Video: Leo DiCaprio discusses Howard Hughes role

By 'Today' anchor
NBC News
updated 12/3/2004 7:52:48 PM ET 2004-12-04T00:52:48

He's got the name, and the face, of an old-fashioned matinee idol. And ever since "Titanic," he's enjoyed all the perks — and the paychecks — of one, too. But there's one thing some wonder if Dicaprio will ever have: another box office blockbuster like "Titanic." Could leaving the seas for the skies be the answer? Dicaprio's latest role is a challenging one. He's playing the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in "The Aviator." Will the film carry his career to even loftier heights? The world is about to find out.

He was a young man, with big dreams who became famous around the world, was hounded by the press, and redefined the meaning of blockbuster, all while romancing some of the world's most beautiful women.

Not Howard Hughes. Leonardo DiCaprio.

It just so happens he is portraying the late Howard Hughes in the new Martin Scorsese film, "The Aviator."  And on at least one level, Leo can relate.

Katie Couric: “You've said, ‘He was one of the most iconic men the country has ever seen, but he had a strong need for privacy. I can empathize with that.’”

Leonardo DiCaprio: “Uh-huh.”

Couric: “Are you going to tell us you saw some of yourself in an eccentric billionaire playboy who bedded famous women?”

DiCaprio: “You know I think he took things to extremes that I would never, ever imagine or dream of.”

Couric: “But could you relate to him on some level?”

DiCaprio: “I think I can. I think it's a little different for me being an actor and because I take it so seriously because I just don't want people to know too much about who I am, because I wanna be convincing in the roles that I play. But, you know, he had no reason to go out there and try to be a public figure. He was trying to further the cause of aviation constantly. And he did.”

In keeping with the theme of flying -- and enjoying the notion of going offshore with the one time king of the world -- we brought Leo to the U.S.S. Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York Harbor. 

Couric: “An appropriate setting to talk about The Aviator don't you think?”

DiCaprio: “Absolutely. Been here many times. Wonderful planes on board here. I don't know the names of any of them, but—“

Couric: “That's okay. I'm not going to quiz you.”

DiCaprio: “Please don't.”

But make no mistake, when it comes to social studies, 30-year-old Leo knows his stuff.

Couric: “In a recent profile of you in Vanity Fair, it talks about how fascinated you are with history, and science, and how you went to a recent exhibition of human body parts, and that you really enjoy talking about these things. And the writer wrote, ‘In fact, the longer he talks, the more DiCaprio emerges as a deeply sensitive and wildly imaginative nerd-boy, whose massive fame and ability to have sex as often as he wants seem like bonuses that he never sought, but that just happened.’ Are you a wildly imaginative nerd-boy?”

DiCaprio: “I would say to some degree, yes, I am, Katie. Well I think that, you know being an artist, being an actor—“

Couric: “Oh I can't believe you said being an artist.”

DiCaprio: “No, but it it's true. Being an actor, you have to know your stuff. You have to, I mean, as far as movies are concerned. I know a lot about movies, too. You have to know the history of what you do, and you have to have other interests in life as well, otherwise, life is boring.”

In fact, it was his obsession with American history that led Leo to "The Aviator." Nine years ago, he read a biography about the legendary Howard Hughes that fascinated him. But what he found compelling wasn't so much the myth -- it was the man.”

Couric: “Most people today if they know anything about him remember him as the eccentric billionaire with fingernails out to here curling around.”

DiCaprio: “That's exactly it. That's exactly what I thought of him. And the only thing that I knew of him-- of course he's was America's first legitimate billionaire. And he was stuck in a hotel room urinating into bottles and eating candy bars and watching Ice Station Zebra over and over and over again.  So in reading his biography I learned about this younger man. This dynamic figure of the 20th century that, you know, led this unbelievable life that I knew nothing about.”

