The Titanic star and the Homeland alum played the titular doomed couple in the 1996 film, which also starred John Leguizamo (Tybalt), Harold Perrineau (Mercutio), Dash Mihok (Benvolio) and Paul Rudd (Dave Paris). Baz Luhrmann directed the movie from a screenplay that he wrote with Craig Pearce.
Romeo + Juliet cemented DiCaprio’s status as a heartthrob, but he did not land the role without proving himself first. “When I saw Leonardo, I thought, ‘God, that’s how he should look. But can he act?’” Luhrmann recalled to iHeartRadio in August 2016. “Then I found out he was the preeminent young actor.”
The filmmaker revealed that the Oscar winner flew to Australia to audition for the part, and his dedication paid off. “He came down to Australia and he brought all these friends and we made a whole video of the show with the other actors,” he explained. “I won’t say who, it will never be seen; I realized that I couldn’t make it without him.”
Danes, for her part, nearly lost out on her role to Natalie Portman. The Black Swan star was 14 at the time, while DiCaprio was 21, so the My So-Called Life alum was viewed as a more age-appropriate love interest for him.
“She’s a really mature girl for her age,” DiCaprio told Entertainment Weekly of Danes in September 1996. “She was the only girl when we did the audition who came straight in my face to do the lines. She said them looking at me right in the eye. And some of the other girls did, like, the affected flower thing. You know, they stroked their face and looked up and tried to do things with their eyelashes, and it was not nearly as truthful as Claire’s performance.”
After receiving acclaim for his turn as Romeo, the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood star spoke out about the high expectations placed on him as his career developed.
“It’s a hard position to be in,” DiCaprio noted in the May 1997 issue of i-D. “Just because you may have done a good performance once doesn’t mean you’re always gonna be good. That’s why you have some of the greatest actors in the world going a little bit nuts: ‘What happened, do you still love me?’ It’s that type of situation and it’s really understandable and it’s an easy trap to fall into. I can’t say I have the answer for all of that; you could find me in a loony bin in a couple of years, you never know, but right now I realize that I don’t care. I don’t care what people say about me because it gets to a point of when you’re hot, you’re hot and when you’re not, you’re not and it’s so true.”
Scroll through the gallery below to see where the stars of Romeo + Juliet ended up!