LOS ANGELES - Dapper as usual in a suit, Leonardo DiCaprio appeared completely different from the dirty-looking fur trapper with the full wild man beard he portrays in Alejandro González Iñárritu's stunning "The Revenant."
In a performance that some predict will finally make him win an Oscar best actor trophy, Leonardo plays real-life 19th-century frontiersman Hugh Glass with such ferocity and intensity.
Shot by award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki in the wilds of Canada and Argentina, the visually spectacular film shows Leonardo (a passionate environmentalist away from the cameras) grappling with the brutal forces of man and nature. In two of the film's graphic, memorable scenes, Leonardo's Hugh is attacked by a bear (you've never seen anything like it) and sleeps inside the belly of a dead horse to keep himself warm amid freezing conditions.
Alejandro's equally noteworthy follow-up to "Birdman" also stars Tom Hardy (in one of his terrific performances this year), Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter.
This is one of your most intense roles. What was the rehearsal process like?
I have never worked on a film quite like this. The process was very unique and unlike anything I have ever done. I have done extensive rehearsals, but what Chivo and Alejandro were trying to achieve, and I think they accomplished, is to bring this massive, epic scope with a static frame and have the ability to weave in very intimate character moments with the camera-the breath, feeling the sweat of these characters, then panning off to a David Lean-style wide shot, then bringing you right back into the soul of the characters.
It's almost as if they were trying to achieve a virtual cinematic reality. That took months of rehearsals, and every single day was like a little bit of theatre because we would rehearse all day long.
We would have this magic hour of an hour and a half where there is this magic light that they would only shoot at. Every day, we waited for this magic piece of light. It was a mad scramble to get the shot and for everybody to work like a Swiss watch. There were so many things that were happening behind the camera. So many people working in coordination with one another but they achieved this incredible intimacy, these close- up moments with these characters-that make you feel like you are really immersed in this movie.
Can you talk about filming the violent scenes?
I have a penchant for doing movies that have extreme violence in them, I suppose. I don't know if I am desensitized to it. This film is an accurate depiction of that time period so without getting into what it means on a social level, I like these types of films. They have to be authentic.
This was well-handled and had the perfect fusion of violence and beauty at the same time. It's portraying nature, and that's what we wanted to do, the savagery and the beauty of nature. As far as what I had to do, there were so many things. I don't even know where to begin.
Recently, I said I had to sleep in dead-animal carcasses. I was referring to Hugh Glass, my character, having to do that. But the real challenge was the cold! It was a constant struggle.
They even had to invent machines for the actors not to get hypothermia after every single take that we did, because it was that extreme. It got down to 40 below and sometimes, to the point where the camera actually couldn't operate and its gears didn't work, because it was so cold!
So you could imagine how our fingers and faces were. The hands were a constant source of pain. We had machines that were on the set. There was one that I named "the octopus" because it was like a giant hot-air dryer with eight tubes that would warm our hands.
I knew what I had signed up for … . It was very difficult.
You had to do a lot of grunting, trying to speak, and a lot of silence, as well. How did that inform your performance, as opposed to your character in "The Wolf of Wall Street," where you played such an extrovert with a lot of words to say?
That was the exciting part about this role. When I read the script, I actually kept urging Alejandro to take more lines out. I wanted less dialogue, because that was the exploration of this character-how to portray someone's emotional journey without words.
Every time he did speak, I was like, all right, let's cut it down. Hugh Glass is a man who does not mince words. He gets straight to the point of what he wants to talk about because I don't think he necessarily wants to communicate with that many people (laughs).
We see what he goes through, through his eyes, and we experience this whole story without words. That, to me, was very exciting. I have done so many articulate characters who babble throughout movies. This was a new experiment for me. I went to specialists learning about survival tactics. I read as much as I could about the time period, but I really wanted to rely on the instinct of this character-what I am going through in that immediate time. So, a lot of it wasn't preplanned. A lot of it was seeing what nature gave us and trying to react as honestly as possible.
Your character has to endure both noise and silence. How sensitive are you to both?
I remember the Simon and Garfunkel song, "The Sound of Silence," since I just saw "The Graduate." Silence is incredibly important. Some of the greatest visions and thoughts or ideas come when there are no other voices around, even your own. For me, it's imperative with the life that I have, how fast-paced it is and how confusing it can be sometimes that I have that silence.
I am not the most spiritual or meditative person out there, but I know that I need those moments of contemplation to get the right answers. I need to drown out all the different clatter and noise that this world can infuse into your mind.
Since you're such a committed environmentalist, I guess that's what you also look for when dating?
Anybody whom I would be with would have to have an environmental agenda or some understanding of environmentalism. She would have to, because I couldn't be with someone who didn't believe in climate change, for example.
Where do you like to relax and escape a little bit from Hollywood?
Two places come to mind. I have done a lot of great traveling. One of the greatest trips I ever took in my life was down the Amazon. It was away from all civilisation, but it was so beautiful. It reminded me of my daydreams as a kid, being transported back in time to some Jurassic period when I could just see nature at its purest.
Then a recent trip which I went on, which was astounding and which I recommend everyone to go to, was Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Cambodia is one of the most magical places I have ever seen. The people there are lovely. You could just get lost for days in the temples. That was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen!
What haven't you done yet that you would like to achieve?
What haven't I gotten (laughs)? There are a lot of things that I would wish for the world. I am not here to complain about anything because I have been incredibly fortunate. Honestly, there is a lot of stuff that I would love to see happen with the planet that isn't happening.
On a personal level, I can't complain about anything. If I heard myself say I wish this or that, it would be nauseating, because I have been so incredibly fortunate. But I would really love if I were to have one of those wishes-to have this Paris climate conference finally have countries come together for the first time and agree on something to curb this insanity that is going on out there with our temperatures.