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Why Leo DiCaprio was never the same after The Revenant

When Leonardo DiCaprio appeared in the 2015 film The Revenant, it represented a turning point in his decades-long career. He had already established himself as one of the best actors of his generation, but while playing Hugh Glass, a trapper who survived in the Canadian wilderness in the 1800s, he had to push himself far beyond his limits. He found himself in situations that tested his skills as an actor like nothing else had before. From withstanding freezing temperatures outside to scrambling to shoot during the hour-and-a-half of adequate natural sunlight each day, DiCaprio proved he could take on any challenge that director Alejandro Iñárritu threw at him, and his efforts finally earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor.

But something about the experience of shooting The Revenant seems to have changed DiCaprio, and it wasn't finally winning that little golden statue. After taking on the role of Glass, DiCaprio has never really been the same. Here's why shooting The Revenant left DiCaprio feeling like he couldn't go back to the man he was before.

The physical demands for The Revenant were intense

Shooting The Revenant was absolutely grueling for everyone involved. The cast was outside in a cold, hostile landscape, and conditions were so unbearable that many of the crew members couldn't quit fast enough. DiCaprio had never experienced anything like it before as an actor. Even spending hours working in giant tanks of water for Titanic felt like a breeze compared to trekking through snow while wearing a soaking wet bearskin. When the film was released, the shooting conditions got just as much buzz as the film itself. After all, it was hard to believe that it was possible for the actors to work in that environment.

DiCaprio described this particular role as the "epitome" of pain. "From the outset, Alejandro had an extraordinary vision: to create a film the likes of which audiences had never seen before," he told The Telegraph about director Alejandro Iñárritu. "You don't get those sort of results without going above and beyond the call of duty." In some way, it must have been transformative to push himself so hard for the sake of his craft. But there's no way a man can go through something like that and come out the other side as the same person. Daily life in normal civilization must feel a bit too easy and shallow in comparison.

DiCaprio took some time off

As soon as shooting for The Revenant was finally over, DiCaprio was ready to take some time off for himself. There was no doubt that he wanted to relax and physically recover, as his body probably needed it. When asked to rate how hard it was to play Glass on a scale of one to ten, DiCaprio definitively answered, "Ten." He didn't want to dive right into whatever his next role would be without taking a sabbatical of sorts.

There was plenty of talk about what his next move would be after winning that well-deserved Oscar, but DiCaprio was in no rush to get back in front of the camera just yet. In fact, he wouldn't act again for several years. His next film, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, wouldn't be released until 2019. But this is DiCaprio we're talking about — taking a couple of years off wasn't going to hurt his career in any way. He could come back at whenever he wanted and still have his pick of amazing offers.

Seeing climate change up close

So what was DiCaprio up to during those years when he wasn't acting? Well, he was devoting most of his time to activism. Ever since his early 20s, DiCaprio has been interested in using his platform to advocate for sustainability and raise public awareness about climate change. In 1998, he met with former vice president Al Gore to discuss protecting endangered species, and he began donating millions to the cause. But what was it about shooting The Revenant that made him even more motivated when it comes to environmentalism?

While filming, the cast and crew was essentially forced to witness the effects of climate change up close. They had originally planned to shoot in Canada, but they had to switch to Argentina instead because there simply wasn't enough snow up north. At the time, 2015 was the hottest year in global history (now, 2016 holds the top spot). "We are actually seeing the tipping point happen right now," DiCaprio told The Telegraph. It was one thing to hear about global warming, but seeing it in person made him confront the dire situation head-on.

Reflecting on human nature

There were two major themes in The Revenant. Yes, nature is beautiful, but it's brutal, and we need to respect that it's unforgiving. But there's another underlying message, too: Human beings have always been brutal to each other. Stepping into Glass' shoes deeply affected DiCaprio and made him realize this aspect of human nature hasn't disappeared in modern times. We may be more peaceful and tolerant towards each other on average, but that destructive tendency can still be seen in the way we treat the natural world.

Chopping down forests, burning fossil fuels, polluting the environment, building over animals' habitats, and ignoring the rising temperatures and sea levels in favor of endless growth — it's all taking a serious toll. As DiCaprio put it in an interview with Time Out, "You look back at that time [in The Revenant], and this surge west — extracting resources from nature, killing off indigenous Native American tribes, cutting down the trees, and digging for oil, and you think, 'Oh my God, look how brutal we were.' But I wonder how people are going to look back at this time period now. We are destroying nature and killing species at a rate that is unprecedented."

The Revenant was a spiritual experience

How would you even come back to the real world after taking part in a film like The Revenant? It would definitely make it more difficult to relate to other people, and it would probably make you consider your connection to nature and reflect on your place in the universe. It's certainly not a stretch to say that DiCaprio probably felt like working on this film was a spiritual exercise. Looking back on The Revenant, DiCaprio says that it felt like a dream, and he remarked that he essentially remembers it as a "big, beautiful blur."

DiCaprio has also referred to his environmental activism as "a form of spirituality." He's even said that visiting places that are "pristine and untouched by man" is "almost a religious experience." Clearly, working on this film encouraged him to think about the ways we're all connected to each other and our planet. He may not be a religious person, but he certainly has a spiritual side now.

