FLIP A COIN: DiCaprio and Damon both have meaty roles in Scorsese's Departed
One of the first questions at a Manhattan press conference for Martin Scorsese’s Boston-set mob thriller is addressed to “Matt and Ben.” Even Scorsese joins in with the laughter as all acknowledge that Ben Affleck is not among the group here to promote The Departed. Matt Damon’s newest co-star is Leonardo DiCaprio, in his third collaboration with Scorsese.
A loose reworking of Andrew Lau & Alan Mak’s 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed takes inspiration from Whitey Bulger and his band of Irish Southie thugs, quite a departure from Scorsese’s past efforts illustrating the dirty dealings of the Italian Mafia.
“I’ve always felt a close affinity with the Irish,” the director replies when asked about the change of interest. “Particularly those coming out of the same area of New York City as me. Although by the time the Italians had moved in — by the 1920s or early ’30s — most of the Irish had moved out of that neighborhood. In fact, it goes back to the era of Gangs of New York; stories about the way the Irish helped create New York and America. And don’t forget, I do have a very strong love for Hollywood cinema, and some of the greatest filmmakers to come out Hollywood were Irishmen: John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and others. And the Irish sense of Catholicism is a very interesting contrast to the Italian sense of Catholicism. So those are my personal reasons.” He laughs. “Besides, the script is written by William Monahan.”
Monahan, a native Bostonian, nails the minutiae of the city, including allusions to long-simmering racial tensions, and he has an ear for the local patois, as the creative uses of “fahk,” uttered with relish by Dorchester’s Mark Wahlberg and Cambridge’s Damon, attest. His duplicitous protagonists are two moles (or “rats”) on opposing sides of the law, one a star graduate of the State Police Academy (Damon) secretly working under the thumb of Jack Nicholson’s Bulgeresque Frank Costello, the other an undercover “Statie” (DiCaprio) who’s infiltrated Costello’s gang.
With such meaty roles, it’s a wonder Damon and DiCaprio didn’t flip a coin to decide who would portray which character.
“We actually did flip a coin,” deadpans Damon. “That’s how we decided. No, in terms of the roles, I think Leo and I thought they were both incredible roles. For him, I think he could have played either one, and he would have been happy. Now that we did it this way, we’re happy that that’s the way it worked out, because I can’t imagine playing the other one now. It’s really rare in a film of this budget to have characters that are this interesting. Generally, the bigger the budget, the less interesting the characters become. That’s a real credit to Bill Monahan and his script.” He grins as he adds, “Also, we heard the director had done some good movies here and there.”
Unlike Damon and Wahlberg, DiCaprio wasn’t familiar with Boston’s more notorious underbelly, so he took it upon himself to spend some time here, meeting “people who were around during the late ’80s – during the ‘Whitey’ era.” In doing so, he discovered that “Boston’s a very interesting place, because everyone knows each other’s business.”
Even with his research, he wrestled with how he’d portray an unfamiliar aspect of his character: “That form of violence, that immediate violence.” How did he tap into this?
He smiles. “I guess by watching Martin Scorsese movies.”