Oscar Winner Leonardo DiCaprio dishes out another full-sized plate of performance perfection in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
What do Hollywood and Wall Street have in common?
They’re both businesses, ultimately! (laughs) This film to me isn’t even representational of Wall Street, per se. The more I started to research who this guy was, the more I realized that he was part of the underworld, he was emulating the real people who were robbing our economy of billions, trillions of dollars. He was a tiny little minnow in a sea of whales that were finding loopholes in our financial system to basically rob all of America. Yeah, Hollywood you could say the same thing, but to me it’s about a general attitude, it’s a darker side of human nature, it’s something that’s worth talking about and worth exploring because here is a very hedonistic character at the center of this, a man that gives into every possible indulgence that he wants, and thinks about no one except himself. And that is very representational of the time that we live in. As our economy keeps expanding, as our population keeps growing, we keep acting as if there are endless resources that we can keep expanding without any kind of downturn. Hollywood is like any business; it’s all the same.
You’re cynical about humanity?
The state of things right now is pretty bizarre to me, it almost seems surreal. Certainly from an environmental perspective, it’s outrageous to me; it’s pretty outrageous how the almighty dollar seems to rule everything. And people are suffering, and our planet is suffering, it’s almost like a war zone out there from an environmentalist perspective to keep some of these sacred places in tact, to fight for things that have no voice, because the economy keeps driving forward and people get richer and richer, and prices seem to be surging. I thought we were in an economic downturn! (laughs) But I look around and I look at apartments in New York and things are quadruple the price that they were! It all makes no sense to me.
Hopefully films can change the attitude for some people?
Who knows, who knows? But it is important, I think, not to sanitize, if you’re going to bring up a subject matter like this. This is a satire, and a dark comedy, but what we’re talking about is, I think, a very serious subject and it’s something that’s in our very culture. You look at the youth today, and you look at what the American dream is. It poses ‘What is the American dream?’ This idea of accumulating more and more and doing what is right for you seems to be rampant.
So you think it’s been corrupted? The American dream was something different in the beginning?
To me it has to do more with the sheer magnitude of what’s happening now. Our population is just immense, and… I could go on and on about this subject matter, I don’t want to go down a dark path. But I think, the very nature of what this man is represents something important to analyze. It’s not something that’s here to give the answers, but it is here to… it’s a part of human nature. It’s a part of survival and it’s an instinct we all have, but you’d think that as we progress and evolve into the future we’d be able to find some goddamn alternatives to the way business is as usual.
To what extent do you follow financial politics?
I didn’t know anything about finance going into this movie, I really didn’t. I don’t follow the stock market whatsoever; it really made no sense to me. No sense to Marty either which is why we broke that wall and spoke directly to the camera, and say ‘anyway, I know this shit is confusing to you, anyway the point is, were we doing something illegal? Absolutely we were and I was getting really rich…’ That was our approach with this film, because ultimately you do a film that’s intricately about the world of finance and people are just going to zone out. It’s about the nature of what’s within us. And what I loved about Jordan’s book was the fact that he was so honest about that, the guy was writing down some incredibly embarrassing things.
You met the real Jordan? Did you like him?
You know what, I do admire his honesty. And from an actor’s perspective he was very beneficial. I think what he was doing was deplorable, and he’ll tell you the same thing; he’ll tell you he looks at that period of his life as a time for learning. He’s now the way we portray him at the end of the movie, he’s going out doing seminars, like Tony Robbins style seminars, and talking about his past, the mistakes that he’s made, the dark path that he went down and how to have integrity in the world of finance. But for me, as an actor, the fact that he would divulge all this stuff – and I think he’s doing it because he wants to teach people a lesson – was incredible. I got to call him, sometimes in between scenes, and ask him what the environment was like, what he was thinking, and he was so candid with me, it was hugely beneficial as an actor.
Is he a good seller?
Hell yeah! He’s a great seller. But he learned it all from Wall Street. You have to understand, these were the guys who were trying to emulate the fat cats, these were the guys from the underworld. This is a microcosm for a much bigger story. These guys were pretending to be Gordon Gekko, but they were in a chop shop in Long Island with a bunch of uneducated people, and found loopholes within the financial system to take advantage of others, because those loopholes were there. And ultimately, did they pay the price they should have? Probably not. Probably not, because we don’t punish those, and ironically we give many CEOs of these major corporations bonuses instead of hard jail time! (laughs) Guys who have destroyed our economy!
Do you think if you would follow financial politics and others do too, something could change?
I don’t know if I’m even sophisticated enough to answer that question. But I will tell you this, I just don’t agree with the attitude of it, that’s all I can say. I don’t know how it all works. What brought our economy down in 2008 is still a mystery, how people were able to take advantage of a system like that, you’d think that’s what a government is for, to watch over these things. But to me it’s depressing that the almighty dollar seems to be the God of modern times. And that wouldn’t be so dangerous, because that’s timeless, that’s been around since before there was civilization, but we’re becoming much larger and consuming much more and more destructive than we ever were. So that attitude still in today’s modern times is dangerous.
But in practical terms, what do you do with your money? Everyone has to live in society.
What do I do on a personal level with my money? (laughs) I think it’s very important to give back. I think everyone that is in a position of power and wealth has a responsibility… it should be a prerequisite to do something for your community or the world. I don’t judge people who are in positions of power or have wealth as long as they are responsible with it. And there are a lot of incredibly responsible people out there but there are too many reckless ones.
What was it like to do the movie; there are some crazy scenes!
