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A Revealing Look at Leonardo DiCaprio

By Fred Topel
January/February 2010

Few actors have as consistent a track record as Leonardo DiCaprio. All of his films are either a box office hit, a critically acclaimed performance, a fan favorite or often all three. He’s played real life icons as well known as Howard Hughes and as unknown as Toby Wolf. He’s played legends of literature from Romeo to King Louis XIV and his imprisoned twin brother.

In his latest movie, Shutter Island, DiCaprio plays a U.S. Marshal investigating an escape from an island hospital for the criminally insane. While exploring Shutter Island, the lines of reality blur for marshal Teddy Daniels. Portraying that unraveling became a complex process for the acclaimed actor.

“It was a sequence of situations that lead us to try to paint this portrait of this man that is this complex jigsaw puzzle,” DiCaprio said at a press conference in New York. “It’s like an emotional layered cake that just kept getting deeper and deeper and deeper and it really surprised me, it really did. It’s a testament to this screenplay and the original material too because there’s only so many layers to this project and there are so many layers to this character that until we were actually there doing it, we didn’t truly understand the depth to him I don’t think. So we had to physically, arduously do some of these scenes and it surprised me, it really did.”

Director Martin Scorsese was a legend before he became an Oscar winner for The Departed. In fact, before that film, he was legendary for not winning an Oscar for such landmark films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and The Aviator. In his fourth film with the Hollywood legend, DiCaprio still had to stay on his toes.

“I have to say it wasn’t until we actually were on set together sort of playing some of these scenes out that I really understood the sort of depth of trauma, the depth of emotion and the places that we needed to go to with the character in order to make this story believable and make the film work,” DiCaprio continued.

“The story really kept pushing us to places that I don’t think we planned on. I mean. I would come to the set with specific intentions for a scene and then realize and say to Marty, ‘Wow, this is the most important scene in the movie isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘Yah, yeah, it is. If you don’t get this right then this isn’t as realistic as possible and if the audience doesn’t connect with this guy here the whole story falls apart, doesn’t it?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Now get in there and do it.”

It seems like DiCaprio eats such challenges for breakfast. He completely disappeared into the portrayal of the mentally challenged Arnie Grape in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Ditto with his complex portrayals of a loveless marriage in Revolutionary Road or a ground operative in the middle east in Body of Lies.

“It’s never a conscious decision to gravitate towards those types of roles ever,” he said. “It is simply what Marty [says].  You can’t help what you’re emotionally moved by and we read this screenplay and immediately this cathartic journey of this man trying to find out the truth of what goes on Shutter Island and thus finds out the truth about himself and his own trauma and his own past and the secrets about who he is moved me emotionally immediately.”

Perhaps DiCaprio acquired his bravery early on in his career. His first feature film leading role in This Boy’s Life was a tough one: the story of Toby Wolff’s struggle with an abusive stepfather. Director Michael Caton-Jones gave him the age-old mantra “pain is temporary, film is forever.”

“I was just sort of a wild child that did not know how to conduct himself on a film set that didn’t obey really any rules,” DiCaprio reflected. “When it came down to really serious subject matter he said to me, ‘Look, I know this may suck right now, you may not want to go there but pain is temporary, film is forever. Whatever you do right now is burned into celluloid for all time and for thousands of years to come. So just have that pressure on you for the scene.’ That mantra kind of stuck with me.”

Cut to Shutter Island 17 years later. “Whether this was a hard film to do, absolutely.  It was hard but you know that’s simultaneously something that’s a lot of fun too. How do I describe it? This type of complexity in a character and in a storyline when you’re dealing with doing a scene that works on multiple layers simultaneously, it presents a challenge to you as an actor and it becomes an interesting, fascinating process.  You learn a tremendous amount every single day that you’re there and that to me is a lot of fun. So it’s a different type of fun.  It was one of the more challenging and difficult roles I’ve ever had to play, that’s for sure. We really needed to concentrate every day on how far to push this and ultimately it became the decision as to what degree we wanted to push all the different characters in what scene.”

There is a little insight into what makes DiCaprio the success he is in Hollywood. You can see him at work in his latest, Shutter Island, a nightmarish vision of horror from a master filmmaker. At least DiCaprio’s work ends on screen. He’s not as haunted as poor Teddy Daniels. In fact the prospect of nightmares is kind of a joke to him. “It’s funny, I don’t really remember my dreams,” he said. “I don’t. I don’t have a memory of them. I haven’t had them for years really. Only when I took a nicotine patch when I was trying to quit smoking did I have blood curdling nightmares of murder, mass murders. I was, and woke up in the middle of the night and had to take them off. But I don’t really remember my dreams that much.  I don’t know what that means about me from a psychological point of view but that’s the truth.”

Shutter Island opens February 19.