The New York Times - Arts & Leisure - November 6, 2011
Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times


A Star Who Isn’t Afraid to Take Risks


Leonardo DiCaprio, about to star as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's film, says he isn't afraid to play complicated characters. More Photos »

To transform himself into an aging J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio sat for hours at a time while makeup artists gave him liver spots, yellow teeth and big, bulbous love handles. He spends a good chunk of Clint Eastwood’s film “J. Edgar” that way, sweating and sneering in the unforgiving lighting of F.B.I. headquarters.

The part also meant memorizing endless monologues that needed to be delivered with Hoover’s own breakneck cadence. Additionally Mr. DiCaprio, who typically comes accessorized with a supermodel girlfriend in real life, had to wrestle aggressively with a man and then kiss him.

Oh, and wear a dress.

Faced with a role with demands like that, most superstar actors, even those eager to catch the attention of Oscar voters, would have turned and run. Look unhandsome and unheroic? Too big a risk, even with Mr. Eastwood at the wheel. But Mr. DiCaprio, at least the post-“Titanic” one, has made a career of highly risky choices, and somehow it keeps paying off not only on the awards circuit — he has been nominated for three Academy Awards — but at the box office as well.

“When I can’t immediately define the character, and there’s an element of mystery to it and still a lot to be explored, that’s when I say yes,” the 36-year-old Mr. DiCaprio said in an interview last week on a patio at the Bel Air Hotel here. “I like those kinds of complicated characters. I just do.”

Hollywood typically doesn’t like that answer. The star system may have become more subtle since the days of Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, but it’s still a system: American actors are supposed to be more steady persona, less shape shifter. “The apparatus likes to box actors up,” said Brian Grazer, a producer of “J. Edgar,” which is set for release on Wednesday. “Once they become successful in one role, get them into picture after picture where they can do exactly the same thing.”

Mr. Grazer added: “To resist that, you have to make very hard choices. Most people are too afraid.”

It probably helps that Mr. DiCaprio has managed to retain a mystique about his personal life in the celebrity blogger era. Keeping that distance is something he works on. In an interview, for instance, he didn’t pretend to be a friend the way a lot of stars do. He likes his privacy, but this game also makes his performances more successful; people are more likely to accept him as a larger- than-life character if they don’t have a very clear idea of who he is off screen.

Mr. DiCaprio’s choices may be unusual, but he does have his own version of sticking with what works. The characters are mostly tortured, unsympathetic, larger-than-life guys created with the help of a tiny club of A-list directors, most notably Martin Scorsese. A urine-collecting Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.” A Zimbabwean smuggler in “Blood Diamond.” A mental patient in “Shutter Island.” A dream extractor in “Inception.”

“Leonardo could make a lot of money making mechanical genre pictures, but he wants to be challenged,” Mr. Eastwood said by telephone. “And it’s much more of a challenge to play someone who doesn’t have the slightest thing in common with you.”

Next on Mr. DiCaprio’s docket is the title role in Baz Luhrmann’s remake of “The Great Gatsby,” and he’s ready to play Frank Sinatra in another Scorsese biopic. “That is in Mr. Scorsese’s hands,” he said of a potential Sinatra film, pausing to pop a wedge of watermelon into his mouth and pour himself another cup of coffee. “I’m always incredibly game for anything that he decides to do.”

“J. Edgar” fits snugly into this canon. The best biopics offer a portrait of person, warts and all, and invite viewers to make their own judgments about him, and Mr. Eastwood’s film strives to do just that. Hoover is depicted as a brilliant patriot who invented modern forensics and stopped at nothing to protect America through eight presidents and three wars. But the omnipowerful F.B.I. director was an impediment, to put it mildly, to the civil rights movement and worked as hard to distort the truth as he did to collect it (and file it away) to secure his power.

All of that is more or less fact. The treacherous part of “J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar winner for his “Milk” screenplay, involves the gray. Was Hoover homosexual? Nobody knows for sure. He certainly had an unusually close relationship with his F.B.I. colleague Clyde Tolson, played in the film by Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”). Even less clear is whether Hoover liked to wear women’s clothes, but Mr. Eastwood and Mr. DiCaprio decided to retain Mr. Black’s artful nod to the rumor.

“Obviously there’s a love story here,” Mr. Eastwood said. “Whether it is a gay love story or something else — well, the audience can interpret it. My intention was to show two men who really love each other, and beyond that it’s none of my business.”

Mr. DiCaprio’s risk taking is cheered by the Hollywood contingent that loves serious films, raising him to the level of deity for his willingness to make the kind of drama that is an endangered species at major studios these days. But a more business-minded crowd — agents, studio chiefs — says taking on all of these biopics is a mistake. The worry is that at some point Mr. DiCaprio will become uninteresting to audiences if he doesn’t pepper his road with a wider variety of roles.

Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University, calls this “the Paul Muni problem.” Muni was perhaps the top actor at Warner Brothers in the 1930s, starring as powerful characters in films like “Scarface.” He also had a penchant for biographical parts, winning an Oscar for “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936). But he developed a type of obsession with historical roles and faded.

Does Mr. DiCaprio worry about boxing himself in by trying to stay out of the box? If he does, he’s not admitting it. “Never. No. I don’t,” he said quickly.

