"Beating on, boat against the current," toward a future gilded and exalted, shedding all skin (and humanity) to crush Beantown’s organized crime scene, deploying an iron fist (and then some) as the South’s most barbarous plantation owner, emanating a charm and sophistication irresistible to defraud major corporations out of millions of dollars, swooning and simmering over his star-crossed paramour in Verona, and sketching French girls in the midst of unprecedented maritime disaster made Leonardo DiCaprio one of cinema’s most popular and acclaimed actors, but it took brawling with a grizzly bear and going toe to toe with Mad Max – er, actor Tom Hardy – in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant for the 41-year-old actor to earn his first Academy Award.
Since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape at least, DiCaprio has strategically managed his supernatural pulchritude, Dionysian appetites, and celebrity currency in service of films almost uniformly excellent, from The Departed to Django Unchained, Inception to Wolf of Wall Street.
If poet Charles Bukowski’s conviction that what matters most is how we walk through the fire, then DiCaprio’s feckless amble through the inferno of The Revenant’s brutal making – not to mention his dazzling, feral performance, all scar tissue and grit – should put rest any question about who is the finest actor of his generation.
There’s Method acting, and then there’s Method acting. By all accounts, The Revenant team worked under extraordinarily harsh, acetic conditions. Why was that meaningful or useful to you as an actor?
The truth is, from the outset, Alejandro (Inarritu, the film’s director and cowriter) couldn't even quite articulate why he wanted to do this movie. I knew he wanted to submerge himself in nature, and he wanted to relive the steps of (the film’s protagonist) Hugh Glass, whose life story is sort of the ultimate survivor's tale. It's sort of iconic, American legend because he was this mountain man that not only survived all of the elements at their most brutal, but was associated with man’s ongoing desire to conquer nature as well. That’s been a campfire story that has gone on and on from generation to generation, but Hugh Glass’ life and story really represented the new American frontier and what we were capable of in this country. I think that spoke to me.
As an actor, you endured many of the same challenges as the character you portray. Is that useful for you as an artist?
Being submerged in the elements like that was an intrinsic part of making the movie, totally essential, and so much of what we experienced, so much of the endurance that we had to have in these harsh conditions, they certainly translated to the screen – in my performance, in all of the performances, in the ways that Alejandro composed his shots. A lot of what we experienced being in that environment wove itself into the narrative, the story we were telling. The whole subplot of the Native American people, the stripping away of their land and their resources, and this surge out West to extract natural resources from an untouched landscape, these were all things that made their way into our narrative. These are things that are important to me, things that come up around the campfire in conversation when your director and fellow actors are trying not to freeze to death in the middle of nowhere between takes.
There’s a Transcendentalist streak in Glass, who is stripped of everything he values before he can become who he’s meant to be. What do you think that’s like for him?
I think there are a lot of different ways to interpret what he’s feeling. For me, it's a very cathartic voyage, something that some of us today will go through and some of us might not, something that some of us will actively pursue for ourselves and some of us who will be forced to experience it because life can be sometimes cruel. It opens up the question of “what does this man live for when he's lost absolutely everything that he loves?” That’s a question we might all take a minute to think about. All the chips are stacked against him. His main goal is to reap revenge on the man that has taken everything from him. But once he's finally face to face with his sworn enemy, that revenge is just a finger away, he sees that vengeance is just a hollow, empty feeling. What he’s really been seeking is peace, something spiritual, something we can never experience on the outside. People have to see the movie to really interpret what they want from it, but for me, the movie has its own specific meanings.
The film is a survivalist epic, very much of the Zeitgeist in that regard, but it's also at times a meditation on aspiration and hope. What do you think?
Well, the word “revenant” means “something that comes back from the dead,” right? What Hugh Glass endures in this harsh landscape is beyond comprehension, but he does endure. How? Well, The Revenant is also very much a love story. It's a love story for what this man has lost: his son and his wife. These ghosts, they still speak to him in the harshest of conditions, and they make him push on and persevere against all odds. To me, there's a deep-forged love story in this movie. The people that he has a relationship with are ghosts of his past, but they live on through him. When we’re driven by love, even if that love is long gone, survival is maybe a little bit closer than it was before.
Inarritu has quickly positioned himself as one of the world’s great filmmakers, tackling complicated subjects in uncompromising ways and somehow turning them into blockbuster entertainments. What’s going on there?
Alejandro doesn’t take any half-measures. He doesn’t know moderation. He doesn’t know compromise. He doesn’t know “no.” (Laughs) These are the things that make him unique. They’re the things that will have me always saying yes to working with him. He’s one of a kind. Who else could make the movies that he does? No one.
Is that a question of technique, process?
I think it must be. His process is very unique. Not many filmmakers do what he does, and a lot of that process is about leaving a lot of room for trial and error. Working so closely as he does with his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (who also earned a Revenant Oscar), is critical to his process. They immerse themselves completely in the material they’re working on. There's a very extensive rehearsal period where all the actors get together, and we sort of coordinate these very complex movements and shots, and what he accomplishes is just really singular. In The Revenant, the audience almost feels like some strange, delusional wanderer watching all of this brutal chaos ensue. You’re an observer and, somewhere in the film’s running time, I think a lot of audience members almost become participants in the movie somehow. Alejandro takes you so deeply into this world that you almost have to swim in it. There’s poetry in that, but there’s poetry in just about everything Alejandro does.