There are certain cultural phenomena about which it’s just impossible to remain neutral. Justin Bieber. U2. The novels of Susan Sontag. The McRib. On Christmas Day, Quentin Tarantino pulls into town with a new entry for the list—his star-studded vintage-western-meets-slave-revenge-fantasy-meets-blaxploitation-film Django Unchained. And by New Year’s Day, your friends will be eager to share their definitive take on why the film is the best or worst thing to happen onscreen in this or any other year.
But what about the cast themselves? We thought it’d be interesting to bring you a look at Django Unchained through the eyes of some who know it best: Tarantino’s all-star chain gang. Topics like falling off horses, castration, the Three Musketeers, Helen Mirren and—oh yeah—race are addressed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Don Johnson, Christoph Walz, Walton Goggins, Jonah Hill, Kerry Washington, Dennis Christopher and, of course, the auteur himself.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is one of the most despicable characters in recent cinematic history—ruthless, overpriveleged, brutal, feckless. And yet there’s just something about DiCaprio’s portrayal of him. You just can’t look away.
Leonardo DiCaprio: What was great about doing this role was honestly the sense of community and support mechanism that I had every day. This was really my first attempt at playing a character that I had this much distain and this much hatred for. And it was an incredibly uncomfortable environment to walk into. You know, I’ve dealt with and seen racism in my surroundings and my life, growing up. But to the degree that I had to treat other people in this film was incredibly disturbing. I think it was disturbing for actors on both ends of the spectrum.
At the initial read-through, I think I brought up, “Do we need to go this far at times? Do we need to push it this far? Does it need to be this violent? Do I need to be this atrocious to other human beings?” I think it was Sam and Jamie that both said, “Look man, if you sugar coat this, people are going to resent the hell out of you.” You know what I mean? You got to push this guy to the extremes. Because this was all, not only historically accurate, but it went even further than that to worse atrocities. And I think that by holding the character back, you’re going to do an injustice to the film and people are going to think you’re not telling the truth. That was sort of the thing that ignited me into the going the way I did with the character.
And what was great, at the core of it, was to have a group of actors who were all there for one another to support and drive each other further on a subject matter that I think was very difficult for all of us. I couldn’t have felt like I had a better support mechanism. Honestly, it felt like we were cheerleaders for one another. Like, “Damn that shit was good. Keep going. Be even worse to me next take! Be horrible!”
Jamie Foxx: We were doing the dinner-table scene and that whole day people were coming up from like the offices saying, “You got to see Leo doing this scene.” It was just him and Sam going to work—it was amazing. And the shot glass somehow slid over underneath where he was always slamming his hand down. And in one take, he slammed his hand down and the shot glass goes through his hand. And now blood is shooting out of his hand and I’m thinking, “Does everybody else see this? Because this is crazy.” And he keeps going and I almost turned into a girl, like, looking at, like, “Oh my god…”
But what was amazing was that he was so into his character that even when they finally said cut, he was still this guy. … It was amazing to see that and amazing to see the process, from my end, of these two guys making it real. Like, at one point, we were in rehearsals and Leo was saying his lines, you know, “Nigga… nigga” and he went, “Wow, buddy, this is… this is tough…” and then Samuel pulled him to the side and-I’m paraphrasing—Samuel L Jackson pulled him to the side and said “Hey mothafucka, this is just another Tuesday for us. Let’s go.”
Kerry Washington: That sounds like an exact quote.
Foxx: But they were really trying to go back to that time, and the next day… I said, ‘What’s up, Leo?’ and he didn’t speak to me that day. And they actually went to these characters and made all of these real characters come to life. So it was crazy from my perspective.
Second only to DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is Don Johnson’s Big Daddy Benet. He’s just as racist as Candie, but he’s so much more clueless that watching him get his comeuppance is twice as fun.
Don Johnson: Well, Quentin told me, “You sing in my key.” Remember? And, I looked at Big Daddy Bennet as a character who had his fiefdom, and he was fully engaged in his fiefdom. He enjoyed his fiefdom. And this was going to go on forever, until these two motherfuckers showed up. Then they messed up everything. So, they gotta go!
