EXCLUSIVE: Perhaps no film on his list of narrative star vehicles has subject matter as near and dear to Leonardo DiCaprio as Don’t Look Up, the star-studded Adam McKay-directed Netflix satire that substitutes a metaphorical comet in place of the toll that the climate crisis is taking on the planet.
Since his Oscar-winning turn in The Revenant, DiCaprio has done in-person Deadline interviews for all his awards-season films. Because of Omicron, this one was done by phone. Here, DiCaprio assessed everything from awards season to moviegoing in the age of Covid, and yes, the real danger of global warming for those who missed the symbolism.
More from Deadline
DEADLINE: Compare this awards season to ones you’ve been part of for most of your films.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Well, it’s been a lot more efficient and a lot easier in a lot of ways. The traveling around for publicity completely stopped. We did a little bit…we did a premiere in New York and that got shut down because Omicron was rising. But we all got to get together and have one sort of celebration, and we got to watch it in an audience, which was a great experience. I got to tell you, being able to watch these movies in the theater, there’s nothing like it. Really nothing like it.
DEADLINE: When might this go back to normal, or will there be a new normal with theatrical and streaming?
DICAPRIO: Without making a giant stance on all this, there’s obviously pros and cons to both. The pros being that I do feel like a lot of interesting ideas from the documentary perspective, from the limited series perspective, and from the independent film perspective, are getting financed. The flip side, how many people are actually going to the theater to not see major franchise films? That is very questionable for the future and I’m a huge advocate for having that communal audience experience. It is an art form at the end of the day, and to be able to walk, have that energy, and feel like you do when you’re going into a dark theater and possibly having a completely unique experience and then have that focus on a story for two-plus hours, is irreplaceable.
So, I have mixed feelings, but it certainly seems to be trending in the direction of, major studio tentpole films being able to last theatrically and like I said, the flipside is, there’s a lot more interesting things getting financed, that probably 10 or 15 years ago wouldn’t get financed.
DEADLINE: You work your way up to become one of the biggest box office stars in the world, and here you made Don’t Look Up for Netflix, and reunited with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in Killers of the Flower Moon, both for streamers. More evidence the world is upside down right now?
DICAPRIO: Well, Killers may still have a theatrical release, we’re still hoping for that. As much as I can, I want to do films that I and others can go to a theater and watch. I want to still achieve a component of that anytime I can. With certain films, that is much more difficult right now.
DEADLINE: Any feeling on how this will shake out?
DICAPRIO: There’s going to be a combination, I think. Hopefully, people will still want to go see films that they feel are engaging and interesting. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. I don’t think the theatrical experience is ever going to go away. It’s just going to be different.
DEADLINE: I interviewed Adam before Don’t Look Up came out, and while he said that he’d been talking to you for a while, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry all committed before you did. Now, the way it usually goes is, okay, if you’ve got Leonardo, you got a movie and you cast around him. What were you waiting for while this process was going on?
DICAPRIO: To tell you the truth, there were some other films that were conflicting with it. But I’d always wanted to do a film about this subject matter. It is incredibly hard to tackle the subject matter over the climate crises in a two-, three-hour format. It’s something like a slow, deadly roll, as far as ramifications of climate to the environment. I really just felt like Adam cracked the code with this idea of it becoming a comet, and have society and the media and people make it a partisan issue.
And it was late because I wanted to make sure that we developed the character properly and that we worked on the story, which he was so completely open to. We did a lot of work on Dr. Mindy and the structure of the story. And then, at some point, you say to yourself, my God, this is such an insane time for the worldwide population to be communally experiencing the same thing, which is having to stay home because of microscopic germs, infecting the world population. We’re all feeling the same thing at the same time, and it just dawned on me, this is just so timely and such a lightning rod of an issue.
I was a huge Adam McKay fan and of course, working with that cast was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But really at the end of the day, doing a movie about this subject matter at this time, there are very few movies historically like that. I was thinking of The Great Dictator. You know The Great Dictator?
DEADLINE: The 1940 film Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in that was a thinly veiled metaphor of the rise of Hitler and Nazism before WWII…
DICAPRIO: Yes. Then there are Network and Dr. Strangelove. There’s very few movies that really communicate a shared worldwide anxiety and experience like this, so I jumped on board in the height of Covid to do this movie and it was an incredible experience. Especially while we were watching so many things play out in real time. I just remember us being at that Bubba Gump-like Bojo Mambo’s Shrimp thing. Where I explained the science of what’s going to happen, what the president’s going to do, and then Jen’s character stands up and starts this riot. When we were literally hearing that that they’d stormed the Capitol! It was insane to have real life sort of play out. And as much as our script was this dark satire, to feel real-time ramifications of what was going on with Covid while we were doing this movie.
