An interview with Leonardo DiCaprio about his role in “The Revenant.”
Leonardo DiCaprio, now approaching a quarter-century as a movie major-leaguer, redefines film stardom, demonstrating a willingness to challenge himself that few of his counterparts can equal. In romance, drama, comedy and science fiction, he radiates heavyweight-acting talent combined with megastar cool.
Swinging from role to role like Tarzan on a vine, he has never risked a free-fall like he faced in the artistically risky and physically dangerous “The Revenant.”
In this savage epic of survival, DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a real-life 1820s frontier guide left for dead by fellow explorers after he was mauled by a bear. With a broken leg and open wounds, the vengeful, nearly silent character hunts down the expedition members who abandoned him.
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In a phone conversation, he explained how, during a grueling nine-month shoot in frigid tracts of Canada and Argentina, he literally suffered for his art.
Q: This film production has been described as one of the most difficult in the industry’s history. Temperatures at some locations in the Canadian Rockies reached 40 below. What’s the benefit of taking part in such a harrowing project?
A: It makes you conscious of what these men really had to do, living in these harsh elements. And you think of people who live without power, electricity or water around the world.
As far as making movies is concerned, I think this was definitely the most difficult movie for, I think, everyone involved unanimously. (Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who won three Oscars last year for “Birdman,” said the filming “almost killed me.”)
Q: How do you keep the focus of your acting mindset in place when you’re exposed to punishing conditions like that?
A: Well, I haven’t been on a movie set since! The thing that was hardest for all of us to deal with was the subzero temperatures, the cold. It was a constant struggle for everyone to stay warm. … all the actors needed to stay conscious about not getting hypothermia. That was your main challenge.
Q: It must also be a tremendous acting challenge. You’ve never played a role this dialogue-free. What is it about a role that depends on the expressive power of your eyes and your face and your gestures that draws you to accept it?
A: I’ve always been a fan of silent cinema. It’s always interesting to watch actors work without the ability to articulate what they’re feeling. I have played so many characters that are talkative and vocal, from J. Edgar Hoover to Howard Hughes.
As much as was written in the script, I tried to scale it down even more so. I wanted it to be an almost silent performance, because whenever Hugh Glass (whose throat was slashed in the bear attack) said something out loud, it had to have meaning and it had to have a purpose. He was essentially a character who had to disappear in a harsh landscape in order to survive. He had to use his words very sparingly.
Q:What was the research process you followed to capture this character?
A: This is based on a novel about Glass (Michael Punke’s 2002 biographic drama “The Revenant”), but there’s little that’s historically known about what really happened. To me, it’s almost like a triumphant short story of the American frontier — what the new American was at that time and what it took not only to survive in nature but conquer nature.
Q: Even a historic epic like this is in some way a reflection of its time. How does this story about a lawless land relate to our world today for you?
A: We think we’re so much more advanced today and we can learn from history. But you look at what’s going on all around the world, with extraction of natural resources — from oil to mining to hydroelectric dams to cutting down rain forests — we’re still making the same mistakes. The story perpetuates itself and has incredible meaning today.