Samuel L. Jackson: I remember on the first day I got there, I went looking for Quentin. And the day I got there, the slaves were in the field, you guys were coming up on the plantation for the first time, Jamie had his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit on. And I was walking down that road to the cotton field and I didn’t realize until I got in the cotton field that all these extras were out there in their slave gear, and there was cotton, and they were picking it, and there were all these white dudes on horses with shot guns, and then I looked back and Don was up on the porch of the big house and all this stuff. And I was like… oh shit… we’re doing this. It was almost like a Twilight Zone episode.
Quentin Tarantino: It was like tomorrow you find yourself and you’re like, how did I get here?
Jackson: I walked up there and he had an ice cold drink in his hand and it was like… damn, this is happening!
Washington: Yeah. We were shooting on an actual slave plantation called Evergreen Plantation, in Louisiana. And so that lent itself to all of us disappearing into the story. Because you felt like you were making the film on sacred ground. You felt like you were reenacting this behavior where these crimes against humanity were actually committed. So, it just infiltrated everybody’s acting and behavior and relationships and choices.
Jackson: Yeah, it was crazy. Like when you got whipped, everything around you, all the bugs stopped making noise, all the birds stopped singing. It was like, “Oh shit, is this back?”
Kerry Washington: Yeah! Yeah!
Jackson: My dresser, who helped me get my costume every day, found out that her ancestors were buried in the cemetery on the plantation. That was a serious day when she came to work and told me that. And you know, she was visibly…
Washington: And they were German!
Johnson: Yeah, that’s right! And they were German, I forgot about that.
Few directors have as outsized a persona as Quentin Tarantino. According to those who have worked with him, certain parts of the Tarantino brand come through in person—the incessant chattering, the encyclopedic knowledge, the enthusiasm and passion. And while making a hyper-violent movie about slavery might sound like pure drudgery, Tarantino is well known for his talents at relaxing the cast and crew on his sets.
Dennis Christopher: Quentin loves all moving images. He knows about film, TV, even music videos. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein came to visit me on set and they talked about film for a minute, but then Quentin was talking to them about music videos, and he knew everything. It’s so impressive what he knows and also what he can call upon at any moment. But he’s not dry like an encyclopedia—it’s juicy; he’s passionate and inclusive. He draws you in. He’s hungry to know what you know and what you think. It bonds you together, it really does.
When you meet someone of such accomplishment you can feel shy, but it’s not like that all with Quentin because you instantly feel like you’re talking to someone who cares about you. Your buddy, your friend, somebody that loves what you’ve done. It was really gratifying to know that he’d been watching me, that I’d been on his radar. At that point I would have done a non-speaking role. I would have stood in a corner.
I mentioned to him that I know who [the real] Leonide Moguy [the character Christopher plays] is. He was a Russian filmmaker who did a few films and discovered Ava Gardner. He was tickled that I had done that research. He loves actors; he loves talking film. Even if I had never ended up getting this role, the three-hour conversation I had with him the day that I met him will still go down as one of my most favorite days of my life. To just speak with him about Django, film, film history, my work, his work… He’s a film fan. He actually said he had seen all of my films the week they had come out, which was kind of a bold statement. So I picked out a stinker, Dead Women in Lingerie, and asked if he had seen it. He said, “Yeah, I saw it! It was a piece of shit, but you were great as usual. And besides, how could I not see a movie called Dead Women in Lingerie?”
Walton Goggins: Quentin is so sensitive to everyone and their experience, and he went to great lengths to make everybody comfortable—you know, to remind us that we were just making a movie. We’re making a movie. He played music that reflected… whenever we needed for the mood to be lightened. He would bring music in, to change the mood or change the feeling on set and to remind everybody that this is where we’ve come to as a country. And we’re telling a story that was set in 1858, but this is where we are and everybody’s okay. I got to say that all of the actors were so supportive of one another. There was no judgement. At the end of every take it was like, ‘Oh man, oh my god, that was unbelievable! That was unbelievable! Let’s do it again.’ And you know, when you have that kind of support it allows you to go further out on the limb. You know?”
