The Times - November 22, 2006



Leonardo DiCaprio talks at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City.


Q&A with Leonardo DiCaprio

The Blood Diamond star talks about filming in Africa, why Bono is his hero and what his Oscar date won't be wearing

by Jeffrey Ressner



Leonardo DiCaprio plays a mercenary gem smuggler named Danny Archer in the new film Blood Diamond. Even before its December 8th opening, the project has generated controversy about its portrayal of conflict stones. TIME's Jeffrey Ressner chatted with DiCaprio about the debate over movie, his preparation for the role, and what it's like to shoot a big action film in poverty-stricken Africa.

TIME: Before you got the script, how aware were you about conflict diamonds?

DiCaprio: I'd heard whisperings. It was certainly out there in the public about what conflict diamonds were, and how people suffered as a result of natural resources being taken out of Africa. But I never understood the full story until I got this script and started doing research. I was pretty horrified about what went on in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s and how diamonds funded these warlords. Amnesty International projected around four million people lost their lives as a result of these diamond sales.

You were never a big bling guy, though, right? I see you around Los Angeles, and it's baggy jeans, baseball cap, driving a Prius.

Nah, I never was into diamonds, but that isn't to say I've never bought one in my life ? I have.

Your character is a hard-boiled mercenary and diamond smuggler. I saw glimpses of Steve McQueen and even a bit of Gable in your portrayal. Was it my imagination, or did anything from long-ago Hollywood inform your character in this film?

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. I love that movie, wow. It really is a masterpiece. I think it's Bogart's best role.

Bogart did most of his acting on a soundstage. For Blood Diamond you traveled to Africa and spent about six months there. How did that affect you?

Mozambique only recently has had an economic resurgence, since the country had been pretty devastated by civil war. There's an alarming AIDS rate something like three or four out of 10 people have HIV or AIDS. You can't help but being affected when you're in those locations and seeing that stuff face to face. It wears on you emotionally. In America, we can just continue living our lives and go through our daily routines and ignore stuff like that but when you're there on location and in those situations, it really affects you. What can I say Africa needs a lot of help and support.

What were the people like?

It's a resurging economy, but people are so happy with so little. Literally, they were dancing in the streets. They've had civil war there for so long and even with all the hardships that people have had to endure, they still dance on street corners with joy. It was pretty amazing to see how people kept such a positive attitude and energy about life. It was inspiring. It makes you come back to America and really not want to hear anyone's complaints.

You hung out with mercenaries and read quite a bit to learn about your character. What was most helpful?

I always pick and skim through these books but it's hard to find information you're looking for as an actor. I try to meet real people so I can pinpoint and ask them specific questions. When you're sitting in a bar with someone, it's a whole different dynamic than just sifting through a book finding little bits of information that rarely gives you what you need to know about a character.

You had just come off of another type of action film, The Departed, which included lots of gunplay. How does an African mercenary's training differ from that of a Boston gangster?

This was a lot different. Some of these South African military guys were the most highly trained men in the world, and they really knew the bush better than any other group of soldiers. I learned about camouflage, how to track. The whole stunt coordination team helped give me an idea of what these guys were really like.

How did you develop your South African accent?

I'm pretty good at imitating people. I interviewed a number of different people in South Africa and honed in on the one guy I wanted to sound like. Then it was a process where [dialect coach] Tim Monich and I recorded him and tortured him (laughs) by making him say sentences in varying ways and different energies and different tempos. Those recordings became a kind of mantra I'd listen to over and over again.

Faced with brutal physical stunts, ongoing dialect coaching and hundred-degree temperatures, what was the hardest part about working on the film?

Being on a location where people are suffering and playing a cutthroat opportunist who is taking advantage of the situation there was disturbing. It really affected me, just being in that environment and playing that character.

Were you able to have any fun?

I can't say it was a joyous shoot. The fun part was getting a weekend off and going on safari. I saw a pack of 35 lions eat a wildebeest carcass and swam with giant manta rays. That was unbelievable. Africa's natural beauty is unmatched.

Why Hollywood's sudden interest in Africa aside from Blood Diamond, there's been recent movies including Catch a Fire, The Constant Gardener and The Last King of Scotland as well as the whole Brangelina birth?

I think you're dealing with a generation that has heard about all the issues there for years. I remember growing up hearing about it through USA For Africa. It's just been so embedded in my generation and those generations after mine we're still hearing stories of the hardships that people there go through. Certainly artists like Bono have helped. I don't know how many artists have done it on that level historically, sacrificing nearly all their time to deal with these issues. It's inspiring. He's one of my heroes.

The movie has come under fire from the diamond industry, which insists the issue of conflict diamonds took place in the 1990s and has been almost completely eradicated. Did the gemstone industry contact you directly?

I've gotten letters, and I didn't respond to any of them. There's been a huge PR push to let people get a better understanding that this stuff has dramatically decreased. But certainly if you talk to Global Witness or Amnesty International they'd tell you there are still major problems, especially on the Ivory Coast. They want to end conflict diamonds for good. I don't want to go out there and project myself as an expert on the issue. I'm not an expert, and this is not what I do full time. I'm an actor who's playing a part. If the movie does anything, it will bring more awareness to the issue and people will be asking more questions, and the industry is going to have to have viable answers.

So are you going to let your Oscar date wear diamonds next year?

Certainly not from now on (laughs).