Leonardo DiCaprio has made a bit of a comeback this season. Winning great acclaim in October for his work as an undercover cop in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”, he follows that up playing an African smuggler in “Blood Diamond”, the latest film from “Last Samurai” and “Glory” director Ed Zwick. The pair recently sat down in New York to talk to the press about the film which has already been labelled a contender for Oscar glory:
Question: Did you anticipate the ferocity of the response of the international diamond industry to this film?
Zwick: Well, we knew that there were things that had happened in the past that people would have rather forgotten, but their job is the image of their product and the notion that they have devoted many, many millions of dollars to that image is not surprising.
DiCaprio: I didn’t anticipate it no, but when you approach situations like this, these are things that are based on real events and we are depicting a time in recent history where diamonds resulted in a lot of civil unrest in these countries. I had never anticipated, no, that that it would be this intense by any means.
Question: What was your knowledge of the situation before doing this movie and how much did you learn before?
DiCaprio: I think I was like anybody else; I had heard whispers of it, but until I got there and until I started to do the research I didn’t really quite understand the immense impact, certainly on Sierra Leone and other places in Africa. I had heard, certainly, the Kanye West song for example and bits of it in conversation, but it wasn’t until I really got to Africa where I heard the firsthand accounts and started to read the books and learn about it, that I really learned what was really going on, what really had happened.
Zwick: I think one of the privileges of being a filmmaker is the opportunity to remain a kind of perpetual student. And I had known a bit of what had happened there, but the access that one gains from experts, to people who have devoted their lives and put their lives at risk to learn these things, is such a remarkable opportunity and it became an odyssey to me. I immersed myself in this field. I went, met victims and victimizers, smugglers, mercenaries, traders and politicians. And it was just the most incredible opportunity to delve deeply into a place and what one hopes is that you honor that. You honor those people. That you do well by those who know much more than you. I was very, very lucky that I encountered a man named Sorious Samura who is a journalist from Sierra Leone who had made the documentary, “Cry Freetown”, which was the award-winning documentary; in fact, he became British journalist of the year and won a Peabody prize for it. He and I connected through the most wonderful serendipity and he became my consultant on the film. So, I was helped by so many people throughout the process and that was one of the treats of it.
Question: Leo, what was your motivation to do this movie?
DiCaprio: First off on the script, it was such a powerful character; it was such a powerful storyline and that’s what you look for first. I wasn’t personally going out seeking films with a social and political message just to do it for the sake of doing it. Y’know it has to have an entertainment value. It has to be a good movie and it has to convey a message without the audience feeling they are being preached too and I really felt this script accomplished that. And to me it was very representative of a huge sort of issue in the world today of corporate responsibility and what these corporations do and certainly Africa has been a prime target for it – all the way to gold and rubber and all kinds of other natural resource here was this character that was exploiting others that were less fortunate than him, dealing in the black market and not really being conscious of the world he lives in. I just felt it was a really powerful character; I felt the dynamic between Djimon Honsou’s character and my character was – it was based on an earlier script and it was really Ed Zwick and Marshall (Herskovitz) who learned about the diamond trade specifically and brought the political aspects into this story, but in a way that I didn’t feel was preachy. In a way that I felt was authentic. So, of course, it’s always great to do a movie that you find is entertaining, but also can give some sort of political or social message and I felt this movie did that.
Question: Do you feel you have grown up since being in this business?
DiCaprio: I have to be honest, I never thought about that ever throughout the entire course of my career about choosing a specific role because it would make me seem more man-like. Even with roles like “Catch Me If You Can”, I was 8 years or 10 years older than the character I played. It was an interesting character and I knew that as well that to be playing a character like that may be one of the last times I could be playing a character like that. I never – I think these things are really something are intangible, that you can never really control. You do these movies, you give it out to the world and you really have no idea how people are going to react to you, the subject matter. I’ve been in plenty of situations where I thought the film would turn out one way or my performance would be looked at one way and it was an entirely different situation. Once you make these movies you give it out to the world and you guys get to pick it apart.
Question: How did you go about getting your accent?
DiCaprio: Spending a lot of time with the locals, drinking beers with them, hearing their stories – a lot of guys from the South African military. I got to hang out with this guy named Tom Delfuse, really a sort of military expert and just listening to them talk. And of course, I had an accent coach and he was there guiding me through it. But we had conversations with these people, listening to their stories; I made them say sentences over and over again, that’s just the kind of thing you do. I wanted to definitely go to Africa early, because that whole area was completely alien to me. I had never really spent any time in Africa, let alone a white South African man and their stories and accents. It was completely alien when I first heard of the film. It was about going there.
Zwick: I would add only one thing about what he did, he’s modest; he was capturing these voices and able to immerse himself so completely so as not to just give it the right ear, but to act within it and even to improvise within it so he could inhabit the character and a lot of the things you seen that film are things Leo himself came up with or suggested based on what he learned about the dialect and all these little bits of nomenclature and the little things that come into it were also from him.
Question: Have either of you been back to Africa since wrapping?
DiCaprio: We just got back!
Zwick: Sorious and I, I think formed something very important. I have not had occasion to go back yet, I had been there before. There were some remarkable people, more than I have the opportunity to mention. We were in Mozambique as well as South Africa and also went to Sierra Leone, so it was just this huge, huge opportunity.
