To celebrate Quentin Tarantino‘s ninth (and, as he’s said, penultimate) film, Entertainment Weekly gathered the writer-director and three of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s stars for an exclusive roundtable interview. Watch (and read) for behind-the-scenes secrets about the highly-anticipated movie straight from Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Quentin, were you always intending for this to be basically a valentine to Los Angeles?
QUENTIN TARANTINO: Yes, it was. I grew up in Los Angeles, I love it. The only people who truly love it are — the people who love it the right way — are the people who grew up here and who know it.
BRAD PITT: Not true, not true! That does not have to be true!
TARANTINO: No, you can love it in your own way! But not the way we do. Not the way me and Leo do. But the thing is — especially when it came to 1969 — I was between 6 and 7 years old. And so the film became a big memory piece. And a big part of my memory of Los Angeles at that time is being in the car with my stepfather. Being in the car with my mom. And driving around and listening to the radio playing all the time. And how we listened to the radio back then, which is different than the way we listen to the radio now, where you just kept it on one station. You didn’t move around looking for songs.
I remember the bus stops advertising the rerun shows that were on the local television stations and the movie posters and the, you know, Diet Rite, RC Cola billboards. That’s what I remember. In fact, my stepfather drove a Karmann Ghia like Cliff’s character drives. And even that whole shot where you see Cliff driving by those signs, well that’s pretty much my view looking up at my stepfather in the Karmann Ghia as he drove around Los Angeles. It’s me looking up at him like that, an angle that is very similar to what we had with Brad. In the same way that Jackie Brown I think has me trying to capture the South Bay of the ’80s. That’s what I was trying to do with this.
A lot of the characters in the film are fictional or perhaps inspired by real people. But the film also features some real characters. And Margot, you play Sharon Tate, who is very much a real person. What is your Sharon like?
MARGOT ROBBIE: I think, definitely what I felt when reading the script was that she was a bit of a hot beat throughout the story. And I wanted to therefore inject her with as much life as possible. And also, to try and show the best parts of myself because by all accounts for anything I’ve ever read about her, people say how wonderful she was and generous. Also, I think at that time it was an incredibly exciting time in her life. She was newly married, and her career is really taking off and Hollywood is an exciting place where there’s so much opportunity and experiences to be had. Therefore I wanted her to feel hopeful, I wanted her to feel excited. Yeah, it was really beautiful to be able to have those more quiet moments to herself where she’s just kind of loving life in Hollywood.
And there’s that wonderful scene where she essentially goes to see a film that she’s in. Have any of you done that in real life?
TARANTINO: I did that once, at the Bruin, no less.
LEONARDO DiCAPRIO: Wonder where you got it from then.
TARANTINO: I was on a date, and I went to see True Romance and then I thought, “You know, I wrote this thing, maybe they’ll let me in for free.” Not because I was stressing the money, just actually, “I’m in the movie!” [The character Sharon Tate’s] not stressing the 75 cents, she’s almost just proud to be in the movie: “Do I get a little consideration?”
DiCAPRIO: That’s funny.
TARANTINO: And so I bring [it] up to the manager and my girlfriend starts negotiating. And he’s like, “Well, how do I know he wrote the film?” “He can show you his driver’s license, his name is right there.” But then Reservoir Dogs had already come out so then a couple of people come up to me and start asking for my autograph. So I’m signing my autograph and the manager at the theater goes, “Well, who are those people?” and she goes, “Those are his FANS!”
ROBBIE: Did you end up getting to go in?
And Leo, tell us about your character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
DiCAPRIO: It was interesting to play this sort of guy that in a way has reached this expiration date. The ’60s have come along and — as Quentin eloquently puts in the movie — he’s an actor that has spent his career combing his hair and creating a pompadour his whole life. That’s what he knows. And he’s not making this sort of transition into this new era of Hollywood and he’s also feeling sorry for himself. He’s a working actor but he kind of missed out on that television-to-film transition that actors like Steve McQueen did, where they were able to make that jump and have these sort of amazing careers. He’s stuck in this rut.