And that's the Howard Hughes depicted in "The Aviator." Already a millionaire at 18, when he inherited his father's oil drill bits company, Hughes left Houston for Hollywood in 1923, where he pursued dual obsessions, making big-budget motion pictures and revolutionizing air travel.

DiCaprio: “He was a pioneer in the world of aviation. He risked his life on numerous different occasions, crashed four different times in test flying his own plane, slept with all of the most gorgeous women of that era. He was his own boss and made his own decisions.”

To get "The Aviator" off the ground, Leo recruited his "Gangs of New York" director, Martin Scorsese, who wasn't necessarily eager to get on board. 

Martin Scorcese: “I got the script. it was sent to me by Leo and our manager, Rick. And they said, ‘We're not gonna tell you what it is. Just read it.’ And I turned the page. It says, ‘The Aviator.’  I said, Well, I mean I have a fascination with flying, but mainly because I'm not too comfortable flying.”

Couric: “You have a major fear of flying?”

Scorcese: “Major phobia of flying. Yes.”

But Scorsese was won over by the script. After all, what director wouldn't jump at the chance to have names like this on his call sheet: No Doubt's Gwen Stefani as screen siren Jean Harlow, People Magazine's sexiest man, Jude Law in a cameo as Erroll Flynnand Academy Award nominee Cate Blanchett co-starring as the object of Hughes' affection, Katherine Hepburn.

Cate Blanchett: “When you're asked to play someone as iconic as Hepburn, the initial feeling is absolute panic. But I was having the conversation with Martin Scorcese that simply because one's frightened about something is absolutely no reason not to do it. It's the reason to do it.”

But Howard Hughes' true love was aviation - and the film documents his many innovations. He designed a spy plane for the Pentagon, a flying boat for U.S. troops dubbed the “Spruce Goose,” and ‘The Constellation,” in which he ferried his Hollywood pals. He even elevated women's undergarments, when he designed a special push-up bra for one of his leading ladies, Jane Russell.

Couric: “And she didn't even sleep with him, supposedly.”

DiCaprio: “Didn't even sleep with him.”

But any psychological profile of Howard Hughes cannot ignore that he was tragically flawed. And "The Aviator" chronicles how a man once driven by voracious optimism became crippled by obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Couric: ”Is it true that making this movie reawakened a mild form of OCD that you actually had as a child?”

DiCaprio: “Yeah. Yeah.”

Couric: “Tell me about that.”

DiCaprio: “I had the thing where I would walk to school and have to walk, you know, go back a block because I didn't step on a crack. And I felt like something was going to go wrong if I didn't do that. And I wanted to sort of reawaken that throughout the course of the film. So sometimes, you know, it would take me a while to get to set. And I would have to be doing things in my trailer. And it literally drove me nuts a lot of the time. And it lasted for a couple months after filming and still is-- there's trails of it here and there.”

Couric: “So what have been doing? You know I'm waiting for you to touch your water bottle or something?”

DiCaprio: “Well, if I get real tired and I got through airports, I have to step on every gum stain that I see.”

Couric: “Really?

DiCaprio: “And sometimes I have to walk up to the airports looking like this [up].”

And speaking of revelations, DiCaprio fans will be happy to hear he bares a lot more than his soul for this film. 

Couric: “Lots of your bare bum in this movie, Mister.”

DiCaprio:Mm-hm. You know, I tried to cover my privates as much as possible. But for a week, you're basically walking around naked in front of an entire crew. It's – you’ve got to get to know the crew pretty well and feel very comfortable with them.”

Couric:”And they, you.”

DiCaprio: “Yes, yes. They got to know me very intimately. You just have to try to not focus on that, focus on what you're doing, and just say okay. Have to do it, part of the job. You know.”

Couric:”You did it for your craft?”

DiCaprio: “Yes, for my craft, for the art.”

Couric: “You used artist, and craft in one interview.”

DiCaprio: “I know.”

Couric: “I'm gonna have to –“

DiCaprio: “Gut me right here.”

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