The Sunday Times – July 28, 2019

Two weeks ago, I was in a room when Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio walked in. It was Beverly Hills, so that’s not unusual, but this was Brad and Leo, for goodness sake, the biggest pin-ups of the past quarter-century. The room was filled with power, history and informative hair. Pitt’s is long and loose, projecting the cool confidence that comes from a totally relaxed sense of self. DiCaprio, on the other hand, has a short and tidy do, suitable for a man who is guarded, quieter — the one you would choose as best man if you wanted a speech that wouldn’t offend the aunties. Pitt would organise the stag do, which would end five days after it started.

It is clear they are very different men, despite being two of a rare kind. Both have had careers marked by immense success and considerable quality since the 1990s: Pitt’s break came in Thelma & Louise in 1991, and DiCaprio made a name for himself two years later with This Boy’s Life. Now, thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, they finally share a screen.

Were they friends before? “The way it works in our community,” Pitt says as the pair settle on a sofa, DiCaprio looking off to the side while Pitt stares right at me, “is, we all go off and do work, and maybe cross paths at the end of the year, in awards season. Then it depends on the right story [to bring us together].”

So they’re not close. Do they, though, know if they were ever the last two for a role that one ended up getting? “We are in a fortunate position to be spoken about for a lot of similar roles,” DiCaprio, 44, says pleasantly. “But I can’t remember any specific ones.” He turns to Pitt, who grins. “I passed on Titanic,” he says cheekily, blue eyes starting to wink. He smiles and looks at least 15 years younger than his 55. The beatnik to DiCaprio’s businessman, he leans in a lot, showing off his tattooed arms, while his clean-cut co-star remains largely still. What did they treasure from working together? “The candlelit dinners,” Pitt says, cackling. He really is an energy. “I’m sorry. It’s late in the day, I’m getting punchy!”

Once Upon a Time is such an ideal vehicle for these two, it is hard to imagine it working without them. Indeed, they are so at ease on screen, they sometimes appear to be playing versions of themselves. The year is 1969, and DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a pin-up from the 1950s feeling left behind. Pitt is Cliff Booth, Dalton’s stunt double and friend. A lot of the film just shows them driving around LA, listening to brilliantly curated pop songs. Far from unpleasant, certainly, but not what you will remember, given that Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate and Charles Manson’s violent cult peers into every frame.

What happens will split viewers. (No spoilers, as it is best to find out for yourself.) It is key, though, that this film has the support of Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister, and I found the finale sweet and sad. It is a haunting movie, funny in places, but both a love and a poison-pen letter, mature and extremely tense. It’s easily Tarantino’s best since Pulp Fiction — it reminds me of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, with its nostalgia and broken dreams — and is bigger than the town it is tied to. It makes you miss people you’ve lost, and might be the first Tarantino film to make you cry.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of the Manson “Family” killing Tate — who was almost nine months pregnant — and four others in the house that the actress shared with her husband, Roman Polanski (who was away), at 10050 Cielo Drive. DiCaprio seems surprised by this half-century news. “Did [Tarantino] plan that?” he asks, maybe shocked. “That’s interesting. Did he plan that?” He looks over to the window and it is hard to know if he is joking.

Anyway, Once Upon a Time looks back romantically at the end of the 1960s, its cinema in particular. It was a hell of an era. “Man, there was great stuff,” Pitt says wistfully. “Bonnie and Clyde. Easy Rider.” He pauses, and he and DiCaprio coo “The Graduate” as one. “And,” Pitt continues, “from that into the 1970s, with Scorsese, Coppola and Dog Day Afternoon.” “I’d argue that was the pinnacle,” DiCaprio adds, and Pitt nods, on a roll now, spouting fantastic actors and films. “Gene Hackman! Oh God, the list goes on. It’s funny, they are still the films I go back to. The French Connection! There was real gutsy film-making.”

