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Marty’s New Muse

For Leonardo DiCaprio, getting wet and wild-eyed for Martin Scorsese "was the most fun we’ve had so far". Paul Byrne goes undercover...

To say that the shoot for Shutter Island was tough would be an understatement. At least, that's according to its leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. "We definitely pushed ourselves well beyond the call of duty on this one," smiles the 35-year-old actor. "We just kept finding new levels of pain to inflict upon my character, and that meant going that extra mile. In the pouring rain. With the wind howling all around us.

"Part of me began to think that Marty might just be some kind of sadist. That I must have harmed him in a different life, and now he was taking revenge."

The Marty in question is, of course, Martin Scorsese, DiCaprio having become the director's muse over the past ten years. Back in 2000, as they made the troubled and muddled Gangs Of New York, it was clearly master-and-pupil stuff, soon progressing to mentor and apprentice, and finally to where they are now, DiCaprio seemingly having taken the place of Robert De Niro, Scorsese's partner in such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

"I try not to think of it in those terms," says DiCaprio. "No one could replace De Niro in that particular equation. And Bob and Marty still have a special relationship, one with an incredible history, and experiences that one can only dream of.

"But I've certainly grown a lot working with a great director like this, and we've gotten to know each other more and more. And that means we trust each other more and more. I was always ready to do whatever Marty wanted, but now I feel we both just know what's needed, what's going to work."

In this 50s-set mystery thriller, DiCaprio plays tormented detective Teddy Daniels trying to uncover the whereabouts of a missing inmate at a remote island asylum. With his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), by his side, Teddy quickly becomes convinced of a conspiracy, his slowly escalating paranoia not helped by flashbacks to his time as a US Marine walking among corpses in Dachau, and to his late wife (Michelle Williams), mother to their three dead children. The biblical storm unfolding only adds to the confusion, ensuring the duo's confinement on the island.

Scorsese offers up a highly stylised and entertaining ghost-train ride, calling on his vast love and knowledge of classic Hollywood thrillers and chillers (in particular, the work of RKO legend Val Lewton). The abstract jabs of ominous orchestral works, the sharp camera angles and jolt edits add up to a masterclass in old-fashioned filmmaking.

The director had his leading man watch Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (about a journalist who has himself committed to a psychiatric home in order to solve a murder) and some of the classics produced by Lewton, such as Cat People and The Ghost Ship.

"These films were a great help in finding the right tone as an actor," says DiCaprio. "You have layers going on with a story like this, and you have to be aware of what you're revealing and what you're not revealing at every point of the story."

Luckily, Leo had a director who understood the fine art of deception. With style.

"Watching Marty put this together was like witnessing a master painter at work," says DiCaprio. "He had such a clear idea of what he wanted, how he wanted the film to look, to sound, to feel, and we just had to step into this dark tunnel and find that film. It was the most fun we've ever had, but it wasn't always easy."

But DiCaprio adds: "If we'd ended each day with a high five and a stroll to the bar I would have been worried."

He has little to worry about these days, having got over the career bump that was Titanic. Up to that point, the young turk was carving out a career as a beguiling character actor. Suddenly, he was a star. His previous outing, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, lit the fuse. With the tragic role of Jack in Titanic, the young DiCaprio's career exploded. To the point where the 23-year-old could barely step outside his door.

"Your life isn't your own when that kind of stardom happens, and you have tabloids every day making up stories about you," he says. "It's not exactly what an actor dreams of, because your anonymity is gone."

Suddenly, you're Elvis, and that means playing someone else for an audience is nigh on impossible. DiCaprio addressed the issue by playing a variation of himself at that time in Woody Allen's Celebrity, but when he tried to actually act, in 1998's The Man In The Iron Mask and 2000's The Beach, audiences just wanted more Jack. Or more Romeo.

Today, DiCaprio has his career firmly back on track, the boyish good looks still there, but a few lines and the first hints of middle-aged spread giving him back the power to be someone else other than a pin-up.

"Getting older has certainly helped," he says. "I always knew I was going to have to wait, to put my head down and do some good work. That was one of the reasons I started working with Marty. I knew we would do some work that wasn't just about the opening weekend."

Ironically, DiCaprio and Scorsese both enjoyed the biggest opening weekends of their respective careers in the US with Shutter Island. DiCaprio's next outing, Inception, with director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight), looks like a winner, too. Partly because the film is shrouded in mystery. A mystery that's wrapped up in an enigma. All dipped in a minimalist advertising campaign.

Can its leading man give us even a small idea of what Inception is about?

"I can tell you it's about two hours long, give or take," DiCaprio says. "Anything more than that, and Chris has vowed to have me strung up by my tongue..." HQ

Shutter Island hits Irish cinemas tomorrow