Oscar-nominated actor defends Scorsese's new drama in Q&A with Variety
What drew me to the project:
The severe honesty in which Jordan Belfort portrayed a hedonistic time in his life on Wall Street. It’s rare when someone is unafraid to divulge how dark they went. With all these people on Wall Street who’ve screwed over so many people since 2008, I became obsessed with playing a character who made me understand the mentality and nature of the seduction of Wall Street and greed. I appreciated his honesty.
The audience reaction:
This film may be misunderstood by some; I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, that we’re indicting it. The book was a cautionary tale and if you sit through the end of the film, you’ll realize what we’re saying about these people and this world, because it’s an intoxicating one. I think it’s amazing somebody like Martin Scorsese is still making films that are vital and talked about, and have an element of controversy about them and are appealing to people of my generation. We grew up watching his films and he’s still making stuff that’s punk rock. It’s an amazing achievement.
The thing I learned about Wall Street:
It’s a world that still puzzles me. I’m fascinated and repulsed by it. (Jordan Belfort) wasn’t responsible for bankrupting our country, but he represented something in our culture and represented the attitude of these guys. When you’re put into that world, your main motivation is answering to your boss about what you’ve earned. That mentality is very destructive. With Jordan in this film, he created a feeding frenzy for people like that and he became a cult leader. Everybody on Wall Street is not like this. While doing research I learned there are plenty of people on Wall Street who are very responsible and trying to give back.
The day I laughed the hardest:
When we were doing Quaalude sequence, Marty, Jonah and I kept upping the ante to (make it) the most insane existential section of the film (laughs). We were laughing hysterically because we couldn’t believe we were doing a sequence like this in a major motion picture. Jonah said “Can you believe we’re doing what we’re doing?” Margot Robbie said something similar to me. It was painful on a physical level, but it was hilarious.
The hardest scene to film:
There were these two profound speeches at the heart of the film, the second of which gets you to understand how intoxicated Jordan was by the power of what he was doing. By the time I got up there, I understood what Jordan must have felt like, this cult-like messiah who was giving a twisted version of the truth but that became the “truth.” He must have felt like a rock star. (The speeches) are a twisted version of “Braveheart” war cries for freedom. But in this case it was to manipulate and screw over as many people as they could.
During filming, how I kept up energy:
It was the fever and excitement of doing a movie that got to break rules. Marty wanted the characterization of these people to become the plot. That infused the actors with an energy that anything was possible, that we could take a scene anywhere. It becomes closer to life. We got to improvise for a day, and Marty and Thelma (Schoonmaker, the film’s editor) would take that and sometimes and polish it to one line. That takes a director who understands that a movie is a discovery process. It’s what the actors give to you, and giving the actors the opportunity to create this. Marty filled us all with an excitement to be there. It was such a frenetic film endeavor. It was a giant adrenaline dump when I finished with it. It’s been almost a year and I am just trying to get myself back in the saddle again.
The thing I’m proudest of:
That we got to make the film we wanted to make. Throughout the process, we reminded each other why we were doing this movie and to not take a traditional approach to our characterization of Jordan. We consciously didn’t want to show the wake of their destruction. Didn’t want to see the people affected by that. The best movies are the ones where you’re a voyeur and you’re able to submerge yourself into the mentality of the characters. In order to do that, we wanted this to be a drug-infused, hypnotic quest for greed and indulgence so we could better understand the nature of who these people are.
There are two films I’ve been passionate about making, this and “The Aviator.” To get to work with Marty at this point in his career and to make a movie that takes a lot of chances. People, no matter what their attitude is after seeing the film, should understand this is a film that’s outside the box and is very difficult to get done in this day and age; it almost never happens. That in its own right is commendable. I’m proud that films like this can still be somehow made; that’s in huge part due to our financiers who said, “Look, we understand that studios are doing a certain type of film but we believe there is an audience for films that don’t fit the criteria for a blockbuster but deserve to get made.” Thank God there are people who have taste for experimental filmmaking at this level and who really want to endorse this type of film. Because if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t see any types of film like this.
The best piece of direction Martin Scorsese gave me:
We were concerned whether people would go along on the journey of someone this hedonistic, self-consumed and debaucherous. He said “I’ve done many films like this and it’s important as a filmmaker to not pass judgment on who these people are. They represent something about the darker nature of human beings. You have to be authentic about the portrayal of who these people are. Don’t give them a false sense of empathy because you feel you have to. Portray them for who they are and audiences will go along with you.” That became my new mantra for filmmaking.