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Cristina Cuomo | Photo: Brian Bowen Smith | Styling by James Aguiar | December 20, 2013
Margot Robbie helps Leonardo DiCaprio lead the pack in The Wolf of Wall Street.
It doesn’t get any better for a working actress than playing the paramour of Leonardo DiCaprio in a Martin Scorsese film. Just ask Margot Robbie. At 23, she’s one such lucky girl, a virtual overnight sensation whose breakout turn comes opposite the Oscar-nominated actor in the Golden Globe-nominated The Wolf of Wall Street, helmed by the legendary auteur.
Scorsese goes full throttle into unexpurgated immorality with Wolf, at times “hilarious, shocking and brilliant,” as Robbie, the petite blonde beauty who looms large throughout the film, calls it. The biopic tells the true story of Jordan Belfort, a fast-talking, drug-addled, sex-addicted stockbroker from Queens who, by his 30s in the early ’90s, became a multimillionaire inflating the prices of penny stocks and then dropping them via his “pump and dump” shop in New York. Belfort is brought down by the FBI, then incarcerated for nearly two years, yet remains “unapologetic about his lust for wealth and his mad consumption,” observes DiCaprio, who portrays him perfectly. Scorsese, on the other hand, captures—as perhaps only he can—the financial ecstasy, madness and disaster of the American economy during the booming late ’80s and early ’90s. “[Belfort’s] story falls squarely into American fascination with the rise and fall—the gangster tradition,” explains the film’s producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who likens Scorsese’s fearless direction of the film to that of his 1995 crime drama Casino, starring Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, and says that Wolf is told with “classic Scorsese staccato pacing.”
Meanwhile, the Australian-born Robbie delivers a thick, sultry Bay Ridge accent as Belfort’s trophy wife, Naomi, whom her husband dubs The Duchess of Bay Ridge. “Playing a girl from [New York] when you’re all the way from Australia, and understanding the mannerisms and the hand movements and the culture, is a difficult undertaking,” says DiCaprio of his co-star. “But Margot worked so diligently creating character; she’s incredibly believable.”
For Robbie, the respect is mutual. “[Working with DiCaprio] was a dream come true. He’s always been my favorite actor,” she explains of a prospect that simultaneously intimidated and overwhelmed her. “Both he and Marty have such massive presences when you’re around them—they’re unstoppable, like this force that keeps moving; they have so much dimension, it sometimes seems impossible to keep up with them. Working with Leo challenged me every single second—the challenge just to keep up with him pushed me and got my acting to a level it’s never been, which is incredibly satisfying.”
As for taking direction from Scorsese, Robbie found it “terribly intimidating” just to be in his presence—at least in the beginning. “Before you step into a room with him, you’re so acutely aware of how undeserving you are to be there, to be [with] a film god like him,” she says. “And then moments after spending time with him, you forget [about his] humongous reputation. … He’s just so warm and funny and really lovely to be around.” Robbie’s on-set learning curve continued off-set, where she was frequently all ears. “[Scorsese’s] an incredibly fascinating person to listen to. I tried to be quiet and listen to his stories because they are so incredible.”
Of course, what sets a brilliant director apart is his ability to take an actor to where he or she needs to go—sometimes, in just a moment. That moment for Robbie is in the final fight scene between her Naomi and DiCaprio’s Belfort, a gripping twist in her own character, and a climactic point in the couple’s relationship. “I was having trouble finding new motivation, and then Marty came up to me halfway through filming this big scene and he said, ‘Stay on your toes.’ I wasn’t sure if he meant figuratively or literally be on my toes, but then he said, ‘Be more like a boxer—you’re on your toes in a boxing ring.’ That for me was an awesome piece of direction because Raging Bull is one of my favorite films of his, and I knew what he wanted from me. It made all the difference—just one little piece of direction like that, and it opened my performance. That is why he is a genius, and I gave him my best.”
