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James Cameron Reveals How Leonardo DiCaprio Nearly Lost His Star-Making Role In 'Titanic'

After DiCaprio refused to read lines for his audition, Cameron called his bluff.

James Cameron; Leonardo DiCaprio from "Titanic"
Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Absolut Elyx; Paramount Pictures

A young Leonardo DiCaprio almost lost out on his star-making role playing Jack Dawson in 1997's cinematic juggernaut, Titanic.

In a retrospective look back on his career, Titanic's Academy Award-winning director, James Cameron, spoke to GQ magazine about the time he almost didn't cast DiCaprio.

At the time, the former child star had become an established actor playing opposite screen legends like Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro–but he had yet to star in his own mega-blockbuster film.

Cameron recalled DiCaprio's persnickety attitude coming into the audition room.

The initial meeting between the actor and the director went well.

“So, Leo came in of course, charmed everybody, myself included,” said Cameron.

However, things took a turn when DiCaprio was asked to come back for a screen test with his future co-star, Kate Winslet, who by then had been an established historical drama actress and was referred to as "Corset Kate."

Winslet was already cast in the film as Rose DeWitt Bukater when she was to meet DiCaprio for–what was unbeknownst to him–his audition.

Cameron continued:

“I said, ‘All right, let’s see what your chemistry’s like with Kate [Winslet].’ So he comes in a couple days later and I’ve got the camera set up to record the video.”

Apparently, there had been a misunderstanding as Cameron said DiCaprio was unaware he was coming in to test.

“He came in, he thought it was another meeting to meet Kate. And I said, ‘OK, so we’ll just go in the next room and we’ll just, we’ll run some lines and I’ll video it.’"
"And he said, ‘You mean I’m reading?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’"
"He said, ‘Oh, I don’t read.’”

In response to being rebuffed by the young actor, Cameron formally shook his hand and dismissed him with, "Thanks for coming by," to which DiCaprio replied:

“Wait, wait, wait, you mean if I don’t read I don’t get the part? Just like that?”

Having no patience for DiCaprio's lack of grace at the moment and not wanting to risk taking a chance on ungrateful actors, the Terminator director told him:

“Oh, yeah. Come on. This is like a giant movie that’s gonna take two years of my life and you’ll be gone doing five other things while I’m doing post-production and all the model work."
"I’m not gonna f'k it up by making the wrong decision in casting. So you're going to read or you're not going to get the part.”

DiCaprio scoffed at first and eventually acquiesced.

Cameron said that as they were preparing to start the screen test, "every ounce of [DiCaprio's] entire being [was] just so negative."

But the moment the director called "Action!," he said the young actor instantly "turned into Jack."

"Kate just lit up and they went into this whole thing, played the scene, and dark clouds had opened up and a ray of sun came down and lit up Jack.”

That was the moment Cameron realized, indisputably, that he found the "right guy" to play Jack Dawson.

You can watch the entire GQ interview in which Cameron discusses his other cinematic achievements, here.

James Cameron Breaks Down His Most Iconic Films |

Thanks to the combined talents of everyone involved in the production, Titanic became a critical and commercial success, earning over $1 billion worldwide at the box office and becoming the highest-grossing movie ever until another one of Cameron's films, Avatar, claimed that designation in 2010.

Titanic went on to win 11 Academy Awards–including one for Best Picture and another for Best Director for Cameron.

Had things turned out differently at that meeting which required DiCaprio to read with Winslet, Titanic, the movie, might have sunk.