Extended transcript: Leonardo DiCaprio


Cowan: That's gonna be what makes it timeless, you think?

DiCaprio: I think so. I think so many of his films are timeless. I know certainly for my generation, any time one of his films comes on -- a lot of films seem dated, but his central focus on the character, and the exploration of that character, and allowing the actor to have a certain amount of freedom in their portrayal of that, becomes timeless. His movies come and you just are sort of transfixed.

Cowan: So, after spending so much time being Jordan Belfort, was it hard for you to get out of that mindset, that hedonistic sort of--

DiCaprio: To tell you the truth, no. I'm able to shut off pretty quickly. We didn't leave the set and continue to act like this. But there was a certain, you know, recklessness on set. (laughs) We were all -- I mean, I could recount many different scenarios on set where it just became completely out of control, and he had to reel it in.

But that's the environment that he wanted to create. It was almost like organized chaos, you know? There was a lot of improvisation beforehand, and we rewrote that [into] the script according to that improvisation. But then, when we'd get on set, we'd re-improvise that improvisation. And then it became this sort of insanely loose, insanely free improvisational atmosphere.

Cowan: How much time did you actually spend with Jordan Belfort himself?

DiCaprio: Many months. Many months.

Cowan: And what were you looking for? Why did you want to spend so much time with him?

DiCaprio: I wanted to capture his attitude. You know, certainly he helped me with a lot of the Quaalude sequences (laughs) because I had no idea what the stuff was like. And he reenacted a lot of that for me.

Cowan: Did he actually, like --

DiCaprio: Yeah. He crawled around on the floor and --

Cowan: Really?

DiCaprio: Yeah, and showed me what it was like. It's sort of an investigative process. You have him recount a lot of these stories. And then he penetrates a little bit deeper and deeper.

And then, all of a sudden, there's a great detail that may have been not written in the book that sort of defines what the scene's about, or what you want to accomplish in that scenario. So I spent many, many months with him.

It's the Quaaludes talking: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill in "The Wolf of Wall Street." Paramount Pictures

Cowan: Did you like him?

DiCaprio: You know, he's a likable guy. He's actually a likable guy. I don't agree with anything that he did. Don't get me wrong. I think that, you know, I'm the first one to say I think a lot of his actions were deplorable. And he'll admit that.

But when somebody's such an open book and is so candid about what they did and unflinching in their accounts incredibly embarrassing activities, you have to appreciate that as an actor. Because there's not many people that really do that. And certainly, if we wanted to put this era up on screen, we needed somebody with that attitude. And that's what he infused in the book.

Cowan: You made a conscious effort, it seems like, to make sure that you didn't try to make him likable.

DiCaprio: Well, look -- I mean, I think that there's a line that he started to cross. He came in there with the attitude of wanting to have the American dream. And so much of Marty's movies, and this movie is another one like that, is about the pursuit of the American dream, the corruption of that dream, and the sort of hustle that it takes to get there. And I think, slowly but surely, Jordan passed these lines of corruption and illegal activity. And then, pretty soon, he was way in over his head.

And he had sort of a cult following of people that were dependent on him in every single way. He created that dynamic -- it was almost like this corrupted little family that he created on Long Island, this little microcosm of a pseudo Wall Street that wasn't Wall Street. They were trying to emulate Gordon Gekko. They were trying to be the fat cats on Wall Street. But they weren't. They were kind of imposters.

Cowan: (laughs) The upstarts.

DiCaprio: Yeah. And so, they found a loophole and they essentially started selling these fraudulent penny stocks to very rich people and made an incredible amount of money. And then, I think all those people became dependent on him. And it almost became a little bit of a cult. And he continued to uphold that attitude and push further and further and further. And, of course, that compounded with the drug use, made it all the more insane.

Cowan: For all the preparation you did, you said that it wasn't really until you started doing those speeches in front of the whole crowd of people that you sort of got the sense of that rock-star quality that he had.

DiCaprio: Yeah. Yeah. Well, those speeches really were -- 'cause they're insane speeches. I mean, (laughs) they're almost like out of "Gladiator" or "Braveheart." They're, like, a war cry to your troops, except they're completely twisted and encouraging (laughs) his soldiers to go out there and screw over as many people as possible. So they were insane.

And I was thinking about them for such a long period of time. You know, seven years was one of the real attractions to the screenplay in the first place. Because it's all about a corrupted American dream: making more money makes you a better person. You know, "I've been a rich man, I've been a poor man, and I choose rich every single time, you know? At least when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back [of a limo …" I'm reenacting the whole (laughs) scene. But it's about wealth identifying who you are.

And, so I got up there and I had a very singular sort of plan mapped out for how I was going to do those speeches. And then, that audience was there. And you feed off of them. And even though I knew they were clapping, we had to do this for, you know, a week.

Cowan: Yeah.

DiCaprio: Even though I knew they were clapping for me and they were sort of paid to clap for me, I felt kind of what Jordan must have felt like. Like I was Bono or some sort of crazy rock star and they were cheering for me. And then, it became these wild monologues infused with greed.

Leonardo DiCaprio as stock broker Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street." Paramount Pictures

Cowan: Is there some similarity between Jordan Belfort and Gatsby, in the sense that both of the tales were about hedonism, except at different times? It's sort of the same flawed tale, I guess.

DiCaprio: Yeah. Yeah. Well, certainly, "Gatsby" is a much more existential, well-thought-out story.

Cowan: Yeah.