Why DiCaprio says working with Brad Pitt was ‘so easy’
DESPITE an Oscar-winning screen career of more than 30 years that shows no sign of flagging any time soon, Leonardo DiCaprio says he connected with the on-screen has-been he plays in Quentin Tarantino's new movie.
Set in 1969, at the time of the famed Manson Family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the auteur director's love letter of sorts to Hollywood, revolves around DiCaprio's alcoholic TV actor Rick Dalton in the declining stages of his career.
With Dalton's trusted sidekick/stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) by his side, he endeavours to reinvent himself as a movie star.
But despite his status as one of the industry's most enduring A-listers, DiCaprio says he felt an affinity for Dalton and recognised the fleeting nature of fame and celebrity.
"Although my career has taken a different course, I immediately connected with him," DiCaprio insists.
"Rick is dealing with his own mortality, realising that the culture and the industry has passed him by. He's an actor who is slowly realising he may soon vanish. And that character is intrinsically somebody that I knew growing up in the industry."
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood marks DiCaprio's second time working with Tarantino, following his mesmerising turn as a racist, sadistic plantation owner in 2012's Django Unchained.
He also previously worked with Margot Robbie, who plays a supporting role as Sharon Tate, in The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), but surprisingly, had never worked with Pitt, with whom he shares most screen time.
Their chemistry, as it happens, is not only electric on screen but reminiscent of another telegenic duo, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
"Brad is a great guy. Incredibly talented, professional and there's an ease to working with him," DiCaprio smiles.
Interestingly, the pair's respective and not dissimilar careers each began on the saccharin-infused family sitcom, Growing Pains. DiCaprio's run was from 1991-1992 while Pitt graced two episodes in 1987 and 1989.
"Yes, Growing Pains was as close as we'd ever gotten to working together," DiCaprio says with a laugh.
"Our careers sparked at the same time and there was an immediate understanding and a familiarity."
The camaraderie between DiCaprio and Pitt is palpable.
"As soon Brad and I stepped on set the first day, we were those guys. It was a strange experience."
And Pitt quickly assumed the role of DiCaprio's subordinate.
"Brad said a line to me on that first day that I hearken back to that in a weird way defined our relationship. He said to me, 'You're Rick f---ing Dalton!'"
Tarantino's set, a pop-culture pastiche of the '60s at the height of hippie Hollywood, was a fully immersive time travel experience.
"It's funny that both my parents are still hippies," DiCaprio muses.
"Actually, we did a scene where Hollywood Boulevard was re-dressed in 1969 and there were hundreds of hippies walking up and down. We were driving in the car, and I said to Brad, 'That's my dad,' and he goes, 'Yeah, right,' and I said, 'No, that's really my dad'.
"He looked over and said, 'Oh, that's cool that they dressed him up to look like one of the extras'." DiCaprio adds with a laugh.
"I said to him, 'No. He's not in the movie, he's just visiting the set. That's him with his sandals and Hawaiian shirt and that's his wife with the turban on her head. That's how they dress every day'."
DiCaprio was born in 1974, well past his alter-ego's era.
"I didn't grow up in this time period but I felt connected to it. What happened culturally with the Manson murders was the end of the dream of the hippy/peace revolution in a lot of ways, that's according to what my father has told me," he explains.
"It was this sort of creepy mildew that was permeating, and it caused a massive amount of mistrust, a dark tapestry that changed that culture forever, and more importantly what that culture represented globally. I've heard a lot about it from my parents."
DiCaprio relishes his unusual upbringing.
"My father was an underground comic distributor in Los Angeles and we used to go around in his station wagon every weekend. That was my weekend, delivering comic books."
His parents divorced when he was a year old, and he lived with his mother, who took on a series of odd jobs.
A little more forthcoming than usual reticent self, he says that the only reason he's now an actor is because he grew up in Hollywood.
"If it wasn't for the sheer proximity of going to school and my mother saying, 'I'm going to take you to auditions after school,' it wouldn't have happened," he admits.
Unlike the many young wannabe actors who arrive in busloads with big dreams from middle-of-nowhere, USA, he says "I would have never uprooted myself from Iowa or Missouri with these grand Gold Rush dreams, backpacks on, coming to Hollywood like so many others."
How does he reconcile his enormous success with the fate of myriad equally talented actors who haven't had their own lucky break?
"There's a certain level of talent that's involved, but more than anything, it's being in the right place at the right time that opens the doorway. So in a weird way, it's like winning the lottery," DiCaprio says.
"And so, my whole life has been a lot about not squandering that opportunity."
If his primary goal was indeed to avoid squandering those opportunities, he's achieved it, in spades.
"A lot of my friends are actors, and I know the percentile of working actors is very small, and many of them continue to struggle to try to pave their way. Like I said, I didn't need to have lived Rick Dalton's life to understand what he was going through. I understood it because there are attributes of self-doubt in him that are universal in all of us," he says.
"Whether I have freak-outs like him or not, that's a different story," he laughs, referring to a scene when Dalton can't remember his lines and trashes his trailer.
To DiCaprio, Rick Dalton represents more than that. "I can relate to him because it's the realisation that we're all mortal."
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood opens Thursday.