“I will always have that drive to not only produce great work, but also to make a difference in the world.”
Leonardo DiCaprio is a man of many faces. First, there’s the supremely gifted actor whose incredible performances have long since outstripped his former heartthrob image from his Titanic days. Then there’s the committed environmentalist who drives an electric car and campaigns to make the world a greener place. And, finally, there’s the Hollywood superstar who still has the power to attract massive audiences on a global scale.
Now DiCaprio is back in action in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a story centered around the infamous Tate-LaBianco murders committed by Manson family cult members in August, 1969. Leo co-stars alongside fellow Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt as a pair of friends who happen to live next door to the house owned by actress Sharon Tate and her Polish film director husband Roman Polanski. Margot Robbie co-stars as Sharon Tate in addition to Damien Lewis (Steve McQueen), Dakota Fanning (Squeaky Fromme), and Emile Hirsch (Jay Sebring).
The film marks DiCaprio’s second cinematic outing with Tarantino, having prevoiusly appeared in 2013’s Django Unchained. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he plays fading western TV star Rick Dalton opposite Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, his best friend and regular stunt double, and together they delight in women and general Tinseltown mayhem. While holding court at the Cannes Film Festival, where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood made its world premiere, DiCaprio described the film as essentially Tarantino’s homage to those 50s B movie stars who never made it to the big time in 60s Hollywood.
“This movie is Quentin’s love story to the industry,” DiCaprio said. “He’s put at the helm of it two characters that are outsiders and the 60s have come along and this industry has passed them by.”
“We studied many actors – Ralph Meeker, Ty Hardin, Eddie Burns, all these actors’ whose works [Quentin] appreciates from an artistic perspective and who in his mind have contributed to this catalogue of cinematic achievements. All of us have felt like outsiders in this business and he’s honouring these outsiders and that’s what was most touching about the story to me in a lot of ways. For me, it’s Quentin’s film about coming home.”
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also a distinctive event in film history itself in that it marks the first time that DiCaprio and PItt, two of Hollywood’s biggest stars over the past decades, have ever worked together, and Tarantino had “long wanted” to pair the two together. The film will be released in August, exactly 30 years since the murders that shocked Hollywood.
For Tarantino, the pairing of Pitt and DiCaprio was his version of assembling a “dream team” in the style of Newman and Redford. “This is the most exciting star dynamic since Paul Newman and Robert Redford,” Tarantino said of his casting coup in a reference to the latter Hollywood icons being paired in the classic films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting .
The 44-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio has enjoyed a momentous career with starring roles in a pantheon of Hollywood classics including Titanic, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Inception, and of course his Oscar-winning performance in The Revenant. He is also one of the film industry’s greatest political activists in terms of his ongoing commitment to alerting the public to the dangers of global warming and the destructive effects of human industrial activity on the environment. He has produced numerous documentaries on climate change including The 11th Hour  and the upcoming Ice on Fire which explores ways of reducing our carbon footprint on the planet.
ON QUENTIN TARANTINO
“Quentin has a very unique process. There are few people in this world have collective knowledge about cinematic history as well as music and television. It’s almost like tapping into a computer database and the wealth of knowledge is unfathomable – keeps coming and coming.”
“I love the way Quentin creates his own world and breaks all the rules. I can just imagine him as that clerk in the L.A. video store watching those old films over and over again and telling himself that one day he was going to make his own movies and do an amalgamation of all those things that he loves. You’ve go to take your hat off to people like that and support them.”
ON ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
“You come to Hollywood and you’re basically isolated and left to your own devices. Rick and Cliff rely on this friendship for everything. We immediately fell into those shoes. We understood that relationship [Laughs] so quickly that on the first day, we were those guys.”
“Rick Dalton is the guy who almost got that shot [to make it big] — and that’s what’s torturing him. I grew up in this industry, I have a lot of friends who are actors, and there’s so much talent out there. But it really boils down to being at the right place at the right time.”
“Cinema and television is in Tarantino’s DNA. He puts things in historical context but he also creates a fairy tale. This whole idea of him recreating history — like what he did in “Inglorious Basterds” with Hitler — much like Scorsese, too, where in their childhood, cinema became part of their DNA and their language and their ability to converse with others…is embedded in who they are as human beings….This is his homage and his reminiscence of 1969 where everything changed culturally and cinematically. It’s incredibly imaginative.”
ON HOW HE GETS INTENSE WHILE ACTING ON THE SET
“When it comes to work, I always find the process pretty intense, especially when you’re doing drama. In my private life, I like to keep things light. I don’t brood about the world. But my work is different.”
“I really never look at acting as fun, because if you really want to try and do a good job, it’s very hard to have fun unless you’re doing some wonderful improvisational comedy where things are just a joy every day. It’s not that I look for very dark films or dark roles. It’s never a conscious thing. I just try to be a part of films that move people. A lot of times, those are about the darker side of humanity.”
ON HIS LOVE OF ACTING AND TELLING STORIES
“I really am motivated by being able to work with great people, and create a body of work for myself that I can look back on and be proud of. When I was 15 years old and I got my first opportunity in movies, I went and watched movies for a year and a half.”
I watched every possible great film and every great performance I could, and since then I’ve said to myself, how could I ever match that kind of work that is part of the great legacy of film? That‘s really my motivation and that’s a fact. I feel like I want to do something as good as what all my heroes have done.”