It’s a performance that Scorsese, and Wolf’s storyline, would need. Because, the director offers, “This is a story about the profane as opposed to the sacred, the obscene as opposed to the decent. I had to have total freedom with the cast to do what I needed, which meant we all decided that we were going all the way.” Among the other wolves in Scorsese’s pack, all of whom bring incredible drama and comedy to their roles, are Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau and Jean Dujardin—an ideal lineup for many of the film’s improvised scenes.
Of Robbie’s favorite scenes, she points to her last. “On paper, my final scene started off as just being a kind of anticlimactic end to it all. But the night before, Marty, Leo and I sat in a room and workshopped it,” fine-tuning it to the point that “it turned into the most dramatic scene in the film,” she shares of its “extremely [physical] and emotionally demanding” filming. The scene required that Robbie dig deep. In the end, she says, “It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.” Scorsese agrees the actress did not hold back, concluding, “Margot is strong, though, and funny as Naomi, holding her own at every scene.”
Also challenging, Robbie notes—although “in the best way possible”—are Wolf’s graphic, highly technical sex scenes between her character and DiCaprio’s. “We were positioned while they lit around us in one scene, and I kind of pushed Leo’s head to one side and told him he was in my light and he moved out of [it]. He was so incredulous that I had told him to get out of my light, and physically moved him out of the way, he was like, ‘Did you really just do that?’ I don’t think anyone has told him to get out of their light in quite some time. He seemed extremely [shocked], but it was kind of funny.”
It helped Robbie to meet the real Belfort before filming to find likability in DiCaprio’s debauched depiction of him. “There’s something very likeable about him, even though he did terrible things,” she says. “He just seems to be someone who does everything to an extreme. He works to an extreme, makes money to an extreme, and then he did drugs to an extreme. Everything he does is 10 steps further than everyone else does it, and that can seem exciting.”
When we speak, Robbie is fresh from the set in Argentina of her next film, Focus, in which she plays an amateur pickpocket who gets initiated into a con world headed by Will Smith. Her character falls for Smith in the romantic thriller, which allowed Robbie to witness the seasoned actor’s incredible versatility—the same comedic and dramatic turns she saw in Wolf. “You know, Will is really wonderful,” Robbie says. “We do one take that’s hilarious… and the very next take it’s really emotional and sad, and people are crying. It’s fun—we get to play with different levels all the time. He has the capacity to do both comedy and really serious drama, so there are endless possibilities. I keep getting lucky with my co-stars.”
That, and the fact that Robbie’s chosen smaller parts very carefully—a smart strategy that’s led her to star-making roles. Preceding her role in The Wolf of Wall Street, the actress appeared in the festival hit About Time, with Rachel McAdams and directed by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, Love Actually). “[About Time] is a beautiful film, and I’m so incredibly proud to be a part of it,” Robbie says. “My managers and team are all on the same page [about me] doing small scenes in a really brilliant film, [rather] than many scenes in a mediocre film.”
Before all this, though, there was Robbie’s 2007 stint at an Australian Subway, where she worked as a “sandwich artist.” Not surprisingly, she deems the gig “the least glamorous job I ever had.” Still, she shares, “I actually had a lot of fun working there, and it was a really fun day when I went and said I have to quit, and everyone was like, ‘What? Why?’ And, I said, ‘I’m going to be on TV; I got a role on Neighbours,’ a big Australian TV show. Everyone thought I was kidding. … Then six months later, I landed a Subway commercial doing a dancing promo as a new face on TV by pure coincidence. The job was my lucky charm.”
So what’s next for the lucky girl? “I really want to do a Western; I want to be the dude who is riding horses and doing exciting things—something where I get to do something physical and have to train for it,” Robbie says. “I don’t want to be the damsel. There’s something magical about stepping on a set that looks nothing like the present day. It’s so much easier to create a world and a new character when everything is so different from your everyday life.”
Until then, back home in Los Angeles, Robbie will pick up playing right wing for her ice-hockey team while contemplating when she’ll execute her New Year’s resolutions, which, she simply states, includes learning to flag twirl, play the ukulele and—fitting for a girl who’s clearly going places—travel to Iceland, Hawaii and Japan.
I don’t doubt her for an instant.