- An armada of lawyers and agents ensures that Leonardo DiCaprio’s star image is maintained, explains director Henrike Sandner. (AFP / Christophe Simon)
Director Henrike Sandner researched how Leonardo DiCaprio became a star and how he makes sure that he stays that way. He gathers lawyers and agents around him and makes sure that colleagues are silent. One thing is clear: Image is important.
Patrick Wellinski: He is one of the most famous actors in Hollywood: Leonardo DiCaprio. At least since his breakthrough with James Cameron’s “Titanic” he became a world star. Above all, his later collaboration with director Martin Scorsese turned the beautiful and swarm of girls into a respected character actor – an achievement that reached its climax with the Oscar for “The Revenant”.
The arte documentary “Leonardo DiCaprio: Most Wanted!” tries to capture the star system “DiCaprio”. In interviews with companions and critics, the director Henrike Sandner dares to attempt an interpretation: What defines the art and the success of Leonardo DiCaprio? What is so fascinating about him that you decided to dedicate a documentary to him?
Henrike Sandner: Leonardo DiCaprio’s career has been going on for a very, very long time, over 30 years now. He has shaped an entire generation to this day, and this generation follows his career. It’s an exciting story.
A “Rampensau” wants to see the film
Wellinski: The story begins very early for him, he was in front of the camera as a child. What drove him to film?
Sandner: From the start he was, as they say, a little bit of a rampage. He loved entertaining others and making them laugh. This is what everyone who knew him as a child tells. He is a child of Hollywood, which is of course a very formative experience: Growing up in this world also means having a role model. He always wanted to be part of Hollywood. He’s a child of that culture.
In the 1980s, almost every child was driven to a casting at some point, and DiCaprio’s mother did that too. Leonardo DiCaprio belongs to a whole generation of young actors who appeared in films as children: Tobey Maguire, for example, his best friend, and he has already found himself in competition on casting shows. The friendship continues to this day, and Tobey Maguire has also become a great actor by now.
Wellinski: I find it exciting that you also ask directors about what was so exciting about the young Leonardo DiCaprio that they cast him. Among other things, you can hear the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who shot “Total Eclipse” with him in America, Arthur Rimbaud’s love story. Everyone tries to describe what is true about this young actor: He is a medium, he has charisma. How would you answer the question: What made this young actor DiCaprio such a coveted object for directors, what did this young man have?
Sandner: You quoted what Agnieszka Holland said in my film. She says he was like a medium to me. Michael Caton-Jones, who made the film “This Boy’s Life” with him, says it similarly. He says you could tell him a story and he recorded it, he was like a sponge, even as a very, very young actor.
Leonardo DiCaprio has been in front of the camera since childhood. He made his debut in 1991 in the science fiction film “Critters 3 – Die Kuschelkillers are coming”. (Picture Alliance / dpa / Ipol)
At the age of 16 he worked with Michael Caton-Jones, and it shows that this very young actor can do it: Not through any acting techniques, not through a certain, learned way of acting, no, instinctively he took up this role in himself. You could give him a role and he took it in and he became that role. That then continues later in his career. But even when he was very, very young, it became clear that it worked. Scorsese also later discovered that DiCaprio’s great talent is precisely that: He will take on this role.
The Janus face of celebrities
Wellinski: The success and a celebrity of a scale that apparently got scary to him both came with “Titanic”. You describe this in your film using a scene during the Berlinale: At the world premiere of “The Beach”, this young man on the red carpet looks like a cat that is suddenly illuminated by a spotlight and runs away. Someone is afraid of success, right?
Sandner: For sure. I also love the saying Michael Caton-Jones makes: You shouldn’t be happy when heaven gives you everything you want it to be. Leonardo DiCaprio always wanted this success, and I think he expected that he would have it one day, but in the end he couldn’t really handle it. Who can do that?
