Exclusive: Leonardo DiCaprio on The Revenant, his family and film

Exclusive: Leonardo DiCaprio on The Revenant, his family and film

A dual biopic

Text: Shannon Wylie

Leonardo DiCaprio's new film The Revenant is sparking more than just Oscar buzz as Buro 24/7 discovers. Here we talk to the critically acclaimed actor about his plans for climate change, cinema and connecting with his family...

F resh from his new film The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio talks to Buro 24/7 about the struggle of filming the biopic, why environmentalism is his new greatest cause and the greatest advice ever given to him from his dad. Then take a sneak peek at the film that is gathering Oscar buzz...

Your new film The Revenant certainly speaks for itself and I am sure most of the images will stay with people forever.  So congratulations on that... 

Thank you. 

I am always fascinated by the things that actors are called upon to do in a movie. Sometimes it's a skill set which is riding a horse or shooting a gun (and we all know you're extremely good at those). But sometimes it can be something strange, scary or even disgusting like eating a raw fish or a buffalo liver and that's 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. Talking about extreme situations in my life though, I've been scuba diving and sky diving 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 would go to my hotel room and think 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 prepare for the role? Did you study 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 about a man, Hugh Glass, who was the epitome of Paul Bunyan. While getting into the material I was just shocked and amazed at the human spirit and the triumph of the will to live.

I was wondering 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 the violence you can't be authentic.

I think it's a 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?

The real challenge was, of course, the cold — it was a constant struggle. It was down to 40 below and sometimes to the point where the camera couldn't operate. So you could imagine how our fingers and faces felt. I mean the hands were a constant source of pain. They even had to invent machines so the actors didn't get hypothermia. I knew what I had signed up for and that was part of the, I don't want to say fun, but it was part of the intent of making the movie; to experience that as closely as we could what these fur trappers did. It was very difficult.

And what about positive excitement — What did you like most about working on The Revenant?

I've never worked on a film like this, and it was very, very unique and unlike anything I have ever done before. It took months and months of rehearsals. We would rehearse all day long in order to work like Swiss watches because at the end of every day we only had an hour and a half of magic light, when everything looks beautiful. They achieved these close-up moments with these characters, that make you feel like you're really immersed in this movie. We all tried to achieve (and I think we accomplished) this massive, epic scope with a static frame. You should feel the characters' breath, their sweat and blood.

In which way 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 and reconnecting with a part of America that wasn't yet America, but very much like a lawless territory where you had French and English fur trappers and indigenous native people, fighting over these resources. 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.

The Revenant

While we were doing this film, I was also doing a documentary on climate change and travelling all over the world. I found out that the same story is happening. We destroy nature for oil and mining, we are kicking native people off of their lands and sacrificing their entire culture to extract these resources. But let me get back to your question about what I liked most: I especially liked 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 a diversity to the tribes. 

Aside from being a realistic film this is also a spiritual journey with nature. Did you feel that connection when you were doing the film? 

Being out in nature for that long, is an existential journey. 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. Nothing is fake in this story.

Your character actually has very few opportunities to speak. How did this inability to express yourself through word influence your performance?

That really was one of the most exciting parts about the project. When I read the script I kept urging Alejandro to take out more lines. I wanted less dialogue because that was the exploration of this character. Actually, Hugh Glass is a man that does not mince words, he gets straight to the point and I don't think he necessarily wants to communicate with that many people (Leo laughs). But staying sileny for so long, even for such a man like Hugh Glass, is a real challenge. And that was a challenge as I had to make the story come alive, just through his eyes.

I have done so many articulate characters that babble throughout movies, that this was a new experiment for me.

I have more a general question about sounds and silence. How sensitive are you to both of them literally and metaphorically?  Do you need silence from time to time? And what sounds are your favourite? 

I saw The Graduate the other day so the Simon and Garfunkel song "The Sounds of Silence" immediately comee to mind. But, yeah, I think silence is incredibly important and I think that some of the greatest visions and ideas, come from when there are no other voices around — not even your own. I am not the most spiritual or meditative person but I know that I need these moments of contemplation to get the right answer. And my favorite sound? That is an interesting question... The sound of forest really.

I heard some parts of the film were shot in Argentina because there was not enough snow in Canada. I wanted to know which episodes were shot in Canada and were you a part of it or was it only... 

...I was a part of everything. The weather situation was incredibly intense for us. There were unprecedented weather in Calgary. We were shooting in a place that was supposed to have snow and then a gust of wind would come and melt everything. Wo we would shut down for weeks. And then when it came time to finish the movie there was no snow left so we had to go all the way down to Argentina.

The Revenant

Being an influential producer and player in Hollywood, how would you change the future of cinema? 

Well, The Revenant is a step in the right direction, in my opinion. I was blessed to work with two groundbreaking directors — Scorsese and Iñárritu. They both do what I think can be called "the future of cinema". Television is getting so good now that I was really interested in what the future of cinema will be like with this high level of TV production. So my answer about the future of cinema is that I want to see at least one or two films like The Revenant every year and then I'll know we are on the right way.

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? 

I would really love it, if this Paris climate conference finally saw countries come together to curb this insanity that is going on with our temperatures. This year we had the hottest October and July in recorded history and the hottest year in recorded history. It seems like insanity and it's happening so much faster than scientific projections ever estimated. There are extreme weather patterns all over the world and it's actually terrifying. 

You mentioned a couple of times how fortunate you are but would you say you are lucky and happy in your life in general?

I want to die like a man, like a mensch, like a good person. My dad always says, "no matter you do, try to lead an interesting life and try to find a way to wake up every morning and just be happy that you can put your pants on". I can't say that I am 100 percent there but those are my personal ambitions.

Do you have those special father-and-son stories with your dad?

My dad has always been so incredibly influential not only in my career but as a person to follow. When I was in a public school some of my greatest education was just sitting down listening to my father. He is one of the most well read and knowledgeable people I have ever met. He has always steered me, as a young man, to focus on certain films and certain characters that have historical relevance. I am really grateful to him for steering me towards non-obvious sorts of characters, and taking certain risks, like playing Arthur Rimbaud at 17-years-old. Now we are partnering in all kinds of environmental endeavors together.

And what about any dad-and-son rituals? Do you have any?

We have a lot of them! The one that I remember the most was going to the wishing well in Chinatown, when I was miserable about going back to school every summer, and that was the ritual for ten years.   

You mentioned the great influence your dad has in your life, but what about your mother? What kind of relationship do you have with her? 

My mother is like a fine wine in the sense that she becomes more blatantly honest as she gets older — it's very German. She's going into retirement right now and she is absolutely, unbelievably, relentlessly honest in every scenario and it's becoming a badge of courage for her, some sort of bit of pride for her to be able to tell people exactly what the hell she thinks. It puts me in situations where I have to explain afterwards, what she truly means, but I've got to tell you, it's amazing and it's entertaining and it's fantastic, but yeah sometimes I need to quell her honesty.   

How do you handle her honesty

I laugh at it because I actually aspire to be like her one day and I'm sure I will because it's inevitable, it's in our DNA. It came from our grandmother who was the grand-master of honesty.  

And marriage?

Well, anybody that I would be with should have an environmental agenda or some sort of understanding of environmentalism, yes. I couldn't be with someone who didn't believe in climate change for example.  

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 Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant now...