BY PAULA SCHWARTZ
Superstar Leonardo DiCaprio turned up yesterday morning at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Midtown to attend a junket for Django Unchained to talk about his role as the notorious plantation owner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation spaghetti western about American slavery.
He was joined on stage with the director, Jamie Foxx (Django) Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz and Jonah Hill.
The Aviator star said he was incredibly tired - he’s filming Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street – but he is so passionate about Tarantino’s slavery revenge epic that the press-shy actor was eager to participate in the hour-long press conference. (That he would even be at the junket was only announced on Friday, which helped account for the packed audience.)
The moderator pointed out that Django Unchained is a Western, but that slavery is the real subject, a subject that has been largely absent in movies since The Birth of a Nation. He asked the director what he felt was his responsibility to put the focus on this most ugly part of America’s history?
“I always wanted to do a movie that deals with America’s horrific past with slavery, but the way I wanted to deal with it, is as opposed to doing a straight historical movie with a capital H, I actually thought I could do better if it was wrapped up in genre,” Tarantino said. “It seems to me that so many Westerns that take place during the Civil War have just bent over backwards to avoid, as is America’s way, which is actually kind of interesting because most other countries have actually been forced to deal with the atrocities that they’ve committed and actually the world has made them deal with the atrocities that they’ve committed, but it’s kind of everybody’s fault here in America, white, black, nobody wants to really deal with it. Nobody wants to stare at it. And I think in the story of all the different types of slave narratives that could have existed in the 245 years during this time of slavery under America there’s a zillion stories, a zillion dramatic, exciting, adventurous, heartbreaking triumphant stories that could be told, and so I wanted to be one of the first ones out the gate with it.”
Surprisingly Foxx wasn’t immediately on Tarantino’s radar to play Django, a slave- turned-bounty hunter who is searching for his wife, Broomhilda, (Washington), which leads him to cross paths with the unimaginably cruel planation owner of Candyland.
“I wasn’t asked to play Django,” Foxx said, “I actually saw that the movie was going and somebody else was supposed to be playing (him), and I thought ‘Wow! Here’s another project that I haven’t heard about.’ And actually I had a management change. My acting hustle was like, first of all I don’t care what it is, cause it’s Quentin Tarantino,” he said. “Reading the script, I’m from Texas so being in the South there’s a racial component, and I love the South, there’s no other place I’d rather be from, but there are racial components in the South,” he said, which he identified with. But what he mainly gravitated to about Django Unchained, Foxx said, was the love story between Django and Broomhilda and that, “When you see movies about slavery, and Quentin has made mention to this, we never get a chance to see the slave actually fight back.”
Washington emphasized when asked if she had any qualms about playing a slave, that “People in the past may have felt nervous about playing a slave because so many of the narratives that we pulled in film and television about slavery are about powerlessness and this is not a film about that. This is a film about a black man, who finds his freedom and rescues his wife. He is an agent of his own power. He is a liberator. He’s a hero, so there’s nothing shameful about that.” She added, “It’s really exciting and hopeful and inspiring. I was very moved by the love story, particularly in a time in our American history when black people were not allowed to fall in love and get married,” she said. “Django’s out to get his woman and he’s got to take down slavery to get her.”
Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen, Candie’s cruel and feared right-hand man, who also brought him up since he was a child but is still very much a slave. He fiercely holds on “to the small power” he has the moderator said, before Jackson cut him off with, “The small power? I’m the power behind the throne. I’m like the Spook Cheney of Candyland.” He added, “To tell this story, you have to have that particularly character.”
When Jackson read the script, and Tarantino told him he wanted him as Stephen, the actor’s reaction was, “I complained about being 15 years too old to be Django. I was done with that. And then when I read the script I called him back and said, ‘So you want me to be the most despicable Negro in Southern history?’ We were both kind of like laughing at it, ‘Yeah! Let’s get on it.’ And not only was that a great artistic opportunity to create something that was iconic and to take what people know as Uncle Tom and turn it on its head in a powerful way. It also gave me an opportunity to do really nasty s…t to the person that got the role that I thought I should have,” he laughed.
“But to tell this story you have to have that guy and Stephen is the freest slave in the history of cinema. He has all the powers of the master and literally is the master during the times and most times when Calvin is off Mandingo fighting. He makes the plantation run. Everybody on that plantation knows him. Everybody on the plantation fears him.” He added, “I wanted to play him honestly and I wanted everybody to understand that when Django shows up, that’s a Negro we’ve never seen before. Not only is he on a horse, but he’s got a gun and he speaks out and the first thing I have to do is let all the other Negros on the plantation know that’s not something you can aspire to, so let me put him in his place as quickly as I possibly can.”
The moderator pointed out that this is the first film in a long time DiCaprio has made where his name is not above the title, but before he finished his sentenced DiCaprio shot back, “and it sucks.”
As to what drew him to play the evil Candie, DiCaprio said, “Obviously Mr. Tarantino here is a major factor.” There was major buzz about the script for a long time the actor said, and he was impressed how Tarantino “tackled this subject like he did with Inglourious Basterds and recreated his own history and tackled something as hardcore as slavery and combined it with the genre of having it be this crazy spaghetti western feel to it, with this lead character that sort of obliterates the cantankerous rotting South was completely exciting.”
DiCario said of his role as the evil plantation owner Candie, a sweet-faced, pretty boy whose internal evil is symbolized by his revolting rotting teeth, “I hated him, and it was one of the most narcissistic, self-indulgent racist horrible characters I’ve ever read in my entire life. And I had to do it.”
(For more on DiCaprio and his role as Candie, go to http://www.showbiz411.com/2012/12/17/leonardo-dicaprio-on-django-character-i-hated-him.)