Relaxing at the terrace bar on the patio of a Beverly Hills Hotel, Leonardo DiCaprio is his usual cheery, good-looking self.
This is partly because he no longer has to spend four hours every morning being made up to resemble the portly FBI director J Edgar Hoover whom he portrays in his latest movie, J. Edgar.
He wore a full bald cap with punched-in hair, false teeth, contact lenses, a “fat suit” and silicone prosthetics glued onto his forehead, cheeks, mouth, neck and hands.
“It was very claustrophobic and I wanted to put on extra weight so I didn’t have to wear a big suit,” says the 37-year-old. “I tried my best, but there weren’t enough cupcakes around to do it!”
One of Hollywood’s biggest superstars, since Titanic, DiCaprio has made a career out of risky choices, playing mainly unsympathetic characters in serious movies geared towards adult audiences. None of his recent films has been a blockbuster, and not all of them have even been successful.
As J. Edgar director Clint Eastwood notes, “Leonardo could make a lot of money making mechanical genre pictures, but he wants to be challenged.”
His latest challenge is probably the biggest he has yet undertaken – portraying the founder of the FBI from his 20s until his death in 1972 at the age of 77, in a remarkable performance which has earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Hoover is the latest in a line of mostly tortured, unlikable characters DiCaprio has portrayed. These have included Howard Hughes in The Aviator, a Zimbabwean diamond smuggler in Blood Diamond, an unfaithful husband in Revolutionary Road, a psychotic detective in Shutter Island and a dream extractor in Inception.
DiCaprio is currently filming The Great Gatsby for director Baz Luhrmann and is preparing to portray Frank Sinatra in what would be his fourth collaboration with Martin Scorsese.
“I don’t do a film because I feel it’s time to do a comedy or a science-fiction film or another genre,” Leo says. “I do it because I’m motivated, it interests me and I feel like I could be of service to the character. And I like complicated characters.
“Just like the Great Gatsby, J. Edgar led to a million questions I wanted answered and it got me excited to research him.”
Apart from reading everything he could find about Hoover, his research included watching news film, visiting one of his old homes, touring the Justice Department in Washington and talking to one of the few people still alive who worked closely with him.
J. Edgar treads carefully around some of the more salacious rumours about Hoover’s personal life and portrays him as a crusader who modernised crime fighting with fingerprints and scientific analysis, while at the same time snooping into the private lives of suspected Communists and some of America’s most powerful figures.
DiCaprio also dismisses the long-standing stories about Hoover being a cross-dressing homosexual who flaunted his transvestitism.
“People still think J Edgar Hoover dressed up as a woman,” he says. “But that’s completely ridiculous. There’s no way in a million years he would have shown up at a party dressed in a frock with lipstick on, gallivanting around as some people think.
“That story came from a woman whose husband had been thrown in the slammer by the FBI and she wanted to get back at Hoover. He knew about those rumours and they haunted him through his entire career.”
Like Hoover, DiCaprio has managed to retain a mystique about his personal life, politely declining to talk about his off-screen activities. When asked by male interviewers about his penchant for dating beautiful models he replies with the stock answer, “Wouldn’t you if you could?”
And he’s rightly proud of his acting achievements. “I’d regret it,” he muses, “if I looked back and said, ‘You were a little lazy. You didn’t seize the gifts that were being offered to you and you didn’t take advantage of how incredibly lucky you were’. But I’m not doing that.”