the tiny microbes and germs are the things that are taking him
downwards because of his OCD and being a germaphobe.
Q: Talk about your relationship with Mr. Scorsese and what
he might have brought to
Leonardo: What I’m going to say is going to sound like a
cliché but I can not tell a lie. He is every actor’s dream to work
with. He’s the man in the business that you can unanimously ask any actor
of any age range, and they want to work with this man because he is not only one
of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but he is like a film historian.
He’s a professor of film. The man has seen almost every film ever made up until
1980. You get an education while working with him every single day.
He screens movies for you to talk about specific scenes and what he’s trying to
convey up on the screen. You can ask him a question about a character or
the way a scene should go and he can show you twenty different examples of filmmakers that have
done that in the past, the way it’s been done right, the way it’s been done
wrong. And it’s an incredible learning experience. But, for us,
having this huge sort of generational gap, we actually found that we
fundamentally share the same tastes in a lot of different things, not just film
but music and art. And we dislike a lot of the same things and like a lot of
the same things. We have a great work ethic together. We get along.
We’ve had marathon rehearsal sessions and sometimes those can be arduous if
people don’t enjoy that process but his whole criteria, the thing that he does
so well is he’s so persistent on making everything he does an authentic as
possible. So, he loves to have actors come to the table with an array of
different information and different new ideas and challenging things. He welcomes
that more than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. For this movie, and all
the research I did, we certainly did a lot of that.
Q: In addition to the book, what was some of the other research you did?
Leo: The genesis, like I said, was seven, eight years ago,
reading the book, bringing it to Michael Mann and finally John Logan developing
it with Michael and then the script landing on my lap. And then the real
research began after we committed to the movie, Marty and I. It was a year
of preparation. It was not only those marathon sessions with John Logan and
Scorsese but I got to meet a couple of people who actually worked with Howard,
who knew Howard. Jane Russell, I drove up north to spend a day with her and
talk about Howard and Terry Moore, his ex-wife, she provided a lot of
information about him. When you read a script and it says in the script “He has
obsessive compulsive disorder” and then you read two pages of a man repeating
the same line over and over again, not that it’s easy for a writer to write that because
he has his own thought process, but when you’re an actor and reading that you
say, “How in the hell am I gonna say this? What is the driving force behind
repeating something twenty times in a row and why the hell is he doing it?” So
that brought me to work with Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA who is the leading
physician on obsessive compulsive disorder and treating it in a non-medicated
fashion. He really explained to me what OCD is and the brain mechanism
that goes into it and the sort of faulty gear shift, the sticky gear shift that happens when your mind obsesses on
one thing and you don’t listen to the other part of your brain that tells you
you’re being ridiculous. So, I worked a lot with him and a patient of his.
I spent a few days with him, living around him and talking to him and really
trying to find out why he had to repeat or do things obsessively. Then, reading
every possible book I could on him and his life.
Q: Do you think you’ll have a place in history for dating so
many famous women, like Howard Hughes did?
Those aren’t my
intentions going into a relationship. But, with Howard, it’s an
interesting dynamic because I honestly feel that as much as he had love
adoration for these women and genuinely cared for them, he kind of
them like airplanes. You know what I mean? He was a technical genius
with finding the new, faster, bigger airplane and that was simultaneous
with women. He was constantly finding the new hotter female to go
out with. It all related back to him being orphaned at a very young age
sort of having this empty hole in his soul that, I think, he was always
fill with new, more exciting things in his life. He ended up,
obviously, not a
very happy person. I don’t know if he was thinking about whether,
he was going to become a legend. I’m sure he had that sort of cat and
mouse things going on in his mind where he wanted to be famous but it
like, “Look at me! Look at me! No, don’t look at me.”
Q: Did you see The
Leo: I saw that movie, yes. I saw all the different
interpretations of Howard throughout cinema. Carpetbaggers was interesting, yeah. That was one of the initial
films we saw in creating the movie.
Q: What do you think are the responsibilities of a film to
tell the truth versus fictionalizing parts of a historical figure’s life?
Leo: Like I said, there is so much information. There’s the
whole later years of Howard’s life which is a film in its own right anyway. But
the reason this film was made, and I think the first true distinctive film on
Howard Hughes was possible because of focusing on his younger years and being
able to show not only the growing up of this man in this time period, but our
country, the state of our country and what kind of people were around in the
beginning of early Hollywood and the attitudes of people.
Q: Do you have to draw a line between fact and fiction?
Leo: When it serves the film and as long, to me, as the
essence of what you’re trying to portray is the intention of the
character. There are a couple of things in this movie that weren’t exactly
what really happened. And I know there’s all those detectives out there that
love to look for mistakes or things that weren’t exactly the real deal. But,
for example, Howard Hughes never did the thing with buying the photos of
Katharine Hepburn of her and Spencer Tracy. Instead the intention was the
same, he bought her The Philadelphia
Story which she ended up doing on stage, and inevitably got her an Academy
Award after they broke up. The intention was still there. He still loved
her, he still cared about her as a person and still did something like that for
her. You know, I think as long as you are carried on that ride of the film and
you’re engaged in the character and it’s something that isn’t way too far out
of the field of what really happened, and the intention is still there, I think
that’s the artists’ right.
