Perhaps the boldest move in DiCaprio’s 20-year career is playing antebellum plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. DiCaprio was drawn to him from the moment he read Tarantino’s script. He calls Calvin “one of, if not the most, despicable, indulgent, radical characters I’ve ever read in my life.” Naturally, DiCaprio signed on right away, and he promptly presented Tarantino with a gift: an antiquarian book on phrenology, the racist pseudo-science used to rationalize slavery. From there, DiCaprio and Tarantino made some striking modifications. “Writer-directors tend to be very precious about their material and their words,” he says, “but Quentin’s whole process is getting input from the actors and adding levels to their characters.” Perhaps no character evolved as much as Calvin, the master of Candyland plantation. “A lot of the talks we had specifically about phrenology really took him to a completely different level.”
Adding philosophical underpinnings to Calvin’s racism helped unlock the character, informing his affection for his surrogate father, a house slave played by Samuel L. Jackson, and his leering need to possess—as chattel—Django’s wife, played by Kerry Washington. Tarantino drew on phrenology to fashion an epic, incendiary monologue on racial superiority. The moment DiCaprio finished delivering the speech, the entire cast gave him a spontaneous standing ovation.
“He creates shades and layers and probes and just goes deeper than anybody else ever desires to,” says Stacey Sher, one of the film’s producers. “The last day, when everyone was saying goodbye to him, Leo was like, ‘Yeah, I’m sure happy not to be that guy anymore—it feels good.’ You knew he just felt lighter.”
Yet for the newly liberated Leonardo DiCaprio, there was never any hesitation about letting it all hang out—in Django, in what he calls Scorsese‘s “really wild, nuts movie,” and in a musically charged makeover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “sacred” American novel.
“Of course it’s all risky,” he says, as a production assistant calls into the office to tell him he’s needed for the next scene. “I mean, that’s the excitement of doing it, you know?”