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.