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Leonardo DiCaprio Brings The Complex 'J. Edgar' To Life On Film

J. Leo: DiCaprio as Hoover in J. Edgar. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In Clint Eastwood's new film J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial longtime FBI director, from youth through old age. And when you play a man for that long, you might expect to sympathize with him somewhat. But DiCaprio tells Guy Raz on today's All Things Considered that he doesn't have sympathy or empathy for Hoover.

That doesn't mean he feels entirely negative about the man. "I do admire his great dedication to our country," DiCaprio says, "and I do admire the genius that he had in creating a fingerprint system in our country, and using modern forensics, and restructuring this Bureau in a way that was incredibly necessary in our country at that time." He goes on to say that any sympathy viewers of the film might have would be based on "his motivations, not necessarily the results."

Of course, his methods weren't the only controversy that swirled around Hoover. As Raz notes, the screenplay of J. Edgar suggests that Hoover was gay, and was involved in a long romantic relationship with Clyde Tolson, the Associate Director who worked with him at the FBI, played in the film by Armie Hammer of The Social Network. DiCaprio says "two different camps" exist when it comes to discussions of Hoover's private life, and that the FBI is absolutely right when it maintains still that there is no real evidence of an intimate relationship between the two. The film, he says, doesn't go behind closed doors to show what happened in private, but focuses on the simple fact of a relationship in which the men lived and worked together, vacationed together, and are even buried together.

Putting aside the matter of Hoover's private relationships, there was also the public man to portray, and that meant a serious physical transformation. While DiCaprio wanted to take some time off during filming to go gain a load of weight naturally, he wasn't able to, so he used a fat suit and a makeup job that required the application of 100 different pieces to his face. Two skull caps and six hours later, he became the film's Hoover. While the process may have been lengthy, it's the simple fact of covering yourself that's bothersome: "Most of all," DiCaprio says, "the big problem with the makeup is that it does become incredibly claustrophobic after a while."

Hoover isn't the only ambiguous character Leonardo DiCaprio has played in recent years. In fact, as Raz points out, he hasn't been specializing in simple romantic heroes, despite the fact that he probably could. "I'm getting to do the roles that I want to do," DiCaprio explains. "I've never really questioned why I gravitate toward certain characters — I suppose it's the belief that I can be of service to those characters."

It's not hard to understand that he's drawn to characters with unlikable characteristics when you hear him speak of his admiration for Robert DeNiro, with whom he worked very early in his career in the film This Boy's Life. DiCaprio says Taxi Driver remains, in his estimation, "the greatest independent film of all time," and he still cringes at the recollection of DeNiro's Travis Bickle taking Cybill Shepherd's Betsy to a pornographic movie on a first date, calling it the first time he felt "truly embarrassed for a character." But of course, as he points out, Bickle earns the audience's understanding before ultimately turning violent in a way that yanks out the foundations of their sympathy.

The complexity of the character of J. Edgar Hoover just might raise complex questions as well — whether or not audiences are able to ultimately muster sympathy or empathy for perhaps the most famous figure in 20th century law enforcement.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz. Who was J. Edgar Hoover? Well, here's what everyone agrees on. He was the first director of the FBI. He served through eight presidential administrations and three wars.

Now, a new film called "J. Edgar," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Clint Eastwood, offers a controversial take on this fiercely private man. The movie's portrayal is clear - J. Edgar Hoover was a closeted homosexual and his longtime assistant, Clyde Tolson, was also his gay lover.

Hoover bested all his enemies in part because he was ruthless and in part because he had information - information that made him untouchable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "J. EDGAR")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (as J. Edgar Hoover) We spent our lives working for justice and the thanks you get is a political attack. You expect crimes to go unsolved? Why is he fighting me? I want you start a file on Senator McKell immediately. I want four agents on him at all times. I want you to look in his trash and I want you to photograph him at every dinner. Don't get in the car. You can walk back.

RAZ: J. Edgar Hoover is the latest in a series of complicated roles that Leonardo DiCaprio has taken on in recent years. He's shunned the romantic or heroic leads in favor of morally ambiguous and often complex characters.

In the case of Hoover, the actor came here to Washington, D.C. to find out all he could about the man - how he worked, how he walked, how he talked, the room where he died. But still, DiCaprio says he feels neither sympathy nor empathy for J. Edgar Hoover.

DICAPRIO: But I do admire his great dedication to our country and I do admire the genius that he had in creating a fingerprint system in our country and using modern forensics and restructuring this bureau in a way that was incredibly necessary in our country at that time. It was a much different time than we know of today. I think that, if there was sympathy or empathy to have, that the audience may have with him, it's in the understanding of his motivations, not necessarily the results.