Of course, that’s always a question: if you get such a huge basket of celebrities and are still so young, it can scare you. He himself once said in an interview that there was an incredible amount of fan mail, girls as well as young men wrote to him and wrote to him as if he were their best friend. They really took a piece away from him and that irritated him.
Wellinski: You also describe that at this point, at the latest, he has given a lot of thought to his image. Perhaps that can be measured by the fact that he has withdrawn a film “Don’s Plum” that he also produced. This is a film that is very cynical, that is very dark, that somehow suddenly no longer fit into the image of the young Leonardo DiCaprio, who sacrifices his life for Kate after the fall of the Titanic. How important is it for someone like Leonardo DiCaprio to be able to determine his own image?
Lawyers and agents for the image
Sandner: As he says himself, he doesn’t value his image at all. However, the film critic Katja Nicodemus, who I also have in my film, put it the other way round: She says very nicely: But his image is very much interested in him. That’s exactly the point. Before “Titanic” he actually tried not to care about his image. Then he realized that after “Titanic” he must be interested in it. He has to create a set of rules and a control in order not to perish, because a person who is in public like this can also be torn apart.
He didn’t want to create any more points of attack. He’s built an armada of people around him who are kind of protecting him, I would say – lawyers, a whole armada of agents too; a protective wall that he pays for. That is still the case today. That’s why you don’t get him for an interview yourself, of course. But this has now become commonplace in Hollywood, and it is no exception – that these people try to protect themselves from this outside view: they decide what one should see of them.
That “Don’s Plum” film that you are alluding to is not banned in Europe. As far as I know, he only managed it for the US and Canada. But in Europe you can see the film and also buy it on DVD. If I’m not mistaken, it even premiered at the Berlinale in 2001. So access is not possible for him worldwide, but he banned this film because it damaged his image.
If you watch this film, it’s just a bunch of young people who meet at a dingy diner where misogynistic sayings are made – and he’s incredibly unsympathetic in that role, but it’s a role. But he saw that there was also a lot of Leonardo in this role, and that could be misunderstood. That’s why he wanted to forbid this film with great vehemence and he managed to do it.
Control over the system
Wellinski: You already mentioned how difficult it is to get to him yourself, so you didn’t interview him for your documentary. Something that was clear to you from the start, or did you try it?
Sandner: We tried it, of course, the production company, although it was almost clear to us that it wouldn’t work. I mean, he has a German mother, he also has relatives living in Germany, but it hasn’t been the case that we have said that we absolutely have to catch someone through the back door, because basically this management takes – this belt on people who protect him – very, very bad too.
Actually, all inquiries go, regardless of whether you ask a great director like Baz Luhrmann or someone else who works with him, or Scorsese, all inquiries go through the table with him. It was also very interesting that no one who worked with him after 1998, that is after the incredible success of “Titanic”, got permission to do an interview with us.
It was of course very difficult to make this film, but on the other hand, of course, we also became aware of that, we only get people who were in contact with him before 1998, because he wasn’t able to control this system that much and want.
DiCaprio’s commitment to the environment
Wellinski: You end your film by asking what you can expect from such an actor and also from the DiCaprio system. How would you answer the question after having dealt so intensely with this life, with this actor: What more can we expect from Leonardo DiCaprio?
Sandner: I think so, a lot. What I find interesting about him is that he has now stylized himself into a kind of myth. He wants to be one of the big, old stars of Hollywood, someday. He knows that, to put it bluntly, he is aging in public. He’s got his films, he’s just got a new production with Scorsese, he chooses very carefully.
I think what is to come will be his environmental commitment. I find it very exciting that he uses his celebrity to convey a really great message, to win a completely different generation than the generation that cheered him on “Titanic”. So to speak, he is also traveling in completely different ways and uses this celebrity that he has for other messages. And that, I think, will get stronger and stronger in the future.
He’s not going to make four big films every year, he never wanted to. If he makes a big film every two years it will certainly work fine, but in the meantime he has other tasks and he will do them.
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