Editor’s note: Well, it’s official. After years of near misses, Leonardo DiCaprio has finally snagged a Best Actor statue. What better time to revisit a piece we ran just two months ago, before The Revenant had even hit screens? Congrats, Leo! Guess it’s safe to say you’re a made man…
In a resumé loaded with knockout performances, Leonardo DiCaprio has memorably portrayed real-life figures Howard Hughes in The Aviator, FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar and stock market scammer Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. But none of these roles posed a challenge as physically and mentally grueling as bringing the lesser-known survival story of fur trader Hugh Glass to the screen in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant.
Mauled by a bear and left to die by a duplicitous fellow hunter (Tom Hardy) in the frigid wilderness, Glass battles the elements, Arikara natives and murderous Frenchmen, literally crawling his way out to seek retribution. Revenant, after all, means one who returns after death.
Shot chronologically and in natural light on location in Alberta, Canada, standing in for the American Northwest of the 1820s, The Revenant is a triumph for Iñárritu, a triple Oscar winner last year for Birdman, and for DiCaprio, who went through hell to nail his largely wordless performance. At a Q&A session following a Variety Screening Series showing of the film with Iñárritu and co-stars, DiCaprio weighed in on the demands of the role, working with Iñárritu and the two films that changed the course of his career…
“There were so many monumental undertakings in this film—the bear mauling, the horse sequence, the bison sequence, the rapids, fighting with Tom Hardy.”
Did you realize what you were getting into when you agreed to play Glass?
In some respects, we all knew what we were signing up for. The script had been floating around for a while because logistically it was so hard to execute. It took a very particular filmmaker. The truth is, it was the attachment of Alejandro [that drew me], because we knew we were going into the heart of darkness together. So much of our experience and the things we spoke about and things that happened to us while we were there on location, immersing ourselves in the wilderness, translated into the narrative of the story. The talks we had about the influx of capitalism coming from back east, the fur trade, the extraction of natural resources and what that did to the indigenous populations that lived there, the greed of man, survival—all of that elevated us and was brought into the narrative.
How did you prepare for the challenges?
There were so many monumental undertakings in this film—the bear mauling, the horse sequence, the bison sequence, the rapids, fighting with Tom Hardy. Most of the stuff was so meticulously planned out and rehearsed. [Iñárritu] watched a hundred different bear attacks. Every single department needed to work like a Swiss watch. It was like doing live theater every day. That extreme tension lent itself to so many crazy adventures. But it was those sequences we didn’t plan out so much, the small things that were unpredictable, [like] Glass walks up a hill. But the bearskin weighs 120 pounds wet and I’m freezing my ass off, and it became some of the most difficult stuff I had to do in the movie. It was a constant surprise. It was the scenes that I never would have expected that were difficult, but that was part of the excitement of going to the set every day, wondering how we’re going to execute this. I wouldn’t give it up for the world. We were all there for an adventure and we worked hard and we worked together, and every day was an exciting challenge.
Did you have any training or research?
Yes. These men with survival skills that integrate into the wilderness and live off the land were a great benefit to us. Also a fur trapper’s journal, to understand what their day-to-day life was like. There were no historical records of this time period. It was like the wild, wild west—no laws, no society.
How hard was it to act without using your voice?
I knew this was going to be somewhat of a silent performance. That prospect was exciting and challenging at the same time. But more so than anything, I learned a lot about being an actor on this movie. It has a lot to do with trusting the people you’re working with and giving yourself over to a unique process. Alejandro is an incredibly committed director. He creates a landscape for you and an environment that is so essential and believable and authentic that you just focus on being in the moment. You rely on your instincts and you trust the journey. It was a beautiful experience for me as an actor because so much of what I’ve done in the last 15 years has been a product of developing projects, working on the screenplay meticulously beforehand, playing incredibly articulate characters. So to give myself over to the process and trust a director I really believe in who has great talent and is relentless and so aggressive in getting every single frame perfect in his mind and in his vision… I learned a lot as an actor. Certainly being able to translate an entire narrative without words and having that relationship was a very memorable experience for me.
What other movies did you learn the most from, that were turning points for you?
Two films: One of them was This Boy’s Life, my first motion picture. Coming from the world of television and seeing Robert DeNiro on set was a whole different dynamic and a world that shaped me forever. Watching him command the set, his dedication, his craft, being able to improvise, was eye opening for me. The other film, where I truly felt like an adult in the industry, was The Aviator because I’d been developing it for a decade. I was obsessed with playing Howard Hughes and I got the opportunity to have Martin Scorsese direct it. It was the first time I felt like a legitimate producer and a pivotal part of it aside from being an actor for hire.
Photo by Kimberley French