Dennis Christopher: A camaraderie developed between the cast—and the crew—that’s hard to be beat. [It’s] a family that’s born out of creativity. It’s a real bonding. It’s a really great job to have, and with Django Unchained I ended up loving my boss—I mean, how many times can you say that you love your boss? His enthusiasm, passion and complete joy, I mean he is so happy to be at work every damn day. This is a man who creates a fertile creative atmosphere out of passion and joy. He’s very positive and makes everyone happy all the time. He loves actors and he loves what he’s doing. He’d get a perfect take and then say let’s get a twin sister and he’d say why? And everyone’s response shouted out at the top of their lungs was because we love making movies. With him bellowing the loudest. It would remind us all why we were there and what we really loved about. It never escapes you and he quite literally reminds you of it. Cast and crew, joined together screaming the mantra at the top of their lungs – “We love making movies!”
The old Hollywood warnings against working with animals are numerous and dire. Somehow Tarantino managed to pull off a production with quite a few horses and some actors who were not so experienced at riding them.
Christoph Walz: I worked very hard and succeeded gloriously in falling off a horse very quickly. Very early on in the training. And then my work was a little slower for a few months. But then I got back up on the horse.
**Jamie Foxx: **I actually ride my own horse in the film. When I met with Quentin, he said, “I gotta get you on a horse.” I said, “Well, actually, I got my own horse about five or six years ago for my birthday.” And he said, “Yeah, go ahead and try it.” So my horse actually is in the film. And what’s interesting about my horse and Django is that they sort of learn together; as my horse is learning tricks, Django is sort of evolving as a person into this super hero, all the way to the end of the movie where you see my horse Cheetah do the… thing at the end.
Samuel L. Jackson: The horse donut.
Foxx: Yeah, the little spin out. So, for the whole duration of the film, we worked on that to get my horse to do that. The only thing that was scary was riding bareback on the horse, because Quentin came up and said, “You know, I need to get you on the horse bareback. Just for a little bit. Just let it gallop a little bit.” But the horse was used to the stunt person. So when I got on the back of the horse, and they built this track, what was it, a dirt track, and there were people at the end of the track with their sleeves pulled up, ready to catch me just in case something happens. But the horse turns, sees the truck with the camera on it and since it’s used to the stunt person, goes 28 miles per hour. On the outside I looked like Django. But on the inside I was Little Richard. I was like “Oh Lord Jesus! Lord Jesus! Lord Jesus, please stop this horse! Lord Jesus stop this horse!”
So, I’m thinking, we got it. But of course. As directors do, Quentin pulls up and says, “Hey man, that was great. I need to get it one more time.” So out of the turn, he takes off again only this time, I’m on the side of the horse. And.. what’s my man’s name, the stunt guy’s name?
Quentin Tarantino: Dash.
Foxx: So Dash, you know, Dash is crazy, and he said, “Look, this is freaking crazy, but look, if you feel like you’re about to come off the horse, just let go of the son of a bitch. Just get off.” And in my mind, those words are ringing in my head as I’m on the side of this horse going 28 miles an hour, I’m thinking he’s a damn fool if he thinks I’m gonna get off this thing. Now luckily the horse—since he did it twice—burns out just a little bit, so it allows me to bounce back on top of it, you know, and get it done. But that was probably the craziest.
Tarantino: I got to say though, that probably is actually in my top three favorite Django shots of the movie. You, with a hand full of mane, and the rifle in the other—I mean! He doesn’t even have the use of his hands. He’s got one hand of mane and the other hand on the rifle. And that was just damn Burt Reynolds, Navajo Joe, in every way.
As with most of his films, Tarantino attracted a wide variety of different types of actors to the cast of Django. But he’s a master at putting all the orchestra’s instruments together to play just the right symphony.
Walton Goggins: I think, kind of regardless of how you approach the work, when you’re in a Quentin Tarantino movie, in some ways, your work going to be colored by Quentin’s imagination and the story that Quentin wants to tell. For me, as an actor, I thought that I left no stone unturned in the river. But Quentin leaves no stone unturned in the ocean, maybe. To get the opportunity to work with a man such as Tarantino who understands what he wants to say—through that process, he allows you to say it a lot of different ways. From that he extrapolates the thing that helps in the process of him shaping his vision.