What’s so interesting is that Quentin puts this all in this sort of two-day time span and gave this amazing backstory to all of us. But so much of these characters and what they’re going through emotionally, this transition that Rick Dalton is going through, accepting his sort of fate but also realizing that if he gives a little more and tries a little harder and stops feeling so damn sorry for himself, there are some possibilities out there. What was so great was to be able to have all that knowledge and all that wealth of our backstory in this two-day time span.
How did you prepare to play an actor full of self-doubt? Was that a reach?
DiCAPRIO: I think that it’s implicitly in all of us. There’s not an actor out there that would not identify. It’s just a matter of letting the 12-headed Hydra come out.
I wasn’t picking on you particularly! And Brad, you play a stunt man who is essentially in a different era would be the Batman, really, to Leo’s character. Not the cartoon character, but the assistant, the guy that fixes things.
PITT: The gopher!
Well yes, I didn’t want to say it. Tell us a little bit about your character.
PITT: They come from this era when actor and stuntman had a greater partnership and had more of a say on what was going to be in the film, what would take place in a scene. And at this point we’re on the tail end, and I say “we” because I’m on his coattails. I have a job if Rick Dalton has a job, and if Rick Dalton doesn’t have a job I probably don’t. He’s kindly hired me to work odd jobs so I am doing whatever he needs.
You have the best pet-feeding sequence since The Long Goodbye when he’s getting the cat food. What was that like?
PITT: I cannot take any credit for that. It’s a very, you know, Quentin’s constructed this two days in the life — or what becomes two and a half days ultimately — but two days in a life of these characters in different stratas of their careers and life in Hollywood.
Margot, how did you get cast in the film? You wrote Quentin a letter?
ROBBIE: I definitely didn’t expect it to work out so well. I just wanted to let him know how much I loved his movies and how it shaped my childhood. And we met up and had lunch and chatted and he was like, “Do you know who Sharon Tate is?” And I said, “Yeah, I do, yeah.” We spoke and I got to read the script and I think it was a similar process, we all go to sit in Quentin’s kitchen nook and read the script.
PITT: I wasn’t even allowed in the kitchen, I got sent to the back porch!
ROBBIE: Oh really? I got food and everything.
Leo, what did you get? She got food, he got tea.
DiCAPRIO: I was out on the porch.
TARANTINO: I left and when I came back, [Margot] was all spread out on the couch, her shoes are off. There’s a Margot imprint on the couch when she leaves.
PITT: And by the way, not to hijack your story, or to hijack your story, he had one script. I went back a couple times. You get there the first time and it’s dog-eared here, a little stained there. By the time I came back a second time there’s like coffee rings, spaghetti sauce, the thing’s all crinkled.
Leo, you have this amazing scene with Luke Perry, who plays a TV actor like your character is, essentially. And sadly, we lost him since the film was completed. Can you talk a little bit about working with him?
DiCAPRIO: I was immediately struck by his kindness. And talking about being a native of Los Angeles, being around this industry my entire life, and really having it in a lot of ways shape who I am, there was this immediate excitement in seeing Luke Perry on set. I remember being in my teens and he was the manifestation of the new [James] Dean on television and everyone was crazy about him. And I felt this overwhelming feeling of being star-struck. Then he and I got to sit down and talk about Los Angeles, the ’90s, his life, where his career had gone, where my career had gone, where his life had gone, where my life…and I was just so, how do I say this, the kindness of his character, I don’t know, it really affected me. When I heard that news it was really heartbreaking.
PITT: Incredibly generous man.
And Brad, I believe there is a bit of this in the trailer, but you have a fight scene at one point with Mike Moh, who plays Bruce Lee. What was that like?
PITT: It was pretty good fun. I love Mike Moh’s story because he was an actor, who things weren’t working out for him so he moved away. To provide for his family he opened up a dojo but when he heard about this…did he contact you?
TARANTINO: No, he didn’t contact me. He contacted [casting director Victoria Thomas].
