James Cameron reveals how Leonardo DiCaprio almost lost ‘Titanic’ role

‘You’re going to read, or you’re not going to get the part’

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Titanic helped turn Leonardo DiCaprio into a global movie star back in 1997. But according to the film’s writer and director, James Cameron, he almost didn’t land the part of Jack Dawson in the Oscar winning smash hit.

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In a recent interview with GQ to promote the upcoming release of his long-awaited Avatar sequel, Cameron recalled how DiCaprio — who was 23 when the film opened in theaters — originally refused to read for the part of Jack opposite Kate Winslet during an early screen test.

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“Leo came in — of course, charmed everybody, myself included,” Cameron, 68, recalled. “And I said, ‘Alright, let’s see what your chemistry’s like with Kate.'”

When the Oscar winner returned, he thought it was just to have another face-to-face with Winslet.

“So he came back a couple of days later, and I had the camera set up to record the video. He didn’t know he was going to test. He thought it was another meeting to meet Kate. So I said, ‘OK, we’ll just go in the next room, and we’ll run some lines and I’ll video it,’” Cameron continued.

“And he said, ‘You mean, I’m reading?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Oh, I don’t read.’ I shook his hand and said, ‘Thanks for coming by.’ And he said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. If I don’t read, I don’t get the part? Just like that?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah. Come on. This is a giant movie that is going to take two years of my life, and you’ll be gone doing five other things while I’m doing post-production. So, I’m not going to f— it up by making the wrong decision in casting. So, you’re going to read, or you’re not going to get the part.’”

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With other actors up for the part, including Matthew McConaughey, DiCaprio agreed but was clearly unhappy with Cameron’s request right up until they began filming.

“He comes in, and he’s like every ounce of his entire being is just rest negative — right up until I said, ‘Action.’ Then he turned into Jack,” the director revealed. “Kate just lit up, and they played the scene. Dark clouds had opened up, and a ray of sun came down and lit up Jack. I’m like, ‘All right. He’s the guy.’”

Titanic was a massive box office hit, becoming the number one grossing movie of all time (a record it held until Cameron released Avatar in 2009). The film also was an awards season powerhouse, winning 11 of the 14 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Best Director.

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In the years since its release, Cameron has defended Jack’s death at the end of the film after many critics — including the Mythbusters — contended that Dawson could have fit on the door with Winslet’s Rose after the ship sank.

James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the set of Titanic.
James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the set of Titanic. Photo by 20th Century Fox

But speaking with Vanity Fair to celebrate the 20th anniversary in 2017, Cameron revealed that the beloved screen character could not live for artistic reasons.

“The answer is very simple because it says on page 147 [of the script] that Jack dies. Very simple,” Cameron tells Vanity Fair. “Obviously it was an artistic choice, the thing was just big enough to hold her, and not big enough to hold him… I think it’s all kind of silly, really, that we’re having this discussion 20 years later. But it does show that the film was effective in making Jack so endearing to the audience that it hurts them to see him die. Had he lived, the ending of the film would have been meaningless. … The film is about death and separation; he had to die. So whether it was that, or whether a smoke stack fell on him, he was going down. It’s called art, things happen for artistic reasons, not for physics reasons.”

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After a Mythbusters episode theorized that Jack could have survived by tying Rose’s life vest under the door, Cameron was again on the defensive.

“OK, so let’s really play that out: you’re Jack, you’re in water that’s 28 degrees; your brain is starting to get hypothermia,” Cameron told the Daily Beast. “Mythbusters asks you to now go take off your life vest, take hers off, swim underneath this thing, attach it in some way that it won’t just wash out two minutes later—which means you’re underwater tying this thing on in 28-degree water, and that’s going to take you five to 10 minutes, so by the time you come back up you’re already dead. So that wouldn’t work.”

Elsewhere in his GQ interview, Cameron revealed that the new Avatar movie is so expensive it will need to earn at least $2 billion at the worldwide box office, and become the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time, just to break even.

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“You have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history. That’s your threshold. That’s your break even,” he said.

Cameron’s original Avatar leads the box office pack with $2.9 billion, followed by Avengers: Endgame ($2.7 billion) and Titanic ($2.1 billion). To earn his money back, Avatar: The Way of Water will have to catch Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2.07 billion) and Avengers: Infinity War ($2.05 billion) on the worldwide money charts.

But in a 2019 interview with the SunCameron promised the sequel would be worth the wait.

“I deal with images in that world every single day and there are some days when I look at those images and say, ‘This is really amazing,'” Cameron said. “I’m not patting myself on the back with that comment.”

Avatar: The Way of Water opens in theaters Dec. 16.

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