Starring in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘love letter to an industry’, Leonardo DiCaprio is well placed to reflect on Hollywood’s storied history – as well as its seismic present
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For all of his years in the movie industry – from a fresh-faced scamp in Titanic and a heartthrob in Romeo & Juliet, through to meaty roles in Inception and The Revenant – Leonardo DiCaprio is a cinematic chameleon; versatility that ensured he finally nabbed that elusive Oscar. Despite the prolific blockbuster hitlist, though, the 44-year-old has curiously never shared the screen with fellow heavyweight Brad Pitt, 55. That remarkable silver screen quirk becomes void this month, when the titans join forces in the release of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino’s ambitious film follows faded television actor Rick Dalton (played by DiCaprio, yet reportedly based on the real-life Burt Reynolds) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt), striving to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age, in 1969 Los Angeles. The director has called it his “most personal” film yet: “I think of it like my memory piece. Alfonso Cuarón had Roma and Mexico City, 1970. I had LA and 1969. This is me. This is the year that formed me. I was six years old then. This is my world,” he said. On its Cannes Film Festival showing, it received a six-minute-long standing ovation.
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“We came around in this industry at the same time, around the 90s,” says DiCaprio, of working with his co-star on the eagerly awaited movie. “Working with Brad was great: we have this intersecting story together in this movie and Brad is an amazing actor and so professional. He is so easy to work with. And if you have that kind of tension lifted, great things can happen.” (For Pitt’s take on the experience, at Cannes he confided to The Playlist that, “I had a great laugh with Leo. It’s that thing knowing you have the best of the best on the opposite side of the table, holding up the scene with you. There is a great relief in that… We have the same reference points. We have been going through this at the same time, with similar experiences to laugh about it. I hope we do it again, it was great fun.”) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood marks Tarantino’s ninth feature outing and, while it marks DiCaprio’s first film alongside Brad, he is no stranger to working with the man behind the camera, having been cast as a lead in Django Unchained – Tarantino’s take on the Western.
Indeed, the director’s obsession for detail appears to have aligned with both of these stalwarts’ approach. “Quentin had given us all this material to study, and what was great for Brad and I is that because we knew so much about our character’s back stories, there were moments of improvisation,” admits DiCaprio. “Not a lot had to be said. We understood the bond of our characters implicitly. We got folders of our characters, how he had my back over time.” DiCaprio says he connected with Tarantino’s character – as well as the story – “Right away. Brad and I talked about it earlier. [As an actor], you need to work hard to make it, but you also need to have that one moment of good luck, that opportunity coming your way. My character’s identity is defined by that opportunity: will he ever be the manifestations of his own dreams, or is he going to be happy in his own skin? Will he be thankful for what he does have? I have a lot of friends that are actors, who are still searching for those opportunities.” The actor told The New York Times that in the buildup to the movie, “We had a screening of a multitude of B films that I had never heard of, a lot of 1960s television with actors like Ralph Meeker and Ty Hardin,” he explains, of viewings organised by Tarantino. “These guys could have been McQueen-esque, but didn’t make the transition from black and white television, especially westerns, to career-makers like The Great Escape. So it was almost like a love story to them. Did they get that one opportunity? No, that may have passed them by.”
With that in mind, the director has created a film that Di Caprio calls, “An homage to all those actors that may have been forgotten. It’s really his love letter to this industry.” Just like his co-stars (a star-studded cast that includes Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, and the great Al Pacino), DiCaprio is among the fortunate few to have found that opportunity. “I was lucky,” he says. “I was in the right place in the right time. I’ve been able to be my own boss creatively, and I feel so fortunate. It’s in my DNA, but you still ask yourself all the time whether you will ever be let into this elite club.” It’s a scenario his character, Rick, finds himself in. Having emerged through the gauntlet, what advice would DiCaprio give his younger self? “Just enjoy the process more,” he considers. “That’s what I would tell myself. Keep pushing yourself but enjoy the ride. It’s supposed to be taken seriously.” In the movie, where he’s still caught in the stardom quicksand, Brad Pitt plays DiCaprio’s stunt double. “Our characters are based on the time in Hollywood when there was a true partnership – we talked about Steve McQueen and his double Bud Ekins, as well as others.”
Ekins, who was inducted into the Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame, resembled McQueen and worked closely with him on movies such as The Great Escape and Bullitt. DiCaprio says he never had that special bond with his own stunt guy – but only because, “It’s not the same these days. Guys clicked in back in the day and relied on each other. Stunt coordinators are not just there to create a fall, so we don’t get hurt. They are really there to come up with new ideas and scenarios, and there is real pressure to keep evolving. There was more of a pairing, in respect to what the scene could become.” He admits that, relatable to the era, Pitt’s character Cliff is a bit more than just the stunt double: “He is more like a swiss army knife. You are right he is not only the stunt double, but alsohis bodyguard, his shoulder to cry on. He acts like his psychiatrist in a lot of ways. He is everything to him. He pays him once and gets 12 other jobs.” DiCaprio says he has worked with guys of that nature himself: when he worked in Africa for eight months filming Blood Diamond. “You get that one person to be silent and watch TV with you when you don’t want to be alone”, he explains. Back on US soil, the industry – and Hollywood itself – has undoubtedly changed in almost every aspect; Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote that, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a wistful story about the past that’s obviously meant to speak to the present, both eras of a fiercely changing industry”. DiCaprio deems its current landscape as being, “In another transition. We have made a film that is leaning back onto a forgotten style of movie making, though I am looking forward to this new future. The old studio system is becoming a fossil.” He adds, “I just hope we are not overwhelmed with content – and that we are not over sensitised when something very unique comes around. There are a lot of projects being made now that wouldn’t have been made five years ago.”
Despite DiCaprio’s enthusiasm for contemporary Hollywood (and his immense power to shape it), the filming of the movie did leave him with a soft spot for its landscape in the 1960s. “I love the city and the history of film,” he reflects. “That time was a transitional period for our country and for the city of Los Angeles. Back then it was all about being cool – and the essence of cool.” There is a need to be a student of the past, he believes, and it is typified in the approach of this project’s director. “The consistency in this industry of directors that continue to produce great art are usually the ones that have an acute understanding of its history,” DiCaprio assesses. “Quentin has copies of music that I never heard of. The guy is like a walking archive. There are very few filmmakers that think like he does; Martin Scorsese might be another one. Their childhood has been so immersed in this art form that anything you speak about is in the context of movies. It’s in their DNA. It’s hard to describe.” Boldness with a script (to which Tarantino is no stranger) takes courage: a prominent trait in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “Being able to speak out in the face of adversity, that’s courage to me,” DiCaprio considers. “Even if it means you end up being unpopular. Speaking the truth. It’s not always easy, but we need it, don’t we?”