Fast-forward to 2069, though, and how will people look back at this era? “Who knows?” Pitt says. “I’m curious to see. There is a plethora of streaming now, and unless the communal cinematic experience is reinvented and reignited… well, I don’t know. Maybe we’re dinosaurs, but look at the 1990s, when we hit a wall with Stallone and Schwarzenegger films, and up comes this kid Tarantino, so, suddenly, indie cinema is off and running. It’s constantly in flux. I can’t say I miss anything. I’m along for the ride. I’m all for change.”

“I basically only watch old movies, so am living in constant nostalgia,” DiCaprio says, smiling. “But, on television, there’s a new multimillion-dollar production every day, so this cinematic experience is almost becoming a relic, and what is concerning is the amount of content everyone is inundated with. When we loved a film, it would be talked about for years. I hope some things will last.”

If the late 1960s was a golden age, though, Manson was its tarnish. The murders are described by Tarantino as being “like we’ve got a perfectly good body, and we inject it with a deadly virus”. Pitt was five at the time, DiCaprio five years off being born — but both know much changed overnight.

“When my parents described it,” DiCaprio says, “it was as the end of this idealised revolution. My parents are still hippies, but it was the loss of this dream. As Quentin describes, you sort of portray this utopia, but there is a mildew around the canvas that brought the darkness of humanity into play and ended a lot of my parents’ hopes for how they could infuse that ‘love and peace’ ideology into the rest of the world. It all sort of crashed, and ended so much that some talk of it as a conspiracy. It was the total end of an era — immediately.”

“People started locking doors again,” Pitt says. “We were coming off a tumultuous decade of assassinations and the free-love and civil rights movements, and, as I understand it, there was still hope. But when this hit? And even rich white celebrities were in danger? No one was safe. Even people living the dream.”

Has anything since rattled Hollywood to a similar extent? “Harvey Weinstein,” Pitt replies without hesitation. Then he looks at DiCaprio. “Can I say that?” His co-star nods. “Is that bad taste?” Does he mean a similar loss of innocence in a world that was cocooned and thought of in a glorified way? “It’s more that I think we’re getting recalibrated,” Pitt argues. “But in a good way.”

Weinstein is an edgy comparison. After all, Once Upon a Time is the first movie Tarantino has made without the producer since his debut, Reservoir Dogs. “I knew enough to do more than I did,” the director said at the time of the accusations, and his camera still leers — a lot — at women, but when Pitt says there is “a very innocent, loving side to him that comes out in this film and doesn’t show much in earlier work”, I agree entirely.

Masculinity, though, of all the film’s meandering themes, is a topic it keeps returning to — sometimes obviously, mostly obliquely, the gist being that, in the late 1960s, the idea of what it meant to be a man shifted. The type of actor DiCaprio plays — the stoic Dalton, with his chiselled pompadour — was out of fashion, replaced by a new androgyny of long hair and feelings, men such as Dustin Hoffman and Peter Fonda. That, though, was decades ago, and over the past few years the idea of what it is to be a man has again been questioned.

So I ask two of the most famous men in the world exactly how it has changed. “That’s a tough question,” says DiCaprio, who doesn’t carry on. “Yeah, that’s a real tough one,” adds Pitt, who does. “When I started, I loved Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn. I loved them because there was a toughness to them, which was how the male I’d grown up being taught about was meant to be. But they were also vulnerable, raw and open, and I always appreciated that.

“What I see now,” he continues, on the edge of his seat, clearly enjoying the subject, “is a new masculinity, especially with people who have gone through Hollywood and its recalibration, a new male who is more vulnerable. I’m not talking mushiness — I mean a man who owns his own flaws and is aware of them and open about it. And vulnerable, with real feelings, rather than being this macho, trying-to-be-tough guy. But that might just be me in my old age, on my own trip, projecting onto everyone else.”

