Premiere magazine 2008





Spy Games: Leonardo DiCaprio on 'Body Of Lies'

Superstar Leonardo DiCaprio chats about his new CIA action-thriller, working with Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, and why this election is going to be a real nail-biter.

by Gael Golhen (with Karl Rozemeyer)


Titanic may have defined him as an iconic blue-eyed pretty boy for a generation of moviegoers, but for the last decade Leonardo DiCaprio has leveraged his early success to take on risky roles in socio-political films that could have marginalized his fan base. But with well-received performances, DiCaprio has managed to continue to be a box-office draw while tackling issues and projects close to his heart.

With three films in the pipeline for release, the Oscar-nominated actor has been busier than ever. Two dramas set in the mid-1950s (Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island) are preceded by Body of Lies, a spy thriller set in the Middle East. The film, which reunites actor Russell Crowe with director American Gangster director Ridley Scott, takes place in a not-so-distant future where European cities are frequently the target of terrorist bombings, and is based on the novel of the same name by Washington Post journalist David Ignatius.

DiCaprio plays CIA operative Roger Ferris who is plotting to bring a wanted terrorist out of hiding but instead gets caught in a larger game of deceit and subterfuge himself. DiCaprio talks about sharing the screen with Crowe under the direction of Scott, why the upcoming election is going to be a down-to-the-wire nail-biter, and why he'd love to get off "this rollercoaster of filmmaking" and do an off-Broadway play.


You first starred with Russell Crowe when you where 18 [in 1995's The Quick and Dead with Sharon Stone], pretty early on your career. How was it different this time, working with him professionally?

It was a different experience because I think that was — for both of us — our first experience working with a studio film in a big-budget production. I'm speaking for myself, for sure. [But] I do remember that being the case for Russell because I remember he had come fresh off Romper Stomper and had been talked about as a phenomenal actor from Australia that was doing incredible work... I think Sharon Stone had reached her feelers out and saw both of our performances and wanted to work with both of us. So we were kind of fresh and new to the whole business at that time, and we were kind of wide-eyed and bushy-tailed during that time period. And since then, I think we have both established a good resume of work together. It was really great to reunite, albeit for only a couple of weeks — a week and a half in Washington and then a little bit of time in Morocco — but I consider him to be one of the most talented actors of his generation, for sure. He's got an incredible work ethic, and you have to admire somebody who really takes his work that seriously. It is a joy to work with somebody like that, and he has always been a great guy to me.

How would you compare Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese in terms of their style and approach?

They are different. Not that Ridley isn't meticulous with what he does, but Marty is very focused on each camera, at one given moment, capturing certain moments, whereas I think Ridley has a really innate ability to edit in his own mind, simultaneously with five or six cameras, and be able to have that type of focus where he can pop back from camera to camera. [He] really relies on his instincts, which are phenomenal. He has fantastic instincts when it comes to saying, "Okay, I believe what I saw on screen or I didn't," and will tell you that immediately and make changes immediately — whereas working with Scorsese is more time intensive. He really takes his time a lot more with scenes. But there are benefits to both. Certainly working with Ridley, [there is an] adrenaline rush you have every day working on set because you have cameras filming you from every different possible angle, and he could immediately flip the scene on its head at any given moment. You have to be prepared for that. In both scenarios you, have to know what you are doing and be secure in your own character, because anything could be thrown at you at any given moment. But they are much different directing styles, I think. Marty is very much about planned shots he had been thinking about for a long period of time whereas Ridley, I feel, wants to have every possibility on the day available to him to be able to make it up — not make it up as he goes along but improvise any given scenario or change things around. He loves his options.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have worked together many times. What was it like working together with them as team?

