One of the most iconic shots in the past three decades of film is Leonardo DiCaprio, in tux and tails, standing atop a grand staircase in front of a clock in Titanic, turning and extending his hand to Rose, played by Kate Winslet. That shot almost didn’t happen, because according to director James Cameron, DiCaprio nearly talked himself out of the movie. Twice.
In an interview with GQ ahead of the release of Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron continued his hit parade of comments and anecdotes, this time reminiscing about the making of the hit 1997 movie, and casting DiCaprio as Jack in particular. According to Cameron, DiCaprio was a hit in his audition, “charmed everybody, myself included.” That’s not to mention the accountants and various other random staff who made their way into the audition room to get a glimpse of the actor. Then came the chemistry read with Winslet. When Cameron took him to read with his eventual romantic co-star, the first of several on-screen pairings for the duo, DiCaprio balked.
“He said, ‘you mean I’m reading?’” Cameron recalls. “And I said yeah, he said oh, I don’t read. I said, ‘well,’ I shook his hand, I said, ‘thanks for coming by.’ And he said, ‘wait, you mean if I don’t read, I don’t get the part? Just like that?’”
Yep, just like that.
“I said, ‘oh yeah, come on, this is like a giant movie that’s going to take two years of my life, and you’ll be gone doing five other things while I’m doing post-production and all the model work and everything, so I’m not gonna fuck it up by making the wrong decision in casting, so you’re gonna read or you’re not gonna get the part,’” Cameron says. That did the trick—Leo read.
“He comes in and he’s like every ounce of his entire being is just so negative, right up until I said action, and then he turned into Jack and Kate just lit up and they went into this whole thing and played the scene. Dark clouds had opened up and a ray of sun came down and lit up Jack. I’m like, alright, he’s the guy.” Crisis averted, or so Cameron thought.
A few weeks later, DiCaprio got in touch with Cameron and told him he thought Jack should have “some affliction or some problem or some traumatic thing from the past,” which Cameron took as a sign that maybe the young DiCaprio wasn’t actually the right guy for the role.
“I said, ‘You’ve done all these great characters that all have a problem, whether it’s addiction or whatever it is, I said you’ve gotta learn how to hold the center and not have all that stuff. This isn’t Richard III. When you can do what Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck did, they just fucking stood there. They didn’t have a limp or a lisp or whatever, then you’ll be ready for this, but I’m thinking you’re not ready, because what I’m talking about is actually much harder. Those things are easier, those are props, those are crutches, what I’m talking about is much harder and you’re probably not quite ready for it.’
DiCaprio powered through after Cameron’s tough love pep talk.
“The second I said that, it clicked for him that this was a really hard, challenging film for him, and this was my mistake: I hadn’t sufficiently laid out the challenge for him,” Cameron says.
And that, it would appear, is how you win a Best Director Oscar, as Cameron did for Titanic. Scene.