Dec. 27, 2012 at 9:20 AM ET
He famously played doomed sweetheart Jack Dawson in 1997's "Titanic," but all trace of that charm and kindness is gone in Leonardo DiCaprio's current role, as cruel slaveowner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained."
"He's the most deplorable human being I've ever read in a screenplay in my life," DiCaprio told Willie Geist on TODAY Thursday. "He was rotting from the inside. He was, you know, a young Louis the XIV that had been brought into a world of entitlement and lived his life ... essentially owning other people."
DiCaprio has said that he was uncomfortable using the N-word in the film, and told Geist that his co-stars encouraged him to do what was right for the role despite his own feelings. "It was Sam Jackson and Jamie Foxx that said, 'You really have to go all the way with this man.'"
Even filmmaker Tarantino, who created Candie's character, said the plantation owner, who forces slaves to fight to the death, was the first villain he'd written who he didn't like. Still, DiCaprio says he had to take the role.
"It was an incredibly colorful character and I just had to ... I had to play him," DiCaprio told Geist.
But he really got into the role; at one point, when Candie is making his point by pounding his hand on a table, DiCaprio actually broke a wine glass and impaled himself on the stem. But he considered going on with the scene: "The choice was I supposed to go on and finish my speech or not, and then I noticed that blood was pouring everywhere," he said. "It was very interesting to see Quentin's and Jamie's reaction off screen."
The film marks the first collaboration for DiCaprio and Tarantino, and the actor had praise for the "Pulp Fiction" filmmaker. "It really takes a director like Quentin Tarantino to say, 'Look, this is ... the time period that I want to do a film about and I want to go to these extremes,'" DiCaprio said. "'And it's also going to be an incredibly entertaining movie.'"
DiCaprio also mused on his sudden fame after his "Titanic" role, joking that he should have taken advantage of his fame then to make more movies, but noting that the success of the film gave him leverage in his career. Still, he says, he doesn't recognize the young man proclaiming himself "king of the world!" on the doomed ship.
"When you see yourself at that age, and I look at some of my earlier films, it's ... you see a different person," he told Geist. "I don't know what would it be like to have a conversation with that young man."