PITT: He contacted casting. Getting the part, he moves away and gets the part. And comes back and does this, he’s really brilliant.
TARANTINO: He tells a great story. He’s an actor, he’s done the show Inhumans but basically runs a dojo out of Wisconsin. And so, he got the part, and he’s going to go back to Wisconsin but he got the part soon enough so he could stay a few days so he could be at the script reading… He shows up there, and he doesn’t really know who’s in the movie…and then Brad walks in the door, and then Leo walks through the door, then Margot walks through the door, and Al Pacino walks through the door, and Burt Reynolds walks through the door, and Luke Perry walks through the door…and he’s like flipping the f out. He’s just like, “Keep it cool, just keep it cool. Don’t let everybody know that you are freaking out to sit at this table.”
PITT: Aww. That’s awesome. That’s a Hollywood story.
I went to the Playboy Mansion I guess a few years before Hef passed away… There’s a dance sequence, well it’s more than a dance sequence, but there is a party at the mansion. And I was sitting there thinking, “They’ve done a hell of a good job recreating the mansion.” Then I realized that it was actually at the mansion.
PITT (pointing at Tarantino): He’s a purist! You’re sitting next to a purist, my friend.
Obviously, the Hef days are over, but what was it like shooting there?
ROBBIE: So cool!
TARANTINO: It was so much fun. I’ve been to the Playboy Mansion many times in Hef’s day. Well not many times, but enough.
An appropriate amount!
TARANTINO: I knew where the grotto was.
PITT: And the Purell. He knew where the Purell was. … And didn’t he have a theater room?
TARANTINO: Oh yeah! His theater room was…you know when she comes walking in dancing by the two stairs? His theater room was just back there. I think they all sat on couches and had a screening on a wall. It was just fun, iconic, it suggested a Hollywood of a different time. And in ’69, you could go to the Playboy Mansion and Mama Cass could be sitting there next to Sharon Tate sitting there next to Tony Curtis and Audie Murphy. He kind of covered the whole thing. In fact apparently I’ve found that when Hef would do his movie nights…a female friend of mine showed up at a couple of them and she goes, “They were really great but they weren’t hip. That was what was neat about them.” I asked her what she meant and she said, “It’s like all these cool old actors, you know 79-year-old Robert Kulp.” So it was all these really cool actors from the ’60s who were friends of Hefner’s who still go to the Playboy Mansion to watch movies with Hef. And they’ve all gotten older but it’s all groovy.
Leo, you have a musical moment in the film as well, when your character appears on the real show Hullabaloo and you do a bit of singing. What was that like?
DiCAPRIO: Well, thank God I wasn’t hired for my voice for this movie. We had a couple different songs that we tried. One of them was “Green Door” and the other one was “Don’t Fence Me In.” We ended up using “Green Door,” but, you know, it was great. It was a lot of fun. And Rick Dalton isn’t sort of hired either for his acting talent for most jobs and most certainly not his singing voice and this is a good display of that.
[To Pitt and DiCaprio] You do in the movie seem to have a very easygoing relationship. Did you know each other particularly well beforehand? Did you just fall into it?
PITT: Certainly over the decades we’ve crossed paths. There’s a real shorthand with us, we all popped kind of at the same time. Probably all stayed in the same suites. That always freaks me out, by the way. It’s a little weird when you think about it. … I mean the same room. The same beds, the same toilets. Probably the same robes. It’s a little weird…I’m gonna get off of it. Just a real shorthand and respect and good laughs on set. And I think we both know having really close friends to get through this thing in one piece, meaning I guess I’m talking about celebrity, and you need really close friends.
DiCAPRIO: You know you go to locations for eight months at a time and the guy that’s your security or your stand-in they become your best friends. That’s what I loved about this screenplay, this partnership of these guys that are on the outskirts of this industry and trying to sort of pave their way and find their footing still. And survive as working-class actors in a transitional time in Los Angeles and in America, but they rely on one another, they have one another. It may be a professional relationship but it becomes like family.