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Leonardo DiCaprio: ‘Don’t Look Up’ amplifies warnings on climate change

Leonardo DiCaprio: ‘Don’t Look Up’ amplifies warnings on climate change

Leonardo DiCaprio: ‘Don’t Look Up’ amplifies warnings on climate change

Leonardo DiCaprio has been an outspoken environmental advocate for as long as he’s been famous. But while he’s produced documentaries, contributed millions to the cause through his foundation, sat on several relevant boards and even used his Oscar speech to talk about climate change, the topic has never overlapped with his acting work.

It wasn’t for lack of trying: He just couldn’t find the right fit. And, more importantly, he didn’t want to do the wrong thing either.

Then Adam McKay (“The Big Short”) came knocking with an idea he’d been developing with journalist David Sirota: What if it wasn’t explicitly about climate change, but a comet? This was what DiCaprio found intriguing.

The result is “Don’t Look Up,” a star-studded end-of-the-world satire now in theaters and on Netflix. Jennifer Lawrence and DiCaprio play scientists who discover an extinction-level comet, and… nobody cares.

McKay, a Chicagoan, and DiCaprio spoke about the film and tried to entertain while getting a message across. They also discussed how to keep it from alienating too many people.

Q:Leo, how did it come that you decided this was the one for you?

DiCAPRIO: This screenplay’s brilliance is in the analogy of making it an asteroid that will wipe out humanity within six months. This created a massive sense of urgency rather than a slow-moving climate narrative. It really came at this specific moment in time, like films like “Network” or “Dr. Strangelove,” that really encapsulates what we’re going through as a culture. It perfectly held a mirror to our society and how we deal with the climate crisis, that we just let it continue and don’t take the actions that we need to take in order to survive on this planet.

Q: I read that you and your partner spent five months reviewing the script.

McKAY: There’s nothing I love more than having my script or a cut of the movie challenged in a thoughtful way. Leo also came to the edit and I would show him unfinished cut. He made wonderful notes. The guy’s worked with some of the great directors of all time, you know, Scorsese and Tarantino, these grand masters, and he knows a thing or two about story and film.

Q:Do you recall any major debates from these sessions, or are they still fresh in your mind?

DiCAPRIO: My motivation was [to] give a voice to the scientific community, to the people who’ve been devoting their life to the climate crisis and how their voice feels marginalized. I’m much more literal about a lot of these things. In many of the speeches that we did, I wanted to add politics, specificity and direct linkage with climate. It was amazing to have Adam as my partner in that process. He kept removing details that would make some people feel alienated. This made it political.

McKAY: It’s interesting, some of the words that Leo and I would debate, like the word “fact.” You want to just say “facts.” And I was like, “Leo, I hate to break it to you, I think they politicized the word fact.” So there was this constant vigilance over what words we were using. We tried to avoid the nonsense, the talk points, the focus groups and the clicks, as well as the ratings.

DiCAPRIO: It just became more human once we took out a lot more of those words.

Q: Was it cathartic, getting to yell into the void in a way in a “mad as hell”-style speech?

DiCAPRIO: Well, look, I’m not a climate scientist, but I tried my best to think of a lot of these people in their frustration.

Q: Randall and his Midwestern unassumingness is pretty different from other characters you’ve played.

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“Don’t Look Up” director Adam McKay and star Leonardo DiCaprio speak at a Los Angeles screening.
Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

DiCAPRIO: It was a fascinating journey because, yeah, I’m in scenarios wherein a Jonah Hill or a Meryl Streep is attacking me and I had to constantly swallow things that I wanted to say on a personal level and just bite the bullet and take the insult and the kick in the nuts. Even when Ariana Grande said what she said to me, I had the gut reaction to resist that instinct. It was a very unique experience in patience and sitting in discomfort. This is something I love about movies, if done correctly, and if you can make the audience feel uncomfortable for your character. I think back to “King of Comedy” or “Taxi Driver.” It’s a hard thing to pull off. I don’t know if I did it or not, but that’s what I was definitely aiming for.

McKAY: It was amazing. I just thought it was so cool to see a guy who you’ve seen, like, fight a bear in, like, giant sprawling epics and lead of the biggest movie ever made, and to see him having a panic attack or having to take a quarter of a Xanax and getting run over by this fame.

Q: What do you think of the audience responses thus far? Are people getting what they hoped for?

McKAY: We wanted it to be funny. I would see the crowd laugh throughout the movie and then I’d look at the cards. [at test screenings]It almost seemed to defy people who identify as conservative or liberal. This was very encouraging to me. There will always be some people who are mad about something.

DiCAPRIO: You never know ultimately how a movie will impact a mass audience, but a little test case for that: I have very liberal hippie parents that walked out of that theater, both my mother and my stepmother went to the premiere, and be like, “I’ve got to tell you, I really identified with a lot of the characters in that movie. I was thinking about certain of my actions. I was thinking, am I like Meryl Streep?”

McKAY: No! Are you serious?

DiCAPRIO: I’m like, “Mom, you’re nothing like that character.”

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