DiCaprio's activism around the world

DiCaprio was a busy man while shooting The Revenant. Making a movie wasn't the only project on his plate. When he wasn't toughing it out in the harsh Argentine winter, he was taking any opportunity to travel and speak to people about climate change. In 2014, shortly before filming for The Revenant began, DiCaprio was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace, specifically because of his work on climate change. DiCaprio frequently attends conferences all over the world to connect with world leaders and encourage them to implement environmental policies that will help us transition to renewable energy, protect vulnerable species, and adjust to a warmer world while curbing carbon emissions and preventing the worst possible effects of climate change. So discussing the environmental changes he was witnessing during the filming of The Revenant was super important to him. He had to convey what he was seeing to the outside world and help them understand the urgency of the situation before it was too late.

He's balancing projects

What else was DiCaprio working on while filming The Revenant? To say that he was stretching himself thin would be an understatement. He was also capturing the effects of climate change around the world with his documentary, Before the Flood. Creating this documentary took three years total, and DiCaprio spent time talking with activists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and concerned citizens. He even included some discussion about the conditions on the set of The Revenant.

Before the Flood got great reviews, and many people seemed pleasantly surprised by the sincerity of DiCaprio's message. DiCaprio wanted to focus on the most vulnerable victims of climate change, such as people living in low-lying island nations like Kiribati, and start a conversation about economic policies that can both incentivize investing in renewables and motivate large companies to move away from fossil fuels. What really makes the documentary stand out are the amazing interviews. Only DiCaprio could get Barack Obama, Elon Musk, and the Pope in the same documentary.

It's not about the money for DiCaprio

DiCaprio is a multimillionaire. He could easily retire tomorrow, never work another day in his life, and get by just fine. But for DiCaprio, neither acting nor activism are about fame or money. He's not in it for the praise, the awards, the publicity, or the dollar signs. In fact, the more successful DiCaprio becomes, the less he cares about being rich or staying in the spotlight. Especially after working on The Revenant, DiCaprio knows that all the money in the world won't make you happy.

"The idea of pursuing material objects your whole life is absolutely soulless," DiCaprio told Parade. He also said that he believes "greed and wealth is the root problem of everything." After seeing how our pursuit of material wealth has irreversibly altered our planet, it's easy to understand why DiCaprio holds this point of view. Doing anything just for the money will never bring true satisfaction.

Focusing on morality

Yes, acting will probably always be DiCaprio's greatest passion, but he obviously has a deep-seated need to give back. "My career has given me so much from a material standpoint," DiCaprio told Parade. "I feel that I absolutely need to give back in whatever capacity I can. It's my moral obligation."

DiCaprio does face criticism for his activism. After all, he has the typical trappings of an ultra-wealthy lifestyle, from the fancy yacht to the private jet. He's been called a hypocrite plenty of times. In fact, he's heard it so often that he brought it up in Before the Flood. He acknowledged that he sometimes wonders if he's the best spokesperson for this cause because he knows there's some truth to the accusations of hypocrisy. But at the end of the day, he has a huge platform and the ability to make people sit up and listen. As long as he's a public figure, he's going to use his status for good.

His mind is on the environment

There are plenty of celebrities out there who have their pet causes. Is DiCaprio really any different from them? According to his friends, the answer is yes, and it seems like filming The Revenant only made his convictions stronger. "There are very few civilians who have the same understanding that this guy has of climate change," Mark Ruffalo told Rolling Stone.

DiCaprio himself has explained that his drive to save the planet has basically taken over his life. Most of the time, he's thinking about what else he can do to help the cause. "I am consumed by this," DiCaprio told Rolling Stone. "There isn't a couple of hours a day where I'm not thinking about it." DiCaprio isn't just looking for good press. He feels like he has to continue doing this work. As long as the problem persists, he needs to keep being a part of the solution. In some ways, it seems like he sees it as a calling.

DiCaprio is pessimistic about the future

Plenty of people feel upset and depressed when pondering environmental issues and climate change. After all, it's easy to feel helpless in the face of a global problem. But how do activists who are constantly looking at this data feel? Predictably, pessimism can easily set in. Human beings are innovative and adaptable, but moving towards a more sustainable society is going to take a huge effort. We've never faced a threat quite like this before.

DiCaprio doesn't exactly have a rosy outlook when it comes to climate change. He said that he felt very pessimistic while he was filming Before the Flood, and this was probably compounded by seeing the warm weather conditions in Canada when he was there for The Revenant. The actor Fisher Stevens, who worked with DiCaprio on Before the Flood, encouraged him to lighten up a little bit, and the two balanced each other out. But overall, it seems like DiCaprio's uncertainty about the future has altered his perspective on life.

Releasing his new documentary

Leonardo DiCaprio finally returned to the big screen with Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, but his efforts to educate the public about potential climate change solutions didn't slow down one bit. In 2019, he released his latest project, the documentary Ice on Fire. In this film, DiCaprio explores what a "green" future would actually look like, but instead of giving into despair, DiCaprio focuses on the solutions this time around and asks which strategies and technologies we should be turning to at this crucial moment.

It seems like climate change will be just as important to DiCaprio as acting for the foreseeable future. Just because he's talking about the solutions now doesn't mean his work in this area is over, not by a long shot. The Revenant was a pivotal moment in his career, and it caused him to look at the world in a new way. And chances are good he'll probably never be quite the same actor as he was before.