Think playing a sex-crazed trader is easy? Think again. Leonardo DiCaprio talks pain and fake penises with Jimi Famurewa
"I am not as good, man,” says Leonardo DiCaprio with a sigh. “Slowing down a lot. I’ve messed up my knees and my ankles.” Needless to say, he’s talking about basketball here, rather than acting ability. It’s part of a conversation about the fact that DiCaprio – he of the eternally boyish face and floppy Nineties dreamboat curtains – turns 40 this year. And while personally this means creaking joints and fluffed lay-ups, professionally it coincides with an incredible period in an already imperious career.
First came his darkly charismatic work in Django Unchained as hammer-wielding slave master Calvin Candie. Then the commendably controlled central performance amid the 3D bombast of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. But he saved the best until last. His mesmeric turn as Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s jittery epic The Wolf Of Wall Street has already earned him a Bafta nomination, with an Oscar nod sure to follow. But, as he reveals between eager puffs of an e-cigarette, it wasn’t easy to bring this wolf into the world.
The film Wall Street accidentally inspired lots of men to work in finance. Are you worried about your film doing the same?
Ironically, I think Jordan [Belfort] and these characters actually got into Wall Street because of the [Oliver Stone] film. But I think you can never be didactic about what you put up on screen. To me, the films that last are the ones that say something about human nature. Even if they’re about the darker side of human nature, they’re worth telling. If anyone doesn’t see this film as an indictment of Wall Street, there’s nothing we can do.
There’s been criticism about glorifying white-collar criminals in the US. Do you think we’re more likely to forgive gangsters or other villains?
In many ways these guys are like the modern gangsters. Not that this is a trilogy with Casino or GoodFellas, but this is where their children would have gone. They would have put on the white collar and tried to corrupt the system in a more organised way. Because of the hatred for this type of attitude in Wall Street, there’s been a lot of, “He didn’t get punished properly. We didn’t see what happened in the wake of their destruction.” That was a conscious choice. A lot of these people got bonuses after they dismantled our economy.
With adult audiences migrating to TV, is this a conscious attempt to recapture that crowd?
I don’t think you’ll ever see a film like this getting made in our modern times. And that’s a shame. People had a reaction to the fact that this is an epic, big-budget movie. But not every epic film needs to have the traditional things we see in those movies. Honestly, the studios have a criteria where they say, “If you’re going to have something of this scale we need explosions, robots or whatever.” Thank God there are people outside the studio system that say, “Do you know what? We’re adults and we’re going to take a chance.”
It is very ‘out there’. What was the weirdest scene to film?
There was a lot of sexual debauchery, which was totally obscene and bizarre. There was a lot of comedic stuff, too, which was a challenge. The Quaalude sequence [Belfort crawls to his Ferrari after taking potent sedatives] goes down, certainly in my career, as the most surreal experience I’ve ever had. We kept upping the ante and it became this science-fiction film – an earthworm crawling towards a futuristic vehicle.
There’s a spectacular drunken fall into a pool, too. Did you do that for real?
Yeah, it was three takes on that [laughs]. It took a while to get the exact way of popping my ankle.
We also see, um, a fair bit of Jonah Hill at one point. Tell us it was a prosthetic.
It was a prosthetic, and it was quite large [laughs]. He picked the exact one that he wanted.
There’s also some bodypopping. Are we right in thinking you used to breakdance as a kid?
Yeah, before I was an actor I was a kind of street breakdancer on my block. I actually won an award in Germany once for pop-locking [laughs].
So does it still come out at parties after a few drinks?
Very rarely. I was quite excited that I wasn’t too arthritic and could still pull some of it off.
Is it true that you invited the real Belfort round to coach you on being drugged-up?
Yeah, with the ‘luudes sequence – they don’t exist, so I needed to ask Jordan. I have a whole video chronology of him rolling around on the floor for me. What I appreciated most about his book was that he was unflinching in how honest he was. There was some incredibly embarrassing stuff. When I sat down with him, he said: “You know, it wasn’t this bad. It was even worse at times and I’m going to tell you why...” That made him a great partner. I would call him between takes.
How was Scorsese when filming all those sex scenes?
He kind of let me take the reins a bit. I’ve noticed that in movies we’ve done, with sexual scenes he kind of stays behind the camera and has a more voyeuristic approach [laughs]. Whereas violent scenes, he’s a lot more hands-on, saying, “No, stab it right in his throat.”
Did you just power through any embarrassment?
With the sex stuff? I approached this like I was a Roman emperor and I had no shame.
Is it good to be getting these more villainous and antiheroic roles now?
It is. Especially doing films like Django Unchained, which was like diving headfirst into a very uncomfortable atmosphere as an actor. But what was cool, and it’s kind of the mantra for Wolf Of Wall Street too, was I had other actors around me saying, “Look, if you don’t play this as authentically as you possibly can, or if you try to sugarcoat any of it, that’s where the resentment is going to come in.” It’s been very liberating and an awesome experience.
George Clooney recently questioned your friendship group. Was that unfair? Do you feel like you’re surrounded by good people?
Hell yeah, they’re good people. It’s a mixture of actors and non-actors – guys I went to school with. And guys that I met in the industry, such as Kevin Connolly and Tobey Maguire. It’s interesting because people think that you live in Los Angeles and you’re automatically initiated into some sort of country club. But it is always the hustle. You’re always the outsiders trying to get your foot in the door.
Meanwhile there’s a perception of you and your friends as these showbiz types who are hanging out together...
[Laughs] And are doing horrible things.
Well, yes. So, will you have a party that Jordan would be proud of for your 40th?
Not one Jordan would be proud of, because I think he’d surpass anything we’d do. But hell yeah, I’m going to celebrate.
To finish, then, how do you feel about turning 40?
I suppose 40 represents something different, but I’ve been thinking about being 40 for so long that I’m prepared for it. It seems like the age barometer where you’re still considered youthful is getting higher and higher. I’m going to hold on to that ideal as long as I can.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is at cinemas nationwide from 17 January
(Image: All Star)