Leonard DiCaprio began his career as a wunderkind in films like This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? He moved straight into leading man territory with the mega-blockbuster Titanic, but he never entirely sacrificed his indie roots. It helped make him a darling of the likes of Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann, the latter of whom cast him as the incomparable Jay Gatsby in his upcoming adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. DiCaprio sat down to talk about the role in a recent press day for the film. A partial transcript of his comments follows.
Question: You’ve said that you grew up without a lot of money. Did you identify with Gatsby’s need to prove himself in that regard?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Sure. I think everyone has some sort of a connection to Gatsby as a character. He’s created himself according to his own imagination and dreams, and lifted himself by his own bootstraps to create his own image. It’s a truly American story in that regard. He wants to emulate the Rockefellers and other titans of that time period. Of course he creates his wealth in the underworld, but that was a very exciting time. I think we can all relate to that dreamer, that prospect of somebody who has that much… ambition.
Q: Gatsby has reinvented himself, which is something that actors do. Could you see him as an actor of sorts?
LDC: Certainly. The Gatsby that I remember reading in junior high school was far different than the Gatsby I read as an adult. What I remember from my years in junior high was this hopeless romantic solely in love with one woman, who created this vast wealth in order to respectably hold her hand. But to reread it as an adult is to find the nuances and subtleties of the character… and to see a man who is incredibly hollow. He’s attached himself to this mirage of a woman, this image of someone who doesn’t exist. I was struck by the sadness of that, the hollowness of his life as he searches madly for some kind of meaning. That was the Gatsby that I was excited about playing, as an actor. The Gatsby who tries to fill himself with this image.
I’m sure other people see other things in the character, which is part of what makes him so strong. A lot of what makes him so interesting in the novel is what is left unsaid. That leaves him open for the reader or the viewer to fill in their own interpretation of who and what he is. It’s also what makes him so difficult about playing him in a movie.
Q: Why with this the right time to remake this story? What is it about this story that makes it work today?
LDC: Fitzgerald predicted the Wall Street crash of 1929, the one that really hammered America. The book is about this disjointed American value system, this unspoken class structure and wealth. This cycle that keeps repeating itself throughout time. Decadence, opulence, irresponsibility. It's almost a remnant to the great European kings and queens that were living lavish lifestyles unbeknown to the world around them. Certainly, I think we’re living in those times again, but it's not just American. It's a very worldly look, a very timeless look.
There was also the film’s use of hip-hop, which I found very exciting. It gives the movie this modernism, but it also connects it to the Jazz Age. Hip hop now is what jazz was then. It isn’t going to separate it from the time period, but also helps you understand the cultural references, and what these people might be like if they existed today. Everything is just a little exaggerated here. The cars are a little faster, the costumes are a little more outlandish… all to help convey just how enormously wealthy these people were and how outrageous their lifestyle was.
Q: How much is the ante upped when you have Baz Luhrmann at the helm? He’s wanted to do this for a long time…
LDC: Baz and I have remained friends ever since Romeo and Juliet, and we’ve definitely wanted to work together again. He’s said that Gatsby is one of his shining lights, that he’s wanted to make it his whole life. So when he handed me the first draft of the script, it was an incredible honor. I knew it would be a colossal undertaking, but I admire his willingness to take risks like this. It’s very bold. It’s intimidating as an actor – this is a classic American novel, beloved by so many people – but it’s comforting having Baz as a partner. Tobey [Maguire] as well. I’ve known Tobey for a long time, and he was immediately involved in the process from the onset. We’re always extremely honest with each other, and I don’t know if this project would have happened if we didn’t have that relationship. We needed those checks and balances; we needed to have a contract with each other to be honest with each other.
Q: Was the decision to shoot in 3D surprising?
LDC: Certainly interesting. Baz wanted to shoot it in 3D. People are used to seeing it in terms of action, in terms of spectacle. Baz wanted to use it in terms of theater. Then you can actually feel the distance between characters and the intensity of their emotions back and forth. Understanding the sparks that fly back and forth. Understanding the heat. That’s something we haven’t seen a lot of in 3D: using it from a dramatic perspective.