Leonardo DiCaprio Talks ‘J. Edgar’

The star of Clint Eastwood's latest explains his take on J. Edgar Hoover, and whether tiger bone wine increases your virility. (Sneak Preview: it doesn't.)

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Leonardo DiCaprio adds to his impressive resume by playing one of the most notorious figures of American History. In Clint Eastwood’s film J. Edgar, DiCaprio plays the title character, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. At a press conference for the film, DiCaprio shared his thoughts on the controversial story.


All work and no play, makes J. Edgar a dull boy.

I think the screenplay that Clint and I initially responded to by Mr. Dustin Lance Black was a very fascinating portrait of this man, and I think all of us as actors were very fascinated with these characters that had devoted their life to government service and that meant not having any kind of personal life whatsoever. They were representations of the FBI. That was their church. It’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around to completely sacrifice any sort of love in your life, to never experience that on a personal level. All three of these characters lived a life of service to their country.


The good in J. Edgar:

What I was fascinated by was his take on entering J. Edgar Hoover’s career during a time of almost a terrorist invasion by Communists, the Red Scare, that sort of paranoia that was infused in our country, and the lawlessness of these bank robbers that were going from state to state and becoming free men when they crossed state lines and how J. Edgar Hoover really transformed the police system in America and created this Federal Bureau that to this day is one of the most feared, respected and revered police forces in the entire world. His portrait of this man was a very complex one and a very interesting one and I just loved the research that he did and the take that he had on J. Edgar Hoover’s life because you can’t deny that he wasn’t a patriot but at the same time his tactics were pretty deplorable.


Where Hoover went wrong:

Of course, this story goes on to his later years where he became, in essence, this political dinosaur who didn’t adapt to the changing of our country. It’s very much about the Kennedy years and the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King. The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that Communism was an evil thing. He wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country, but when the Civil Rights movement came along, he saw that as an uprising of the people. He didn’t adapt or change to our country and he stayed in power way too long and he didn’t listen to his own critics and he was a staunch believer in his moral beliefs and his beliefs about what was right for our country and therefore his career ended on a failed note in my opinion. He should’ve retired much sooner than he did and many presidents tried to oust him later on in his career as depicted with Nixon as well. That was everything to him and he didn’t adapt or change to our country and that is one of the most important things a political leader can do.


The original Patriot Act:

It’s interesting in this day and age to do a film about political espionage and wiretapping. I don’t think that those kinds of secrets that J. Edgar Hoover was able to obtain and keep for such a long period of time would be possible in today’s world, with the Internet, Wikileaks… It doesn’t seem like those kinds of secrets can be kept for that long period of time. This is a different day and age, and there were huge, catastrophic events that were going to happen if we didn’t have a federal police system like that investigating a lot of activities that were going on in our country. It still goes on to this day, obviously. I mean, it’s an argument or a topic that people could talk about until they’re blue in the face, whether that type of information being released to the public is a positive or a negative thing. I suppose it depends on the particular event or subject matter. But I don’t think that J. Edgar Hoover would be able to do the same job in today’s era with all this massive distribution of information in a matter of seconds. It was a different era and time.


Trying again until he gets it right:

We actually did a lot of takes on this movie. I never left the set wanting more, that’s for sure. I don’t know. This was a very difficult character for me and a lot of the other actors here, and at times we went and did 8 or 9 or 10 takes on a single day. Clint is very adaptable and has his process and what he does is expect you to plant your feet and speak the truth, like James Cagney says. That’s what we tried to do our best on this movie. He was very understanding about the different time periods that we had to shift back and forth from in this movie, all the sort of complex politics and character development, and he gave us everything we could possibly ask for as actors. I keep talking about his style of directing but it’s so catered for actors because he has almost like this splinter cell unit of people on set, the bare minimum. It’s like an elite squadron of Marines that are there and they sort of fade away and then that third wall sort of disappears and you start to feel like you’re actually submerged in reality and you’re really there.


