It’s no secret that “Titanic” was a challenging production, after which filmmaker James Cameron and his cast and crew were vindicated by the film’s enormous critical and commercial success. But 25 years later, Cameron still has new stories to tell about the many ways in which “Titanic” could have gone differently, revealing in a new interview that Leonardo DiCaprio initially wanted his character Jack to be imbued with a more tragic backstory or physical affliction.
Cameron, who is readying the release of his first “Avatar” sequel, detailed in a new video interview with GQ how DiCaprio came to him with notes on the screenplay (which Cameron wrote).
“So then I finally get the studio to agree to it, then Leonardo comes back in and he says, ‘You know my dad and I have been talking about the script and we really think it needs this and this and this and this.’ He really wanted to have like, I don’t know, some affliction or some traumatic thing from the past,” Cameron recalled.
“I said, ‘Look, 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 did or Gregory Peck did – they just f—king 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 ready for it.’”
It’s worth remembering that at the time DiCaprio signed on to star in “Titanic,” he was already an Oscar-nominated performer known for playing troubled and/or afflicted young men in films like “The Basketball Diaries,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Romeo + Juliet.” He had yet to play simply the “charismatic leading man,” and Cameron says he had to relay to DiCaprio just how challenging that kind of role was.
“The second I said that, it clicked for him that this was a really challenging, hard film for him, and I realized my mistake,” Cameron said. “I hadn’t laid out the challenge for him sufficiently. You want the actor to love you, you want them to be in your movie, you want them to say yes so you make it all sound attractive. But he didn’t want something that was easy, he wanted something that was hard, and that’s been his instinct since then and it leads to things like ‘The Revenant.’ You don’t get any harder than that.”
It could be argued that DiCaprio hasn’t played a role like Jack since “Titanic,” as he followed his instinct to imbue even charming characters like Frank in “Catch Me If You Can” with some sort of trauma they’re working through.
To put it another way, there’s a reason Baz Luhrmann cast DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby.
Watch Cameron’s full comments in the video above.