The Wolf Of Wall Street: Conman with charisma

The story of rogue stockbroker Jordan Belfort intrigued actor Leonardo DiCaprio so much that he fought for the film project

Finance isn't exactly the sexiest subject for a movie, but for Leonardo DiCaprio, something about the real-life tale of shady stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who conned his clients of hundreds of millions of dollars, just stuck with him.

The star of Titanic (1997) and Django Unchained (2013) felt compelled to turn it into a film. He and his production company beat actor Brad Pitt in a bidding war for the rights to Belfort's memoir six years ago and stayed with the project despite numerous production difficulties, censorship battles and different financiers and directors dropping in and out.

The result is The Wolf Of Wall Street, which opens in Singapore tomorrow after much buzz abroad over its no-holds-barred depiction of Belfort's sex-and-drug-addled life. And even though the film has two of Hollywood's biggest names attached to it - DiCaprio and legendary director Martin Scorsese - the actor says it was still something of a gamble.

"We thought a lot about whether people are going to respond to seeing somebody who's ripping off working- class Americans and actually want to see a story about that," he tells Life! and a group of reporters in Beverly Hills.

"I mean, Wall Street isn't the most magnetic of subjects right now, people aren't rushing to the box office when they hear the words 'Wall Street'.

"But as Marty (Scorsese) said, if you portray this in the most realistic way you can and you're authentic with these characters, you can almost get away with anything and people are going to want to see that.

"And he's a master of that," he says of the Oscar-winning director, with whom he worked on four other films - Gangs Of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010).

"You're drawn into those underworlds that Marty has created and he's done it better than anyone."

Yet despite his prolific career and frequent collaborations with Scorsese - who won the Best Director Oscar for The Departed - the actor is picky when it comes to choosing his projects and often goes with his gut.

"Truthfully, I'm lucky enough to get access to a lot of different things," says DiCaprio, who has been nominated for nine Golden Globes (winning for the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator in 2004) and three Academy Awards.

He is drawn to a script if "there's an authenticity to a subject matter or the way a writer portrays a character", he says.

"Or, you know, there's something that's intangible, something that's real to you and you have a calling for.

"And that takes a while to sort of sit on. I'm not going to respond so quickly to potential movies because I want to think about it and feel whether I'm motivated to tell that story."

And Belfort's story - which ended in a 1998 conviction for securities fraud and money laundering, followed by 22 months behind bars - was just "something that I could never get rid of".

"To me, it was like a modern-day Caligula, a modern-day Roman empire - complete debauchery and disregard for any consequences or anyone around them," he says of Belfort's Wall Street brokerage, which defrauded more than 1,000 clients.

"And it was indicative of the financial crisis that was happening at the time."

After this latest film, the actor also realised that his last two major movies, last year's Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby, had explored a similar theme: the dark side of the American dream, or "the need to obtain great wealth at any cost in America, and the corruption of that wealth, the corruption of the people".

In Django Unchained, his character was "a slave owner in a time when slaves were like oil to plantation owners and money was king - he had complete disregard for human life".

In the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, the title character "did it for love and created this entire underground empire during Prohibition".

"I realised it only after I did these movies that, wow, this was something that strikes a chord in me. When I have an urge to gravitate towards characters or subjects, I don't question it, I just do it."

And he knew the stars were aligned when Scorsese was finally convinced to come on board. This happened when DiCaprio's production house, Appian Way, found financial backers willing to give the director free rein in charting Belfort's road to ruin.

"They said, 'We're going to give you the scale to do the movie and create an epic of this time period and support you in that. And not only that, we want you to push it as far as you can, we don't want to restrict it, we don't want to PG any of this. Show the world what it was, in all its debauched glory.'"

The end-product is a dark comedy that takes an unexpurgated, three-hour-long tour into the over- the-top lifestyle that Belfort encouraged at his rowdy brokerage, where hookers, drugs and alcohol were practically on tap.

Co-starring Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler, it is a hot favourite at the upcoming Oscars and other major awards this year. On Sunday at the Golden Globes, it is in the running for Best Motion Picture and Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) for DiCaprio.

It has also done well at the American box office the past fortnight even with an R-rating, which limits its audience in the United States, and despite - or perhaps because of - a minor controversy over whether it glorifies Belfort's misdeeds. The movie has made more than US$63 million (S$80 million) at the box office so far.

DiCaprio tells Life! he understands the scepticism about the disgraced broker - now a motivational speaker and successful author who has profited considerably from his memoirs and the movie rights, even though he has reportedly not made good on the US$110 million in restitution that he owes his old clients.

But the actor believes that Belfort, who was a consultant on the movie and has a cameo towards the end, has reformed. "What I found refreshing about working with him was he wasn't trying to whitewash anything that he did... In fact, he told me even more insane details. Which all got integrated into the movie, of course."

DiCaprio and Scorsese have found themselves having to defend their film, which for some critics is a little too enthusiastic when it comes to depicting Belfort's sex and substance addictions.

Still, it must be a relief for DiCaprio, who usually gets more heat from the press about the details of his own personal life - one that many imagine must be pretty wild too, going by the glimpses of the parties and holidays with supermodels furnished by the tabloids.

The performer gives little away during interviews, however, and is well-versed at deflecting curiosity about his off-screen exploits.

A reporter attempts to compare his life and Belfort's by asking how access to "money and beauty can change a person", but is stopped cold with an almost wilfully boring answer from DiCaprio: "I think it all depends on the individual. And in this movie, this is somebody who didn't know how to handle any of that."

The same fate befalls another journalist, who tries to get him to comment on a recent Esquire interview in which actor George Clooney disparages the company that the younger actor keeps.

Clooney had shared an anecdote about how he and his much older friends trounced DiCaprio and his group in a basketball game, after DiCaprio had talked up their skills on the court, and remarked that he was "not sure if Leo has someone" in his life who will "tell you what's what".

When DiCaprio is asked how he feels "when an actor mentions you out of the blue in a magazine", he refuses to take the bait. "I don't really talk about other people in the press," he says coolly.

The only subject that seems capable of raising his pulse is his beloved environmental causes. In 2012, it was reported that he was teaming up with actors Tobey Maguire and Tom Hardy and the studio Warner Bros to produce a yet-untitled film about animal trafficking.

But this too may be something that DiCaprio will sit on for a while. "That movie is such a passion project of mine and I don't want to do it unless I get the right story. The story's got to be dynamic and a lot of research needs to be done, and we're still finding the right writer for that who can make it something worth doing.

"Because there's actually no subject matter that I'd like to do a movie about more," he says earnestly. "There's nothing to me that is more engaging and important and it has never been done before and needs to be talked about. So I'd love to do that."

The Wolf Of Wall Street opens in Singapore tomorrow.