DEADLINE: You started a foundation a long time ago devoted to global warming and ecological issues. You’ve produced, narrated a lot of documentaries on global warming. When you were working on story with Adam, how much were you cognizant that hitting your passion issue too much on the head might polarize a partisan audience that thinks you’re making fun of them? There seem similarities to the Trump administration.
DICAPRIO: I give all credit to Adam for that. I tend to urge…I mean, I’m a big sort of biotech kind of guy, so I like to look at real life and history and what’s really happening. So, there were even points sort of like, okay, we’re talking about worldwide catastrophic events in the White House scene. Should we mention climate change? And I remember Adam being a real stickler for not wanting to hit people over the head with that issue. To stick to the parable with the comet and, with the political stuff, try to show both sides of how science has become politicized. For me, having done a lot of these documentaries, I had so many experiences with the communal frustration of the scientific community and got to meet so many amazing climate scientists that were so marginalized in the media. Who didn’t know how to navigate situations in which they are trying to articulate their expertise about the climate crisis, and then being put in a situation where they are, then, arguing the politics of it all.
And that’s what the fossil fuel industry has done so well. They’ve made what is 99 percent of the scientific community basically have to argue both sides of what is essentially fact. That man is contributing to carbon emission that is escalating the temperatures of our planet. For us to be able to give them a voice in a dramatic dark satire like this, and emulate that frustration, it was what I got most excited about.
DEADLINE: Your character has quite an arc, going from a married nerdy scientist studying gases on dead planets to become the Dr. Fauci-like face of the comet crisis, embraced as a sex symbol on social media and cavorting with the co-host [Cate Blanchett] of the popular morning show The Rip depicted, all while this six-month ticking clock winds down to what he knows will be a planet-killing collision with Earth. What about Dr. Randall Mindy was most palatable and challenging for you to play?
DICAPRIO: That was all tricky to navigate. As opposed to Jen’s character [PhD candidate and comet discoverer Kate Dibiasky], which is much more the Greta Thunberg, outspoken, sort of radical, here he is, put into this position where he is now being used as the government expert and the figurehead of the science in connection with the White House. And he loses his way. In a lot of ways, he becomes subject to, social media and the attention that he’s getting. And he loses his own identity in all of this, trying to play within the system and trying to work with the powers that be. And then, at some point, he realizes that they’re completely disconnected and he gets to a place of peace with the fact that, it’s out of his hands. Adam didn’t make both of these characters similar in that way and I just love that juxtaposition that he gave with both of them.
DEADLINE: Adam said that scene where you, Jennifer Lawrence and Rob Morgan are in the oval office with Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill, the first cut ran 16 minutes, full of improvisation. How comfortable are you improvising with the likes of Jonah Hill?
DICAPRIO: Well, Jonan and I did Wolf of Wall Street together, so I was heavily prepared…maybe not prepared, but heavily familiar with the genius of Jonah’s improvisational skills. Our characters had to go much more by the book, whereas Meryl’s character and Jonah’s character could literally, you know, take the scene in any direction that they wanted to. Our job was always to keep it back on track, relaying the science, relaying the urgency of the situation. I loved those experiences. Often, we’d spend a whole day just running one joke to see where it landed. That’s the brilliance of Jonah’s comedic talent, and Meryl was right there to match him, which was so amazing to watch. What was so interesting from an actor’s perspective was watching Meryl come in and Mark Rylance come in, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, all come in with very little prep time and rehearsal. They’re literally thrown into a set where actors have established their characters and where everyone around them has these facemasks on, and hazmat suits, and we all just had to roll with it.
But it gave an amazing spontaneity to each one of the scenes and it was a lot of fun. But rather than what Wolf was, which was a lot of improvisation between Jonah and myself, this for me was different. Other than the couple moments that Randall had on his own in those White House sequences, Jen and I had a pretty clear path of what we needed to do, which was stick to the urgency of the matter and get it back on track.
DEADLINE: Were you channeling the spirit of Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” speech from Network in your character’s final appearance on the talk show that had turned him into a killer comet appeaser?
DICAPRIO: Yeah. I suppose there are certain sequences that always are lightning-rod scenes, and some that you have to just sort of organically roll with as an actor. Every time I do a movie, there are scenes that I become obsessive about, and that was one of them. And so, Amy Mainzer, who was our astronomer advisor and who was so incredible to me, helped me channel the frustration of what scientists feel, in a really profound way. We must have had 30, 40 conversations about it. She’s an astronomer but she’s also a climate advocate. Most astronomers are; they study outer space, but they’re incredibly concerned with what we’re doing to the atmosphere here.
