Opening wide on Friday, J. Edgar marks a tremendous pooling of top-level Hollywood talent. Directed by legendary actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Federal Bureau of Investigation founder and director J. Edgar Hoover, Naomi Watts as Hoover’s secretary, Helen Gandy, and Armie Hammer as his right-hand-man, Clyde Tolson. Boasting a screenplay by Milk writer Dustin Lance Black, the Warner Bros. film was produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Robert Lorenz.
“I think all of us, as actors, were very fascinated by these men and women who devoted their life to government service,” explained DiCaprio at the film’s press conference. “That meant not having any personal life whatsoever. They were a representation of the FBI. That was their church. It’s a hard concept for me to wrap my head around. To not have any sort of love in your life. To never experience that on any personal level. All three of these characters lived a life of service to their country.”
Flashing back from the end of Hoover’s life to the beginning of the FBI and to all the years in-between, J. Edgar paints a portrait not only of Hoover’s life, but also of those who stood by his side for decades.
“[Helen] wanted that career and just went after it,” explained Watts of her character’s decades of devoted to service. “She loved serving her country and making those sacrifices. She had unbelievable loyalty and that’s what I loved about the tone of the whole film. That’s a big subject in the film, the loyalty… That’s an inspiration for all women to see a woman thinking and moving differently from those around her.”
“At first, I didn’t understand it,” Hammer admitted of his initial approach to Black’s script. “For J. Edgar, the character, there’s a lot going on and it’s very layered and Leo did an incredible job nailing it. But for Clyde, I thought that in order for it to make sense for him to be there and to stick around and to almost take that sort of hot and cold abuse, it had to be a love story. At first, when I read it, I didn’t understand the love story. I didn’t understand why Clyde stuck around. I understood why Hoover wanted him around and why it was dangerous and titillating to have him around, but it didn’t make sense why Clyde would stick around.”
The private of life of Hoover plays a major role in the film, balancing solid facts about the man himself with recurring rumors and impressions gathered by Black during his research process, which included getting first hand accounts from those that worked with Hoover in his later years.
“If you read any of the biographies on J. Edgar Hoover,” Black explained, “you find that they contradict each other more than they agree… There are some people who say that this man was just a hero and that he was married to his FBI. Part of that might be true. Others say he was just a villain and that he ran around in cocktail dresses.”
“No matter what his sexual orientation was,” added DiCaprio, “he was devoted to his job and power was paramount to him. Holding onto that power at all costs was the most important thing in his life… The one thing that was prevalent throughout his entire career was the staunch belief that communism was an evil thing. He wanted to retain the fundamental principles of democracy in our country. When the civil rights movement came along, he saw that an uprising of the people. He didn’t adapt or change to our country and he stayed in power way too long and didn’t listen to his own critics.”
While the line between fact and fiction are intentionally blurred for much of the film, the narrative moves back and forth between the dual time periods of Hoover’s rise and his final days in office. Oftentimes, Eastwood employs matching shots of DiCaprio and Hammer as young men in the 30s and, then again in heavy age makeup nearly four decades later.
“What I was fascinated by was [Black’s] take on entering J. Edgar Hoover’s career during a time of almost a terrorist invasion by communists,” said DiCaprio. “The Red Scare. That sort of paranoia that was infused in our country and the sort of lawlessness of these gangsters that were going from state to state and becoming free men when they crossed state lines. Of how J. Edgar Hoover really changed the police system in America and created this Federal Bureau that, to this day, is one of the most feared and respected and revered police forces in the entire world. Of course, the story goes on to his later years where he became this, in essence, 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.”
Of course, moving from a man in his 30s to one in his 70s is no easy feat and all three leading actors spent as much as eight hours a day in makeup for the final two weeks of shooting, arranged by Eastwood to take place at the tail end of production.
“That was one of the helpful things about the makeup,” explained Hammer. “Yeah, it was an odious process putting it on, but once it was on, if you caught a glimpse of yourself in a reflective surface, it wasn’t you pretending to be old. It was just an old you…. Then watching videos on stroke victims and watching how it affects hand movements and gestures is part of it.”
“Having an 81-year-old director right there in front of you,” added Eastwood with a laugh.
Despite Eastwood’s age, Hammer insists that the director was one of the most vigorous members of the crew. He recalled a fight scene between his character and Hoover that the director had to map out.
“Clint decided to show us,” he smiled, “He was there with his buddy, Buddy Van Horn, who he’s been with since ‘Rawhide’… They basically just had a fight right in front of us. These two guys guys start wailing on each other, rolling around on the ground. Clint gets up at the end and dusts himself off and goes, ‘Something like that.'”
Though primarily known as a director these days, Eastwood’s interest in bringing Hoover’s life to the screen appealed to the actor in him as well.
“Hoover, I’m sure, felt that he was right in everything that he did,” he explained. “Even in the things that we don’t like about his character. Everybody always feels that they’re right
even if they’re wrong. That’s what an actor’s whole career is based around: rationalizing your way into whatever you’re playing.”
Regardless of whether audience members leave the theater ready to celebrate or condemn the real J. Edgar Hoover, DiCaprio hopes that they’ll at least understand the true range of the man’s ambition and how any noble act can, over time, be tainted by dogma.
“There are extreme beliefs about this man because he did extreme things, both good and bad,” said the actor. “You can’t deny that he wasn’t a patriot but, at the same time, his tactics were pretty deplorable… I hope we can continue to further the good that he started but also not make the mistakes that he made.”
Now in a limited release, you can catch J. Edgar in theaters everywhere on November 11th.