He went through hell.
Being naked in the freezing cold, submersing himself in icy rivers, being pushed and prodded and attached to wires and dealing with a fake bear attack and eating a real, raw buffalo liver, the stories go on and on, all basically of the same genus, and all at the behest of a man who is either one of the best directors currently working or the most sadistic — possibly both — in Alejandro G. Iñárittu.
But, to hear DiCaprio tell it, the director is the main reason why he jumped on board the project in the first place, and is now the front runner to finally win his first Oscar.
“It was only when Alejandro came on board and made this screenplay his own and really became attached to this material, this epic journey of survival,” DiCaprio says of his decision to sign on and, by extension, allow his director to punish him for months. “The way he wanted to shoot it became a very exciting prospect for me, because he is a unique filmmaker. He’s one of a kind, and I knew it would take that type of director to give you that truly immersive experience as an audience member.”
Immersive is right. DiCaprio disappears so far into his character that he barely speaks. Never before, in fact, has he led a movie and spoken so little in it. That’s part of why so many people have him as the odds on favorite to garner that trophy after five previous nominations (four for Best Actor, one for Supporting Actor, and one for producing Wolf of Wall Street two years ago).
That ability to convey so much without speaking is one of the things that impressed his director the most.
“Leo is one of those actors, you can understand everything from his eyes,” Iñárritu says. “In this case, because there are very few words for him to deliver, cold, sadness, rage, many complex emotions simultaneously, that’s a very difficult task. I found it fascinating, not only how he was able to get the character inside, but also how he physically related to it and transmitted that. Fascinating.”
The actor is equally enthused and impressed by his director, who might be the only man alive who could actually get DiCaprio to do what he got him to do (although, to be fair, the argument could be made that Martin Scorsese could maybe get him to do it, too).
“He’s really developed his own style and his approach to making movies over the years that have become synonymous with him now,” DiCaprio says. “There are very few filmmakers out there who can do that, make a true mark and not sort of fit into the Hollywood mold, and accomplish films like this on an epic scale.”
Working with Iñárritu clearly made an impact, just as working with the director’s frequent collaborator, master cinematographer and two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, did. With Iñárritu winning the DGA award last week and Lubezki taking the ASC’s top prize over the weekend, it’s entirely possible that all three could walk out of the Oscars with their own statuettes. While it would be Leo’s first, it would be Iñárritu’s second straight for Best Director and Chivo’s third straight for Cinematography.
“His process is very unique,” the actor explains. “Not many filmmakers do what he does. A lot of it’s trial and error, and a lot of it has to do with Chivo, who is really, intrinsically part of his process. Those two really immerse themselves in the material. There’s an extensive rehearsal period where all the actors get together and we sort of coordinate these complex movements and shots.
“I think what they achieve,” he continues, “particularly in this film, is this almost virtual reality, in which you feel like you’re out in the elements with these characters and really feel immersed in their lives. He’s also able to have that camera move all the way through the wilderness and stop at a very intimate moment with a character, explore that moment, and then travel on so you almost feel like some strange, delusional wanderer watching all this chaos ensue.”
To be fair, while the director and his cinematographer were both big draws, the character of Glass was, too. Though DiCaprio has played his share of larger than life characters — including at least a few real life ones, including Frank Abagnale, Jordan Belfort, J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes — there’s something about Glass that separates him from the others. A certain timelessness, perhaps, or maybe it’s just the inherent legend that goes along with him.
“He’s a real life Paul Bunyan type of character,” he says. “He’s this part of American folklore. I think more than anything, Alejandro wanted to create poetry out of that story. What it means to have all the chips stacked against you. To have very little chance of survival and still have this triumph of the human spirit. What we can endure, and what we go through.”
There’s also one other key aspect to the role, and that is the little thing that sort of serves as the emotional core of the film: the relationship between Glass and his son, who is murdered in front of him. It gives the movie its heart, and shows a side of the actor we have rarely seen before.
“The father-son bond becomes a very powerful thing, because he needs to teach his son to disappear,” he says. “To not be there. To keep your head down and focus on what you need to do. His whole objective with his son is, ‘Look, we have this will to survive, we’re going to push through it, no matter what.’ These are the things he instills in his son in a very early age, through a lot of tragedy. These same messages he’s trying to instill in his son are things he needs to ultimately realize himself when he’s left alone in the middle of the wilderness, with very little chance of survival.”
While DiCaprio has never had trouble surviving in Hollywood, it appears that this last lesson — forging irrevocably ahead against mounting odds — might finally allow him to take the stage at the Dolby Theater on the 28th. There will certainly be a lot of people rooting for him.