Leonardo DiCaprio Talks About "The Aviator"

DiCaprio on Howard Hughes and Reuniting with Martin Scorsese

Gwen Stefani Leonardo DiCaprio Aviator
Gwen Stefani and Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Aviator". © Miramax Films
Leonardo DiCaprio reunites with his "Gangs of New York" director, Martin Scorsese, for a probing look at the life of eccentric, unbalanced, aviator/film director, Howard Hughes, in "The Aviator."

Dressed in a black buttoned-down shirt, clean-shaven, with his hair slicked back, DiCaprio looked handsome and relaxed as he met with the press in LA to talk about his work on one of the most-anticipated films of 2004, "The Aviator:"

Interview with Leonardo DiCaprio:

What was it about Howard Hughes that fascinated you?
As an actor, you’re constantly searching for that great character. And, being a history buff and learning about people in our past and amazing things that they’ve done, I came across a book of Howard Hughes and he was set up basically as like the most multi-dimensional character I could ever come across. Often people have tried to define him in biographies. No one seems to be able to categorize him. He was one of the most complicated men of the last century. And so I got this book, brought it to Michael Mann, and John Logan came onboard and really came up with the concept of saying, “You can do ten different movies about Howard Hughes. Let’s focus on his younger years. Let’s watch his initial descent into madness but meanwhile, have the backdrop of early Hollywood, these daring pioneers in the world of aviation that were like astronauts that went out and risked their lives to further the cause of aviation.”

[Hughes was] the first American billionaire who had all the resources in the world but was somehow unable to find any sense of peace or happiness.

It’s that great see-saw act in the movie that goes on. On one side, he’s having all the successes in the world. And on the other side the tiny microbes and germs are the things that are taking him downwards, because of his OCD and being a germaphobe.

Could you relate to any of the things?
Relate? I think he certainly took things farther than I could ever imagine.

He was such an obsessed human being. He was so obsessive about everything he’d gotten involved with, whether it be planes or women or the films that he made. And that is the direct result of his OCD. I wouldn’t go to those extremes but certainly, the “Hell’s Angels” sequence, being a part of films that have gone on for many, many months and you’re sitting there with the director trying to get things perfect and do things over and over and over again, that was something that I think Scorsese and I immediately identified with.

Do you see any other parallels between Howard Hughes’ fear of celebrity and any paranoias in your own personal and professional life?
I have to say, you know, I’m, for the most part, a pretty private person but his came, like I said, from a genuine mental disorder and I’m just fundamentally not like that. My reasons for being a private person are different from Mr. Hughes’. Mine are because I’m an actor and I want people to believe me in different roles and not necessarily know way too much about me. I want to be around in the business for a long time, and he had an intense fear of being around people and germs, as displayed very well in the film.

Can you talk about your relationship with Mr. Scorsese and what he might have brought to your performance?
What I’m going to say is going to sound like a cliché but I can not tell a lie.

He is every actor’s dream to work with. He’s the man in the business that you can unanimously ask any actor of any age range, and they want to work with this man because he is not only one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but he is like a film historian. He’s a professor of film. The man has seen almost every film ever made up until 1980. You get an education while working with him every single day. He screens movies for you to talk about specific scenes and what he’s trying to convey up on the screen. You can ask him a question about a character or the way a scene should go and he can show you 20 different examples of filmmakers that have done that in the past, the way it’s been done right, the way it’s been done wrong. And it’s an incredible learning experience.

But, for us, having this huge sort of generational gap, we actually found that we fundamentally share the same tastes in a lot of different things.

Not just film, but music and art. And we dislike a lot of the same things, and like a lot of the same things. We have a great work ethic together. We get along.

We’ve had marathon rehearsal sessions and sometimes those can be arduous if people don’t enjoy that process but his whole criteria, the thing that he does so well is he’s so persistent on making everything he does an authentic as possible. So, he loves to have actors come to the table with an array of different information and different new ideas and challenging things. He welcomes that more than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. For this movie, and all the research I did, we certainly did a lot of that.

