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Shutter Island - Leonardo DiCaprio interview

Shutter Island

Interview by Rob Carnevale

LEONARDO DiCaprio talks about reuniting with Martin Scorsese for the psychological thriller Shutter Island, getting into the mind of his character Teddy Daniels and how demanding that can be – even at the end of the day.

He also talks about the pleasure of working with a screen legend such as Max von Sydow…

Q. You took yourself to some very dark places in this film, what’s the compulsion to do that?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Self-imposed suffering [smiles]… No, it was the nature of the material. At first glance, when I first read the book and the screenplay, it was obviously a complex jigsaw puzzle and the line in which reality stops and dreams begin for Teddy’s past is very blurred, but throughout the entire course of the movie, you’re starting to learn about different facets of Teddy Daniels’ mind on Shutter Island. He’s learning the truth. It’s a truth about Teddy’s past and it’s a traumatic truth. And in order to tell this story, which was a very complex character study, ultimately we had to keep pushing these storylines further and further.

In order to have one set of circumstances seem believable, we needed to push the emotional extremes of another set of circumstances. Both of us found that we kept pushing Teddy to darker and darker places during the course of the film and I think it was surprising for both of us at times. Because when you read a screenplay, there’s only so much you can delineate or extract from what’s written on the page when you’re actually there and having to do some of the sequences that are in this movie… so it really shocked us I think.

Q. This is a demanding role physically and mentally, so how do you cope with those aspects and how do you manage to switch off at night? Do you switch off?
Leonardo DiCaprio: Well, by sheer necessity, in order to survive the filmmaking process, I do switch off when I go home because if I don’t [laughs]… look, ultimately, I’m challenged by these types of characters. This is maybe the most challenging one to date for me, physically yes, but emotionally more so. But it gives me great excitement as well. This character is a very difficult one to talk about because we want the audience to have that virgin experience. Also, we were very conscious that we were doing a film that would have a different interpretation upon a second viewing; it could take on different meanings.

There’s a certain level of ambiguity in the ending of this film and throughout the entire movie that could lead the audience to have a different experience of it on further viewings. So that also challenged me as an actor in the way I portrayed Teddy, because often times we’d be pushing him to different extremes, and it was then in the hands of Scorsese and [editor] Thelma Schoonmaker to gauge where to go to in different circumstances. It was one of the most challenging, but at the same time I relish those experiences.

Q. Does your own personality change when your making a film like this in a way that those closest to you might notice? Also, you have dreams yourself about things that could perhaps go wrong?
Leonardo DiCaprio: If I’m going to answer that question quite honestly I don’t remember my dreams and I no I didn’t have any nightmares during the course of the film. For one reason or another, yes, I have to say particularly on this film there was a sombre mood going home every day. There were quite a lot of emotional extremes – he was going through extreme emotional trauma and it’s hard for those types of things not to rub off on you. But for the most part I do like to isolate myself away from most people when I’m filming for months at a time. So I wouldn’t necessarily get much of a reaction from anyone else because I was mostly alone.

There were a few weeks there certainly towards the end of filming, when we were doing some of the end sequences, where there was almost a lapse in the understanding of where I was because we kept pushing this guy further and further and it was day after day of re-enacting a traumatic event that was either a dream or reality for this guy. I remember saying to Marty: “I have no idea where I am or what I’m doing right now… what’s going on with this guy?” And he said: “Don’t worry, just do the scene again and keep pushing him.” It’s great to have a guide or a mentor… somebody that you do trust in a situation like that, because you are making yourself vulnerable and you need to have somebody there who will ultimately drive you as an actor and also take care in the editing room not to push your character in directions where these extremes may be over sentimentalised or too schmaltzy as we say.

Anyway, through the relationship and the years that we’ve worked together, that trust level was there and I’m glad I got to do this character and this film very specifically with Marty as a the filmmaker.

Q. You seem to play driven, intense characters quite a lot. Is that likely to continue with your next project with Christopher Nolan [Inception] and are we ever likely to see you lighten up with a comedy or a romance?
Leonardo DiCaprio: [You mean] lighten up in general [smiles]? Look, I don’t know really. I just respond to what I read and what I’ve read in these roles are characters that have moved me emotionally in some respect. And it just goes back to what moved me in cinema at a very early age. These were the types of characters that I felt emotionally connected to. It’s inexplicable, but I think you never really feel as if you’ve arrived there or done that role that satisfies that. So, I’m driven to be able to some day in my mind be able to emulate or get close to the great masterworks of great performers that I’ve seen in cinema from years past. I don’t know if that thirst will ever be quenched. But I would love to try other genres and I look forward to doing them. It just depends on what moves me emotionally, I guess.

Q. How surprising or daunting is it to work with Max von Sydow as an actor and as a director?
Leonardo DiCaprio: It was incredible working with Max. The sequence that I have where I sort of interrogate him, or he interrogates me (depending on which way you look at it), was only the back of his head and his voice and you just felt a chill down your spine. He has such a comfort level in the way he performs and that can only come from years of unbelievable work and such a belief in the power of what he does. It was chilling to work with him. He is part of cinema’s history and should be revered as that and respected as that. He is a genius.

Read our review of Shutter Island

Read our interview with Martin Scorsese