NEW YORK -- Truth, or Hollywood's retelling of it, really is stranger than fiction could ever hope to be.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, Leo DiCaprio playsJordan Belfort, a dental school dropout who was indicted in 1998 and spent 22 months in prison for stock market fraud. His life, as depicted in Martin Scorsese's flashy, loud, hilarious and eye-popping dramedy is filled with prostitutes, creepy acolytes, penthouses, quaaludes and a tenacious FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who ultimately brings him down.
We sat down with DiCaprio, who just earned a Golden Globe nomination for his no-holds barred portrayal of Belfort, to talk about money, power, and fame.
Adulation is addictive: DiCaprio read Belfort's book The Wolf of Wall Street and was stunned that he not only survived all his years as a scammer, con-artist, womanizer and drug-addict -- but now works as a motivational speaker. He spent months with Belford, picking his brain. And while playing someone as colorful as Belfort was a chance of a lifetime, it came with its own challenges. "You get into the mindset of somebody who's entirely selfish and really has no moral compass and you think you understand what that is, but it wasn't until I started to do the speeches and get in front of the audiences," says DiCaprio, referring to Belfort's oratory skills. Standing in front of cheering crowds, extolling them to earn more cash, "made me feel like some bizarre rock star. When you get on that stage, I understood how Jordan felt this influx of power from having the audience listen to every word I was saying and reacting to it. Ultimately money represents power and he was addicted to the power of being in that position."
Cash can be king: Seeing the rich get richer, and the poor barely making headway also resonated with DiCaprio. He wanted to explore what it was like to have whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, with barely any consequences. "This attitude represents everything that's wrong with the world we live in today. He represents the attitude or the element of what's in all of us. Everything that's wrong with everything, pretty much, with human nature," says DiCaprio with a laugh. He and Scorsese never wanted the movie to have a message, or be what he calls "medicinal," which went against everything Belfort was about. "Obviously this theme had been on my mind, like many Americans. We wanted to show what an addictive ride greed is. It's almost a psychological rollercoaster of what it would be like to indulge yourself in every possible sin you can imagine, without questioning it. The train crashes in the end. We wanted to analyze the intoxication of that kind of world," he says.
Fiction, not fact: All the drug-fueled debauchery you see on screen has nothing in common with DiCaprio's off-screen reality. "None of that is a part of my life. And by the way, the stuff that he did is so beyond comprehension of anything I could imagine," says the actor, who otherwise doesn't discuss his personal life in interviews. But playing someone as self-absorbed as Belfort rubbed off, making DiCaprio at times feel like something akin to a Roman emperor, he says. "When you start to play a character like this, you enter into a mind-frame of being incredibly narcissistic and self-absorbed and you have to shake that off when you leave set every day. You have to let all that out on set. It's an addictive type of way of being. You tell yourself, it's shut-off time."
Access to excess: Given that DiCaprio has been famous since 1997's Titanic he understands the similarities between Wall Street and Sunset Boulevard. "To be honest, power is one thing. Money is another thing. But I think drugs are another one. That's been rampant in Hollywood. There's direct correlation between Hollywood and this world," he says. So DiCaprio keeps his eyes on the prize: longevity. "We are actors and we are reliant on our next job, on the next paycheck, and that's how well you perform. That means you have to have your head screwed on straight. Sometimes the environment you're in isn't conducive to that. I've been in the industry for 25 years so I've seen it all over the place," he says.
Good works, time off: DiCaprio spends most of his time either raising money for Earth-friendly causes through his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, or hanging out with his friends on both coasts. "We raised a record $38 million for the environment. We'll distribute that wealth. We're getting protected land for species like the tiger," he says. Otherwise, after promoting The Great Gatsby back in May, he's been laying low. "Besides that I travel and try to keep sane. I have to say, this not working this year is pretty awesome. After doing something like 24 movies and working since I was 13 pretty much all the time, getting this year off was pretty amazing," he says.