His new movie, The Revenant, takes the struggle not to die and really, really goes with it. In the film DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a real-life 1820s fur trapper who got mauled by a bear, was robbed and abandoned by his companions, and then spent months crawling to safety through the untamed American wilderness. As for what it took to play the part of Glass, well, let’s just say it involved a lot of snow, bearskins, and numb digits. The production of the film, directed by a fresh-off-Birdman Alejandro Iñárritu, was so complicated and geographically challenging that at times the moviemakers themselves needed to claw and scrape to keep it alive—filming had to be repeatedly stopped and resuscitated. But survive they all did (Glass, DiCaprio, and The Revenant), and the result will be coming to you in a safe, warm, dry theater on Christmas Day. We sat down with DiCaprio to ask him about endurance, his own brushes with death, and perhaps the biggest survival story of them all—how the hell we all might live through climate change. Spoiler alert: One of these things involves a shark.
WIRED: Watching the opening of The Revenant, all I could think was, “That looks really cold.”
DICAPRIO: It was physically grueling for everybody. We had to have this massive crew go to far-off locations and move around all over the high altitudes, from Calgary to Vancouver. Like in Birdman, Alejandro Iñárritu created these very intricate shots with [director of photography Emmanuel] “Chivo” Lubezki, where he was weaving in and out of the forest. He would have the camera veer off to this expansive battle sequence, then come right back to another intimate moment with the character. They had coordinated all that stuff with a lot of precision. But of course when we got there, the elements sort of took over.
What drew you to the role of Hugh Glass?
Glass was a campfire legend—and it’s all true. He survived a savage bear attack, was left for dead, then traveled through this uncharted territory of interior America, crawling through hundreds of miles of wilderness on his own. So to me the story was a simple linear story, but in Alejandro’s hands, of course, it becomes a sort of visual, existential poetry. Not a lot of directors wanted to take this on because of how difficult it would be to shoot. The script had been floating around for a couple of years. It wasn’t until Alejandro was attached to this man’s struggle in nature that it got going. I reread it and met him again, and I decided to embark on what I would characterize as more of a chapter of my life than a film commitment—because it was epic in every sense of the word.
So you’re filming outside, it’s cold, it’s dirty, it’s brutal. What was that like for you? Were there times when you asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
Moments? Every single day of this movie was difficult. It was the most difficult film I’ve ever done. You’ll see, when you see the film—the endurance that we all had to have is very much up on the screen.
What was the worst part?
The hardest thing for me was getting in and out of frozen rivers. [Laughs.] Because I had elk skin on and a bear fur that weighed about 100 pounds when it got wet. And every day it was a challenge not to get hypothermia.
How prepared was the crew for that? Did they say, “Well, we’re going to throw DiCaprio into a frozen river, we better have some EMTs here”?
Oh, they had EMTs there. And they had this machine that they put together—it was kind of like a giant hair dryer with octopus tentacles—so I could heat my feet and fingers after every take, because they got locked up with the cold. So they were basically blasting me with an octopus hair dryer after every single take for nine months.
And there were a lot of takes.
Alejandro and Chivo had this vision to shoot in natural light. We had months of rehearsal beforehand, but every day was like doing a play. Each actor, each bit of the set, needed to be like gears in a Swiss watch, because the camera was moving around and you had to have your timing perfect. So we rehearsed every day, and then we had a two-hour window of natural light to shoot. This movie is a little like virtual reality—it’s the closest thing to being submerged in nature. In the bear attack, you can almost feel the breath of the bear. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
I heard you had problems with snow.
We had a lot of complications while shooting, because it was the hottest year in recorded history. In Calgary there were all these extreme weather events. One day we were trying to do a scene and it turned out to be 40 below zero, so the gears of the camera didn’t work. Then twice during the movie we had 7 feet of snow melt in a day—all of it, within five hours—and we were stuck with two or three weeks of no snow in a film that’s all snow. So we had to shut down production multiple times. That’s what happens with climate change; the weather is more extreme on both ends.
You even had to wrap early and resume filming when you could find snow again, right?
We had to go to the South Pole!
We had to go to the southern tip of Argentina, to the southernmost town on the planet, to find snow.
Do you have a lot of outdoor experience? Are you a survival school kind of a guy?
I love being immersed in nature and wild places. I love scuba diving, and I’ve been up and down the Amazon. But as far as dropping me off with a small bit of rations? Before this movie I wouldn’t have known the first thing about it.
I heard that you’ve had a couple of brushes with death yourself, though.
My friends have named me the person they least want to do extreme adventures with, because I always seem to be very close to being part of a disaster. If a cat has nine lives, I think I’ve used a few. I mean, there was the shark incident …
A great white jumped into my cage when I was diving in South Africa. Half its body was in the cage, and it was snapping at me.
How the hell did it get into the cage?
They leave the tops open and you have a regulator line running to the surface. Then they chum the water with tuna. A wave came and the tuna sort of flipped up into the air. A shark jumped up and grabbed the tuna, and half its body landed inside the cage with me. I sort of fell down to the bottom and tried to lie flat. The great white took about five or six snaps an arm’s length away from my head. The guys there said that has never happened in the 30 years they’d been doing it.
Did the shark just get itself out and swim away?
It flipped itself back out again. I have it on video. It’s insane. Then there was this Delta Airlines flight to Russia. I was in business class, and an engine blew up in front of my eyes. It was right after “Sully” Sullenberger landed in the Hudson. I was sitting there looking out at the wing, and the entire wing exploded in a fireball. I was the only one looking out at the moment this giant turbine exploded like a comet. It was crazy. They shut all the engines off for a couple of minutes, so you’re just sitting there gliding with absolutely no sound, and nobody in the plane was saying anything. It was a surreal experience. They started the engines back up, and we did an emergency landing at JFK.
