You’d expect the team behind the biggest message movie of the year to look a bit po-faced when they first stride into the room for their chat with TF. But far from it - Leonardo DiCaprio and director Edward Zwick are all chuckles and smiles; Djimon Hounsou’s barely had time to pour Paula Weinstein a drink of water before she’s kissing his hand in gratitude; and Jennifer Connelly looks for all the world like she’s stepped straight off a red carpet, with more grace and poise than Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn put together. But it’s not long before the happy faces settle into something a bit more stern looking. A few cleared throats later, and we begin...
Leonardo, Danny’s accent was impressive – how much research did you have to do, and did it affect your approach to the character?
Leonardo: It was a completely foreign and alien sound to me, the South African sound. Having not spent a lot of time in Africa, it was not only important to go there early to lock down the accent as best I could, but just to get the general attitude of some of these mercenaries, some of these soldiers of fortune, some of these men that had fought wars in Angola, some of the people that had seen some of the atrocities - to try to capture their bitterness or their mixed emotions toward the continent that they’re from.
So I definitely wanted to go there as early as possible and certainly spending time with a lot of these guys absolutely fundamentally shaped everything about the character for me – it was literally their stories that I tried to embrace and take on as my own for Danny.
Edward: The tribute to Leo’s accent was that he was surrounded by South African actors who were the real thing. It’s one thing to do it among a whole group who are making it up, but to put yourself at that level is the real litmus.
How did you gain the confidence of the South African mercenaries? Did you have to get down and dirty? Get a little drunk, maybe?
Leonardo: You hit the nail on the head, yeah. Initially going there, there’s a hardened shell that surrounds a lot of these guys. I think I incorporated the line ‘you Americans love to talk about your feelings’ from my experiences hanging out with some of these South African oaks, because it was very hard for them to divulge anything about their attitudes about Africa or their mixed emotions about the politics there or their experiences at war, or what it was like for them, what they were really feeling.
So it did take a certain amount of taking them out to various bars and getting them drunk and rehashing past demons, and that was some of the most beneficial stuff for me. It helped shape my character, made me understand some of the emotional turmoil that my character had gone through.
Edward: I had visited
Here, where we don’t really see children as they’re tucked away, or old people, there, it’s in your face. It’s disease and death; it’s sexuality and spirituality; it’s the three-year-old taking care of the one-year-old; everything is there and inescapable. I think after a certain amount of time, that finds its way into your consciousness and inevitably into the film itself and I think none of us were unmoved.
Leonardo: I’d definitely agree with that statement. Growing up in the Western world, and seeing some of the things we saw, not to mention the immense natural beauty of Africa, but seeing the conditions and the way that people live there every day, how they’ve somehow maintained an amazingly positive attitude and outlook on life was pretty inspiring for all of us. It makes you come back home and question what any of us has to complain about. I’m sure we all have our own private stories and feelings on the subject but, to put it very bluntly, it was the spirit of the people that was the most astounding and moving for me to witness.
We shot in areas of
Jennifer: I thought it was a huge privilege to be able to spend that much time in
Djimon: It was amazing, any time you go to Africa, whether you’ve been to Africa before or going there for the first time, it’s always a love story and again going back and making the film in South Africa, which is a place that I think out of the whole of Africa it’s quite a special place, and Mozambique and the livelihood of the people who helped us create the right environment for this film was just unbelievable. But I go back regularly, so there’s no surprise here.
Paula: This was my second time making a film in Africa, and the first time was in the ‘80s in Zimbabwe, and going illegally, really, into South Africa, and to go back was fantastic, to see the post-apartheid era, and to really get to know the people and see the struggles they’re going through for reconciliation which is still going on there.
People say Africa and they think of it as this monolith – but the difference between Zimbabwe and South Africa and then Mozambique was really strong to me, the different colonial powers there and the residual problems and culture that had been left.
What struck me most about
Did the actors find the location shoot a bonding experience?
Jennifer: I think filming on location really lends a lot; but I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. It’s the light, it’s the weather, it’s the heat, you can see it in the quality of light, it’s stilted and I think it lends an atmosphere to the scenes, that one can strive to overcome and bring to a scene, but it’s really a gift when it’s already there for you to use, so that was really wonderful.
In terms of it, for me, affecting how I worked with Leo and Djimon, I don’t think that when working with really talented actors you need tricks like that to create personal histories, because in the first scenes that we did together, it was so easy and wonderful working with both of them, because they’re both really talented actors.
There are lots of different kinds of actors, both of them are actors who are very much present in a scene and very collaborative and supportive and generous of actors that they’re working with; they actually listen, which, believe it or not, doesn’t always happen. There are always those people who you work with, and you could strip off all your clothes and dance up and down and they’d still do the same thing, and that certainly was far from the case with both Leo and Djimon.
Leonardo: Why, thank you Jennifer. Just to add a small point to that, I agree with everything she said, specifically about me; but there is a certain element of camaraderie that exists there when you’re on location and you’re forced to be in each other’s space constantly, the film takes centre-focus with everyone and when you don’t go back home to your comfortable lifestyle and your daily ritual of where you live, certainly in a place like Africa, not just the environment but the political landscape was surrounding us all the time and we could draw upon stories from other people and we were constantly sharing information about the place that we were filming in and I think it affected all of our characters and affected our relationships with each other as characters too.
Djimon: For me personally I found it extremely challenging to be on location, especially in a location like
Leonardo, you’ve obviously bought diamonds for people in the past – did you check their origin?
Leonardo: Sure, I’ve bought diamonds in the past, before learning about conflict diamonds and their devastating impact on places like
If I ever did buy a diamond again I would make sure it’s a conflict-free diamond and I would get it certified by the dealer that I bought it from, that’s for damn sure.
Jennifer, will you be wearing diamonds to the Oscars this year?
Jennifer: I have worn diamonds since making the film and becoming more informed about conflict diamonds. I feel that a boycott doesn’t solve the problem, because there are human rights implications to that as well. There are potential benefits that can come out of the wealth that diamond mining can bring to these countries, even if the economic benefit isn’t quite as equitable as it can be in the future.
But the diamonds that I have worn have come with certificates guaranteeing they’re conflict-free and I will make sure that any diamonds that I wear in the future will be certified.
Edward, how hard was it to find a young actor good enough to play Dia? It’s a challenging role...
Edward: Kagiso Kuypers is a boy from
The irony is that Jenny and Leo were both child actors themselves, and I suspect that when they were that same age, you know it when you see it, what they know you can’t teach, it’s like being kissed by a certain angel. When I met Kagiso and worked with him it was very clear the reservoirs of feeling and the availability of emotion that he had. And the person that I would credit deeply in this process would be Djimon who really devoted himself to Kagiso and to that relationship from the beginning to make him feel comfortable and in the quietest and most gentle way instruct him in this process, to create the bond that pays off obviously, in the movie.
Jennifer, it’s a very serious film – did you still manage to have any fun on set?
Jennifer: Well, we had baboons in our hotel room, which was kind of fabulous. They raided the mini-bar – they ate candy bars and when we came back they were dancing on the bed, little footprints on the couch.
But Leo and I had to do the scene where we were dancing, that was horrific, because we were sort of dancing, but we had a lot of dialogue, so clearly we couldn’t have any music, so there were lots of people there and the whole crew, and you get this feeling that everyone’s like, ‘oh right, let’s see what these two got’ and you’re going ‘no, really, we not going to dance, we just going to sway a little’ it was really embarrassing.