He knows what he wants to say, but then uses everyone in the cast to say it. And distills it as it goes along. You understand that? You know what I mean by that? I can speak for myself and what I saw with these other actors who are heroes of mine in a number of respects. And some things are grounded in dramatic truth and other things are heightened and some things are from the period, the year 1858, and some of it feels very contemporary. I think, for Quentin, his style is an amalgamation of so many styles that he’s a fan of. And therefore, he’s created his own style. All the great musicians who play a chord from this song or a chord from this song or a line from this artist, only to come out with a song that we’ve never heard before. Something that you just won’t play on the radio over and over again.
Paste: Yeah. Like Keith Richards taking a Muddy Waters riff and turning into a totally different incredible song.
Goggins: Yeah! And a song that totally transcends the generation that it was being played for. You know? My son is two years old and he’s a fan of The Rolling Stones. I expect when he’s age appropriate, he will be a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s. That’s gonna be cool.
Dennis Christopher: I saw Helen Mirren last week and she said, “Oh my god, will you give Quentin a message for me?”
And I said “Sure.”
“I want to be on a Quentin Tarantino set, will you please tell him, that I will do anything, I don’t have to say a line, I can just be an extra, somebody standing in the background, I’ll carry a tray.”
And I said “Really? Really, Helen? The person who played the Queen of England is going to carry a tray for Quentin Tarantino?”
And she said “You betcha. Just to be on his set.”
For a filmmaker as audacious and intentionally shocking as Quentin Tarantino, it’s saying something to identify one scene in a film as “The Scene.” But Django definitely has one. In it, Goggins’ character enters a barn where Django is tied up upside down, and intends to castrate him. It’s one of the most intense and disturbing scenes of any film this year.
Walton Goggins: We talked about this scene in particular and what it would mean as a word in the lexicon of Django Unchained. The scene as it was originally written was a little longer that what ultimately ended up in the movie. There was a speech, a real point of view given by Billy Crash from a working man’s perspective in the planation system—a person who had risen to the top of the employees in the plantation system and he was really coming at it. Billy Crash was really coming at it from the point of view of “I’ve made more money in the last 10 years than I’ve made in my whole god damn life, you know? Do you think Ms. Laura is going to be as interested in Mandingo fighting as her brother? No, I don’t think so. What I think is you done fucked up my good thing, that’s what I think.”
So, on top of the color of Django’s skin, from Billy’s point of view, he’s a person who did away with his livelihood, with his power. Ultimately Billy is rendered powerless. And Quentin has a way of—because his dialogue is so good, he has a real way of articulating different points of view. And a lot of it is with humor, and this was no exception. I think when it came down to exactly what he needed to tell the story, he just needed the intimacy between Billy and Django.
What we talked about—we did it a lot of different ways, and there were moments in this that were heightened and a little surreal and the audience would have interpreted it the way the audience interpreted it had Quentin chose to go in that direction. But what he did was exactly what we talked about on the last day of filming the scene. It took us five days to do it. But at this end of the day, this is a slave. ... This is a man hanging upside down in a barn waiting for another man to walk in to do the unspeakable to him. To bring it down to a really intimate, almost sexual kind of experience… that it’s one man’s perpetration of violence against another.
I said this over and over again, but for me it was really important to be as honest and truthful and as real as I could to, in some perverted way, honor all the people that had not only that done to them, but far worse. We wanted to distill it to this real human experience. This atrocity. To bring it down so that people were very uncomfortable with something that you never really saw. And that didn’t ultimately happen.
Ah! It’s hard. It was really really difficult, difficult to do and it was difficult for people to watch it. It was difficult for me to watch it, even. In some frames, just looking at the frames being set up I—and looking at Django hanging upside down in this frame that I was about to walk into—it was an out of body experience because there is no part of Walton that can reconcile that act or participate in that act. So, you just lose yourself and you’re in the service of the story and in the service of the imagination of Quentin Tarantino, you just walk in and you do it. Then you go home and you try to…take a long bath and take a shower and go for a run and repeat it all over again, you know?
But, of course, no discussion of Tarantino’s slave revenge epic would be complete without a discussion of race itself. The director began by addressing the issue head on.
