Shutter Island - Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio
Detectives Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) © Paramount Pictures

Shutter Island is the fourth movie that Leonardo DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese have collaborated on; the others being Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed.

In this fourth outing, DiCaprio portrays US Marshal Teddy Daniels who, along with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), is called to a psychiatric hospital on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a multiple murderess who has escaped from a locked room.

What convinced you about doing this project?

Shutter Island - Leonardo DiCaprio
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) © Paramount Pictures

A lot of things about this character appealed to me. Teddy comes to Shutter Island devoted to solving the mystery and to uncover what is really going on, but he has his own innermost agenda and secrets. He’s in a situation where there’s a lot more to his journey than there at first appears to be. One of the great things about the story is that it’s constantly jarring you. It works on so many different levels; it’s like a giant layer cake.

I fell in love with the complexity of Teddy, with his search for the truth, which triggers something in him, and also trigged something in me. I was profoundly moved at the end.

What was it like working with Martin Scorsese again?

The one thing I don’t think people understand about Scorsese is how much he believes in the actors he hires, and how much he depends on them doing their homework before they show up on the set. He’s a master filmmaker and he knows how to navigate the human mind and portray things about the human condition, but he lets the actors really dictate what he puts up on the screen.

What kind of research did you do for this film?

Shutter Island - Director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio
Director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set © Paramount Pictures

Marty loves to discuss everything at great length, which helps you become even more specific about who your character is and more believable on screen. We would discuss the scenes almost like forensic detectives, going through the details with a fine-tooth comb, and that’s one of the most interesting, challenging, scary and fun parts of making his movies because, by the time you’re on set, you’re really committed to something.

With Teddy, there were certain fine lines we couldn’t cross, and that was very challenging. I really needed Scorsese’s guidance on how far things could be pushed. There are a lot of extra subtleties you might notice on a second viewing.

There are some remarkable performances, so rich in character and detail that they just come alive. The casting was tremendous, and you believe these people you meet on Shutter Island are all real and tangible.

What were the challenges of presenting this character, who forces the audience to fluctuate their perceptions of him while, at the same time, having consistent behavior throughout the film?

Shutter Island - Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio
Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) © Paramount Pictures

Very simply put, it was a very difficult character to take on in that respect, because obviously this film depends on you not knowing where you are at in any given situation, and so with that in mind, every day on set was a challenge for me really, how I interacted with specific characters, how much I let on as far as what Teddy was really going through.

But a lot of it started to become a lot more natural when I got to work over a prolonged period of time with the other actors, in that it became its own truth in a lot of ways. As much as I invested in going into this process with a predetermined thought of exactly how this guy would be, and exactly how he would react to the people around him, once these scenarios started to take place, and once I got to be in a room with these other characters, there was a certain realism and a certain understanding that we all had about one another that I could never have foreseen.

This was a very emotionally complex character, where did you find the clarity to play this role and do you think this is your best acting performance ever?

Shutter Island - Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo
Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are two detectives sent from the mainland © Paramount Pictures

Thank you if you thought it was a good performance. The clarity comes from research. I’ll say in reference to shooting in a mental ward on an island, obviously mental illness was thematic in this movie, we were surrounded by it every day; we were around dilapidated walls of an old mental institution. It led me to watch a lot of different documentaries, a lot of research on mental illness.

And as far as the emotional depths of the character, it was like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The more we started to unearth and peel back the onion of who this guy was and what happened to him in the past, and trying to truly understand the reason why he would be so obsessed with this specific case, once we started to uncover these things about him we realized to explain one set of circumstances we needed to go even further with another set of circumstances.

There were a few weeks there that were some of the most hardcore filming experiences I’ve ever had, it was like reliving trauma in a way. It was pretty intense. And I don’t say that stuff very often. It always seems superficial when you’re talking about it in reference to moviemaking, because it is an art form, but it really went to places in unearthing who this man was that I didn’t think it would get to.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.