The role that recently won Leonardo DiCaprio a Golden Globe Award and his fourth Oscar nomination is easily the most outrageous in the celebrated actor’s career. In Wolf of Wall Street, the once-innocuous boy who boarded the Titanic delves into the shocking excesses of wealth, greed, sex and drugs that tanked (temporarily) the life of real-life mega stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Fortunately, the 39-year-old actor is much too serious and sober to bask in such extremes in his own life. Although the Oscar-nominated film has been criticized for glamorizing the reckless hedonism of Wall Street while ignoring its victims, DiCaprio condemns the financial power mongers, the “almighty dollar” and the need for altruism.
I spoke with DiCaprio in Los Angeles.
Francesco Orsini: What have you learned about money from making this movie? What brings the wolf out in you?
Leonardo DiCaprio: I don’t know what gets the wolf out of me. Certain times people see movies about gangsters and all kinds of different worlds, and you never know how they are going to react to them. Some might see a certain film and say, “Yeah, I want to be like that guy. You know how many brokers that I spoke to that said, “I want to be that dude?” That dude crashed and burned, and they were like, “That’s what inspired me to get into the world of finance (laughs).” So you never know. I see obviously that if you have nothing else to ground you and if you have nothing else of equal value to your life, it could completely consume you and you could cut all kinds of corners in pursuit of that and it seems like an addiction, like a drug.
Why do you think this movie resonates today?
I don’t know. Wall Street is a very tough subject matter to put in the title. People have a distaste for the people in the world of finance, and it’s not like you hear the words “Wall Street” and you want to go rushing to the theaters. But ultimately to me it’s not necessarily about Wall Street, it’s about this corrupted version of the American dream. That’s very representational of the time that we live in. As the economy keeps expanding, as our populations keeps growing, we keep acting as if there are endless resources and that we can keep expanding without any kind of downturn.
Do you think things will get better?
The state of things right now is pretty bizarre to me. It seems surreal. It’s pretty outrageous how the almighty dollar seems to rule everything and people are suffering — and our planet is suffering. It’s almost like a war zone out there from an environmentalist perspective to keep some of these sacred places intact, even to fight for things that have no voice because the economy keeps driving forward. It’s depressing to me that the almighty dollar seems to be the god of modern times. People get richer and richer, and prices seem to be surging. I thought we were in an economic downturn, and I look around, and I look at apartments in New York and things are quadruple the price that they were. It all makes no sense to me. And let’s not forget one thing: Jordan Belfort is a little minnow. There are whales out there that have decimated our economy for billions and billions of dollars. That’s what happens in an unregulated society and structure where people aren’t watched over and don’t need to pay the price for (their) actions. And this was a cycle that I feel that keeps happening in this country, where you have to reinvent our entire financial institutions, because there is one loophole and then everything gets funneled into that. It happened in the 1930s, it happened back then and it just happened recently. It’s like there needs to be a reset button in a system where there are no rules. People will certainly take advantage of it.
Are you personally interested in the finance industry?
I don’t follow the stock market whatsoever. It really made no sense to me and no sense to Marty (Scorsese, the film’s director) either, which is why we spoke directly to the camera and said, “Anyway, I know this shit is confusing to you, the point is, were they doing something illegal?” Absolutely, (they) were, and (my character) was getting really rich. That was our approach with this film. Because if you do a film that’s intricately about the world of finance, people are just going to zone out. It’s about the nature of what’s within us. And what I loved about Jordan Belfort’s book was the fact that he was so honest about that. It’s like the guy was writing down some incredibly embarrassing things.
Some people say the movie is quite apologetic of his path that he took in life.
I think what he was doing was deplorable, and he’ll tell you the same thing. He looks at that period of his life as a time for learning. He’s now the way we picture him at the end of the movie. He’s going out doing seminars like the Tony Robbins-style seminars and talking about his past and mistakes that he’s made, the dark path that he went down. He is divulging all this stuff because he wants to teach people a lesson.
Do you think he has changed as a person?
I can only see the man, and I have gotten to know the man. I think we all want to vilify people for their past, and by no means do I not hold him accountable or responsible for what he did. But I see somebody that is trying everything they possibly can to change that and do something positive. So, I can certainly relate to that.
What was it actually like to enact such a story? After all he had quite an excessive life.
It was crazy. I could understand getting into that mind frame and then bending one little rule here, and then finding a little gray area of the law here and entering that, just to keep the machine going. It’s almost like he built this cult, and I really felt it when I was doing these speeches, because I’d been thinking about these speeches for like six years, and I had it very planned out. There were these Braveheart-type of speeches that I was giving to my brokers. But instead of fighting for their own personal freedom of their country, it was about going out and screwing as many people over as possible. It wasn’t until I really got on stage that I felt what Jordan must have felt like. The adoration — you feel like you’ve become Bono, or something like that. You feel like this crazy rock star.
Did you recognize the feeling from when you became a big star in Hollywood?
It’s a much different dynamic. When you do a movie, there’s always the distance from your audience, via the screen and having it be projected as opposed to being onstage.
Do you envy him?
Oh, I don’t envy the life that he lived, no.
How do you find something likeable in a character who’s essentially quite repulsive?
The truth is, I didn’t really think about whether he was likeable or not likeable. I just keyed into his motivation and ambition. That’s probably what audiences latch onto. Marty said to me very early on, “It’s important to do films that are about the darker side of human nature. As long as you don’t try to sugarcoat who they are, and you don’t try to tack on some false sense of sympathy that you think the audience can identify with. If you’re authentic about the way you portray them, the audiences are going to go on that journey with you no matter what.”
You bought the rights for his story in 2008. Why did it take so long to bring it to the screen?
It was percolating in the air, I wanted to do it right afterwards, immediately, and we were going to. It’s a very modern movie. But such incredibly complex films are almost impossible to finance nowadays, no matter who you have. Because this just doesn’t fit the template of the category of OK dramas and other films are below this budget — and everything else above this budget has to have this explosion, this robot, and whatever, and all that other stuff and otherwise we’re not doing it.
You’re quite wealthy yourself. Do you use this money just for yourself?
I think it’s very important to give back, too. Everyone’s responsibility, who is in a position of power and wealth, should be to do something for your community or the world. I don’t judge people who are in positions of power or have wealth, as long as they’re responsible with it, and there are a lot of incredibly responsible people out there. But I think that there’s too many reckless ones.