The other one was the skydiving incident. It was a tandem dive. We pulled the first chute. That was knotted up. The gentleman I was with cut it free. We did another free fall for like another 5, 10 seconds. I didn’t even think about the extra chute, so I thought we were just plummeting to our death. He pulled the second, and that was knotted up too. He just kept shaking it and shaking it in midair, as all my friends were, you know, what felt like half a mile above me, and I’m plummeting toward earth. [Laughs.] And he finally unravels it in midair. The fun part was when he said, “You’re probably going to break your legs on the way down, because we’re going too fast now.” So after you see your whole life flash in front of your eyes—twice—he says, “Oh, your legs are going to get broken too.”
That didn’t happen?
No, we did, like, this barrel roll. We got bruised up, but no broken legs.
Do you still skydive?
No. No, I do not.
This is sort of a meta question, but you’ve obviously spent pretty much your whole life in the public eye—how have you survived that?
How have I survived it?
A lot of people don’t.
You know, the truth is, it’s very surreal. I don’t think anyone really gets used to being recognized around the world. It kind of feels like a videogame at times, especially with paparazzi and people following you and things of that nature. But it’s part of who I am now. It’s part of my life as long as I choose to do what I do as a profession, and I love what I do. I think I survive because I don’t limit myself. If there’s some experience I want to have or a place I want to go, I do it. I think that’s how I bring some semblance of normality to my life.
We talked a little about the crazy weather patterns that affected your movie. Of course, any talk of survival has to include talk of climate change, and you are a vocal environmentalist. How did that start?
So there was a period in my career, post-Titanic, where I took a break and I wanted to reevaluate the other great passion in my life—I’ve been interested in science and biodiversity ever since I was very young, probably from watching films about the rain forest at the Natural History Museum.
That interested you as a kid?
I’m not from the country. I lived in downtown LA, in the Silver Lake area, which is close to the Natural History Museum. So I got exposed to the wonders of nature through film—Imax documentaries and such. It was something I always loved, and after Titanic I decided to explore that interest by getting more involved in environmental issues. I was lucky and got to have a meeting with Al Gore in the White House. He pulled out a chalkboard and drew planet Earth and drew our atmosphere around it. And he says, if you want to get involved in environmental issues, this is something not a lot of people are talking about—remember, this was 17, 18 years ago—but climate change is the single greatest threat to humanity that we’ve ever had. That put me on this path. We did Earth Day in 1999. I started a foundation. I started speaking out about the issue. And then, of course, Gore’s film came out, and I think that affected everyone in a profound way.
What do you see as the biggest challenges?
We’ve seen such a tremendous lack of leadership, and we’ve allowed these trillion-dollar industries to manipulate the argument about the science for too long. This year is a massive tipping point in the climate struggle. As I said, it’s the hottest year in recorded history. July was the hottest month in recorded history. We’re seeing methane bubbling up from underneath the seafloor. There are massive heat waves, drought, fires going on; ocean acidification is happening on a massive scale. It’s scary. I went to Greenland and there are rivers flowing like it’s the middle of the Grand Canyon. The question is, what do we do to mitigate that? Are we going to come together as a world community? Are we going to evolve as a species and actually combat this issue? The human race has never done anything like that in the history of civilization.
So it’s a little bigger than just “Buy a hybrid car”?
I once was talking to Naomi Klein, who to me is one of the most powerful voices in the climate movement. She wrote a book called This Changes Everything, and it’s about capitalism versus the environment. And look, everyone loves money, I love money—we live in the United States. This is a capitalist country. But ultimately we’ve locked ourselves, through capitalism, into an addiction to oil that’s incredibly hard to reverse. I’m making a documentary about this, and I asked Naomi to give me something I could say that would help people understand what they need to do. She told me there isn’t one thing that an individual can do. That whole greenwashing movement, buying a hybrid (which of course can’t hurt), recycling, this and that, it’s not going to cut it. This needs to be a massive movement on a global scale. And it needs to happen now. This year, 2015, is going to be the year people look back on and say we either made the right choices or we didn’t.
What do you feel is the role of technology in this crisis?
Silicon Valley should be absolutely focused on this issue. Certainly Elon Musk is out there doing it—but the Facebooks, the Googles, all these organizations should be focused on global warming.
Corporations, of course, are usually driven by economics.
Everyone in Silicon Valley who is reading this: Look at Divest Invest. It’s something I’m involved in, and it’s a fantastic way you as an individual can say, “I do not want to have investments in oil, coal, or gas.” The technology has caught up to a point where renewables are not going to be devastating to the economy. And actually there is tons of money to be made. This could be the biggest economic boom in American history if we do it right.
Are you a fan of geoengineering—finding a scientific fix for climate change?
There are scientists in London who talk about blasting chemicals into the atmosphere to make it more reflective. There are also people who want to put an iron sulfate mixture into the ocean to sequester enough carbon to reverse this trend. That’s all great, but we need to create an insurance policy for ourselves right now. And that means we need to stop spewing out so much carbon. If we can figure out a way in the future to reverse the effect of greenhouse gases with geoengineering, all the better. But we can’t depend solely on a technological miracle.
Who should we be listening to?
Look, not to get political, but listening to Bernie Sanders at that first presidential debate was pretty inspiring—to hear what he said about the environment. Who knows which candidate is going to become our next president, but we need to create a dialogue about it. I mean, when they asked each of the candidates what the most important issue facing our planet is, Bernie Sanders simply said climate change. To me that’s inspiring.
You got any tips for surviving an interview with a journalist?
[Laughs.] Only talk about what you want to talk about, no matter what the question is.
Interview - Robert Capps
Pics : Dan Winters