The Great Gatsby - Leonardo DiCaprio
The Great Gatsby - Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) © 2013 Bazmark Film III Pty
The Great Gatsby - Leonardo DiCaprio
The Great Gatsby – Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) © 2013 Bazmark Film III Pty

In 1996, Leonardo DiCaprio and writer/director Baz Luhrmann made the audacious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet an international box office hit.

They have now reunited their talents to spotlight another iconic story, The Great Gatsby, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, opening on May 10th.

Set in the spring of 1922, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) comes to New York to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. He soon finds himself living next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her philandering husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and is drawn into their unique world of love, illusions and deceits.

At the press day in New York, Leonardo spoke about how his perception of the character of Jay Gatsby has changed over the years.

Were you a fan of the novel?

The Great Gatsby - Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio
Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) © 2013 Bazmark Film III Pty

I’d read the book in junior high school and I was very moved by the story.

When I picked up the novel again, it was when Baz had handed me a copy and said, ‘I’ve got the rights to this.’

It was a very daunting concept: there was a responsibility to make a memorable film that will be forever connected with one of the greatest novels of all time.

Could you identify yourself with Jay Gatsby?

The Great Gatsby - Leonardo DiCaprio
Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) © 2013 Bazmark Film III Pty

I think everyone has some sort of connection to Gatsby as a character.

He’s a character that has created himself according to his own imagination and dreams, and lifted himself from his own bootstraps as a poor youth in the Midwest, and has created this image that is the Great Gatsby.

It’s a truly American story in that regard. Here is this emerging democracy that is America in the 1920s and he wants to emulate a Rockefeller of that time period and, of course, creates his wealth in the underworld. But this is the new land that is America and it was a very exciting time.

I think we can all relate to that dreamer in Gatsby, each one of us gets excited by the prospect of somebody that has that much ambition.

As an actor you reinvent yourself when you play a character. Did that plug in at all as to how you saw Jay Gatsby?

The Great Gatsby - Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan,  Tobey Maguire and Joel Edgerton
Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) © 2013 Bazmark Film III Pty

Certainly. The Gatsby that I remember reading when I was 15-years-old was far different from the Gatsby that I read as an adult.

What I remember from my years in junior high is this hopeless romantic that was solely in love with this one woman and created this great amount of wealth to be able to [respectably] hold her hand. But then to re-read it as an adult, it was incredibly fascinating. It is one of those novels that is talked about nearly a hundred years later for a reason.

At the center of this movie is this man that is incredibly hollow. He’s searching for some sort of meaning in his life. I was struck by the sadness in him for the first time, and I looked at him completely differently.

How challenging was it to bring this to the screen?

The Great Gatsby - Leonardo DiCaprio
Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) © 2013 Bazmark Film III Pty

Everyone who reads it has their own interpretation of who these people are.

That’s what’s very difficult about making a movie about it, because everyone has their own personal attachment to this book and they feel like they know these characters on a very intimate level. Of course, when you’re making a movie you have to be much more specific.

Leonardo and Tobey Maguire, who have been friends for 20  years, were asked how their friendship informed their performances in the movie. Click here to listen to their answers.

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Judy Sloane

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