[I was] filled with adrenaline. It is a much different style of filmmaking from what I have been used to. They are both really unique in the way they work together, and Ridley Scott is a unique director. They kind of mumble a few things together and three scenes are combined into one... They have such an incredible shorthand, and they kind of instinctively agree on things, and all of a sudden a scene is changed... and they are so sort of instinctually quick about it that you have to embrace that kind of pace, a pace that I am not necessarily used to, but once you get into the mode of that, it is incredibly exhausting but it is a pace that energizes you. It is a pace that keeps you incredibly on your toes. And that is what I see in their relationship together. They are all about the business when they show up on the set, and they are all about being completely honest with each other right off the bat, telling each other what they think and making quick decisions. They are both very instinctual that way. It was kind of a refreshing experience having come from Revolutionary Road, which in its own right was fascinating and interesting, but it was more like a stage play. It was endless talks about two peoples' relationships and what they would really be feeling, confined to a small home in the suburbs. And a month later, I was out in the middle of Morocco with helicopters shooting missiles at me and giant crews moving from one side of the desert, facing split-second decisions, so it was jarring but it was interesting.

What attracted you to the project: the character or the political message of the movie?

I'd say all the things you just said. And that is the truth. I liked the fact that this was a politically pertinent film for the age we live in as far as the war on terror, and symbolic in some ways of America's relationships with other countries, and how we are possibly perceived. And I think at the same time, it doesn't take any political side. It presents realities, I think, to an audience and lets the audience extrapolate what they can from the film. Some people might view it as us doing a positive thing. Some people might view it as completely negative and boorish — but that is what I liked about the film. I thought there was a certain level of authenticity there, and it certainly seems as if there are certain parallels to the way the United States is conducting this war, in this film. And I think there is a lot of reality there. Of course, it is a movie and it is a made-up scenario. But all the people involved tried to make the stories as authentic as possible. Granted, you are dealing with an organization like the CIA, which, in its very essence, cannot work unless it is bound in secrecy, so we are taking certain licenses here. But for all intents and purposes, there was a lot of thought put into it.

Did you spend time with real agents, former or current, to help you prepare?

I had some agents — not agents but a former head of the CIA [who] will remain nameless who helped me out with a lot of stuff... And [the author of the novel on which the screenplay is based, David] Ignatius is well-versed in his knowledge of undercover ops, and [he] helped me out a lot too because he spent a lot of time researching this stuff and based a lot of the stuff on real occurrences and real stories he heard from the Middle East and Jordanian intelligence. I mean, the guy knows his stuff. He spent years in the Middle East researching this.

What did you learn through the making of this film?

How incredibly complicated and [in over our heads] we are in this war. [laughs] What I learned was at the end of the day this type of information and obtaining information for a war on terror like this is so hands-on and on-the-ground type of an operation that you think of the CIA as this uber-strategic force of intelligence out there. But it is all about grasping at straws, trying to find a needle in a haystack. It is that clichéd: trying to find some tiny bit of information that could lead you to some other bit of information that may never pan out. Or may pan out. And, I suppose, that is the general idea of how they operate. And it just seems impossible to me. And an extremely difficult job. That is what I learned.

How do you perceive this political moment now in America?

I have been openly a Democrat for many years, and of course, I would like to see Barack Obama in office. But I would really like to see a movement of young people out there really represent a new generation of voters that will really signify what this country is now. And unless young people get really galvanized, who knows who is going to win this election? It is going to be tight. It is just going to be like the last two: it is going to be a nail-biter where no one knows. Everyone is worried on both political sides, whether Republican or Democrat... It is my one wish that this new generation — who have seen and experienced what our country has gone through and have developed strong political opinions about where we stand in the rest of the world, how we are represented in the rest of the world, our policies for the next fifty, one hundred years — [vote]. The people that it is really going to effect are this younger generation, and if they would come out to the polls, then we would see a real representation of the United States. Whether that is Obama or McCain, right or left — that would be my wish.

It is the 11th hour now for the 2008 election, and so to get young people to vote would you ever do a documentary like The 11th Hour about young voters?

If the United States would have started [green initiatives already], we wouldn't be as reliant on foreign oil, and that is intrinsically part of the wars that we are in. No matter how much you want to separate it, there is that element to it. There is the terror element, but there is also an oil element in there... We need to really be the ones to set an example for everybody else [by becoming less reliant on foreign oil]. Because if we don't do it, why would any other country that is struggling adopt any principles [do it] if one of the largest countries in the world isn't making headway? I wish it would have started eight years ago because we would have had some really significant changes happening in this country. It is sad, and I hope that whomever comes into office really adopts an entirely different energy plan than the disastrous one that the Bush administration has taken and set our country on a terrible course.