It was crazy. What was interesting about this was that we’d done a few movies that were very beholden to a specific plot structure. With ‘Shutter Island’, ‘The Departed’, there were all these intricate moving parts that had to work very carefully together to result in a very specific ending. I don’t want to say we were limited, but it didn’t allow for much improvisation and experimentation with the direction of how each scene went. I remember Marty telling me, ‘Look this is going to be a satire, what we’re talking about is very serious but that’s the approach of this film, that’s the way I want to do this movie.’ And I saw this documentary about ‘The King Of Comedy’, and all the actors were improvising before they were even on set. They were tearing apart the material, flipping it on end, and then when they got onto set they re-improvised the improvisation. So that was what we got to do almost every day, and it was insane. It was insane because, when you open yourself up to a character where anything is possible, and you’re only thinking about what’s right for you, and you have no moral cornerstone, and no one to answer to in the movie, it becomes this debaucherous… that’s why I keep referencing ‘Caligula’, it was like a modern day Roman Empire. We were all sitting around with maidens and grapes and money and drugs. It was insane. That attitude ran rampant throughout the filmmaking process. Needless to say it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun.
What did it do to you; did it change the way you look at things?
I understood more the addiction of what these guys… the amount of wealth they were making and how quickly they were making it and how it became incessantly easier for them, I can understand getting into that mind frame. Bending one little rule here, finding a little grey area of the law here and entering that, just to keep the machine going. It’s almost like he built this cult and I really felt it when I was doing these speeches, because I’d been thinking about these speeches for six years. I had them all very planned out; they were like these ‘Braveheart’ type speeches that I was giving to my brokers but instead of fighting for their own personal freedom of their country, it was about going out and screwing over as many people as possible! It wasn’t until I really got on stage that I felt what Jordan must’ve felt like. The adoration, even though all these actors were sitting there and they had to clap for everything I was saying because it was off camera and we had to do the sequences; you feel like you become Bono or something like that, you feel like this crazy rock star, and I understood the mentality of Jordan at that moment. I understood what he must’ve felt like, because all these people were looking at him for answers, and he had to build this image up, this indestructible image. So, he therefore kept bending the rules more and more.
Did you recognize the feeling from when you became a big star in Hollywood?
It’s a much different dynamic I think. Probably musical performers would feel it more than I’ve felt it. When you do a movie there’s always the distance from your audience via the screen, and having it be projected as opposed to being on stage, but it was unique and it was interesting, because I felt like what a performer would’ve felt like on stage.
Is there something you envy about Jordan?
Oh I don’t envy the life that he lived, no.
How do you find something you like in a character that is essentially quite repulsive?
The truth is, I didn’t really think about whether he was likeable or not likeable. I just keyed into his motivation and his ambition, and I think that’s probably what audiences latch onto. We were very worried, even speaking to the financiers about doing a movie with Wall Street in the title, how people immediately associate that with the people who destroyed our economy, and these are very destructive, pretty distasteful people. But Marty said ‘look, it’s important to do films that are about the darker side of human nature.’ He’s done them many times before about the underworld, and he said, ‘as long as you don’t try to sugar coat who they are, and you don’t try to tack on some false sense of sympathy that you think the audience can identify with, if you authentically portray them, the audiences are going to go on that journey with you no matter what.’
And that was done a lot in the past, now we don’t seem to have those types of heroes, or anti-heroes…
Not on this scale. I think they’re done, but they’re not done in this way, this American epic. That’s why I had to do this movie, really. It was six years to try and get this financed, and it wasn’t going to be financed in the traditional sense from a studio system, because they would’ve wanted to tack on some sort of alternative ending, they would’ve wanted to have some sort of apology for these men’s actions. We got this financier who said to us, ‘we believe there’s a marketplace in the adult audience for people who want to see this kind of movie, and we believe it could be successful, and the only way it will be successful is if you push the envelope, and if you go for it, make this as insane and debaucherous as you possibly can.’
What caught you before 2008, six years ago?
What caught me then was that it was all percolating in the air, I wanted to do it right afterwards, immediately, and we were going to… but it’s weird, I think that we always talk about the 70’s as being this great era where it was director driven content, and the age of the blockbuster, but even in my career I’ve seen, you know, since 2006 being able to finance ‘Blood Diamond’ or ‘The Aviator’, those are incredibly complex films to finance nowadays, it’s impossible no matter who you have. Because it just doesn’t fit the template of the category of dramas and other films are below this budget, and everything above this budget has to have this explosion, this robot, and all that other stuff, otherwise we’re not doing it. So there are people who have run into pools of finance that are also film connoisseurs and love movies, that’s the way a lot of this stuff is happening nowadays. But on that note on why I wanted to do this movie so bad, it’s percolating in modern times, it’s a very modern movie in my opinion. It’s about now.
Can you describe your relationship with Marty? Father figure? Or just a director, or friend?
We’re from much different generations. You have to understand me going in to work with him in the first place… any actor would want to work with Martin Scorsese, so I got very lucky. I got very lucky because I sort of hunted down this one project and said will you do this movie with me, I know you’ve always wanted to do ‘Gangs Of New York’, and we ended up doing that. And since then we’re more used to one another, the trust builds up, and over time it just becomes like we automatically know what we’re trying to do. And what’s amazing about him is his thirst for making great movies is still as powerful as it was when he was first starting out. He’s such an admirer of film as an art form that I think he has so many Gods of cinema swirling around in his head that he has to answer to all the time. He feels like they’re looking down on him so he’s motivated to keep making great movies.
But you’re also friends off set?
Yeah we’re friends, you could call us that.