PAGE 2: Leonardo DiCaprio on Research, OCD, and Beautiful Women

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In addition to the book, what other research did you do?
The genesis, like I said, was seven, eight years ago, reading the book, bringing it to Michael Mann, and finally John Logan developing it with Michael, and then the script landing on my lap. And then the real research began after we committed to the movie, Marty and I. It was a year of preparation. It was not only those marathon sessions with John Logan and Scorsese, but I got to meet a couple of people who actually worked with Howard, who knew Howard.

Jane Russell, I drove up north to spend a day with her and talk about Howard. And Terry Moore, his ex-wife, she provided a lot of information about him.

When you read a script and it says in the script, “He has obsessive compulsive disorder,” and then you read two pages of a man repeating the same line over and over again… Not that it’s easy for a writer to write that because he has his own thought process, but when you’re an actor and reading that you say, “How in the hell am I gonna say this? What is the driving force behind repeating something 20 times in a row and why the hell is he doing it?” So that brought me to work with Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA, who is the leading physician on obsessive compulsive disorder and treating it in a non-medicated fashion. He really explained to me what OCD is and the brain mechanism that goes into it and the sort of faulty gear shift, the sticky gear shift that happens when your mind obsesses on one thing and you don’t listen to the other part of your brain that tells you you’re being ridiculous.

So, I worked a lot with him and a patient of his. I spent a few days with him, living around him and talking to him and really trying to find out why he had to repeat or do things obsessively. Then, reading every possible book I could on him and his life.

Did Hughes date so many beautiful, famous women with a perception of his place in history or of his mythic status as a celebrity? And do you think about your place in history when you date somebody who is equally famous?
(Smiling) No.

Those aren’t my intentions going into a relationship. But, with Howard, it’s an interesting dynamic because I honestly feel that as much as he had love and adoration for these women and genuinely cared for them, he kind of looked at them like airplanes. You know what I mean? He was a technical genius and obsessed with finding the new, faster, bigger airplane (laughs) and that was simultaneous with women. He was constantly finding the new, hotter female to go out with.

It all related back to him being orphaned at a very young age and sort of having this empty hole in his soul that, I think, he was always trying to fill with new, more exciting things in his life. He ended up, obviously, not a very happy person. I don’t know if he was thinking about whether historically he was going to become a legend. I’m sure he had that sort of cat and mouse things going on in his mind where he wanted to be famous but it was more like, “Look at me! Look at me! No, don’t look at me!”

What about the truth versus the legend in this movie?
Like I said, there is so much information. There’s the whole later years of Howard’s life, which is a film in its own right anyway. But the reason this film was made, and I think the first true distinctive film on Howard Hughes was possible because of focusing on his younger years and being able to show not only the growing up of this man in this time period, but our country, the state of our country, and what kind of people were around in the beginning of early Hollywood and the attitudes of people.

Where do you feel the director, and you as an actor, need to draw the line between historical accuracy and when can you go over that line into the realm of storytelling and fantasy?
When it serves the film and as long, to me, as the essence of what you’re trying to portray is the intention of the character. There are a couple of things in this movie that weren’t exactly what really happened. And I know there’s all those detectives out there that love to look for mistakes or things that weren’t exactly the real deal. But, for example, Howard Hughes never did the thing with buying the photos of Katharine Hepburn, of her and Spencer Tracy. Instead the intention was the same: he bought her “The Philadelphia Story,” which she ended up doing on stage, and inevitably got her an Academy Award after they broke up.

The intention was still there. He still loved her, he still cared about her as a person, and still did something like that for her.

You know, I think as long as you are carried on that ride of the film and you’re engaged in the character and it’s something that isn’t way too far out of the field of what really happened - and the intention is still there - I think that’s the artists’ right.

PAGE 3: Leonardo DiCaprio on Historical Accuracy, Cate Blanchett, and Kate Beckinsale

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How did you shake Howard Hughes at the end of each day?
I’ve always been pretty good at being able to go home and be me again. But, as much as, for this character, I’d certainly say more than any other character I’ve played in the past, this one stayed with me the most. Especially with this stuff having to do with obsessive compulsive disorder. We all have obsessive things we do to some degree, a primal thing in our brain, that’s a part of our brain mechanism.