Although Ms. Basinger raises the point, she’s not terribly worried herself. Few other actors have as much raw talent as Mr. DiCaprio, she noted, and the fact that he has been able to move from the 1980s sitcom “Growing Pains” to “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” to “Titanic” to “The Departed” bodes well for his future growth.

“He is always very strongly present as DiCaprio, yet he can really make us believe that he is another person,” Ms. Basinger said. “That’s incredible talent.”

Mr. DiCaprio’s Oscar nominations have been for “Gilbert Grape,” which he made when he was 19 years old, “The Aviator” and “Blood Diamond.” Veteran awards strategists (not working on behalf of “J. Edgar”) think he is a shoo-in for a nomination this year, along with George Clooney for his role in “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne’s look at a man trying to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife falls into a coma. But it’s still too soon to tell whether another Academy Awards ceremony is in Mr. DiCaprio’s immediate future.

Will “J. Edgar” be a hit? Also unclear. But Mr. DiCaprio does have an insurance policy in that ever pesky “Titanic,” which will be rereleased in April in 3-D. If a 3-D conversion of “The Lion King” can generate almost $100 million, as it did for Disney last month, “Titanic” should easily make a major box office splash.

Mr. DiCaprio said he hadn’t thought about it much and had come to terms with being continually associated with the dopey Jack Dawson. “I’m not haunted by it, but it certainly follows me,” he said. “I’ve been to the Amazon, and people with no clothes on, and I’m not exaggerating, know about that film. I’ve accepted it.”

In person Mr. DiCaprio comes across exactly as you suspect he would. He was tired, arriving at a morning interview the day after flying back to Los Angeles from Australia, where he had been filming “The Great Gatsby.” But he was also playful — those blue eyes may have been jet lagged but they still managed to twinkle — and exceedingly polite.

“Bear with me while I come to my senses,” he said with a smile, adjusting the blue baseball cap he was wearing (backward, naturally). The next minute he was asking whether Sian Grigg, his Hoover makeup artist, could be given recognition in this article. “I’m sure she had multiple panic attacks trying to get me ready,” he said. “I could be quite squirmy.”

He lit up when talking about movies and people that have influenced him, particularly Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” which he said he discussed with Mr. Eastwood during the making of “J. Edgar.” They wanted to emulate how that 1950 film handled voice-over narration. But Mr. DiCaprio also seemed to go on auto pilot from time to time, answering in the way that actors tend to answer. (Lucky to be employed this, trusting your gut that.) And personal questions are not appreciated. Just why is it that he dates all of those supermodels?

He threw a look — um, duh, wouldn’t you if you could? — and then frosted over. “I’ve never really talked about that kind of stuff, and, very respectfully, I’m going to keep it that way,” he said.

He’d rather stick to “J. Edgar,” particularly that prosthetic makeup, which he found frustrating and claustrophobic. He estimates that he spent about two weeks of the 39-day shoot as “old Hoover,” which required sitting up to five hours a day in Ms. Grigg’s makeup chair. “To stay in character and to fight the urge not to rip it off at times and to not feel trapped inside it is extremely hard,” he said. “It’s like you’ve been slathered in honey and wrapped in a giant duvet.” (Told by a reporter that he had just created a new fantasy for his crazier female fans, he laughed.)

Mr. DiCaprio did months of research to be able to inhabit Hoover fully. He flew to Washington with Mr. Black to tour the Justice Department and one of Hoover’s former homes. Mr. DiCaprio also met with Cartha D. DeLoach, one of the only people still alive who worked closely with Hoover, and taped their hours-long conversation. (Hoover would have been proud.) “I wanted him to tell me how he walked, how he talked, what his hands looked like, what his desk looked like, what was above his desk,” Mr. DiCaprio said.

“The research of these roles is half the fun and half the challenge — maybe more,” he added. “It’s what makes it exciting to me.”

Mr. Black recalled that Mr. DiCaprio dug up obscure film footage of a young Hoover giving speeches and read through transcripts of his Congressional testimony. “I had gone with a more redacted version of those, leaving out some of the more flowery, Hoovery language,” Mr. Black said. “Hoover liked to weave a lot of allusions of slimy, slippery animals into his speeches at that time. Leo loved it. He said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to use this stuff.’ ”

(Mr. Black also remembers Mr. DiCaprio’s fondness for German chocolate cupcakes. “Some of those pounds on later Hoover were not prosthetic,” he said. “I’ll say it. Leo got a little fat.”)

DiCapriophiles will be quick to note that he does have some important things in common with Hoover, at least on the surface. Hoover, for instance, was very close to his mother, played by Judi Dench in the film. Mr. DiCaprio has a tight relationship with his own mom, Irmelin DiCaprio, who raised him in the Loz Feliz section of Los Angeles and drove him around to auditions.

“The difference is that Hoover’s mother told him what to do, and my mother listened to me,” he said. “My mother was incredibly supportive. She wasn’t a stage mom and really didn’t care either way if I was an actor. She just listened to this arrogant little kid saying he wanted to be an actor and didn’t laugh in my face.”

Hoover was also a man who lost himself in his own ego and his need to be the center of attention — something that Mr. DiCaprio, as a student of Hollywood, has to see as a potential fate for himself if he’s not careful. (Hello, “Sunset Boulevard.”)

Then again, maybe not. “It’s not something that I actively worry about,” he said. “I’m fully aware that every career is fleeting in some respects.”