James Cameron Explains Why Leonardo DiCaprio Was Almost Not Cast in 'Titanic' (Exclusive)

Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic
Paramount Pictures

The director looks back on how he fought for the actor ahead of the film's 25th anniversary.

While Kate Winslet is making headlines for her record-setting underwater scenes in Avatar: The Way of Water, the film is also getting attention for the fact that it reunites the actress with director James Cameron, whom she first worked with on Titanic

With the release of the highly anticipated Avatar sequel opening in theaters on Dec. 16, just days before the 25th anniversary of Titanic's debut on Dec. 19, both Winslet and Cameron are looking back on the Oscar-winning, box office-smashing saga that is still cherished by many around the world today. 

"We're re-releasing Titanic in 3D, of course, on Valentine's Day just as a 25-year commemorative," Cameron tells ET's Nischelle Turner about the upcoming remastered version of the 1997 film that will be screened in 4K HDR and at a high-frame rate. 

Starring Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, the film tells the story of an epic romance of two, young star-crossed lovers who meet while aboard the infamous cruise liner as they make their way across the Atlantic Ocean, unaware of how the charter would change their lives forever. 

"We can't imagine that movie without Kate," Cameron says, while also noting, "we can't imagine that movie without him." 

Of course, him being DiCaprio, who was a rising star at the time before the film made him the most bankable leading man in Hollywood. But as fate would have it, he almost didn't land the role of Jack opposite Winslet as Rose. 

Paramount Pictures

While Cameron admits they didn't do "an exhaustive search," they met DiCaprio early in the casting process. Outside of him, the only notable name the director can remember discussing was Tobey Maguire. "But he wasn't really a leading man at the [time]," he shares. 

"Look, we were leaning toward Leo, but I hadn't seen him do anything," Cameron says now. "And he didn't want to read [for the part]. He said, 'Oh, I don't read.' You know, I'm like, 'Well, are you a little diva? 18 years old? 19 years old?' 'No, I don't read.' Like, 'OK, really? See ya. Wouldn't want to be ya.' So, I called his bluff, right? And he went and read. And he was spectacular, of course."

While DiCaprio may have won Cameron over, the studio wasn't convinced. "But now, I had to sell him to the studio," the director recalls. "And they were like, 'Based on what? [What's Eating] Gilbert Grape? Come on, we're gonna hang this giant movie, romantic film on Gilbert Grape? Give me a break.' So, you know, then I had to talk him into it. But see, Leo wouldn't let me film [him reading]. So, I was like, 'OK, you just have to take my word for it.'"

Needless to say, it was a "tenuous" journey for Cameron. "It shows you how fragile the whole thing is, this whole moviemaking thing," he says, before later adding, "I'm pretty careful about my casting." 


"I mean, I certainly can't imagine it being anyone other than Leo. But also, I was not party to any of those conversations," Winslet says of Cameron's revelation about DiCaprio almost not getting the part. "I mean, like, how could it have ever not been Leo?" 

That said, "I am enormously proud of it," she says of the film, adding, "I have always maintained that Jim is a complete genius. He's an extraordinary filmmaker and he knows exactly what he's doing. His storytelling, his scriptwriting -- he's extraordinary at creating not just strong roles for women, but women who are at the center, who are leaders, you know, who lead with integrity." 

And now, getting to reunite with him on The Way of Water, Winslet says, "It's such a privilege to be a part of something that he's poured his heart and soul into."