Jay Gatsby is a strikingly handsome, incredibly wealthy man who’s shrouded in mystery, at least involving the source of his riches. He’s terribly lonely, and regularly throws wild parties in his opulent mansion, just so there are people around him. He’s hopelessly in love with a (married) woman from his past, and will do anything he can to win her. What actor wouldn’t want to play the lead in “The Great Gatsby?” Well, five have attempted it on film, to varying degrees of success. There was Warner Baxter in the long-lost 1926 silent version, a stiff Alan Ladd in 1949, a slightly long-in-the-tooth Robert Redford in 1974, and a close-to-sneering (rather than smiling) Toby Stephens in a 2000 TV version. Now Leonardo DiCaprio tries the role on for size in Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel, and he comes closest yet to capturing the character that was on the page. DiCaprio discussed the character and the movie in New York last week.
You’ve spoken before about growing up without much money, just as Gatsby does in the book and film. Did you identify with him?
I think everyone has some sort of connection to Gatsby as a character. He’s someone who has created himself according to his own imagination and dreams, lifted himself by his own bootstraps as a poor youth in the Midwest, and created this image that is the great Gatsby. It’s a truly American story in that regard. Here’s this emerging democracy that is America in the 1920s, and he wants to emulate a Rockefeller of that time period. He, of course, creates his wealth in the underworld, but this is the new land that is America. It was a very exciting time, and I think we can all relate to that dreamer in Gatsby. Each one of us gets excited by the prospect of somebody that has that much ambition.
Do you recall when you first read the book?
The “Gatsby” that I remember reading in school when I was 15 years old was far different than the “Gatsby” I read as an adult. What I remember from back then was this hopeless romantic that was solely in love with this one woman, and created this great amount of wealth to be able to respectably hold her hand. But to re-read it as an adult was fascinating. It is one of those novels that’s still talked about, nearly a hundred years later, for a reason. It’s incredibly nuanced, it’s existential, and here, at the center of it, is this man who has attached himself to this relic, this mirage, known as Daisy. For the first time, I was struck by the sadness in him, and I looked at him completely differently. I looked at him as someone who’s very hollow, and searching for some sort of meaning.
So how do you go about inserting yourself into the character?
One very telling sequence in the book that was very important for me was after he’s lured Daisy into his castle, he’s holding her, yet he’s still staring out at the green light. He’s finally got her in his arms, but he’s still searching for this thing that he thinks is going to complete him. That was the Gatsby that I was so excited about playing. So as I got older, it took on new meaning, and I think that’s what’s so incredible about the novel. Everyone who reads it has their own interpretation of who these characters are. Of course, when you’re making a movie, you have to be very specific. That’s what’s very difficult in making a movie of it, because everyone has their own personal attachment to the book, and they feel that they know these characters on a very intimate level.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Leonardo DiCaprio brings Jay Gatsby to life