Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Beckinsale and Martin Scorsese talk about The Aviator!
Hollywood has a long tradition of actors playing actors, and those biopics often win acclaim in the way of Oscar nominations. Martin Scorsese's The Aviator features a who's who of modern Hollywood playing a who's who of classic Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio is the legendary Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchett is Katherine Hepburn, Gwen Stefani is Jean Harlow and Kate Beckinsale is Ava Gardner.
DiCaprio had to bring his own sense to the portrayal of Hughes, since there were few definite research materials available. "As an actor, you're constantly searching for that great character," DiCaprio said. "Being a history buff and learning about people in our past and amazing things that they've done, I came across a book of Howard Hughes and he was set up basically as like the most multi-dimensional character I could ever come across. Often, people have tried to define him in biographies. No one seems to be able to categorize him. He was one of the most complicated men of the last century. And so I got this book, brought it to Michael Mann and John Logan came onboard and really came up with the concept of saying, ‘You can do ten different movies about Howard Hughes. Let's focus on his younger years. Let's watch his initial descent into madness but meanwhile, have the backdrop of early Hollywood, these daring pioneers in the world of aviation that were like astronauts that went out and risked their lives to further the cause of aviation. [He was] the first American billionaire who had all the resources in the world but was somehow unable to find any sense of peace or happiness.' It's that great see-saw act in the movie that goes on. On one side, he's having all the successes in the world and on the other side the tiny microbes and germs are the things that are taking him downwards because of his OCD and being a germaphobe."
In depth research involved not only studying books and interviewing those who knew Hughes, but going into the psychology community as well. "The real research began after we committed to the movie, Marty and I. It was a year of preparation. It was not only those marathon sessions with John Logan and Scorsese but I got to meet a couple of people who actually worked with Howard, who knew Howard. Jane Russell, I drove up north to spend a day with her and talk about Howard and Terry Moore, his ex-wife, she provided a lot of information about him. When you read a script and it says in the script ‘He has obsessive compulsive disorder' and then you read two pages of a man repeating the same line over and over again, not that it's easy for a writer to write that because he has his own thought process, but when you're an actor and reading that you say, ‘How in the hell am I gonna say this? What is the driving force behind repeating something twenty times in a row and why the hell is he doing it?' So that brought me to work with Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA who is the leading physician on obsessive compulsive disorder and treating it in a non-medicated fashion. He really explained to me what OCD is and the brain mechanism that goes into it and the sort of faulty gear shift, the sticky gear shift that happens when your mind obsesses on one thing and you don't listen to the other part of your brain that tells you you're being ridiculous. So, I worked a lot with him and a patient of his. I spent a few days with him, living around him and talking to him and really trying to find out why he had to repeat or do things obsessively. Then, reading every possible book I could on him and his life."
Kate Beckinsale was not only interested in Ava Gardner, but all of the talent involved in telling the Howard Hughes story. "I didn't hear about Ava Gardner without Marty and Leo already being attached to it," Beckinsdale said. "But she had a very unique spirit and I really found that appealing. It was a broad quality to her that I think these days we tend to no longer have. She was a very feisty, fiery, warm, deeply feminine tough person from what I can gather and I just thought that was a lot of interesting qualities all in one."
Since Gardner was in front of the camera much more than Hughes, Beckinsdale had a lot from which to draw. "I'm always very attracted to people's vocal patterns. She had a deeper voice than I had and that was a challenge to pull that off without sounding like you're doing a funny voice. Particularly, she has an American accent but it was an American accent that began south and then was put through various types of voice coaching to end up with a rather unique movie star accent that doesn't really come from anywhere. So obviously, there was stuff like that. And Marty was very categorical about the fact that he didn't want us in prosthetic chins and fake eyeballs and god knows what. He didn't want a Saturday Night Live skit of Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. The most important thing really to capture was the spirit and that's what we were all aiming to do."
