Out of his comfort zone

Times Staff Writer

Leonardo DiCAPRIO didn’t realize he was in over his head until it was too late. “I was constantly fueled with adrenaline,” DiCaprio remembers of filming his new espionage thriller, “Body of Lies.” “There were certainly moments of sheer anxiety.”

He wasn’t talking about the physical hardships he endured for director Ridley Scott’s homage to such ‘70s political potboilers as “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor” -- although the 33-year-old Los Feliz native did endure plenty.

DiCaprio’s character, undercover CIA operative Roger Ferris, is treated like a human pinata. He narrowly outruns terrorist bombs, gets torn up by shrapnel in a helicopter missile strike and attacked by a rabid dog while on a covert mission to take down a Middle Eastern terrorist cell. In addition, Ferris must navigate the treacherous shoals of his own government’s convoluted agenda in the region, his progress undercut at every step by a ruthless agency station chief played by Russell Crowe.

Worse, in actuality, DiCaprio was stricken by a respiratory illness after filming a harrowing, emotionally exhausting torture sequence in an ancient Moroccan prison -- the actor’s latest movie war wound; he sustained a minor knee injury while filming 2006’s “Blood Diamond” in Mozambique. “If you’re going to put something like that on film, we all had an understanding that it had to be as realistic and frightening as it could possibly be,” DiCaprio said of the torture scene, while seated across from Scott on a leafy patio atop the director’s West Hollywood production company complex.


Based on Washington Post political columnist David Ignatius’ novel of the same name, “Body of Lies” makes the harshest appraisal of American foreign policy of any big-budget studio film produced during the second Bush administration. The movie posits that our country has lost its direction in the Middle East, portraying frontline operatives as working without strategy or the necessary willingness to cooperate with foreign governments to achieve peace. “We’re waging war in a place we don’t entirely understand,” said DiCaprio, who consulted with a former head of the CIA in preparation for the role.

But what really put the actor outside his comfort zone on “Body of Lies” was the unique professional mojo between Scott and Crowe -- a hard-charging duo that takes a perverse pride in skipping any conventional rehearsal process and who would excise huge chunks of the script just moments before the cameras rolled. For DiCaprio, thrice Oscar-nominated and something of a muse to Martin Scorsese (after starring in the director’s “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed” as well as the upcoming “Shutter Island”), it wasn’t easy being the odd man out. And those kind of challenges to his normal process triggered a fight-or-flight response.

“You hear it a lot in this business, that there’s a ‘shorthand’ between an actor and a director,” DiCaprio explained. “But Russell and Ridley were really accustomed to working together. It took me a few weeks to get used to that work process and into that pacing. It’s just a few words then, ‘Boom! Boom! Boom! Let’s take that whole sequence out. You got it? All right. You agree? Great. We’re gonna shoot it in 10 minutes.’ ”

With characteristic movie-star magnanimity -- a kind of default setting of celeb-speak that puts positive gloss on negative experiences, verging close, at times, to damnation by faint praise -- he added: “I learned a lot from that.”


‘Ridley’s a wild man’

Scott AND Crowe mark their fourth movie pairing with “Body of Lies,” which reaches theaters Friday. It’s a road-tested relationship responsible for the best picture Oscar-winning “Gladiator” (2000) and the 2007 box-office smash “American Gangster” (as well as 2006’s schmaltzy rom-com “A Good Year”). The director justified his methodology by pointing out that a table reading is usually enough to give the actors their “motivation.” And that the shoot-now-ask-questions-later M.O. that he and Crowe have perfected allows interactions to be “a more visceral thing” in the director’s view.

“I know who can do what,” Scott growled. “I don’t need a run-through. I know these guys are going to do their . . . crap. The real rehearsal happens real fast. You walk on the set. ‘What do you think?’ Usually, within 15 minutes, we’re shooting.”

Producer Donald DeLine was on location for much of the movie’s principal photography in Morocco and the Eastern Seaboard late last year. And although he stops short of saying DiCaprio was out of his element, he witnessed the actor’s gradual adjustment to Scott’s ways and means. “Leo’s such a professional, such a prepared actor and takes it all so seriously,” DeLine said. “But he got to know that Ridley’s a wild man. He’s got the ideas in his head; as an actor your job is to figure it out. He’s a force of nature.”

DiCaprio sounds more awed than bitter, more like an earnest drama student than a mollycoddled A-lister, recalling working on “Body of Lies” -- in fact, his second movie with Crowe. The two shot the 1995 western “The Quick and the Dead” together in Arizona when DiCaprio was much younger and a pre-"L.A. Confidential” Crowe was still largely unknown outside Australia. “We only had a few scenes together but we hung out a lot in Tucson,” DiCaprio said.

Confounding his standard operating procedure even further, DiCaprio wrapped production on the ‘50s-set romantic drama “Revolutionary Road” just weeks before shooting commenced on “Body of Lies.” The film adaptation of Richard Yates’ award-winning novel, which arrives in theaters this holiday season, reteams DiCaprio with his “Titanic” costar Kate Winslet as a suburban couple facing the disintegration of their marriage. But “Revolutionary Road’s” Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes’ immersive method of prep couldn’t have resembled Scott’s run-and-gun technique any less.

“I had just come from ‘Revolutionary Road’ which was kind of like a Broadway play,” DiCaprio said. “It was endless talking about the relationship of these two characters. Rehearsals to the utmost. Carefully planning out each shot, each moment, each mood. It was a delicate process, which is important for that kind of movie. A month later, I was slammed into this big-game hunter’s way of shooting.”

Um, big-game hunter’s way of shooting?


“We’re sitting there in the middle of the desert, choppers are flying above us, I’ve got to get my scene, the sun’s going down and a jeep is waiting for us to get in,” DiCaprio said. “I’m like, ‘Ridley! Let’s just stop for one second. How the hell is this supposed to work?’ And he’s like, ‘Let’s not worry about it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll shoot it again.’

“His favorite thing to say is, ‘Let’s shoot it.’ He’s unlike any other filmmaker I’ve worked with in that regard. It seems like chaos but he makes it look so easy.”

Listening in, Scott seemed impatient with all the hullabaloo over his style but also proud. In his inimitably gruff way, the director set out to return the compliment.

“It’s easy when you have people thinking on their feet,” Scott said. “He’s quick on his feet because he’s been working since he was 9!”

“Thirteen,” said DiCaprio, smirking.

“Well, you looked 9,” Scott said with finality. “He’s very experienced. This guy is comfortable at the dance.”