LOS ANGELES — For nearly five decades, J. Edgar Hoover was the face of law enforcement in the U.S., but to most Americans, the longtime Federal Bureau of Investigations director remains an enigma. “J. Edgar,” directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, chronicles the FBI founder’s controversial tenure as a hunter of gangsters and a collector of secrets and explores his mystery-shrouded private life, defined by a devoted relationship to his colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Last week at Warner Bros. studio — on the stage where they shot much of the film — Eastwood, DiCaprio and Hammer spoke about Hoover’s public legacy, his secrets and the future of adult dramas in contemporary Hollywood. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
“J. Edgar,” which was written by Dustin Lance Black and also stars Naomi Watts as Hoover’s trusted secretary, Helen Gandy, and Judi Dench as his imperious mother, opens in limited release Wednesday and goes wide Friday.
Q. Why J. Edgar Hoover?
Eastwood: I started hearing about him in the ‘30s. I don’t want to grab seniority on you all — he was always the top cop. And so I was fascinated by what he was about. When I read Lance’s material, I became somewhat infatuated with the subject.
Q. Your two actors sitting at this table were born after Hoover died, and many movie-goers are as well. What would you say to them to make them curious about this man?
Eastwood: It’s hard to tell what will stimulate curiosity nowadays because looking at some of the things that do excite people, you kind of go, “Ohh, OK. So this hasn’t a chance.” But we made it anyway. I think if people see the picture, they’ll find a lot of parallels to today, ever since 9/11 and everything, that kind of fear that’s going on in disturbance of the country.And Lance was smart enough to put it in. Leo, Armie, everybody went along with that thing “if you don’t pay attention to history, you’re destined to repeat it.” That’s kind of the message of the picture, or one of them.
Q. No one really knows the true nature of Hoover and Tolson’s relationship. We only know that they were close. As an actor, do you have to make a decision for yourself about what did or didn’t happen between them?
DiCaprio: There are all kinds of rumors in both directions. You talk to the FBI, they’ll tell you “Absolutely not. These men, they were of service to their country. They do their jobs.” And you talk to a whole other crew of people, and they say, “Absolutely, without question. These men vacationed together. They lived together. Hoover left Mr. Tolson everything he had when he passed away.” Y’know. Come on. The way I looked at it was, they’re obviously inseparable. They obviously have a great amount of respect for each other. And there is a love there, something that in this film was never culminated, but there is a huge connection between these two men that you cannot question, that no one can question. These two men spent almost every minute together for decades.
Hammer: It was also at such a different time that, at 25 years old I would never understand what it’s like to not be able to be myself. And these guys, if they did just go “I love you,” not “we’re having sex,” not anything like that but just “I love you, who you are as a person, I have great respect and a tremendous amount of love for you,” it would cost them their job. It would cost them their friends, their social standing, all that. It’s a very difficult thing to understand in this day and age how repressed that can be.
Q. What kind of direction did Clint give you about this relationship?
DiCaprio: His philosophy is no rehearsal. And that causes you as an actor to make these decisions for yourself…. When we did certain scenes, whether it was hand-holding or not, we did one that was a little more, (one) a little less. And we kept that sort of ambiguous. Clint kind of instilled in us, “Let’s keep this up to interpretation, however people want to perceive this.”
Hammer: It was also interesting that we didn’t explicitly have these conversations because these guys might not have explicitly had these conversations. So there was a little bit of not really knowing how far we’re taking this, not really knowing what’s going on. It added a little bit of an unrest to it and an uncomfortability that I think read on the screen when you see these two guys meet. They don’t know what’s going on. How do we know what’s going on?
Q. Why do you think Tolson was so loyal to Hoover?
Hammer: This is a conversation I had with myself a lot before we started this project. It seems like it’s “I need you to be with me,” “Now you walk home,” “Now I need you.” That kind of thing. It seemed a little like an abusive relationship. So I had dinner with a buddy of mine who’s gay, and I just sort of walked through everything that happened in the script, and he goes, “You break my heart.” And I go, “Why?” He goes, “Well, now I’m convinced you’re 100 percent heterosexual ... That’s just the deal if you see even a spark of something in someone where they look at you and they go, ‘I care about you. I could be there for you.’” And that’s really all Clyde wanted out of Hoover was for him to make those little gestures. That’s what kept him around.
Q. There’s a very small group of people in Hollywood able to get this kind of film made right now. Was it hard to get a studio to green light this movie?
Eastwood: It’s getting smaller all the time. Everybody wants to make something they think is a surefire winner, though nobody knows what a surefire winner is, in my opinion. If you can make a good picture that actually has some substance, that’s doubly good nowadays ‘cause most everybody else is trying to address how many CGI plates we’re gonna do, what little being is gonna come in from another asteroid ...
DiCaprio: ... little being from another asteroid? You’ve got me laughing on that one.
Eastwood: Well, that’s the thing I can think of that I’d hate to do the most. Whatever the formula of the moment is, I’m glad I’m not making it.
DiCaprio: There has been a complete dropoff of rated-R dramas anywhere above $30 million. They just don’t exist. I did “Blood Diamond,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed,” I don’t think any of those movies would be made right now. Anything that has any sort of edge to it, those movies aren’t being made.
Q. What is the budget for “J. Edgar”?
Eastwood: $35 million.
Q. Is the industry aversion to R-rated dramas a cyclical thing?
Eastwood: Everything is cyclical. It’s all about that first-weekend box office. I don’t know if “Double Indemnity” or “Sunset Boulevard” or “On the Waterfront” would get made today. Everybody would go, “Oh, who wants to see a picture about dock workers?” I’ve been through it with two pictures in a row, with “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby.” I approached Warner Bros. and another studio simultaneously, and the other studio said, “We don’t do dramas.” I said, “You don’t do dramas? What are we doing here?”
DiCaprio: It does feel like the middle ground has fallen out. I’m only saying that from personal experience, saying, “I’d like to make that movie” and hearing, “Oh, they’re not making those types of movies anymore.”
Eastwood: You have to go with your instincts. I remember when I was about to make “Fistful of Dollars” a big article came out that said, “Italian Westerns are finished.” I said, “Swell.” Then, of course, (the film) came out, and it did something. I’m so glad for the dozens of times I haven’t listened along the way.