Ironically I just wrapped yesterday a three-day shoot at my house.... We brought a bunch of celebrities and some soldiers up to the house and did a huge "Get out and Vote" viral campaign... that is going to be aired hopefully soon. As much as we talked about it four years ago, and people were [saying], "Oh, we don't know the outreach of the Internet and how many people it could organize," [and] I think this is the aid for that. I think in 2008, enough people are logged on to MySpace or watch YouTube or have their Facebook set up that it is going to reach much more young people than ever before to get registered. And hopefully, like I said, we get a fair representation of the future of the country out in the polls this time.

Is it important for you to be part of movies that are creating debate, like Blood Diamond and now Body of Lies?

Yes, in some ways but (a) they are very hard to find, and (b) that doesn't mean they are almost always synonymous with a good story or an entertaining film, and (c) it doesn't always mean [that there is] a director that I would necessarily love to work with who is working on it. So it is very difficult to find movies like that. I love doing movies like [Body of Lies] because obviously when you are dealing with issues with the world is facing right now and you are dealing with topics that are on people's minds, it gets you that much more excited about the project and [makes you think] where it comes in historically, how it is somehow a representation of that time period. I do all kinds of films, but the main criterion is always, "Is it going to be a good movie?" It is very simple. Is it going to be a good movie that you are going to like to see? Because at the end of the day, you could do political film after political film or controversial film after controversial film, and if it is a piece of shit, no one watches it. [laughs] And then it is a huge waste of time. So that is first and foremost my criteria for these types of movies. So, this was a lucky gift.

Ten years you had the young heartthrob label from Titanic. Was it important for you to be making decisions in your career to steer you away from that label?

Although some may not perceive it that way, it has never been a conscious career "steering" into one direction or the other. It has been that these are the kind of movies that I have always wanted to do, and now I am getting the opportunity to pick and choose films in the way that I don't think I could have when I was younger. And now this is really representational of the movies that I have been wanting to do ever since I was fifteen, sixteen years old. So, I guess, it is now more of a representation of who I really want to be as an actor and the type of films I really want to be a part of. It is kind of simple. I am a guy, and I like somewhat hardcore movies.

Are there any directors you would like to work with?

There's plenty. Ang Lee, [Alejandro González] Iñárritu, Paul Thomas Anderson. There are so many. [Walter] Salles is great. I would love to do some foreign films as well. It all depends on the material at the end of the day. It depends on the script, always. That always kind of comes first.

Would you be interested in a play?

Absolutely. I would really love to do something off-Broadway one day. I would really love to do an old-school type of throwback play from the '50s — of course, you think of Tennessee Williams. I would love to eventually [do stage work] because I haven't had a legitimate theater experience yet. It has been this filmmaking rollercoaster, which I have loved. I have always kind of set [theater] aside for that point when there is not an interesting film to do. [Then] I am going to seek that out. And I want to have that experience for sure in my life, I do, but I have been really busy doing movies. I just did three in a row. It is the most I have ever done, back-to-back-to-back. Usually I have taken a lot of time in between for preparation, but for some reason it just happened that way. Normally, I would take five months off to think about everything, but the thing is, scripts came in that were all so good with such talented directors.

Do you think that changed the way that you performed, not having more time to prepare?

It made me trust myself a lot more. It made me trust my opinions and my thoughts a lot more because I have an endless process of playing devil's advocate all the time. Once I have made a decision, I try to look at it from a different perspective, and then look at that from [yet another] different perspective, and that can kind of go on and on when you are preparing for things. [But] it does have some benefit too. When it comes to being on set, you have looked at every possible different angle for the character or the way the plot can turn out. But when you are presented with three really great scripts that really don't need that much work, then you say to yourself, "Okay, it is time to make some very quick character decisions and really just go with it and trust your instinct."