Blood Diamond - Leonardo DiCaprio interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
LEONARDO DiCaprio about playing a mercenary in Blood Diamond, working on location in Africa and perfecting his accent.
He also discusses the prospect of another night at the Oscars, as well as the privilege of working with Martin Scorses and Robert De Niro.
Q: What was the motivation for your character, Danny Archer?
Leonardo DiCaprio: The motivation was trying to capture a character who is so scarred emotionally, and has built up enough excuses to feel justified in his actions – taking advantage of the black-market diamond industry and the continent he’s from – and turning a cold shoulder to a lot of the issues he has a direct relationship with. To me it was creating a character who is learning to feel again, learning to feel connected to his environment again and understanding throughout the course of the movie that he is, in fact, African to the bone.
Q: How long did it take to perfect the South African accent so that you no longer had to think about it?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Possibly in the last few weeks to a month of shooting it got to the point where I felt in the zone with the character and 100% comfortable with the accent. I like to prepare as much as possible beforehand, but there’s definitely that element of fear when you’re on set, and you have to be conscious of it and use that fear to drive you to work harder. It’s not just the accent – that’s difficult in its own right – it’s also the mannerisms that go along with the culture.
It’s something that takes a tremendous amount of time to get comfortable with, but it can really be the key to becoming a character. If you don’t have those fundamentals in the approach, you’re not open to these happy accidents that may happen with another actor, because you may not know how to act in those improv moments.
Q: What kind of training did you do to get in shape for the part?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I did a lot military training. We got to do some really interesting tracking exercises in the bush with ex-mercenaries. There was a lot of weapons training. I had a guy who I worked with, Tom Duff. His stories about being in war, and his recommendations about what to do to get into the physicality of the role, were the most important things in the development process.
Q: Is there a sense that you almost have to audition for these guys you’re going to represent in the film?
Leonardo DiCaprio: They were tremendously helpful. Thank God they were working on the movie and being paid. Otherwise, I don’t know if they would have been so forthright with the information. But they had a vested interest – their names are on the end credits of the film. So they wanted me to make the character realistic.
Q. Has visiting Africa changed you as a person? What was the experience like for you?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Growing up in the Western world, and seeing some of the things we saw, not to mention the immense natural beauty of Africa – but to see the conditions in the way that people live every day, and how they’ve somehow maintained such an amazingly positive attitude and outlook on live was pretty inspiring for all of us. It makes you come back home and sort of question what any of us have to complain about.
I’m sure we all have our own private stories and feelings on the subject matter, but to put it very bluntly, it was the spirit of the people that was the most astounding and moving for me to witness. We shot in areas of Mozambique where four out of 10 people have the HIV virus. There was poverty everywhere. There wasn’t enough clean water yet they maintained an attitude about just being alive that was pretty astounding. It continues to be a place that deserves the Western world’s support as much as humanly possible.
Have you ever bought diamonds and did you check their origin?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Sure, I’ve bought diamonds in the past. Before learning about conflict diamonds and their devastating impact on places like Sierra Leone, I basically knew what a conflict stone was, or the term “blood diamond”. But I was pretty much unfamiliar with the ramifications of some of the events that have gone on and, I do say, devastating impact that it has had on countries in Africa: millions of people being displaced, millions of lives lost. If you see the movie you obviously see there’s some pretty horrific events, and by the way we’d like to mention none of it is glorified or exaggerated.
Would I ever buy a diamond again? If I ever did buy a diamond again I would make sure that it’s a conflict-free diamond and I would get it certified by the dealer that I bought it from, that’s for damned sure.
Q. Did any of what you witnessed inspire you to become activist or find other ways to help the people out there?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I have since worked with SOS (Save Our Souls), the orphanage in Mozambique; I’ve contributed to that organisation. I think we’re all continuing to work with organisations like Amnesty International and Global Witness, certainly to get the message out there about conflict diamonds.
Q: What do the names Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese mean to you?
Leonardo DiCaprio: When I first started out in the world of movies I did This Boy’s Life with Robert De Niro. I had a certain amount of education on the history of cinema. At 16 I knew as much as I could. But in order to understand the man I was going to go head-to-head with in some very emotional scenes I began to watch his great body of work and that, of course, lead me to watching a tremendous amount of Martin Scorsese movies. I remember watching Taxi Driver at a very young age and thinking this is one of the first movies where I’ve had that suspension of disbelief.
The mere fact that I was an audience member was non-existent: I had started to empathise with a man who was going clinically insane, and I felt like I was going insane with him. It was one of the most moving moments I’d ever had watching another person’s work, and I remember saying to myself these guys are revolutionary, the greatest duo of that time period, and one day I would like to attempt to do something even close to that good.
If you’d asked me at 16 what kinds of movies I would like to be doing now I would have said the kinds of movies I’m doing now with him. It was almost unimaginable. So Gangs of New York was something that I sought out. It was the only project Scorsese had in development with any kind of guy in my age range. I aggressively pursued that project – even switched agencies – with him as director.
Q. You’ve had Oscar nominations before, what effect does an Oscar nomination have on you?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Sarcasm doesn’t translate when it happens like this. But honestly, it’s a pat answer, but it’s the truth. It’s a nice thing to be recognised like that, it really is. Truly, to put a lot of hard work and effort into a project or character and for it to be recognised, how can it not be nice? It’s certainly not something that I expect by any means, or that we strive for during the filming process.
It’s one of those things that the more I’ve acted, I’ve realised that I have a) no control of and b) no way of really quite understanding how people react to anything I do, or any movie I do. If every actor and every studio had that magic formula we’d all be making critically acclaimed, multi-billion dollar hits every time we do a movie. There’s so many intangible forces that come into play when making a film, I have no idea what the public will ultimately think of something that I do, let alone critics. It’s something that continues to mystify all of us.
Q: Are there two Leonardo DiCaprios, the one who opens himself up to give an emotional performance for a filmmaker, and the one who must be guarded when he talks to journalists?
Leonardo DiCaprio: That comes with the territory, with the mere action of speaking in a public forum. Through my limited experience, for example, sarcasm doesn’t always translate. One mere slip, taken out of context, could zoom via the web all around the world. So if, at times, actors or politicians or anyone, are candid or conscious of every word that comes out of their mouth, well, that’s the reason.
Q: Which of the two characters you’ve played recently – in Blood Diamond and The Departed – did you most connect with?
Leonardo DiCaprio: To be honest, I didn’t feel personally connected with either one of them. They were both difficult. Being away from home in Africa for that extended period and with little connection to our lives back home was very hard on all of us. The Departed was a different and difficult experience, because there were so many different cast members, each of whom had different schedules. So it felt like we were trying to create some giant jigsaw puzzle.
And the way Scorsese works, everything is constantly changing and taking new form. He’d do a scene with Jack [Nicholson] and Matt [Damon] that would affect everything my character does. It was like doing two separate movies.