Q: How did you go from the Alexander the Great project to
this, and do you regret not being able to play that role?
Leo: I don’t have any regrets certainly, after seeing the
movie again last night, not at all. Alexander the Great was also one of
those things where Scorsese and I just share the same taste in similar
things. We were both fascinated with Alexander the Great as well as
Howard Hughes. They’re completely different time periods and different men, but
similar dynamics. Men that keep on reaching for their ultimate goal and
stop at nothing until they achieve that. It just happened to be that this
script and the project was way further advanced in the development stage than
the script that landed in our lap was from Alexander and we wanted to go forth.
We had an intention at one time of doing them both, but you don’t get
everything you want all the time.
Q: Were you developing that with Baz Luhrmann?
Leo: Baz, you know, I can’t even tell, I’ve talked to him
about it. I have no idea if he’s still going to do it or not.
Q: So there was also Scorsese project?
Leo: There were a lot of people were toying with it. That’s the way it is in
the business, that an idea pops up and all of a sudden it’s a piranha feeding
frenzy. Oliver got his off before anybody else’s.
Q: What kind of window into today’s society does the film
Well, more so than anything what I was worried about
the most in this film was saying, “Okay, here’s the first American
He’s handsome, he sleeps with the best women in the world, he’s an
hero and how the hell do you make this situation with Juan Trippe and
American Airways and this Senator become a sympathetic situation
Hughes?” I was going through my head and churning constantly and then I
realized, for exactly what you’re talking about specifically, it has to
corporate takeover and the involvement of huge corporations with our
and they’re in cahoots and it’s going on today with the Enron scandals
numerous other things. That’s what really made me say, “Okay, here’s
this one man, he’s his own boss, he is rich but he is a stand up
individual and here
he is with all these horrible things going on with himself mentally,
up in front of the Senate and battling the Senate to stop the monopoly
international travel.” I think
ultimately people kind of got behind that and lost all the other
pre-thoughts about who Howard Hughes was or
whether he would be a sympathetic character. And as far as history is
concerned, a lot of people I spoke to said they really wanted Howard
be President after that. They really loved this one individual taking
the entire system, taking on the government, taking on huge monopolies
and corporations and that’s what, in other words, struck a chord
people, or me at least anyway.
Q: Can you just talk about the two Kates?
Leo: My two Kates. Well, for the Katharine Hepburn
character there was really only one person that could play that role in the
world. There is the, what can I say, the female version of Daniel
Day-Lewis, and that is Cate Blanchett. To be able to take on the persona
and one of the most iconic female voices of the 20th Century, in Katharine
Hepburn, one of the most immediately recognizable voices, and being from
Australia as well… Taking on that, you have to be a true chameleon and
genius. So, enough said about that. Kate Beckinsale, we were looking
for Ava and she came in with the full fur and Ava Gardner attire and make-up
and attitude, and once we met with a few girls for that and as soon as she stepped into the meeting with
us we knew we had our Ava. She represented the class, had the strength, had the
attitude, and it was a joy to work with both of them.
Q: What are your film tastes like these days?
Leo: I’m still doing my homework, still watching a lot of
old movies. A lot of old films. Some of my favorites, the last thing
that I really got into was the whole neo-realism movement with De Sica and all
those great Italian directors, The
Bicycle Thief and all of his great work. It’s so funny because here we are
doing movies at this day and age and you don’t realize that these directors
have attempted these things almost 100 times before you. We think we’re
so original with our ideas and things we’re trying to accomplish, but some of
these great directors of our past have gone to those extremes and even further. And that’s why film preservation is so
damn important, so directors and actors can have a library of seeing what
people did in the past and learning from it and trying to improve or not make
the same mistakes or whatever it may be.
Q: How do you feel spending a week doing an OCD breakdown
scene? Ever feel like you’re losing it too?
Leo: Sometimes yeah, sometimes definitely. You sort of get
into your own headspace and don’t really want to talk to anyone. I spent
a lot of time just sitting around in the screening room alone. But, pain
is temporary, film is forever, and that’s the fun part of knowing on the day
that what you’re doing will actually show up on screen, that’s the best feeling.
Q: Do you think Howard Hughes would have been the genius
that he was without the OCD and everything?
Leo: I think they’re a direct result of one another.
It’s like he would have not been as obsessed about making the largest plane
ever built. He wouldn’t have been obsessed about breaking every speed record.
He wouldn’t have been obsessed about flying around the world faster than anyone
else, he wouldn’t have been obsessed about reshooting Hell’s Angels for sound, having that movie go on for four years. It was all completely a part of his obsessive
nature and his OCD that made him have such an amazing, astounding life.
And OCD at the time was undiagnosed. People didn’t know what it was and he was
such a private introverted person that he would have never, even if there was a
doctor out there that could have cured him, he wouldn’t have had that meeting
with the doctor to begin with, nor taken any medication to solve it. So
he just thought it was his own essence, his own being, not knowing that he had
any kind of condition whatsoever, and absolutely it propelled him to do
everything that he did, I believe anyway. But also, he was a huge dreamer
as well. It was a crock pot of different things that made Howard Hughes
who he was, but it was a combination of stuff, but OCD was a huge part of it.