In one of the rare moments of levity to be found in J. Edgar, a solemn biopic tracing the rise to power of J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary and controversial head honcho of the FBI for much of the 20th century, Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench) reassures her son that he is not getting too bulky by insisting, “It’s nothing other than solid weight on a man.” What makes Mrs. Hoover’s comforting lie even funnier is the realization that the bulldog-faced man she is talking to is a character who just happens to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio, best known as the wispy, youthful dreamboat who helped Titanic plow through box-office records 14 years ago.
However, it would be unfair to pretend that DiCaprio’s transformation into the kind of mature leading man who could credibly step into Hoover’s impeccably polished dress shoes has happened overnight. The star has gained plenty of solid acting weight in the years since Titanic, due to an admirable interest in tackling psychologically dark roles for A-list filmmakers. His gallery of tortured anti-heroes includes the grief-consumed subconscious extractor in Christopher Nolan’s Inception; the disillusioned, argumentative suburban patriarch of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road; and, of course, the mentally unstable protagonists of frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, The Departed, and Shutter Island.
With J. Edgar, the thrice-Oscar-nominated actor teams up for the first time with director Clint Eastwood, who guides DiCaprio through another characterization that doesn’t exactly beg for audience sympathy. The film follows Hoover from his early career triumphs of establishing the Federal Bureau of Investigation and putting an end to the reign of bank robbers like John Dillinger to his reputation-tarnishing, paranoia-fueled later years spent tapping the phones of radical figures such as Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to appease misguided suspicions of Communism.
Showing no similar signs of career decline himself, DiCaprio, who turns 37 years old this coming Friday (also, in a neat fluke of timing, the date J. Edgar opens nationwide), talked to us about Hoover’s notorious aversion to maintaining personal relationships, the real truth behind Eastwood’s fabled three-takes-only shooting style, and the particular environmental cause that is currently occupying his time away from the spotlight.
What attracted you to the J. Edgar script, written by Milk Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black?
I think the screenplay that Clint and I initially responded to by [Black] was a very fascinating portrait of this man, and I think all of us as actors were very fascinated with these characters that had devoted their [lives] to government service, and that meant not having any kind of personal life whatsoever. They were representations of the FBI. That was their church. And it’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, to completely sacrifice any sort of love in your life, to never experience that on a personal level.
What else about Black’s portrait of Hoover appealed to you?
What I was fascinated by was his take on entering J. Edgar Hoover’s career during a time of almost a terrorist invasion by Communists … and how J. Edgar Hoover really transformed the police system in America and created this federal bureau that, to this day, is one of the most feared and respected and revered police forces in the entire world. Of course, the story goes on to his later years, where he became this, in essence, political dinosaur who didn’t adapt to the changing of our country. The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that Communism was an evil thing, and he wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country. But when the civil rights movement came along, he saw that as an uprising of the people. He stayed in power way too long, and he didn’t listen to his own critics. Therefore, his career ended on a failed note, in my opinion. So [Black’s] portrait of this man was a very complex one and a very interesting one.
What do you think is valuable and relevant about making this movie now?
I think [Black] put it best when he said, “Look, if we can better understand these people and their motivations, and how this ambition manifested itself [in] their politics, we can learn from them.” We can learn from history. To me, you couldn’t write a character like J. Edgar Hoover and have it be believable. [Laughs] I mean, he was a crock pot of eccentricities. We couldn’t even fit all his eccentricities into this movie. We could go on and on, but the fact [is] this man was, if not the most powerful man in the last century, one of the most [powerful] in our country, and he lived with his mother until he was 40 years old. He listened to his mother for political advice.
Do you find it ironic that a period piece about the government violating the individual’s right to privacy is opening in an era in which that is still a hot-button issue?
Well, it’s interesting in this day and age to do a film about espionage and wire-tapping. I don’t think that those types of secrets that J. Edgar Hoover was able to obtain and keep for such a long period of time would be possible in today’s [culture], you know, with the Internet [and] Wiki-leaks. This was a different day and age, and there were huge, catastrophic events that were going to happen if we didn’t have a federal police system like that investigating a lot of activities that were going on in our country. I mean, it’s an argument or a topic that people could talk about till they’re blue in the face … but I don’t think that J. Edgar Hoover would be able to do the same job in today’s era, with all this massive distribution of information in a matter of seconds.
Eastwood has a reputation for working very quickly. Did you ever have to do more than three takes of a scene?
We actually did a lot of takes on this movie. I never left the set wanting more, that’s for sure. This was a very, very difficult character for me … and at times, we went and did eight or nine or ten takes on a single day. Clint is very adaptable and has his process, and what he does is expect you to plant your feet and speak the truth, like James Cagney says, and that’s what we tried our best to do on this movie. He gave us everything we could possibly ask for as actors.
How did he pull that off?
He has almost like this splinter-cell unit of people on set, the bare minimum. It’s like an elite squadron of Marines that are there, and they sort of fade away, and that third wall disappears, and you start to feel like you’re actually submerged in reality and you’re really there. And it’s incredibly helpful as an actor to feel like you’re immersed in that environment.
Not bad for an 81-year-old director.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s amazing what he does. I mean, if he’s not directing a film, he’s acting in it, or he’s composing the music for that film. And his commitment to what he does is astounding for all of us to witness. It’s inspiring, actually.
Speaking of aging, how difficult was it to play Hoover as an old man nearing the end of his life with the assistance of elaborate makeup?
The challenge for me was not just the prosthetic work and how to move like an older man, it was more so how to have 50 years of experience in the workplace and talk to a young Robert F. Kennedy as if he was some political upstart that didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. That was a big challenge.
Are you worried that playing such a power-mad character will hurt your career?
No, not at all. I don’t have to empathize or sympathize with a human being in order to be able to play them. Some of the greatest roles that actors have been able to play haven’t been the most endearing onscreen.
Your efforts as an environmental activist have led to the establishment of the DiCaprio Foundation. Why is the environment important to you?
Why is it important to me? It’s important to everybody. I think that the environmental movement is the biggest people’s movement in the world. Unfortunately, our governments and our corporations haven’t responded accordingly to protect our planet’s natural resources. But ever since I was very young, I’ve been fascinated with nature, and I actually wanted to be a marine biologist when I was very young, and that was a great passion of mine. So I suppose in the off season when I’m not making movies, I became more and more active as an environmentalist and trying to be more vocal about issues that I felt were important, and I created my foundation as a result of that.
What specific environmental causes are you involved in at the moment?
Right now, the campaign that I’m involved in is to save the last remaining wild tigers throughout Asia. There [are] only 3200 left in the wild. There [are] more tigers in Texas in cages than there are tigers in the wild, and we’re at the risk of losing this iconic species for all time.
J. Edgar opens in limited release this Wednesday before expanding nationwide on Friday.
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