Having directed several biographies, from Raging Bull and Goodfellas to Casino and Kundun, Scorsese realized that each person's life needs a different approach. "It's very different for each one, and I must say now that the approach on this material really, really comes from John Logan, the writer," Scorsese said. "I say that emphatically. Why I say that is that I've approached biographical material over the years. We hit it one way with Raging Bull. At first with Raging Bull, myself and the writer and Bob De Niro were going from the beginning of Jake's life to the end, and it was very conventional, and we just sort of got stuck. So asked Paul Schrader to come in and Paul is a very, very disciplined writer and cut right to the middle of the story, the heart of the story, and what the guy wanted and what he couldn't get, which was a shot at the title and the title belt. That sort of thing. So that taught us a lot about dealing with continuity in bio pics, so to speak. It's not always the best thing. And then Henry Hill in Goodfellas I approached a whole other way. Basically it's one long monologue, street corner monologue, a comedy routine really. And then ultimately in this, what I liked about this particular version was that I had stayed clear of the Howard Hughes story for two reasons. 1) I was interested in the sense that I only knew him as an eccentric guy living at the top of the Desert Inn, a very mysterious figure, watching movies in the middle of the night. It turns out that a lot of the films he watched I actually know exactly what they are. I watch them, and at a certain point, two or three in the morning, at different points of your life something else is happening. I had not really understood what the aviators were doing in the ‘20s and ‘30s, I really didn't. But I also knew that major Hollywood filmmakers like Warren Beatty and Stephen Spielberg had wanted for many years to make a Hughes picture. And they said, ‘Yeah, we did all this. He did all this and then he was building of the Hercules, and then he started to lose his mind with obsessive disorder. He was involved with Watergate.' I mean, all of this going on, this great mysterious figure like an ancient king from Greece. And I thought, ‘Well, where do you start and where do you end?' I wouldn't know where to begin. And so I thought it was more or less their territory until I read the script by John Logan. They didn't tell me what it was, they just gave me the script."
Kate Beckinsale came in and was the first audition for Ava Gardner. I thought she was terrific. She was sultry and she's a beautiful woman, a very good actress. Excellent actress. I've always liked her. I've seen all her work, and I was glad that she agreed to audition. I mean, youre auditioning for Ava Gardner, it's not a totally fictional character. You can't be Ava Gardner, you're gonna be a sense of or a soupcon, a little touch of Ava Gardner. And she asked what she should do before the audition, and I told her to just watch Mogambo, John Ford's version of Red Dust with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner playing Honey Bear. Because I thought the attitude of Ava Gardner in that film was all she really had to know. There are only a few scenes with Ava in the film. So really all she had to know as that swagger, that wise guy attitude, like a guy in a way. And the beauty of Ava Gardner - Beckinsale, when you first see her on the screen, when he's trying to figure out what name he should give his TWA airlines, she's absolutely gorgeous. The use of makeup, the technicolour field, we had that sense of Ava Gardner there. The scene where she hits him with the ashtray is based on a fight between the two of them. She wouldn't take anything from him, nothing. In her autobiography she said, "Little did I realize we would be friends for 22 years." They were like hanging out for 22 years.
Leonardo DiCaprio was already attached when Scorsese got the script, but in choosing Hughes' leading ladies, he said, "I thought of Cate, we were starting to shoot our film sooner and she was on The Missing for Ron Howard. I saw her at the Golden Globes, she walked out on the stage, and my wife turned to me and said, ‘That's her.' I said, ‘Yeah, that would be it.' But the availability was completely messed up and ultimately we were talking to a few other people. But ultimately things worked out beautifully because we had postponed our shoot about a month or two, she was then available, and she actually accepted to do it. We just had one meeting for like three hours talking about it. She had looked at some stills of Katharine Hepburn. Katharine Hepburn is a touchy area, There are three levels there. The older people who really know Katharine Hepburn, who may have been alive in the 1930s and knew all about her career and everything else. There's the mid-range, which is me. I'm 62 but I was 10 years old when I saw her movies. Then there's the other element which may be many people who don't know who she is at all. And because of that, I felt yes, let us try to do Katharine Hepburn in a film. I said, ‘How do you do that?' With an actress of great intelligence and courage. And we discussed levels of accent, we discussed. When she came she said, ‘Look, I looked at some pictures of Katharine Hepburn and there's a couple here.' And she got in a certain position sort of on her haunches, Cate Blanchett did, and she said, ‘I think she was like this.' Sure enough, that's the way she's sitting on the beach when Howard comes up and asks her to go golfing with him. That was taken from a PR still off the set. And she just had it. She had the gesture, she had the lines to be, the body lines, the look of Katharine Hepburn. The attitude, really, of Katharine Hepburn. It was a matter of really working ultimately on the level of accent. And it goes two ways. One way which is that yes, it's an accent that reminds you of Katharine Hepburn with the particular certain laughs that she has, the barrage of words that she hits Howard Hughes with in the golf scene when you first see her. But also there's an element to Katharine Hepburn that if you don't know Katharine Hepburn, the person created in the story and the script and by Cate Blanchett is definitely a character.