RAZ: The film focuses quite a bit on the relationship between Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson. Some say his lover. And the script assumes that Hoover was a repressed homosexual. What do you make of that?

DICAPRIO: Well, you speak to two different camps. If you go to the FBI, they're very right in stating there is no evidence of any kind showing that these two men had an intimate relationship on any level. And that could very well be the case. J. Edgar Hoover was no priest, but the FBI was his church and what was paramount to him was making sure that he at the front and center of the FBI and he was looked at as a great leader. And anything that would tarnish that image would not be tolerated.

So I think what we try to portray here is a very realistic - you know, it's dramatized, of course - but a very realistic portrayal of two men that spent their entirety of their lives together. They went on vacation together, that lived together, that ate lunch and dinner together, that went to work together. They had a partnership.

RAZ: That are buried next to each other.

DICAPRIO: Yeah. They're buried next to each other. J. Edgar Hoover left him everything he had. Whatever happened behind closed doors, very tactfully in this film, I don't think we show.

RAZ: Anyone who sees this film, Leonardo, is going to be amazed at your physical transformation because, for much of the film, you are an old man. Walk us through how they turned you into J. Edgar Hoover in his late 60s.

DICAPRIO: Well, I originally requested for me to be able to take a little sabbatical and go off to - what did De Niro do? He went off to Italy...

RAZ: To gorge yourself.

DICAPRIO: ...and gorged himself with pastas and steaks, but that would have been fantastic. Unfortunately, they said, well, the film isn't going to be green-lit if we take a huge break. It's either got to be done this way or no way at all. So I donned a fat suit with a lot of weight. You know, there are over 100 different pieces to put on my face every day.

RAZ: Wow.

DICAPRIO: Two skull caps and it was a six hour process. We did multiple makeup sessions before the film even started and, thankfully, Clint set up a schedule where we got to have even footing for our characters and do the first month and, you know, as the younger characters in the last couple weeks we got to almost do a separate film, which was all the older section of the movie. So it was like shifting gears and slowing everything down and slowing your heart rate down at times. But more so than anything, trying to capture what it was like to have 50 years of political experience under your belt.

But most of all, the big problem with the makeup is it does become incredibly claustrophobic after a while. You do have to fight the urge to want to rip the makeup off every day because – yeah, I mean, it gives you intense claustrophobia. That's all I have to say.

RAZ: I want to ask you about the arc of your career because the roles that you've been doing in recent years have been complicated roles, in some cases, dark characters. You haven't played the sort of the classic romantic lead. Talk to me about the kinds of roles you're attracted to right now.

DICAPRIO: I don't know. I look at it this way. I'm in a very fortunate position in my life right now and I have been working, you know, for over 20 years and I'm getting to do the roles that I want to do. And I've never really questioned why I gravitate towards certain characters. I suppose it's the belief that I can be of service to those characters and that there's a lot of different complications to them on an emotional level and that's always intriguing to me.

RAZ: Is there a film that influenced you more than any other?

DICAPRIO: I suppose seeing "East of Eden" at a very young age really knocked the wind out of me. I remember watching. I just like the whole story of, you know, how James Dean, at that time in the sense that Brando was the new method guy in town and he - everyone was trying to be like him. And Kazan chose James Dean for the role in "East of Eden" and I suppose there was something about that performance, the incredible vulnerability that Dean had at that age and how powerful some of those sequences were with his father that just blew me away.

And that was the one that I remember seeing. That and, of course, "Taxi Driver." That, to me, is still the greatest independent film of all time and I never - it was the first time I remember feeling truly embarrassed for a character when he took her out to the porno theater on his first date. I remember, you know, having to hide from the screen that I was so embarrassed for Travis Bickle and how he tricked you, you know, on a psychological level. I was with him completely, understood his motives and, all of a sudden, he's making a homemade, you know, assassination device for a senator and you go, wait a minute, this character has betrayed me.

RAZ: Did you ever talk to De Niro about his role? Did you ever say any of that to him?

DICAPRIO: I suppose I did. At that age, I had all kinds of questions for him when we were doing "This Boy's Life," but he was incredible to watch at 16, you know, to have come from television and commercials and watch the dedication of Robert De Niro on set and see how he physically transformed himself, how he created his characters and just the respect level that he had on set from everybody and how he played with his character and the improvising that he did with me just forever shaped my idea of what acting is and he's still, to this day, my favorite.

RAZ: That's Leonardo DiCaprio. He stars in the new film, "J. Edgar." It's about the life of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Leonardo DiCaprio, thank you so much.

DICAPRIO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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