‘Leo cares very much about this project,’ DiCaprio’s publicist told me when I phoned to check in. ‘But he can’t spread himself too thin. His causes are the environment and wildlife preservation. There are a lot of important issues in this film – conflict diamonds, child soldiers – but he’s not going to be a spokesman for those. It dilutes the impact of his other activities.’ Fair enough. I knew Leo was among the few celebrities who did more than just lend his name to a foundation. I assured his publicist that we didn’t want him speaking about our issues – especially conflict diamonds – during filming.
‘Good, good. He doesn’t do any press during production, so if you get any important requests, send them on to me or his assistant Jason and we’ll deal with them.’
So far, so easy. He added, ‘We’ll have to see about his EPK interview. He usually doesn’t do them until he’s seen a cut of the movie.’
There’s just one thing I’d like him to do, Ken. We’re going to have an embedded journalist writing a production story for Warner’s International…
‘Nobody told me about this. I’ll have to get back to you on that.’
‘What do you mean, Leo might not talk to me?’ my girlfriend, Nicola Graydon, who was Warner Bros.’ embedded journalist demanded. Just get here. You’ll have five whole months to charm him. I was sleeping with the enemy.
Cape Town was the busiest time for the publicity department. We had all our major interviews to do, plus I was repaying cooperative press with wrap stories. Nicola had her own busy agenda here. Off set, she scheduled social engagements with several people she knew from her many years of visits to this city. On set, she was running out of time to snare Leo. She had become friendly with some of his entourage, gaining trust, getting to be a familiar, comfortable face around the star, occasionally trying to sneak in a question here and there that she might use in her production story. But Leo had a crafty way of acknowledging you and ignoring you at the same time. Nicola was determined to penetrate that and not only get an interview for the Warner Bros. story she’d been commissioned to write, but a by-line article in one of her British news outlets.
She’d interviewed Djimon Hounsou over dinner in Maputo and turned that into a sale to the Telegraph Magazine. She’d talked with Jennifer Connelly about her veganism and set her sights on a feature in the health section of the Evening Standard. DiCaprio was the elusive jewel in the crown. She was so close but still so far. Then one social evening at a house filled with animal bones and other eerie bric-a-brac, a documentary filmmaker began talking about a movie he was making about the ‘Shark Whisperer’.
My darling’s attention was all his. There was a man living in Cape Town who claimed to have a special relationship with great white sharks. He could hypnotize them. Once he got a shark under his spell, he could roll it over, tickle its fins, stick his head in the jaws. He could do with killer sharks what Robert Redford could do with horses. And he gave diving tours.
One day on set, Nicola was talking with Leo’s assistant Jason and friend Peter, and her interest in going shark diving with this man was mentioned. A short time later, word had made its way to Leo.
‘So, tell me about this shark guy,’ our star asked our in-house journalist. We were working on the weekend, through the beginning of the week, and had Wednesday off. The next three days were at the Colonel’s Farmhouse, a sprawling vineyard in Constantia, one of Cape Town’s most upscale suburbs in the heart of wine country. The EPK crew and I were reeling in most of our interviews here – including Leo. He said he ‘rarely does these things’ until he’s had time to process the experience but he’d do one this time and re-do it, if necessary, in the States. It was a gesture of respect, which I appreciated. I did not want my renegade writer taking advantage of the star’s good will by pushing for her own time with him. ‘You can use the EPK transcript for your production story,’ I bargained. She smiled. It was a curious smile. ‘I’m going shark diving with Leo and his guys on Wednesday,’she announced.
I’m not great in the water. Nicola and I had taken a weekend trip to a resort in Inhambane, on the south-central coast of Mozambique. The big thing to do there was snorkel with whale sharks. Lest that sound suicidal, a whale shark is a plankton- eating fish – not a mammal like whales, nor a carnivore like sharks. They can grow to thirty-six feet in length with the girth of a tanker truck. But they’re harmless. Nicola was an excellent swimmer and, as we know, always game for a go at something new. I don’t know why I went along but it must’ve sounded like a good idea at the time. Our boat found one of the huge, spotted sea creatures, crept up beside it and kept pace. When it came my turn to dive, I breathed in when I should’ve breathed out and had to be hauled back onto the boat choking on seawater. I would’ve said ‘no, thanks’ to shark diving with real sharks – had I been invited.
The Shark Whisperer loaded his boat with Nicola, Leo, Jason, a couple of other DiCaprio cohorts and a tub full of chum and piloted to an area called Gans Bay – known as Shark Alley. He lowered anchor, tossed in the chum and waited. Fins began to cluster around the boat. Leo and Nicola got in a cage and were dipped into the middle of the feeding frenzy. There they shared the thrill of a great white trying to break through the bars.
‘Leo was taking pictures with his underwater camera and he jumped back just in time,’ she reported later – in an article for the Mail on Sunday.
Thankfully, her story would be held until the release of the movie or the insurance bonding company would’ve had us both thrown in Gans Bay without a cage. That night, she was invited to dinner with Leo and his entourage where they all relived the excitement of the day. Her new pals wouldn’t let her drive home alone. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ one of them said.
– Excerpted from “The Trouble with Love in the Movies” by Rob Harris with Permission, Zuleika London, June 2020