"I think [screenwriter] Dustin Lance Black put it best when he said if we can better understand these people and their motivations and how their sort of ambition manifested itself into their politics, we can learn from them, we can learn from history," DiCaprio said at a recent Los Angeles news conference promoting his new bio-picture "J. Edgar."
"To me, you couldn't write a character like J. Edgar Hoover and have it be believable," the actor laughed. "He was a Crock-Pot of eccentricities. We couldn't even fit all of his eccentricities into this movie. We could go on and on, but the fact that this man was, if not the most powerful man in the last century, one of the most, in our country, and he lived with his mother until he was 40 years old. He listened to his mother for political advice."
DiCaprio said his research into Hoover's childhood offered some valuable insight into the controversial top cop Hoover would become.
"[His mother] wanted the Hoover name to rise to great glory in Washington and so he was this incredibly ambitious young genius that really transformed our country and created this federal bureau that, to this day, is revered and feared, and yet he was a mama's boy," the actor explained. "He was incredibly repressed emotionally. His only outlet was his job. He wasn't allowed to have any kind of personal relationships or he felt that. And no matter what his sexual orientation was, he was devoted to his job and power was paramount to him and holding on to that power at all costs was the most important thing in his life. He should have retired much sooner than he did and many presidents tries to oust him later on in his career ... . He didn't adapt or change to our country and that is one of the most important things a political leader could do."
While preparing for the role, DiCaprio said he went to Washington and met with people who actually knew Hoover.
"To understand and capture this guy to the best of my abilities, that's half the fun of making a movie for me. It was an incredible education," the actor said. "It was like doing a college course on J. Edgar Hoover, but not only understanding the history and reading the books, but understanding what motivated this man was the most fascinating part of the research."
The 37-year-old star of "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet," "Titanic," "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator" and "The Departed" also acknowledged how, despite Hoover's myriad innovative contributions to contemporary law-enforcement, he ultimately became a polarizing figure for abusing his power by harassing people and using illegal means to obtain evidence.
"I don't have to sympathize or empathize with a human being in order to be able to portray them. Some of the greatest roles actors have been able to play haven't been the most endearing on screen," he said.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, "J. Edgar" is in theaters now.