I remember as a child, stepping on cracks on the way to school and having to walk back a block and step on that same crack or that gum stain. So, for the movie, I kind of let all that stuff go and was constantly stepping on things and reorganizing things constantly, and wanted that to encourage that to come back. And it really did. Once you don’t stop yourself from doing that stuff, it can just go on and on and on.

People with OCD truly live, with genuine OCD, people that aren’t able to make that distinction, truly live in a 24-hour hell of constantly playing mind games with themselves. They could sit here and have a conversation but all they want to do is reach over here and twist this around and flip it over 20 times in a row. An array of different things. Sometimes, let’s just say it took me a while to get to set having to step on tons of things (laughing).

Did you ever go to see the Spruce Goose?
Yeah, I went to see the Spruce Goose when I was younger.

I didn’t go back to see it again. I wanted to go up and fly some of these planes but, quite understandably, the insurance company said to me, “No, we’re not going to allow you to go fly antique World War II planes for the first time in your life two weeks before shooting.” (Laughing) So, that was understandable.

There are certain things that you have to have a little leeway for.

Doing an historical film like this, what insight did it give you into what we’re living through today?
Well, more so than anything, what I was worried about the most in this film was saying, “Okay, here’s the first American billionaire. He’s handsome, he sleeps with the best women in the world, he’s an American hero and how the hell do you make this situation with Juan Trippe and Pan American Airways and this Senator become a sympathetic situation towards Howard Hughes?”

I was going through my head and churning constantly, and then I realized, for exactly what you’re talking about specifically, it has to do with corporate takeover and the involvement of huge corporations with our government, and they’re in cahoots and it’s going on today with the Enron scandals and numerous other things. That’s what really made me say, “Okay, here’s this one man, he’s his own boss, he is rich but he is a stand-up individual and here he is with all these horrible things going on with himself mentally, standing up in front of the Senate and battling the Senate to stop the monopoly on international travel.” I think, ultimately, people kind of got behind that and lost all the other pre-thoughts about who Howard Hughes was or whether he would be a sympathetic character.

And as far as history is concerned, a lot of people I spoke to said they really wanted Howard Hughes to be President after that. They really loved this one individual taking on the entire system, taking on the government, taking on huge monopolies and corporations. And that’s what, in other words, struck a chord emotionally for people, or me at least anyway.

Can you talk about the two Kates – Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale?
Well, for the Katharine Hepburn character there was really only one person that could play that role in the world. There is the, what can I say, the female version of Daniel Day-Lewis, and that is Cate Blanchett. To be able to take on the persona and one of the most iconic female voices of the 20th Century, in Katharine Hepburn, one of the most immediately recognizable voices, and being from Australia as well… Taking on that, you have to be a true chameleon and genius.

So, enough said about that.

Kate Beckinsale, we were looking for Ava and she came in with the full fur and Ava Gardner attire and make-up and attitude. And once we met with a few girls for that, as soon as she stepped into the meeting with us we knew we had our Ava. She represented the class, had the strength, had the attitude, and it was a joy to work with both of them.

PAGE 4: Leonardo DiCaprio on Hughes' Genius and Mental Problems

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Can you talk a little bit about the breakdown scene in the screening room?
We shot a lot more than was actually in the movie because we didn’t know what we were going to use. There’s literally entire report documents that are the size of huge novels. Howard Hughes took all his technical brilliance that he would use for airplanes or engineering or whatever it may be, and reverted all that energy into how his lunch was delivered.

It’s truly some of the most frightening, astonishing stuff I’ve ever read. I mean transcripts and memos that went on for hours and hours and hours about the angle of the lunch, the way the milk was to be delivered, the way the knock was supposed to be, whether the man could smile, cough, breath, how many times he could blink, and the angles of the way the food was to be delivered, his gloves. It was frightening, frightening stuff. And we incorporated a lot of that, but unfortunately there was way, way too much to put in. I think we definitely got the essence of his madness and portrayed what we wanted to portray. But, like I said, Howard Hughes in his later years, that’s another film unto itself. It’s not as cinematic, a man locked in a room.