“As an actor, I do everything possible to tell a great story in a truly artistic way, but at the end of the day you never know how critics and audiences are going to respond. My goal is to keep doing great work… I haven’t stopped yet and hopefully the work will never stop. I will always have that drive to not only produce great work, but also to make a difference in the world.”
ON HIS TENDENCY TO PLAY VERY DRIVEN CHARACTERS
“Look, I don’t know really. I just respond to what I read and what I’ve read in these roles are characters that have moved me emotionally in some respect. And it just goes back to what moved me in cinemas at a very early age. These were the types of characters that I felt emotionally connected to. It’s inexplicable, but I think you never feel as if you’ve arrived there or done that role that satisfies that.”
“So I’m driven to be able in my mind to emulate or get close to the great masterworks of great performers I’ve seen in cinema from years past. I don’t know if that thirst will ever be quenched. But I would love to try many genres and I look forward to doing them. It just depends on what moves me emotionally, I guess.”
“In my private life, I like to keep things light. I don’t brood about the world.”
ON HIS WILD TWENTIES
“There was this wild sense of liberation where I felt I could do pretty much anything without thinking about the consequences. Those were my carefree years.
On one level all the attention and being followed around everywhere could sometimes be aggravating, but I loved hanging around with my friends and going out all the time and playing poker until dawn.”
“Sometimes I like to think I could turn back the clock and revisit that time of my life! (Laughs) In the years before Titanic I was enjoying life to the maximum. I miss the days when I could party hard and do pretty much anything I wanted. Today, every young actor or actress has to be much more careful about getting wild if they don’t want their life trashed publicly.”
ON HOW HE’S CHANGED OVER THE YEARS
“I’m a lot calmer! [Laughs] When I was growing up, I was the kind of kid who was full of energy and acting was my outlet for all that excess energy. I could never keep still and even as a teenager I had this need to keep busy and look for things to occupy myself with.”
“I remember loving to imitate my mother’s friends. I’d do little performances imitating them, making fun of them, making her laugh, making my grandparents laugh.”
“But I still have a sense of freedom and I rarely have reason to feel down or worry too much about things. I have a very good life and I like to make the most of it.”
ON HIS DEDICATION TO THE ENVIRONMENT
“Acting fulfilled my creative needs and it’s been my focus for as long as I can remember. But I’ve also invested a lot of my time in trying to promote awareness on environmental issues and the importance of looking after our planet.”
“My environmental work and activism remain a priority. I created a foundation (Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation) that focuses on raising public awareness of the very important issues concerning our planet. The United States and China need to set an example for the rest of the world to follow with clean energy and green technology.”
“I was very affected when I was a young kid living in an urban environment. My only access to understanding nature was through documentaries and being able to go to the Natural History Museum and watching IMAX shows on the rainforest. It just affected me at a very young age, the depletion of the rain forest, our natural resources. What’s sad is that even though we’ve made progress, environmental and climate change issues continued to be ignored and re-ignored.”
“I try all the time to make younger people very aware about how fragile our ecosystem is and how we can all make a difference.”
“I have a solar-powered house. I drive a hybrid car which consumes very little gas. I separate my garbage, I don’t run the water unnecessarily, I shut off the lights when I leave a room. All those little things which if we all did can have a huge impact, And I think the younger generation is much more sensitized to environmental issues than I was when I was growing up.”
ON TAKING RISKS AND QUITTING SKYDIVING
“I like the excitement that comes with pushing myself past what I think are my own limits. It’s interesting to scare yourself but once you’ve faced your fears you feel exhilarated.”
“I also used to do skydiving for that reason. But then were was…an incident. It was a tandem dive. We pulled the first chute. That was knotted up. The gentleman I was with cut it free. We did another free fall for like another 5, 10 seconds. I didn’t even think about the extra chute, so I thought we were just plummeting to our death. He pulled the second, and that was knotted up too. He just kept shaking it and shaking it in midair, as all my friends were, you know, what felt like half a mile above me, and I’m plummeting toward earth. (Laughs.) And he finally unravels it in midair. The fun part was when he said, ‘You’re probably going to break your legs on the way down, because we’re going too fast now.’ So after you see your whole life flash in front of your eyes—twice—he says, ‘Oh, your legs are going to get broken too.’ (When we finally landed) we did, like, this barrel roll. We got bruised up, but no broken legs….I do not skydive any longer.”
ON LEARING TO STAND UP FOR HIMSELF AS A BOY
“In school I was about a foot shorter than anyone else, always jumping up and getting laughs – a little smart-ass with a big mouth. School was like this wild safari where I could make a name for myself, but it never really worked. They just basically looked at you as the class clown and dismissed you. I never belonged.”
ON HIS MOTHER’S LOVE & SUPPORT OF HIS EARLY ACTING AMBITIONS
“But I was very lucky to have great parents who helped me understand the world and give me a better sense of the world. My mother would spend hours driving me to a special art-oriented school so I could get a better education. If she hadn’t done that for me, I would never have become an actor.”
ON SURPASSING HIS OWN DREAMS
“I sometimes have to look back and say, “Wow, this is amazing what has happened to me. I have been able to fulfill a lot of these dreams that I had when I was very young…It’s pretty amazing. I have to say it’s a pretty amazing feeling. But at the same time it becomes addictive! So yes, my dreams have been surpassed. (And) I would like to think that I stood for something and made a positive contribution to the world.”