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The Aviator - Leonardo DiCaprio Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. Can you tell us about your obsession with Howard Hughes?
A:
Continuing on with what Marty mentioned, my perception of Howard Hughes is very similar. I’m not of that generation, but I knew of this ‘Wolf Man’ like figure who was locked away in a hotel room in Las Vegas, who wouldn’t communicate with anyone except by telephone. Almost this monstrous image that I had of the man.

And I really didn’t know the genesis of how he became that. More so than trying to portray an American hero or an icon, it was like a Greek tragedy. He was a man obsessed with everything, truly everything that he put his mind to. He was relentless and would not stop until he had reached his own ideals of perfection.

That went with creating a bra for Jane Russell, or building the Spruce Goose, or sleeping with as many women as he possibly could, or breaking speed records. That element of a character obsessed, and then have that character be confined to his own private, mental hell by microscopic germs just made for one of these characters that I or any writer could have possibly made up.

So in that great search as an actor to find those types of characters I stumbled upon this book. And I guess you could use the word obsessed, I became obsessed about wanting to play him. And going along with what Marty mentioned earlier, the fact that it did focus on his earlier years, that it dealt with a man dealing with the onset of his own madness rather than the aftermath, what happens to him afterwards, you have this great see-saw act where he’s succeeding in all these different departments and really fulfilling the dreams he had when he was a young man.

It’s like a test case for what happens when you give a man everything in the world and he fulfils all his dreams while simultaneously becoming more and more mad by his own mental illness. So yes, I suppose you could say I was obsessive about playing him.

Q. How did you go about researching the real Howard?
A:
We were playing characters here, we weren’t doing a Felliniesque surreal, dream like version of Howard Hughes’ life. At some point we said we wanted to be as authentic as possible, but at the same time create our own characters out of the actual events. We read as many books as we could – I read as many as I could – and I got to meet with the real Jane Russell, and talk with her about Howard.

I spent a lot of time with Terry Moore his ex-wife who gave me a lot of insight into the man. People who actually worked with him, I met a doctor who knew about his condition. But the main thing that really helped me in capturing his character was the documentary footage of the Senate hearings. There is other footage of the man, but he’s such a private man that whenever there is a clip of him he’s always talking very specifically about the props of an engine plane or the landing gear. He goes on and on for hours about the specifics of the plane and how it works.

He was literally like a robot, very technical. The Senate hearing stuff was the only example I got to see of the raw state of the man. A man confronted, a man pushed up against a wall and attacking. In a lot of ways he was a hero to a lot of people because of those Senate hearings.

He was an individual, a billionaire – America’s first, a powerful man – but an individual taking on a corporate monopoly and the Senate. He succeeded, and there was a huge grass roots effort for a while to make him President.

Martin Scorsese: There were a couple of things Leo picked up from the footage, like the touching of his pants leg. Every picture we saw he’d do it, so we started layering that in. And one other interesting thing, naturally the newsreels that he had at the end of an aeroplane flight, the plane would land and the press would be there.

There were big cameras and everything, so it was kind of rehearsed as he got out of the plane. We had the out-takes from one of these, he got out of the plane and all the guys applauded and he said ‘none of that now, none of that’ and then he said ‘okay let’s do it again’. We use that at the end with the Hercules. He kind of got embarrassed but he liked it. We literally pulled bits and pieces throughout.

Leonardo DiCaprio: I don’t know if you remember this other one, the cameraman was obviously filming him without his knowledge, but Howard was making Hell’s Angels and there he was in between takes meticulously replacing a scarf, moving it in increments inch by inch. For no apparent reason.

It’s interesting to see his meticulous attention to detail, which is very different from when Marty pays attention to detail. If you look at The Outlaw it’s a pretty horrendous movie but they literally did hundreds of takes, for him to get to the level of his own – and I don’t think it even had to do with performance – but it was probably the way somebody said a line that didn’t sound right. Or the angle on somebody’s face or the way a piece of wardrobe looked. He spent millions of dollars on that movie as well. It’s interesting to watch a man with OCD and have him make a film. That was quite apparent on Hell’s Angels, having him shoot that movie for four years and re-shoot it for sound and spend more money that had ever been spent on a feature film in history.

Q. Did you ever view the story of how fame affected Hughes as a cautionary tale for yourself?
A:
I don't have obsessive compulsive disorder, number one. I'm not a germophobe. But I do get asked that question and I have a hard time drawing parallels because I wouldn't have my plate that full in life. You're really focussed on so many different things, that work themselves into a frenzy. I'm trying to focus on being an actor, to do the best possible job I can at it.

Q. Can it be difficult being you?
A.
I'm very lucky, I'm a very lucky person and I'm very appreciative certainly to be able to be in the position that I'm in as an actor. It's the only thing that I've known I really wanted to do professionally so I'm very appreciative of it.

Q. Leonardo, do you have a love or fear of flying?
A:
I don’t feel the urge to fly myself, not at all. I got to simulate what it was like to fly though, and I asked if I could go up and fly in some of these planes but the insurance company quite understandably said absolutely not, they wouldn’t allow me to fly for the first time in antique war planes a couple of weeks before shooting. So I understood.
We worked very closely with a professional pilot, and that’s the great thing about being able to do a movie, you learn about the subject matter and you simulate what it’s like and you get into the history of it all. Certainly for Howard Hughes’ character, to be able to be way up in the sky like that, cocooned from the world and in control of his own vehicle, in his own germ-free zone in the heavens, was his favourite place to be. And he ultimately passed away on a plane which I suppose is appropriate.

Q. Do you see Hughes as a sympathetic figure or a troubled genius?
A:
I think both. For me, ultimately, it wasn’t about us saying we wanted to portray a great American hero, why don’t you know about this man’s life, and historically what he did. He needs to be recognised. For us it was a combination of those things, it was ‘here is a fascinating character to put up on screen, a multi-dimensional character who was all those things'.
And through the research that I did the most interesting thing that I found was that he was all those things. No one was able to define him, he was all those things. A crackpot of different elements that made him who he was. Even the people who were most intimate to him, people that knew him on intimate levels, weren’t able to define the man.
I think that it’s a direct result of being orphaned at a very young age and having all the resources in the world to do whatever the hell he wanted. He also had these conditions. He was a very private man, and I don’t just mean that in the media sense, I mean in all the relationships he had. I certainly had sympathy for the mental state that he was in, and I also have an admiration for what he accomplished. But more than that, his brashness, his inability to fall short of his criteria of what he wanted to accomplish with everything he put his mind to.

Q. Did you identify with Cate Blanchett's speech about fame?
A:
There are pros and cons to everything. More than fame, to be able to do what I do and what I love on this level is much more of a pro than being recognised.
There are certain invasions of privacy and all that, but I hate sitting around complaining about it, I just don't like to hear it come out of my mouth. I'm a very fortunate person being able to do what I do.

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