The director, who is promoting new sequel Avatar: The Way of Water, reflected on the casting process of Titanic, which starred DiCaprio alongside Kate Winslet.
Cameron said that he initially met with DiCaprio for a chat about the role, following which “there was a screen test” to ensure he had chemistry with Winslet, who had signed up to play the lead character, Rose.
He remembered that DiCaprio “charmed everyone” in the room, but said that the actor told him “I don’t read” upon realising Cameron would require him to audition for the role.
“He came back a couple of days later, and I had the camera set up to record the video,” Cameron told GQ in a video retrospective interview about his career.
“He didn’t know he was going to test; he thought it was another meeting to meet Kate,” the filmmaker continued, adding: “So I said, ‘OK, we’ll just go in the next room, and we’ll run some lines and I’ll video it.’
DiCaprio was confused by this, with Cameron recalling that he replied: “You mean I’m reading? Oh, I don’t read.”
However, Cameron was willing to let DiCaprio go on the spot if he wasn’t willing to do so.
“I shook his hand and said, ‘Thanks for coming by,’” the director explained.
His rule worked on DiCaprio, though, who apparently said: “Wait, wait, wait. If I don’t read, I don’t get the part? Just like that?”
Cameron says he told the actor: “Oh, yeah. Come on. This is a giant movie that is going to take two years of my life, and you’ll be gone doing five other things while I’m doing post-production. So, I’m not going to f*** it up by making the wrong decision in casting. So, you’re going to read, or you’re not going to get the part.’”
He continued: “So he comes in, and he’s like every ounce of his entire being is just so negative – right up until I said, ‘Action.’ Then he turned into Jack. Kate just lit up, and they played the scene. Dark clouds had opened up, and a ray of sun came down and lit up Jack. I’m like, ‘All right. He’s the guy.’”
The film went on to become one of the biggest films of all time, and has only been surpassed in the last 25 years by Avengers: Endgame and Cameron’s own Avatar.
At the time, DiCaprio’s credits included What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Quick and the Dead, and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Winslet decided to work with Cameron once again on The Way of Water, which is out on 16 December, despite once suggesting she wouldn’t due to finding him “frightening” on the set for Titanic.