Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial endeavor J. Edgar opened in theaters yesterday (read our review). The film attempts to deconstruct the life of one of the most enigmatic, notorious, and controversial figures of the 20th century —  the father of modern law-enforcement, J. Edgar Hoover. The script by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) shifts back and forth between Hoover’s early days building the FBI into the later, more contentious, portion of his career. The film hopes to shed light a figure whose life story is the subject of continued rumor, speculation and conjecture.

J. Edgar’s director, scribe, and stars; Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson), and Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy) gathered recently at a press conference to discuss their understanding of a man who is at once reviled and revered.

We have provided excerpts from the event below.

DiCaprio opened the discussion with an overview of what drew him to the project.

Leonardo DiCaprio: “What I was fascinated by was his (Dustin Lance Black) take on entering J. Edgar Hoover’s career during a time of almost a terrorist invasion by Communists – the Red Scare – that sort of paranoia that was infused in our country, and the lawlessness of these bank robbers that were going from state to state and becoming free men when they crossed state lines, and how J. Edgar Hoover really transformed the police system in America and created this Federal Bureau that to this day is one of the most feared, respected and revered police forces in the entire world. Of course, this story goes on to his later years where he became, in essence, this political dinosaur who didn’t adapt to the changing of our country. It’s very much about the Kennedy years and the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King.”

The actor elaborated on his interpretation of the motives that drove Hoover to make (what to many are) truly reprehensible choices.

“The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was his staunch belief that Communism was an evil thing. He wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country, but when the Civil Rights movement came along, he saw that as an uprising of the people. He didn’t adapt or change to our country, and he stayed in power way too long and he didn’t listen to his own critics. He was a staunch believer in his moral beliefs and his beliefs about what was right for our country, and therefore his career ended on a failed note in my opinion. His portrait of this man was a very complex one and a very interesting one, and I just loved the research that he did and the take that he had on J. Edgar Hoover’s life, because you can’t deny that he wasn’t a patriot but at the same time his tactics were pretty deplorable.”

Leonardo DiCaprio Hoover Age Makeup Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood Ask: Who Was J. Edgar?

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover

DiCaprio has frequently been asked to discuss the work he did in order to portray Hoover in his later years. For the actor, it was the inner more than the outer work that presented the true challenge.

“For me it was not just the prosthetic work and how to move like an older man would move, but more so how to have 50 years of experience in the workplace and talk to a young Robert F. Kennedy as if he was some political upstart that didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. But, thankfully, Clint creates an environment for all of us to really focus on the acting and the drama and the interaction with the characters.”

As mentioned, the details of J. Edgar Hoover’s life have been shrouded in mystery, exaggeration, and in some cases lies, for years. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black spoke a bit about the approach he used to tackle a biopic about a man who was a master of secrets and misinformation.

Dustin Lance Black: “This was a tough one to research. I mean, if you read any of the biographies on J. Edgar Hoover, you find that they contradict each other more than they agree. Often times, they’re told from a political perspective. They feel like they have an agenda. For me, it was always important to answer that question of ‘Why?’ I know that this is someone who attained a lot of power and he maintained that power for longer than he probably should have, but I was so curious as to ‘why?’Because I thought that was how we could make this into an emotional story and that’s how maybe we could learn from it – both in the good that he did and the bad that he became. And, for me, that ‘why’ was answered with his inability to love and learning a lot about the atmosphere he grew up in.”

J Edgar with Leonardo DiCaprio and Naomi Watts Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood Ask: Who Was J. Edgar?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Naomi Watts in 'J. Edgar'

It is natural to look at the lives of historical figures and events in terms of how they relate to our contemporary lives. For the filmmakers, J. Edgar’s near all consuming need to hold on to power is reflective of authority figures in both commerce and politics. Though it is primarily the lingering questions about the tactics Hoover used (not the least of which was the continual use of  illegal wiretapping) that continue to haunt our public discourse today.

Cling Eastwood: “With people in high office, they go into the extreme, which is absolute power and absolute power corrupts and what have you, so there’s always the corrupting thing with the 48-year stint as the director of the Bureau of Investigation. And because he formed it all and he had the trust of various executives along the way, they just relied on him and nobody could remove him. There are so many parallels in society today that you can use, whether it’s the head of a studio or a head of an organization, a major newspaper, a major factory or company, of people who stay too long, maybe, and overstay their usefulness.”

Leonardo DiCaprio: “It’s interesting in this day and age to do a film about political espionage and wiretapping. I don’t think that those kinds of secrets that J. Edgar Hoover was able to obtain and keep for such a long period of time would be possible in today’s world, with the Internet, Wikileaks… It doesn’t seem like those kinds of secrets can be kept for that long period of time. This is a different day and age, and there were huge, catastrophic events that were going to happen if we didn’t have a federal police system like that investigating a lot activities that were going on in our country. It still goes on to this day, obviously. I mean, it’s an argument or a topic that people could talk about until they’re blue in the face, whether that type of information being released to the public is a positive or a negative thing. I suppose it depends on the particular event or subject matter. But I don’t think that J. Edgar Hoover would be able to do the same job in today’s era with all this massive distribution of information in a matter of seconds. It was a different era and time.”

Clint Eastwood: “He sure would be able to store the material easy. Just go around with a little iPad and have everybody in there.”

Naomi Watts: “No shredding involved.”

Leonardo DiCaprio: “I think Lance put it best when he said, ‘Look, if we can better understand these people and their motivations and how this event manifested itself to their politics, we can learn from them. We can learn from history.'”

There is a possibility that audience members may walk away from this film with more questions than answers. For DiCaprio ambiguity was a part of the nature of the man.

Leonardo DiCaprio: “To me, you couldn’t write a character like J. Edgar Hoover and have it be believable. I mean, he was a crock pot of eccentricities. We couldn’t even fit all his eccentricities into this movie. The fact that this man was, like he said, 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. 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. Yet he was a mama’s boy. He was incredibly repressed emotionally. His only outlet was his job. He wasn’t allowed to have any kind of personal relationships. No matter what his sexual orientation was, he was devoted to his job and power was paramount to him and holding onto that power at all costs was the most important thing in his life.”

J. Edgar opened in theaters on November 9th in a limited release and goes into wide release on Friday, November 11th.

Learn more about DiCaprio’s environmental work at savetigersnow.

Follow me on twitter @jrothc

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