She and I and Adam all worked together trying to really create a lightning-rod moment that what I felt was the turning point, certainly for my character and in a lot of ways the movie. Where the overwhelming frustration one must have with trying to get a message across and everything becoming a situation in which there are alternate facts. Climate scientists must feel this all the time. So yeah, of course, the Network moment was a huge inspiration for that. And something really took over that day and I tried to feel the passion that so many of these scientists feel about what we’re doing to planet Earth. That was it, really. We must have rewritten that, God, 40 times or something like that.
DICAPRIO: Well, it was a lot of like, first, trying to establish what the science was, trying to talk about how the administration had messed things up. For Adam, it was a combination of the difference between relaying the science and bringing humanity to it. In a lot of ways, it was my character’s mental breakdown and the realization that he’d taken the wrong path. It was a lot of working with Adam to try to bring the humanity to it. I remember that day was, you know, he shot it. There were five or six television cameras and we did four different setups on all of it to get the tone right. It was a pretty emotionally exhausting day, but I’m so happy we worked on it that much.
DEADLINE: You were cool, calm and collected as you devoted your Oscar win speech for The Revenant to the climate crisis. At the risk of exhausting you further, take a moment to summon your inner Howard Beale and tell me where we are since then, and what is the biggest frustration on combating climate change? And if some of the masses who watch the film on Netflix wanted to do something, what should it be?
DICAPRIO: I’ve had two great passions in my life. That has been acting, and the protection of the natural world and getting the message out about the climate crisis. I’ve had a foundation for 20 years. I got to go to Glasgow. I got to see world leaders make some pretty substantial commitments, but much like this movie, there is a ticking clock. I think there’s a worldwide sense of anxiety about the fact that the powers that be, the private sector, governments, are not making the transition fast enough. We literally have a nine-year window.
So, this movie is certainly not that far off as far as the urgency of the matter. I think that a lot of this has been shrouded and complicated by fake scientists who have been hired by oil companies all the way back when Exxon found out about and tried to bury and distract from the evidence about the impacts of too much carbon in our atmosphere.
And there was also, you know, a period of time where it was put on individuals and consumers to recycle and buy hybrid cars and do changes in their own life, which is incredibly important. But when you really start to break this issue down, there are 100 companies which are producing 70 percent of the world’s emissions. There are massive industries that are polluting our atmosphere, and the private sector needs to step the hell up. Our governments, the governments of the world, need to work together as one communal species and we need to evolve as a species to tackle this issue.
And the main thing that it boils down to is, if you’re an individual, you, A, have to get involved. You have to vote for people that care about this issue and take science seriously. And we should not have any elected leaders, on a state level, on a city level, or a national level that don’t listen to science, especially in this country. By population, we are per capita the largest polluters in the world, and even scientists have been saying this for decades now. We need to set the example for the rest of the world to follow. We’re an incredibly rich nation and we need to make this transition. We’re all crossing our fingers that Biden can make one of the more substantial plans to at least implement renewables. So, vote. Vote for people that are sane.
DEADLINE: Last one. You say nine years. What happens if it is the same or worse by then?
DICAPRIO: I always say this when I’ve spoken to scientists, but the warming leads to more warming. If we reach this 1.5-degree threshold, where we hit that certain point in nature, there’s all kinds of lightning-rod points with methane and the tundra and warming of our oceans, the acidification of our oceans. Most of the carbon that we’ve emitted to the atmosphere, now has been absorbed by the oceans. We’re not even feeling the real impact of climate change yet and our oceans are now warming at record levels. Each year is getting hotter than the next, and that doesn’t stop. We’re not going to see that stop. So, to mitigate the climate crises, I mean, it is, don’t look up.
We’re really at that point of having to take major action as if it was World War II. I hear a lot of people say, technology is going to take care of this. Well, we’re running out time. We have answers with renewables and ways to make this transition, but the private sector and the governments of the world need to work together. And we, the people, need to make this…rather than it being number six or seven or eight on the list of priorities when it comes to elections, it’s got to be in the top two. When I say warming leads to more warming, it essentially means this. It ain’t going to get any better. It can only get worse.
DEADLINE: So the nine years you cite is the time before the damage is irreparable?
DICAPRIO: When we reach a threshold where the thawing of the ice and the tundra and Greenland and the arctic starts to release even more carbon…we’re already seeing it happen. That’s why this movie is so important. It is really the question of what the media prioritizes. I think that’s why this movie has been controversial and a lightning-rod show. Some people knew how to react to it, some didn’t, but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m very proud that it’s creating a conversation. The movie is being watched all over the world, and there is a feeling of anxiety amongst the world community about this issue. Who knows if a film can ever change anything ultimately, but I’m certainly proud to be a part of a piece of art like this. Like Jen Lawrence says in the movie, at least we tried.
Best of Deadline