Quentin Tarantino: Well, I’ve always wanted to do a movie that deals with America’s horrific past with slavery, but the way I wanted to deal with it is—as opposed to doing a straight historical movie, with a capital H, I actually thought it would be better if it were wrapped up in genre. I mean, the thing is, it seems to me that so many Westerns that actually take place during slavery times have just bent over backwards to avoid it. As is America’s way—which is kind of interesting, because most other countries have actually been forced to deal with the atrocities that they’ve committed, and actually the world has made them deal with the atrocities that they’ve committed.
But it’s kind of everybody’s fault in America. White, black, nobody wants to deal with it. Nobody wants to stare at it. And I think it’s like in the story of the different types of slave narratives that could have existed in the 245 years during the time of slavery under America, there are a zillion stories—a zillion dramatic, exciting, adventurous, heartbreaking, triumphant stories that could be told. And living in a world now where people say there are no new stories? There are a whole bunch of them. And they’re all American stories that could be told. And I wanted to be one of the first out the gate with it.
Jamie Foxx: I actually saw that the movie was already going, and someone else was suppose to play it and I thought, “Wow, here’s another project that I haven’t heard about,” and actually I had a management change. And just to tell you my acting hustle, I was like, “First of all, I don’t care what it is, it’s Quentin Tarantino and all these people.” Reading the script, I’m from Texas, and being in the South there’s a racial component. And I love the South, I mean, no other place I’d rather be from. But there are racial components in the South. Me, being called nigger, growing up as a kid. So when I read the script, I didn’t knee-jerk to the word nigger, like someone from maybe New York or L.A. would knee-jerk, because that was something that I experienced.
What I did gravitate to was the love story of Django and Broomhilda and the first of everything in this film. When you see movies about slavery—and Quentin has made mention of this, and everybody knows—we never get a chance to see the slave actually fight back, actually do for himself. In this movie, there are a lot of firsts. And as we went on to actually shoot the movie, we started to comment on some of the things that you’ll see for the first time.
Kerry Washington: Yeah, I think a lot of times people in the past may have felt nervous about playing a slave, because so many of the narratives that we’ve told in film and television about slavery are about powerlessness. And this is not a film about that. This is a film about a black man who finds his freedom and rescues his wife. He is an agent of his own power, he is a liberator, he is a hero. So there’s nothing shameful about that. It’s really exciting and hopeful and inspiring.
There were two things. I was very moved by the love story. Particularly in a time in our American history when black people were not allowed to fall in love and get married, because marriage—that kind of connection—got in the way of the selling of human beings. So to have a story between a husband and a wife at a time where black people weren’t allowed to be a husband and a wife was not only educational but again hopeful. And we’ve seen this love story a million times, about star crossed lovers—it’s just that they don’t come from Italian families like in Romeo and Juliet. The thing that stands in the way of them being together is the institution of slavery.
So, Django is out to get his woman. And he’s got to take down slavery to get her. He’s got to take down Calvin Candie. And the other thing, in terms of firsts, I said to Quentin in our first meeting, I feel like I want to do this movie for my father. Because my father grew up in a world where there were no black superheroes. And that’s what this movie is.
Samuel L. Jackson: You know, to tell this story you have to have that particular character, especially when it’s in this setting. So when I got the script from Quentin, he just told me that he wrote a Western and wanted me to read Steven. And I complained about being 15 years too old to be Django, and I was done with that. And when I read the script, I called him back and was like, ‘So, you want me to be the most despicable Negro in cinematic history?’ And, we both kind of laughed together and were like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s get on that.”
And not only was that a great artistic opportunity to create something that was iconic and to take what people know as Uncle Tom and turn it on its head in a powerful way, it also gave me the opportunity to do really nasty shit to the person who got the role that I thought I should have had. Yeah, and it was written beautifully that way, so I could do that.
But, to tell this story you have to have that guy. Steven is the freest slave in the history of cinema. He has all the power of the masters and literally is the master during the times when Calvin is off Mandingo fighting. He makes the plantation run. Everybody on the plantation knows him. Everybody on the plantation fears him. He has a feeble persona that makes people kind of disregard him in an interesting sort of way. They think he physically is not able to keep up or do things, but he’s around. We used to refer to him as the Basil Rathbone of the Antebellum South.
