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THESP FILE
What actor/actress would you most like to work with?
Jessica Lange
What’s your favorite film from the past five years?
“City of God”
Which character in a film have you watched and wished you could’ve played?
“One of the greatest characters ever in cinema was Marlon Brando’s role in ‘On the Waterfront.’ It’s the most compelling, forceful character for a young man to play. I don’t know if I could have filled those shoes, but I certainly would have liked to try.”
Up next:Another film with Martin Scorsese, “The Departed,” set in the Irish-American underworld in Boston.

The challenge and saving grace in playing aviation maverick Howard Hughes is that few really knew the man. Adjectives such as “eccentric” and “reclusive” are tossed around to describe Hughes, but the murky figure that remains is something that Leonardo DiCaprio saw as a benefit when he started preparing for his role in “The Aviator.”

“The greatest advantage I had was a surplus of information — albeit conflicting in-formation — about the nature of the man,” he says. “Everyone has their own interpretation of him. As much as he was a Paul Bunyan-like character, he also had that extremely private side. I got to create a character with all this information I gathered about him.”

DiCaprio’s interest started some nine years ago when he came across a Hughes biography. But it was John Logan’s script, which focused on Hughes’ first steps in filmmaking and aircraft building, that caught the thesp’s attention.

“I didn’t realize what a dynamic, compelling figure he was in his younger years,” says DiCaprio. “This film came to fruition because we focused on the beginning of his obsession and compulsion, the changing landscape of our country and aviation, and the beginning of Hollywood. There was his ascendance to success on one side and, on the opposite side, the battle with his demons. That’s what made this character. I wouldn’t have done (this film) if it was just a glossed-over version of ‘Look at how sexy this billionaire’s life was.'”

Once Martin Scorsese had signed on, DiCaprio and the helmer worked intensively with scribe Logan to understand Hughes as much as they could before shooting commenced.

“I read every possible book there was and met with every possible person I could,” says DiCaprio, who consulted an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) expert at UCLA to get into Hughes’ mindset.

“There are two sides of the brain and OCD deals with the reptilian part,” DiCaprio is eager to explain. “It deals with the home nest and how you have to organize and repeat things over and over again to get rid of fear associated with it. The other part of your brain is the side that can say it’s unnecessary to do things like that. People with OCD can’t distinguish between the two.”

But while his OCD tutorials helped the thesp to better understand things such as Hughes’ predilection for repeated handwashing and drinking from unopened milk bottles, DiCaprio found himself getting pulled into an obsessive-compulsive cycle himself.

“Learning about OCD brought out a mild form in me that I had as a child,” he says. “Sometimes it took me 10 minutes to get to the set because I’d be pacing back and forth, stepping on gum stains.”

Beyond DiCaprio’s utter dedication to getting into Hughes’ head, his director re-ports that the thesp brought another important quality to the film — an ability to evoke empathy.

“He was able to focus in on the human element in a way that an audience would really care about Hughes. Whether he’s the richest man in the world, and you might disagree with some of the things he does, you care about him,” says Scorsese. “Leo has that humanity.”