Leonardo DiCaprio, now approaching a quarter-century as a movie-major leaguer, redefines film stardom, demonstrating a willingness to challenge himself that few of his counterparts can equal. In romance, drama, comedy and science fiction, he radiates heavyweight acting talent combined with megastar cool.
Swinging from role to role like Tarzan on a vine, he has never risked a free-fall like he faced in the artistically risky and physically dangerous The Revenant. In this savage epic of survival, DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a real-life 1820s frontier guide left for dead by fellow explorers after he was mauled by a bear. With a broken leg and open wounds, the vengeful, nearly silent character, hunts down the expedition members who abandoned him. He repeatedly crosses paths with Indian tribes seeking to take their own revenge against the settlers who imposed pain and suffering on them.
Traversing freezing rivers and icy wilderness, gnawing raw flesh and facing physical danger were not just shocking episodes in the film but perilous ordeals of DiCaprio’s performance.
In a recent phone conversation he explained how, during a grueling nine-month shoot in frigid tracts of Canada and Argentina, he literally suffered for his art.
This film production has been described as one of the most difficult in the industry’s history. Temperatures at some locations in the Canadian Rockies reached 40 below. What’s the benefit of taking part in such a harrowing project?
It makes you conscious of what these men really had to do, living in these harsh elements. And you think of people who live without power, electricity or water around the world. You can’t complain too much that you’re reenacting the story of Hugh Glass with the help of an entire crew, and a team of people around you to make sure you’re safe and ultimately warm.
As far as making movies is concerned, I think this was definitely the most difficult movie for, I think, everyone involved unanimously. (Director Alejandro González Inarritu, who won three Oscars last year for Birdman, said the filming “almost killed me.”)
How do you keep the focus of your acting mind-set in place when you’re exposed to punishing conditions like that?
Well, I haven’t been on a movie set since! The thing that was hardest for all of us to deal with was the subzero temperatures, the cold. It was a constant struggle for everyone to stay warm. Especially when you’re out there all day and you’re in period gear and all the actors needed to stay conscious about not getting hypothermia. That was your main challenge.
It must also be a tremendous acting challenge. You’ve never played a role this dialogue-free. What is it about a role that depends on the expressive power of your eyes and your face and your gestures that draws you to accept it?
I’ve always been a fan of silent cinema. It’s always interesting to watch actors work without the ability to articulate what they’re feeling. I have played so many characters that are talkative and vocal, from J. Edgar Hoover to Howard Hugh—certainly the real-life ones—getting their viewpoint across with words.
As much as was written in the script, I tried to scale it down even more so. I wanted it to be an almost silent performance, because whenever Hugh Glass (whose throat was slashed in his bear attack) said something out loud, it had to have meaning and it had to have a purpose. He was essentially a character who had to disappear in a harsh landscape in order to survive. He had to use his words very sparingly.
One of the key motivations for me, besides acting for Alejandro, was to try to give a performance that was reactive and based on instinctive responses to what the surroundings were. That meant a lot of preparation beforehand (such as learning how to load and fire flintlock rifles) but forgetting everything once you arrive on set and just being in the moment.
Frederick Manfred wrote the book Lord Grizzly about Glass in 1954. Part of his research was to physically crawl for miles as the wounded man did. What was the research process you followed to capture this character?
This is based on a novel about Glass (Michael Punke’s 2002 biographic drama The Revenant) but there’s little that’s historically known about what really happened. To me it’s almost like a triumphant short story of the American frontier—what the new American was at that time and what it took not only to survive in nature but conquer nature. In a lot of ways it represented the pre-Industrial Revolution idea of being able to take over nature.
Ultimately for me the whole movie was about finding the poetry with Alejandro about what it meant to persevere, surviving and what you lived for. And what revenge is. If you follow that sort of undertaking, will it become something even more existential when you’re out there? That was what we were out there to explore. It was very straightforward and it was up to us to weave in all the stuff the natural world gave us on the journey.
Even a historic epic like this is in some way a reflection of its time. How does this story about a lawless land relate to our world today for you?
To me, it’s very pertinent because so much of what this movie is about was discovered in the process of making it. To me, with the theme of man dominating nature, you have this time in American history when it was discovering new territory. Before (President James) Polk decided to wage the Mexican war and take over the Oregon Territory, this was all lawless land.
It was land that was facing the first extraction of its natural resources by killing the animals and sending their very expensive furs off to Europe. It’s the first wave of American capitalism out West.
The undertext of this movie is very much about the indigenous people that lived there. The Native Americans. How they became displaced, how their culture was lost, how there was really a genocide of an entire population of people at that time.
We think we’re so much more advanced today and we can learn from history. But you look at what’s going on all around the world, with extraction of natural resources—from oil to mining to hydroelectric dams to cutting down rain forests—we’re still making the same mistakes. The story perpetuates itself and has incredible meaning today.
The Revenant opens February 3 in Philippine theaters nationwide from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.