After winning an Oscar for his screenplay for “Milk,” another biopic should have been a piece of cake for Dustin Lance Black. Of course, the life of infamous FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover is no ordinary biography — especially given Hoover’s penchant for secrecy about pretty much everything in his life, including his rumored lifelong love affair with Clyde Tolson. But Black likes a challenge, and while that love story is the at the heart of the Clint Eastwood-directed “J. Edgar,” what really drew Black to the story was Hoover’s amassing of power and refusal to relinquish it. In seeking to answer that question, Black covers Hoover’s life from his early 20s until his death at age of 77, passing along a whole new challenge to star Leonardo DiCaprio. If you happen to see the film on opening day, keep your eyes peeled for an incognito Oscar-winner.
The film covers a wide span of Hoover’s life. When were you were writing it, did you know it would be played by one actor?
No, in fact I try not to consider casting when I’m writing — especially a biopic like this, when I don’t have the opportunity to meet the real guy. It’s enough work to try and figure out who he was and get a handle on how he might’ve been, how he might’ve talked, the things he might’ve been thinking and feeling, his behavior — you know, all that’s tough enough. So it’s not until I’ve turned it in, I think wow, that’s going to be challenging. He has to play 20s into his 30s and then 60s into his 70s, and that’s a pretty broad range.
At what point did you know Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing the part?
Things moved very quickly once I turned in the script. Brian Grazer got it to Clint Eastwood, and while Clint was reading it I got a phone call from my lawyer — who works at the same firm Leo’s represented by — and they said, “Hey, you’re not showing this to anyone else, are you?” I mean, I was very excited that it was Leo, if that’s what you want to know about, because this movie was supposed to be about subverting some expectations — confirming some things and subverting others.
Eastwood recently voiced his support for gay marriage, saying people are “making a big deal out of things we shouldn’t make a big deal out of.” Did you two discuss any political or social issues?
Yeah, I mean we talked about things here or there. Mostly we were just making a movie, though. But those are Clint’s ideas. He’s known as a conservative guy, but he’s a libertarian at heart and in no way homophobic. I mean, I didn’t have to teach him what gay love or a relationship would look like. He just treated it with the same respect he would have a heterosexual love story. I hate a lot of other questions, but never one about that.