When Pitt, who was born in Oklahoma, arrived in LA, he bought a newspaper, signed up for extras work and went to McDonald’s. He recalls driving down Wilshire Boulevard in his “dented Datsun”, struck by the place and its potential. “Datsun?” says DiCaprio, a native of the city, impressed. “Datsun 210?” “300ZX, my friend.” Pitt was so thrilled to be making it in films that, when he started, he planned to take home hats from sets as souvenirs. “Hats were going to become my thing, but when I brought home the fishing hat from A River Runs Through It, the dog chewed it up. I thought ‘F*** it’, and haven’t taken anything since.”

Such nonchalance is key to Booth, his character in Once Upon a Time. In fact, it is largely a hangout movie, observing a man who sits at the same table as famous people, but is always served second — and is OK with that. Dalton, on the other hand, is worried. He is running out of relevance; living next door to Polanski, who in 1969 was revelling in the success of Rosemary’s Baby, just makes him feel useless. In one brilliant CGI scene, DiCaprio replaces Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, since, in Tarantino’s world, Dalton almost got the role when McQueen had second thoughts. He didn’t, of course, and is unsure what he will get next.

DiCaprio, though, has been nominated for five acting Oscars and won one. His films have made billions, my favourite being The Wolf of Wall Street. His personal life has always been private: no children, lots of long-lens photos of him on yachts with models. Pitt has had three acting Oscar nominations, and his films have made billions too, my standout being Fight Club. His private life has been extremely public: six children, two high-profile divorces. Neither has really endured a fallow period, but the worries of the acting profession seem perennial.

I ask if Pitt and DiCaprio will always have self-doubt. “Humans do,” Pitt replies calmly. He would be great by a campfire. “It’s a constant battle. You gain wisdom as you get older, so self-doubt gets less, hopefully. But it’s universal, that battle in the mind between beating yourself up and finding a place of peace. It is something an individual has to be aware of inside, so sure, to some degree [there is insecurity]. But hopefully the focus as you get older is on acceptance.”

“What was it?” DiCaprio asks rhetorically of Tarantino’s script. “Sharon represents hope? Rick represents doubt? Cliff is acceptance?”

“Well, it’s this Zen Buddhist air Quentin wrote into Cliff,” Pitt says, picking up the theme, increasingly Zen himself. “It’s no hassle in the castle, man. We’ll figure it out as we go along, and I really appreciate that in people — the ability to embrace where you’re existing. It’s what I like about Cliff and Rick. They are flip sides of that argument that’s always gone on, at least in my mind. You’re dealing with your shortcomings and punishing yourself, then you get to a place where you know everything is going to be all right.” He smiles and shrugs. He’s done OK.

“It’s about being at the right place at the right time,” DiCaprio adds of their long, ridiculous careers. “We both know how lucky we are to be here.”

They are whisked off to the autograph hunters, a continuing circus they have known all their adult lives. I walk to Cielo Drive, where the chances of others were taken away. The musician Trent Reznor rented Tate’s home in the 1990s to record an album, before he met her sister, who felt he had been exploiting Sharon’s memory. There is still a naff industry for the murders. Indeed, one operator charges $500 for a two-hour tour of the murder sites. When I suggested that was steep, they cited “love” and “money”, adding: “We wish you the best telling the story of the magical time of Tinseltown!”

Magical? “Pig” was scrawled on the front door in Tate’s blood. Anyway, the house has gone now, and the street, just as it would have been in 1969, is very quiet, a haven — nobody heard the screams. Robbie calls the film a “celebration of [Sharon’s] life”, and it is. You may not agree, but, for me, the claim put to Tarantino at a press conference in Cannes that Tate barely has any dialogue doesn’t wash. It is more complex than that. Lush and green, Cielo Drive feels peaceful now and, to my surprise, the film also offers its former resident some peace. Which sounds like something Pitt would say, late at night with tequila, before telling you about the time he turned down Romeo + Juliet.

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is released on August 14