But I wanted to play him honestly and I wanted everybody to understand that when Django shows up, that’s a negro we’ve never seen before. Not only is he on a horse, but he’s got a gun and he speaks out. And the first thing I have to do is let all the other negroes on the plantation know, that’s not something you can aspire to. So let me put him in his place as quickly as I possibly can. You gotta correct that and let them know that you’re in the place you’re going to be. There’s no other place you can be. This nigga is an anomaly. So don’t even think about trying to be that.
Tarantino: You know, one of the things that really needs to be taken into account is we know, because we have historical perspective, that slavery is on it’s way out. It’s two years before the start of the Civil War. They don’t know that. They have to think that for, at least the next 150 years, at least, this is the way it is. There is no end in sight. All those Northerners, those bleeding heart liberals can say all they want, they don’t mean nothing down here. They don’t understand us and ain’t nothing going to ever change.
There was nothing that I wrote that we had to change on set. We all knew what we were doing. We all got together and everything, and I made sure with people that if there was anything uncomfortable, we talked about it beforehand. Before I hired them. But, there was only one thing I felt uncomfortable about, not shooting, but at the very beginning stages upon finishing the script. It’s one thing to write “Exterior: Greenville where the slave auction town was. One hundred slaves walk through this deep shit mud, being moved along, wearing masks and metal collars. And this whole town built over this like…. black Auschwitz.” It’s one thing to write that. It’s another thing to get a hundred black folks, put them in chains, and march them through the mud.
Same thing about planting the cotton and putting an army of black folks dressed as slaves in the hot sun, in the background and I didn’t… I started to question, could I do it. I don’t think I’ve thought that about anything, when it’s come to my work, before. I started thinking about that. Can I do it? Can I be the reason that’s happening?
And I’d actually come up with an idea, possibly, of maybe shooting just those sequences alone, maybe in the West Indies, or shooting it in Brazil where they have their own issues of slavery. But since this is an American story, there would be a once-removed quality. Frankly, my problem was having Americans do that. That was my problem. So, I was almost trying to escape it. How can I do it, but get around it someway. So I don’t have to deal with the pain.
And I went out to dinner with Sidney Poitier, and I’d just finished writing the script, and he’s kind of a father-figure to me. And I was explaining my little hare-brained scheme of escaping and maybe doing this and maybe doing that. And he listened to me and he mainly told me I had to man up. He goes, “Quentin, I think for whatever reason, you were born to tell this story. And you need to not be afraid of your own movie. You can’t tell this story if you’re afraid of your own movie. You just need to do it. Everybody knows what time it is. We’re all professionals. Everybody gets it. Treat them with love and respect. Treat them like actors, not atmosphere. Let them know why they’re there and what we’re doing and what we’re trying to get across. And it’ll all be good. By the way, you’re going to be doing this in the South. Those people need money. They need jobs. You gotta do it.”
Jackson: And then you found out they’d been slaves in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and were scheduled to go into Twelve Years of Slavery after being slaves for you.
Tarantino: Yeah, yeah, there were a lot of guys who were like “I was a slave in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, I was a slave in that, I was a slave in this…”
Washington: I’ll tell you one thing that happened as a result of doing that though. For me it was one of the most profound days on our set. We were shooting one of these days of picking cotton in the Louisiana heat and everybody was really hot and exhausted and you could tell that, especially for me and Jamie, the waking up everyday and putting yourself in the mental state of somebody who your constitution says you’re a fraction of a person, not a whole human being, you know, it was just starting to wear on everybody a little bit.
And we had this one back ground actor who was a pastor, who kind of paused everybody and said, ‘We have to remember that we are the answer to these people’s prayers. That the people who did this work, dreamt of a day where you could not be property, but own property. Where you could read, where you could vote, where you could get married, where you could have a job and be compensated.
And on that sacred ground, it forced everybody to shift and man up and own how blessed we are that we get to be here and tell this story and not be victimized by it, but know that it’s a story of a hero. And that’s a profound opportunity.