Question: Leo, being in contact with Africa and the poverty, how has all that changed your own life. What did you learn from this whole experience?
DiCaprio: Certainly paying a character like this who was taking advantage of the poverty around him and taking advantage of the continent, it posed for a lot – it was uncomfortable as an actor to portray this man in front of an African crew in locations like Mozambique where there was a tremendous amount of poverty. Mozambique is a country that is having an economic resurgence, but four out of 10 people supposedly have HIV or AIDS. It’s an astounding – what I was left with after spending time with Africa, and this is not at all to sound trivial, but it really was the power of the human spirit there. The fact that these people have been through so much, they have been in a civil war for 30 years, the poverty rate, but literally, people were still dancing in the streets. The joy, the energy, the happiness they exuded to everyone was unbelievable and it made me come back home and sort of not want to listen to anyone’s problems. I don’t want to hear what we as Americans have to deal with. When you are immersed in a place like that for six months and you see the extreme levels of what people have to deal with there. Yet they are able to keep a positive attitude. You just don’t want to hear people’s problems out here anymore.
Question: What also impressed you the most about being there and shooting this film?
DiCaprio: There was a lot of military training and we had a great stunt team; we did a lot of faux military activities of hunting in the bush and tracking in the bush, what it was like to track in the bush – hanging out with a lot of guys in the South African army. And really, that was really the tough stuff – getting that military background, because they are some of the best trained guys in the entire world as far as tracking is concerned and living in the bush. I didn’t go out and live in the bush for them a week or even a day, but it was a matter of doing these exercises with them. A lot of spending time and hanging out with them and hearing their stories – there is a certain amount you can get from books; you need to speak with the real people and ask specific questions that affect your character. Questions you have about your character otherwise you’d be skimming through hundreds of books trying to get that specific answer. What I was really overwhelmed with by Africa was its tremendous natural beauty; I got to go to some pretty amazing places. Every other weekend we got a day or two off and go on a safari or the natural wonders of Africa and if anyone gets the opportunity to go there, it’s something you have to do in your lifetime.
Question: Ed, can you talk about the casting process that brought you to Djimon? And Leo what was it like to act with this guy?
Zwick: Well, to me, Djimon is no longer any kind of a secret having done such extraordinary movies, but they were always parts that were always shining in brief doses. And I think the opportunity for me and for him was to explore a nuanced performance that goes overtime, that allows him to demonstrate a lot of other colors and I think there is no substitute for someone who understands in some almost cellular level, what a part is about. He is a west African man and he could at times hear music that I could only dream of. He was a times he was in some sort of rapture about what was happening there. And he, as much as taking direction from me, I think he also taught me things that I was able to use in the movie. And as a collaborator, I know Leo will say something quite similar.
DiCaprio: His character is really is the heart and soul of the movie – the story of a man trying to find his son. And he embodied this character and the word is electrifying, the intensity that he gives in his performance. What can I say? He and I were kind of alone on set and it was me and him and there is no other actor who could have given this performance. He is astounding in this movie and the energy and the intensity that you get off him as an actor, you get to play off each other every day. He is quite a brilliant actor.
Zwick: They also went through great physical trials together; they were in the mud, they were doing these stunts every day just because Leo had, somehow in the middle of the shoot, contrived there were going to be four days off and as we were in some swamp or some horrible place.
DiCaprio: Djimon and I would sit there and talk about the different kinds of hot chocolates you can get in Paris and croissants and chocolates and dream like two weird women on pastries.
Zwick: I think while you were away, you left a phone message when Djimon and I were still in the muck and you left a message where you were imitating Edith Pilaf.
Question: Did you get injured on set?
DiCaprio: Yeah, Djimon got banged up, I hurt my knee; there are some of the sequences in this movie that Ed set up – a full week of squibs and diving behind cars. I don’t know, you talk about that, because I’ve never been in an action sequence that was that well choreographed.
Zwick: Well they both played with pain; they played hurt and that’s the really the best thing you can say about someone who gives themselves utterly and they both did. You can only do that if somebody commits completely. And had it been two other actors, many of whose names I could think of and so could you, who were doing those parts, we might still be in African shooting.
Question: You are playing with pain as they would say in football; why would you do that?
DiCaprio: I’ll tell you, quite honestly, it comes from being a fan of this art form of film, it really is; I think this is the great modern art form in my opinion. There have been 100 years of cinema, but there is so much still to be done. And I am a fan of movies and there is something about watching film that is burned into celluloid for all time that is now a piece of history. You go watch, being a fan of classic films and my children and their children are going to be watching these movies. To make a great movie is such a combination of different things that need to come into play to actually make a memorable film and not have a film to fall by the wayside, to have something live on during the years, and one of those elements is the commitment the actors have to their performance. It doesn’t always come into play, there have been a lot of great performances in the past in films that weren’t great, but if you are lucky enough to get that combination together and be in a memorable movie, that to me is like being a part of a piece of art that is going to last forever.
Question: Do you feel you’re competing against yourself in this role and your role in “The Departed” for a Best Actor nomination?
DiCaprio: Once again, that goes into the hands to all you people to pick this all apart of compliment it or insult it