J Edgar - Leonardo DiCaprio
An old J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) © 2011 Warner Bros

Three-time Academy Award nominee, Leonardo DiCaprio has starred in some of the most critically acclaimed and successful movies of the last fifteen years, including Titanic, The Departed, The Aviator, Shutter Island, Catch Me If You Can, Gangs of New York and Who’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

But his most challenging role to date is that of the founder and head of the FBI for 50 years, J Edgar Hoover, in Clint Eastwood’s new drama J Edgar. DiCaprio plays the character from his early twenties to a man of seventy-seven. Hoover reigned through eight presidents and three wars, with methods that were at once ruthless and heroic.

What drew you to this character?

J Edgar - Judi Dench and Leonardo DiCaprio
Annie Hoover (Judi Dench) and son J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) © 2011 Warner Bros.

To me you couldn’t write a character like J Edgar Hoover and have it be believable. He was a crock pot of eccentricities. We couldn’t even fit all his eccentricities into this movie. But the fact [is] that this man was if not the most powerful man in the last century, one of the most in our country, and he lived with his mother until he was forty years old.

He was this incredibly ambitious young genius that really transformed our country, and his federal bureau to this day is revered and feared, yet he was a mama’s boy.

He was incredibly repressed emotionally, his only outlet was his job. He wasn’t allowed to have any personal relationships, or he felt that, and no matter what his sexual orientation was he was devoted to his job and power was paramount to him.

He should have retired much sooner than he did, and many Presidents tried to oust him later on in his career as depicted. He didn’t adapt or change to our country which is one of the most important things that a political leader can do.

What kind of research did you do for the role?

J Edgar - Leonardo DiCaprio
J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, center) © 2011 Warner Bros

For me as an actor, I just love researching this stuff. We got to take a trip to Washington and I got to meet people that knew him and I really [tried to] understand and capture this guy to the best of my abilities. That’s half the fun of making a movie for me.

It’s an incredible education. It was like doing a college course on J Edgar Hoover, but not only understanding the history and reading the books, but understanding what motivated this man was the most fascinating part of the research.

What did you learn about J Edgar that maybe altered your perception of him?

I think the screenplay that Clint and I initially responded to by Dustin Lance Black was a very fascinating portrait of this man. And I think all of us as actors were very fascinated with these characters that had devoted their lives to government service, and that meant not having any kind of personal life whatsoever.

They were a representation of the FBI, that was their church. It’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, to completely sacrifice any love in your life, to never really experience that on a personal level.

So his portrait of this man was a very complex one and a very interesting one, and I just loved the research that he did and the take that he had on J Edgar’s life, because you can’t deny that he wasn’t a patriot but, at the same time, his tactics were pretty deplorable.

In preparation for the older version of J Edgar, did you take a closer look at older people and how they move?

J Edgar - Leonardo DiCaprio
J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) © 2011 Warner Bros

Thankfully Clint set that up for the last two weeks of filming, so we got to prepare for that and we got to get our footing in our characters. The last few weeks we sat in a makeup chair for five, six or seven hours sometimes, and I think a lot of us had our own research on how to do that. But there was a lot of prep time for that.

The challenge for me was not just the prosthetic work and how to move like an older man, but more so how to have fifty years of experience in the workplace and talk to a young Robert F Kennedy as if he was some politically upstart that didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.

Because J Edgar was so unsympathetic and unpleasant, are you worried playing him will hurt your career?

Not at all. I don’t have to sympathize or empathize with the human being in order to portray them. Some of the greatest roles that actors have been able to play haven’t been the most endearing on screen.

How did making this movie and learning this story affect how you think about the idea of privacy, something that Hoover went about destroying for a lot of people?

J Edgar - Armie Hammer and Leonardo DiCaprio
Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and FBI Director J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) © Warner Bros

It’s interesting in this day and age to do a film about political espionage and wire-taping . I don’t think the types of secrets that J. Edgar Hoover was able to obtain and keep for such a long period of time would be possible in today’s world with the internet.

This is a different day and age. There were huge, catastrophic events that were going to happen if we didn’t have a federal police system like that investigating a lot of activities that were going on in our country. It still goes on to this day obviously.

It’s a topic that people could talk about until they’re blue in the face, whether that type of information being released to the public is a positive or a negative thing. I suppose it depends on the particular event or subject matter, but I don’t think that J Edgar Hoover would be able to do the same job today with all this massive distribution of information in a matter of seconds.

Clint Eastwood is famous for doing only two to three takes for any scene – when Leonardo was asked about that, this is what he said.

(Click on the bar below).

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Judy Sloane

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

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