I'm always fascinated by the things that actors are called upon to do in a movie. Sometimes it's a skill set, but sometimes it can be something strange, scary or disgusting like eating raw fish or buffalo liver, which was exactly what you did in The Revenant. Was it really raw?
Well, first of all, yes, it was real buffalo liver. And while talking about extreme situations in my life... after seeing this movie you could certainly never compare any kind of extreme to this struggle in wilderness. At the end of any shooting day, I got to go to my hotel room and thought I would never be able to endure what these men did. I have been in a lot of situations which were sort of near death experiences but nothing like this, no.
There were some extremely strong, violent scenes in the movie.
Well, it seems I have a penchant for doing films that have extreme violence in them. So I don't know if I'm desensitized to it, but for me this film is an accurate depiction of that time period. Without getting into this violence you can't be authentic. I think it's a perfect fusion of violence and beauty at the same time. It's portraying nature as it is.
What was the most difficult thing to handle during the whole process?
The real challenge was the cold — it was a constant struggle. It was down to 40 below and sometimes to the point where the camera actually couldn't operate. So you could imagine how our fingers and faces felt. The hands were a constant source of pain. I think they even had to invent machines for the actors not to get hypothermia after every single take that we did. I knew what I had signed up for and that was part of the — I don't want to say fun — intent of making the movie: To experience that as closely as we could.
How do you think The Revenant's story on this fight for survival that took place 200 years ago will resonate with audiences today?
At its core, the movie is obviously about the relations between man and nature. A lot of the things that I think are in the underbelly of it are important and pertinent. It's interesting that while we were doing this film, I was also doing a documentary on climate change and was travelling all over the world. I found out the same story is happening. We destroy nature for oil and mining, we are kicking native people off of their lands and sacrificing their entire culture to extract these resources. The whole story to me is about different characters that are striving to live and that's very thematic today around the world.
One thing that was absolutely amazing to me was how few opportunities to speak your character actually has. How did this inability to express yourself through word influence your performance?
That really was one of the most exciting parts about the project in general. When I read the script, I actually kept urging Alejandro (Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director) to take even more lines out. I wanted less dialogue because that was the exploration of this character. And that was a challenge for me as I had to make the story alive just through his eyes. The chance to tell the whole story without words seemed very exciting and that was one of the main catalysts for me doing this movie. I have done so many articulate characters that babble throughout movies that this was a new experiment for me.
Do you need silence from time to time? And what sounds are your favorite?
I just saw The Graduate the other day so the Simon and Garfunkel song The Sound of Silence immediately came to my mind now. I think silence is incredibly important and I think some of the greatest visions and thoughts or ideas come from when there are no other voices around, even your own. I am not the most spiritual or meditative person out there but I know that I need those moments of contemplation to get the right answer and I need to drown out all the noise that this world can infuse into your mind. And my favorite sound? That's an interesting question...the sound of the forest, really.
As an influential producer and player in Hollywood, how would you change the future of cinema?
Well, The Revenant is a step in the right direction in my opinion. I was blessed to work with two groundbreaking directors — (Martin) Scorsese and Iñárritu. What's interesting is that they're both outsiders of Hollywood — one from New York, the other from Mexico. But they both do what I think can be called "the future of cinema". Television is getting so damned good now and I got really interested as to what the future of cinema will be with this high level of TV-production. But getting back to The Revenant, well, this film is a new word in the industry. It's a real poetic epic. But I can only hope that we at least get people to support a few films like this a year on this scale because you don't see them very often and you don't see people green lighting these projects very often. So my answer about the future of cinema is that I want to see at least one or two films like The Revenant every year. Then I'll know we are on the right way.
Let's have a throwback for a second. I first interviewed you in 1993 for This Boy's Life. How different do you think you are now from that boy back then?
To be very honest, I think I'm not much different from that boy. The actor I wanted to become, and the movies I wanted to do are for some reason, the same. And if there's one thing I'm proud of as a young man is the choices I made as a young man. But as an actor, I am always trying to get better, be more free and take more chances.
You've mentioned a couple of times how fortunate you are. What are the milestones that you want to reach as a man and a mensch?
I want to die like a man, like a mensch, like a good person. My dad always says, "no matter you do, try to lead an interesting life and try to find a way to wake up every morning and just be happy you can put your pants on". I can't say that I am 100 percent there,but those are my personal ambitions. If there is anything I am very proud of it's that at the end of the day I have a lot of great people around me.
Do you have those special father-and-son stories with your dad? Does he influence your life in any way now?
My dad has always been so incredibly influential not only in my career, but as a person to follow. When I was in a public school some of my greatest education was just sitting down listening to my father. He's one of the most well read and knowledgeable people I have ever met. He's always steered me as a young man to focus on certain films and certain characters that have historical relevance. I am really grateful to him for steering me towards non-obvious sort of characters and certain risks like playing Arthur Rimbaud at 17 years old (in Total Eclipse). Now we are partnering in all kinds of environmental endeavors together.
And what about dad-and-son rituals? Do you have any?
The one that I remember the most was going to the wishing well in Chinatown when I was miserable about going back to school every summer — that was the ritual for 10 years.
You mentioned the great influence your dad has in your life, but what about your mother? What kind of relationship do you have with her?
My mother is like a fine wine in the sense that she becomes more blatantly honest as she gets older, and it's very German. I will not say on record that she is reminding me of my grandmother because she doesn't want to hear that. But my God, as she's going into retirement right now she is absolutely, unbelievably, relentlessly honest in every scenario and it's becoming a badge of courage for her, some sort of bit of pride for her to be able to tell people exactly what the hell she thinks. And it puts me into a lot of situations where I have to explain afterwards what she truly means, but I have got to tell you, it's entertaining, but yeah sometimes I need to quell her honesty.
I know you won't talk about your private life, but can you give at least a jewel of advice on relationships?
Clint Eastwood said once and that is very interesting to me: "You can love a lot of women but you got to like them too". I like that bit of advice that he gave me.
And what advice can you give?
I think that you basically have to remain as yourself and not compare to someone else. I believe if two people like each other, they are going to like each other, and there's not much you can do to manipulate that.
The Revenant will be released in local theatres on 4 February 2016.