"Kate Beckinsale came in and was the first audition for Ava Gardner," Scorsese continued. "I thought she was terrific. She was sultry and she's a beautiful woman, a very good actress. Excellent actress. I've always liked her. I've seen all her work, and I was glad that she agreed to audition. I mean, you're auditioning for Ava Gardner, it's not a totally fictional character. You can't be Ava Gardner, you're going to be a sense of or a soupcon, a little touch of Ava Gardner. And she asked what she should do before the audition, and I told her to just watch Mogambo, John Ford's version of Red Dust with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner playing Honey Bear. Because I thought the attitude of Ava Gardner in that film was all she really had to know. There are only a few scenes with Ava in the film. So really all she had to know as that swagger, that wise guy attitude, like a guy in a way. And the beauty of Ava Gardner, Beckinsale, when you first see her on the screen, when he's trying to figure out what name he should give his TWA airlines, she's absolutely gorgeous. The use of makeup, the technicolour field, we had that sense of Ava Gardner there. The scene where she hits him with the ashtray is based on a fight between the two of them. She wouldn't take anything from him, nothing. In her autobiography she said, ‘Little did I realize we would be friends for 22 years.' They were like hanging out for 22 years."
"Gwen Stefani is just literally Jean Harlow. I would have liked Gwen to be in the film more. I would have liked Jean Harlow to be more of a character. But again, that's what's so interesting about the script. Logan only showed you certain things and it's what's not that there that has the resonance in the scenes that are there. When she comes out of the car, you know what the relationship is. She's dressed in white. She's dressed exactly the way Jean Harlow was dressed that night and she does exactly Jean's speech. You get a sense of what's going on. ‘Come on, Slim, take a bow.' That's what she told him. He really was holding her hand, crushing her hand during the screening."
DiCaprio reflected on his leading ladies. "My two Kates," he called them. "Well, for the Katharine Hepburn character there was really only one person that could play that role in the world. There is the, what can I say, the female version of Daniel Day-Lewis, and that is Cate Blanchett. To be able to take on the persona and one of the most iconic female voices of the 20th Century, in Katharine Hepburn, one of the most immediately recognizable voices, and being from Australia as well. Taking on that, you have to be a true chameleon and genius. So, enough said about that. Kate Beckinsale, we were looking for Ava and she came in with the full fur and Ava Gardner attire and make-up and attitude, and once we met with a few girls for that and as soon as she stepped into the meeting with us we knew we had our Ava. She represented the class, had the strength, had the attitude, and it was a joy to work with both of them."
For Beckinsdale, playing a real person is almost an unwinnable enterprise. "It's always unnerving because I think there will be inevitably, and there are of course, a certain percentage of people who will be just offended by the fact that you've been cast at all and you don't evoke her in their heart as maybe somebody else might," she said. "I mean, I think that would happen with anybody. One of the things about all this internet battling [when] all of us were cast, is that nobody ever seems to be able to settle on one person who unanimously is the choice. I think it's just that thing of if it's a really person, you do feel there's a right way to play it and normally with an artistic endeavor, the way to play a part is a more organic thing that comes out as you're going along. You're the authority on the character's emotional life and when it's a real person, there is actually a blueprint that you're trying to hit without being able to actually speak to the person if they've passed away. So that does make it different and I think once you've done all the research and you immerse yourself in all of that, at some point you do have to actually approach it in the same way as you approach anything else, in a sort of open hearted creative actress playing a part."
The Aviator opens in select cities Friday, wide on Christmas day.
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