How did you feel spending a week doing that? Do you feel like you were losing it?
Sometimes yeah, sometimes definitely. You sort of get into your own headspace and don’t really want to talk to anyone.

I spent a lot of time just sitting around in the screening room alone. But, pain is temporary, film is forever, and that’s the fun part of knowing on the day that what you’re doing will actually show up on screen. That’s the best feeling.

Do you think Howard Hughes would have been the genius that he was without the OCD?
I think they’re a direct result of one another.

It’s like he would have not been as obsessed about making the largest plane ever built. He wouldn’t have been obsessed about breaking every speed record. He wouldn’t have been obsessed about flying around the world faster than anyone else. He wouldn’t have been obsessed about reshooting “Hells Angels” for sound, having that movie go on for four years. He wouldn’t have been… It was all completely a part of his obsessive nature and his OCD that made him have such an amazing, astounding life.

OCD at the time was undiagnosed. People didn’t know what it was and he was such a private introverted person that he would have never, even if there was a doctor out there that could have cured him, he wouldn’t have had that meeting with the doctor to begin with, nor taken any medication to solve it. So he just thought it was his own essence, his own being, not knowing that he had any kind of condition whatsoever. And absolutely it propelled him to do everything that he did, I believe anyway. But also, he was a huge dreamer as well. It was a crockpot of different things that made Howard Hughes who he was. It was a combination of stuff, but OCD was a huge part of it.

What are your film tastes like these days?
I’m still doing my homework, still watching a lot of old movies.

A lot of old films. Some of my favorites, the last thing that I really got into was the whole neo-realism movement with De Sica and all those great Italian directors, “The Bicycle Thief,” and all of his great work.

It’s so funny because here we are doing movies at this day and age and you don’t realize that these directors have attempted these things almost 100 times before you. We think we’re so original with our ideas and things we’re trying to accomplish, but some of these great directors of our past have gone to those extremes and even further. And that’s why film preservation is so damn important, so directors and actors can have a library of seeing what people did in the past and learning from it and trying to improve or not make the same mistakes or whatever it may be.

PAGE 5: Leonardo DiCaprio on Sticking to His Dreams and Family Support

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The movie shows Howard’s dream is flying airplanes. What were your dreams or obsessions as a kid?
I’ve really only had one ever since I got into this business at around 13 years old and that was to be in this business forever. You know, once I did my first television commercial I got that itch and that bug and said, “If it is possible to make a living doing this for the rest of my life, then it’s the only thing I really want to do.” He had multiple dreams, but that’s been it.

And once I’ve been in it, truly I look at film and cinema as legitimate an art form as sculpture or painting or anything else. It is a true art form and we’re in the beginnings, we’re in the first 100 years of cinema. It’s still at its infancy. I’m very curious to see what types of films last for the next 1,000 years, just like what paintings people still look at. I want to be a part of art, as far as cinema is concerned, that people will want to see for generations to come.

How did you find the strength to stick with your dreams and who inspired you?
The first thing I can think of is my dad. I remember the casting session that I had where I was a break dancer so I had a punk hair cut. They rejected me and I became really disillusioned with the business and said, “Well, this is what it’s all about. I haven’t even got in to read a line.” He said, “Don’t worry, some day we’re going to get you back into this and it’s going to happen for you.” So I kind of took that to heart.

It was one of those situations where I was lucky enough and fortunate enough to be at the right places at the right time, and I did a couple of television shows, “Parenthood” and “Growing Pains.” Then all of a sudden I was on the set of “Growing Pains” and got this audition for “This Boy’s Life” and was able to jump into the feature film world.

It’s really been just simply the fact that I’d been able to work. You know what I mean? That has been the deciding factor. I mean, I would probably still be trying to be an actor even if I was out of work, but I would probably become a little disillusioned at some point and move on to other things. But I truly love it, I just truly - it’s like the one thing that I know that I love.

So you credit the support of your family?
Definitely. And if it wasn’t for my mother and my father taking me out to the hundreds and hundreds of auditions every day after school, and never being stage parents, and always saying, “Look, at any time if you want to stop doing this, or you hate it, just tell us.” And I kept on saying, “Nope, nope, I want to do it, I want to do it.”