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What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

Oscar Nominee Leonardo DiCaprio Gives Stunning Performance as Retarded Youth



LOS ANGELES -- What's surprising about Leonardo DiCaprio is that in person, he isn't all that different from Arnie, the character he plays in What's Eating Gilbert Grape.

That is surprising because Arnie is mentally retarded. And DiCaprio most certainly is not.

He's a smart, successful 19-year-old with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. DiCaprio is also restless and fidgety. His eyes roam, his fingers pester his face, his arms and upper body go all gangly. He seems to be somewhere else. Or to want to be.

But on this evening several weeks before the Oscar nominations, he is trapped in an office on the Paramount lot. Inside the nearby Paramount theater are insiders - friends of the producers, friends of friends of the producers, Paramount queen Sherry Lansing -- all attending a celebration screening of Gilbert Grape. In the lobby, wine and tiny hors d'oeuvres are set out for the afterglow.

DiCaprio has already done many tiny TV interviews this night, the kind where he sits in one chair and pancaked pod people rotate through the opposite chair every few minutes. Each wants to know: How hard was it to learn to play a retarded person? How would he feel about an Oscar? And just who the heck is he, anyhow?

DiCaprio didn't exactly come from nowhere. At 14, he starred in an educational film, How to Deal with a Parent Who takes Drugs. He was in episodes of Santa Barbara and Roseanne. He was Gary in Parenthood, and he played Luke, the homeless kid, in Growing Pains. That made him a magnet for teenage girls. It got him into teen magazines. DiCaprio was not pleased.

"They bring kids in and portray 'em as the next cute guy," he says." But then what happens to that guy when the next face comes in? What happens to his career? It's more important to be a long-lasting actor than any kind of idol, I think."

DiCaprio obviously has what it takes. He beat out hundreds of other boys for the leading role of Toby in This Boy's Life, his first big movie.

"They were looking for a kid that was not only vulnerable but confident, you know? I just tried to be myself, 'cause that's what I am -- vulnerable, confident."

In equal part?

"Yeah, I would say so."

DiCaprio says Toby swept him away from "that whole series thing. It was like 'Here's a ticket to a new world, know what I mean?'"

He held his own as the kid caught between Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin in This Boy's Life. This time he steals Gilbert Grape right out from under Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis and 500-pound Darlene Cates, who plays his mother in the movie. No easy feat.

Handling Arnie

DiCaprio's portrayal of a retarded teenager is eerily convincing and yet seemingly effortless. Before he auditioned for the role, he was given a videotape of "what they sort of wanted the character to be like, and I basically sort of mimicked that."

But he says, "It was an intense audition. I had to do the scene, 'I'm not going anywhere, I'm not going anywhere, Gilbert' and the whole sequence where Juliette is in the car with me and Gilbert and I'm talking about my party."

He says director Lasse Hallstrom made him feel totally comfortable at the audition. "If he was a really overbearing kind of guy, I wouldn't have been relaxed like I was. I felt really relaxed."

Says Hallstrom, "In the first audition, I noticed that his gaze became different when he did the reading and was amazed that he seemed to be able to enter the mind of the mentally challenged kid intuitively. Leonardo himself had gone somewhere else."

DiCaprio visited a school for mentally retarded and autistic teenagers. He adopted the characteristics of voice, manner and behavior from several different boys, creating his own character.

"I could have made him autistic. I could have made him anything. He was officially entitled 'mentally retarded' but I like to call him Arnie."

Earlier, a TV interviewer had asked DiCaprio whether playing Arnie was painful. In fact, "in was great fun!"

DiCaprio explains, "The character of Arnie had no limitations. He did what he wanted to do at the time he wanted to do it."

Does that mean his performance is overrated? That maybe it's not as hard as it looks?

"No!" he replies. "'Overrated' isn't in my vocabulary." He adds, "It took a lot of hard work, too.

"But I think it's weird for an audience to look at someone like Arnie, who's so different and yet who is happy about life. It's something the audience sort of looks at as -- whoa! They're not sure how to handle it."

Which is just about how DiCaprio feels about Oscar. Even before the nominations were announced, he was asked how he'd feel about the honor.

"It doesn't really enter my brain as being actual reality. It's like, 'What? Leo? The kid who goofs off with his friends? Oscar? What?'"

Schooled in films

The kid also says he doesn't think he wants to go to college -- yet. "'Cause I think I'm getting the best education I could have right now by doing films," he says. The film he's making now is The Quick and the Dead, directed by former Detroiter Sam Raimi. This time, Gene Hackman plays his father.

About playing against the likes of Hackman and De Niro, the actor says, "I wasn't really intimidated. I just think of them as good actors but normal men, you know? Mere mortals."

He says his role in the Raimi movie is very showy, "but it's kind of hard to steal anything away from Gene Hackman. That man is pretty powerful."

One role DiCaprio wanted but didn't get was River Phoenix's part in Interview with the Vampire. After Phoenix's sudden death last fall, the role went to Christian Slater, even though it was rumored DiCaprio was cast. "I was too young-looking, I believe," he explains.

Obviously, not an insurmountable problem.

In the meantime, he says, between movies he just hangs out with his friends, hangs out with his dog, at the Los Angeles home he shares with his parents. "Just bein' a kid," he explains. "Kid -- I shouldn't say that anymore. I should say 'guy.' But I am a kid."