Grumpy Old J. Edgar:

Thankfully Clint set that up for the last two weeks of filming so we got to prepare for that and we got to get our footing in our characters and then come to set and the last few weeks we sat in the make-up chair for 5 or 6 or 7 hours sometimes. I think a lot of us had our own research on how to do that, but there was a lot of prep time for that. The challenge for me was not just the prosthetic work and how to move like an older man would move but more so how to have 50 years of experience in the workplace and talk to a young Robert F. Kennedy as if he was some political upstart that didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. That was the big challenge for all of us, I think, as actors. But thankfully Clint creates an environment for all of us to really focus on the acting and the drama and the interaction with the characters.


Mommy issues:

To me, you couldn’t write a character like J. Edgar Hoover and have it be believable. I mean, he was a crock pot of eccentricities. We couldn’t even fit all his eccentricities into this movie. We could go on and on. The fact that this man was, if not the most powerful man in the last century, one of the most in our country and he lived with his mother until he was 40 years old. He listened to his mother for political advice. The more I dug deep, you understand the history of the child and what motivated these people at a very early age, she wanted the Hoover name to rise to great glory in Washington so he was this incredibly ambitious young genius that really transformed our country and created this federal bureau that to this day is revered and feared. Yet he was a mama’s boy. He was incredibly repressed emotionally. His only outlet was his job. He wasn’t allowed to have any kind of personal relationships, or he felt that. No matter what his sexual orientation was, he was devoted to his job and power was paramount to him and holding onto that power at all costs was the most important thing in his life.


Playing an unsympathetic role:

I don’t have to sympathize or empathize with a human being in order to be able to portray them. I mean, some of the greatest roles that actors have been able to play haven’t been the most endearing on screen.


The latest environmental issues:

I think the environmental movement is the biggest people’s movement in the world. Unfortunately our governments and corporations haven’t responded accordingly to protect our planet’s natural resources but ever since I was very young I’ve been fascinated with nature and I actually wanted to be a marine biologist when I was very young. That was a great passion of mine. So I suppose in the off season when I’m not making movies, I became more and more active as an environmentalist trying to be more vocal about issues I felt were important. I created my foundation as a result of that, and my website, and I try to shed some light on some very topical issues right now. A campaign that I’m a part of is to save the last remaining wild tigers throughout Asia. There’s only 3200 left in the wild. There’s more tigers in Texas in cages than there are tigers in the wild. We’re at risk of losing this iconic species for all time. Once it’s stripped of its natural instincts it’s no longer a tiger but there’s a lot of species like that. The more intriguing thing about it was right now, throughout Asia, a lot of these countries are selling off their forest rights for oil and for paper and oil companies. So it’s more of a land preservation effort because if you can unify the public mind saving an iconic species like the tiger, like they did with the panda, that means you have to protect their habitat and everything that they hunt. And that means saving massive, thousands of acres for them to be able to roam and breed so it’s more of a land effort.


Don’t buy tiger bone. It doesn’t work.

Unfortunately right now there is throughout Asia this stigma that comes from witch doctors that these animals can make you more virile, can make you more of a man. So they crush up their bones and make wine out of them. Unfortunately the wild tiger is the most expensive and most sought after. It’s interesting because it’s actually they proved it has as much effect as dog bone would, but for some reason tiger bone wine is a delicacy. Much like rhinos, it’s basically hair, but they’re poaching, I don’t know, Vietnamese Rhinoceros Diet is recently the last one, but they’re poaching these animals just like ivory, they feel it has medicinal qualities unfortunately. That kind of mentality needs to be changed if these animals are going to survive. So there’s a huge effort right now throughout Asia to protect their habitat but also to stop, much like shark finning, which is another thing I’m campaigning for. We had a great victory, we have a ban in California now on shark finning. It’s going to save a lot of these top predators in the ocean. The idea is to try to get people to become obviously more knowledgeable about the issue and try to get corporations and individuals to contribute to these nonprofit organizations.


Visit www.savetigersnow.org and the World Wildlife Fund to help DiCaprio fight the cause.