Leonardo DiCaprio has embodied countless memorable characters throughout his career, but when it comes down to it, none are perhaps as globally iconic as his leading role in a little-known movie called Titanic.
Leo and Kate Winslet starred in the 1997 blockbuster as Jack and Rose, and their stellar performances quickly solidified them as one of the most recognizable onscreen duos in cinema history.
However, according to their director, the pairing was close to being scrapped.
Sitting down to retrace the behind-the-scenes magic of some of his most iconic titles with GQ this week, James Cameron recalled the contentious casting process for Titanic.
First off, the filmmaker explained that hiring Kate for the leading part was a no-brainer and happened “fairly early on” in the search for their stars.
Despite having initially considered Gwyneth Paltrow for Rose, Kate came in and gave a “fantastic” audition, instantly bagging herself the gig.
As for her costar, the process wasn’t such smooth sailing, if you’ll excuse the pun.
With Kate firmly on board, the search for Jack was underway, and having recently scored his first Oscar nomination for What's Eating Gilbert Grape in 1994, Leo was up.
James recalled his first meeting with Leo and reflected on the inevitable buzz around the young movie star.
“I’m sitting in my conference room, waiting to meet an actor, and I look around and all the women from the entire office are in the meeting,” he said with a laugh. “They just all wanted to meet Leo. It was hysterical.”
Unsurprisingly, Leo’s first meeting was a roaring success, with James saying that he “charmed” everybody, himself included. However, this wasn’t quite enough to seal the deal.
Before they could offer him the part, Leo would have to team up with Kate for a screen test, which is where things got a little tricky.
“He came back a couple of days later, and I had the camera set up to record the video,” the director recalled. “He didn’t know he was going to test. He thought it was another meeting to meet Kate.”
At this point, James said that Leo refused to read with Kate, nearly bringing the audition to an abrupt ending.
“I said, ‘Okay, we’ll just go in the next room, and we’ll run some lines and I’ll video it.’ And he said, ‘You mean, I’m reading?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Oh, I don’t read,’” James remembered. “I shook his hand and said, ‘Thanks for coming by.’”
Eager to get the part, the sudden dismissal shook Leo and prompted him to reconsider, asking: “Wait, wait, wait. If I don’t read, I don’t get the part? Just like that?”
In response, James set the record straight, making it clear that Leo wouldn’t be allowed to cut corners if he wanted to be cast.
“‘Oh, yeah. Come on. This is a giant movie that is going to take two years of my life, and you’ll be gone doing five other things while I’m doing post-production,’” he told the actor. “‘So, I’m not going to fuck it up by making the wrong decision in casting. So, you’re going to read, or you’re not going to get the part.’”
Leo agreed to the screen test, but apparently wasn’t overly enthusiastic — until the cameras started rolling.
“So he comes in, and he’s like every ounce of his entire being is just so negative — right up until I said, ‘Action.’ Then he turned into Jack,” James said of the screen test. “Kate just lit up, and they played the scene. Dark clouds had opened up, and a ray of sun came down and lit up Jack. I’m like, ‘All right. He’s the guy.’”
Of course, you don’t need us to tell you that he obviously made the right decision, with Leo and Kate’s palpable onscreen chemistry helping launch the movie to stratospheric levels of success.
Looking back on his choice, the Academy Award winner reflected on how “fragile” the casting process can be, and how it can define the success of a movie, along with the rest of an actor’s career.
“You try to imagine that movie without Leo or Kate, it’s very hard to do,” James said, acknowledging that at the time Leo was cast, the movie had been slightly out of his comfort zone.
He said that Leo — who was 21 when Titanic was shot — had been eager to give Jack’s character a more complicated edge, saying that he’d even suggested they alter the script to give him “some affliction” and a “traumatic thing from the past.”
However, James felt this wasn’t necessary and proceeded to give him some pointers to help him execute the performance in a more refined way.
“I said, ‘Look, you’ve done all these great characters that all have a problem, whether it’s addiction or whatever it is…you’ve gotta learn how to hold the center and not have all that stuff,’” he told Leo. “‘Then you’ll be ready for this,’” he added.
This was apparently a major turning point for the actor and ultimately helped him to master the role.
“The second I said that, it clicked for him that this was a really hard, challenging film for him,” James recalled. “[Leo] didn’t want something that was easy, he wanted something that was hard, and that’s been his instinct since then.”