Quentin Tarantino’s rogues gallery is already a rather wretched hive of scum and villainy, replete with ear-slicing sociopaths like Mr. Blonde and silver-tongued monsters like Hans Landa, so Django Unchained’s own malefactor, Calvin Candie, should feel right at home.
Candie isn’t just the latest in a long line of Tarantino baddies, but also the first truly villainous role for Leonardo DiCaprio. And he’s no mere well-heeled heel: the director has said Candie is the only villain he’s written in his career that he truly despises, while DiCaprio too found the Southern cotton king, whose decadent lifestyle includes pitting his slaves against each other in fights to the death, to be a truly nasty specimen. “He was one of the most deplorable, indulgent, horrendous characters I’ve ever read in my life,” says DiCaprio. He’s also the dragon that needs slaying before Jamie Foxx’s gunslinging former slave can rescue his true love.
DiCaprio, who hadn’t taken a non-leading role in nearly 15 years before this, first received the script while working on The Great Gatsby. He’d been wanting to collaborate with Tarantino for years and was even in the mix early-on to play Landa in Inglourious Basterds, a part which eventually won an Oscar for his Django co-star Christoph Waltz. “This man’s code of ethics was so beyond, or below, anything that I could ever imagine,” he says of the plantation owner. “But it was a delicious character nonetheless.” At first, DiCaprio questioned whether Candie’s insouciant evil “was a little too much,” but once he started researching the time period, he realized “the reality was even worse” than the brutalities depicted in Tarantino’s spaghetti western.
As DiCaprio was trying to get into Candie’s head space, he realized that the concept of head space itself was an important aspect of his character’s motivations. At a climactic moment in the film, Candie gives a fervent speech espousing the skull-measuring hokum of phrenology, a pseudo-science often used to back bogus claims about differing mental capacities between the races. “I read a lot about the Civil War and the South,” says DiCaprio, “and through some of my past reading I brought up the idea with Quentin of the justification this guy has to treat the people around him the way he does and being able to deem them less-than-human or not of his species. I wanted to make him a pseudo-intellectual in his own mind.”
The actor, who has picked up a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, says Candie was born into opulence and represents the “moral decay” of an aristocracy on the brink of collapse. He also embodies a fair share of dental decay. Perhaps the only thing appropriate about the character’s sweet namesake is his rictus of discolored chompers. “Originally, there were a lot more sequences where I was indulging in sugary treats, which I think is very in-tune with his life,” says DiCaprio. “I look at him like some great Roman emperor who, as Rome is crumbling around him, indulges in the finest delicacies of life. So it seemed only fitting that he’d be rotting from the inside as well.”