Spotlight By: Andrea Tuccillo

Leonardo DiCaprio is already getting Oscar buzz for his turn as an undercover cop in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. But with his new film, Blood Diamond, he’s getting buzz for a different reason: the social relevance of its subject matter. Blood Diamond is set in the 1990’s during a period of civil unrest in Sierra Leone and it explores the illicit diamond trade that was used to fund the war. DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a South African mercenary whose fate collides with a Mende fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) who’s on a quest to find his son. Both men team up to find a rare diamond that may change their lives. The story of the blood diamonds taken from recent history is not a story that many people know about, and even DiCaprio himself was unfamiliar with it until he began researching his part.

“I had heard whispers of it but until I got there and read the script and started to do the research I didn’t really quite understand the immense impact that the diamonds had on certainly Sierra Leone and other places in Africa,” says DiCaprio. “I heard the Kanye West song, for example, and I heard bits of it in conversation, but it wasn’t until I got to Africa and heard the first hand accounts and started to read the books and learn about it that I really learned what really had happened.”

DiCaprio is not stranger to social and political causes. He is a passionate advocate for environmental issues and has never been one to keep his political opinions to himself, however he says that he wasn’t specifically seeking out movies social message. Instead, it was the powerful character and storyline which initially drew him to Blood Diamond.

“It has to have this entertainment value, it has to be a good movie, it has to convey a message without the audience feeling like they’re being preached to and I really felt strongly that this script accomplished that,” explains DiCaprio. “And to me it was very representative of a huge issue in the world today of corporate responsibility and what these corporations do. Certainly Africa’s been a prime target of it, all the way to gold, rubber, all kinds of other natural resources. And here was this character that really represented somebody that was exploiting people less fortunate than him, dealing in the black market and not really being conscious of the world he lived in and I just felt it was a really powerful character.”

His character required a lot of intense research in order for DiCaprio to become fully immersed in the role. He spent a total of six months in Africa picking up on the culture and dialect. One integral piece of his character was an authentic South African accent and DiCaprio was careful to make sure it got it just right.

“[I spent] a lot of time with the locals, drinking beers with them, hearing a lot of their stories,” says DiCaprio. “[I spoke with] a lot of guys from the South African military. And of course I have an accent coach and he was there guiding me through it. But we had conversations with these people, listened to their stories, made them say sentences over and over again.”

DiCaprio and his co-star Hounsou were also required to go through military training for the roles. Filming the movie’s action sequences forced the actors to spend long hours in the mud and some pretty unpleasant conditions, but they had their own unique ways of taking their mind off it.

“Djimon and I would sit there and talk to each other about the different types of hot chocolates you could get in Paris, and croissants, and we’d sit there and dream like two weird women,” jokes DiCaprio.

But all in all, DiCaprio’s experience in Africa was a positive one. He learned a great deal from his stay; lessons that have stayed with him even as he returned home.

“What I was left with after spending time with Africa, and this is not at all to sound trivial, but it really was the power of the human spirit there and the fact these people have been through so much, they’ve been through a civil war for 30 years, the poverty rate, but literally people were still dancing in the streets,” DiCaprio says. “The joy and the energy and the happiness that they exuded to everyone they came in contact with was unbelievable. It made me come back home and sort of not want to listen to anyone’s problems.”

DiCaprio knows that becoming fully committed to a role and perhaps changing your own perspectives in the process is a necessary part of creating a memorable, long-lasting film.

“To make a great movie, there are so many things that have to come into play to have a memorable film and not fall by the wayside; to have something to live on through the years,” DiCaprio says. “And one of those elements is the commitment that the actors have towards their performances. It doesn’t always come into play, there have been a lot of great performances by actors in the past in films that weren’t great but if you’re lucky enough to get that combination together and be in a memorable movie, that to me is like being a part of a piece of art that’s going to last forever.”