Esquire - February 26, 2010
How Do You Become Leo DiCaprio?
by Cal Fussman
Photo by Nigel Parry
You knew Leonardo DiCaprio was a movie star the first time you saw him on-screen. He keeps getting better because he watches the
other movie stars he works with — and he learns. Here he talks about what he's picked up along the way.
Yeah, I can tell you what I learned from the mustard jar.
When I was fifteen, I got this amazing opportunity to audition for this plum role opposite Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin in This
Boy's Life. Before that, it was The New Lassie or a Bubble Yum commercial.
They were using the mustard-jar scene in the audition. De Niro was going up to the kids with this almost empty mustard jar and
cramming it into their faces, really pushing the kids' buttons. The scene was being used to see if the kid could stand up to De
Niro, and it was hard not to be overwhelmed. When he started bludgeoning me, I completely overcompensated. He said, "Is this empty?
Is this empty?" I slapped the jar out of his hand, got right up in his face, and screamed at the top of my lungs, "Noooooooo!"
It was the most god-awful way to do the scene. I was supposed to be the victim, not the antagonizer, and there was complete silence.
De Niro looks at me and goes, "Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh," in that way only De Niro can laugh. "That was good. That was goooood. I
like that. A little over-the-top but good."
My audition was supposed to go on, but they just stopped it. Even though De Niro said he liked it, I left the room thinking, Oh,
shit, I'm a laughingstock. I'm buried. I'm done.
Getting that part felt like winning the lottery. Sometimes you've got to go to the wrong place just to show that you're not afraid
to go there.
What can you learn from a plate of spaghetti? I've never been asked that one before.
I loved that character in Gilbert Grape. You have to understand that Arnie was a creation that came out of going to a home in Texas
and getting to hang out for a few days with some mentally disabled kids. I got to capture their youthlike innocence and that
playfulness, that almost rebellious defiance they have for almost any type of authority.
I remember going to Lasse Hallström with this checklist for him to do with the character. It was really Lasse believing in me and
allowing me to run amok in all these scenes. It was incredibly fulfilling because there were no rules. Zero. There was nothing I
wasn't able to do, no circumstance that I couldn't create, even if it was in defiance of the narrative.
So Lasse would put a plate of spaghetti in front of me at the table, just to see how I could create chaos. You have to really look
at that plate of spaghetti and understand how happy Arnie is because he's getting to eat his favorite food. The fact that there's
this family dynamic going on around the table that's filled with tension doesn't matter if you're Arnie. Arnie is happier than a pig
in shit because he's getting to eat spaghetti.
I'm glad you remembered that scene. What I learned from Arnie is, I would love it if every character could be played like that.
I lived in a dangerous part of Hollywood when I was a kid. When I was about eight, I had a camouflage Velcro wallet with two
two-dollar bills in it. I was proud of those two-dollar bills. I thought they were worth more because they were hard to get.
One day I said, "Mom, I'm going to go out and show everyone my two-dollar bills." She said, "Leonardo, don't you dare do that!" But
out the door I go, down the alley. I see this kid in front of a garage and show him the money.
"That's great," he says. "Hey, you wanna see some more money?"
"Yeah, I wanna see some more money!"
"Put your head down in front of this garage. Under that dumpster is a big pile of money."
"Really?" I drop down.
"No, no, put your head down farther... . No, farther. If you wanna see it, you've got to put your head all the way down."
Pretty soon my head is on the concrete. The kid steps on my head, rips away my wallet, kicks me in the face, and runs down the
block. This kid is twice my size and my face is bloody--but he's got my two-dollar bills. I chase him like a wolverine out of the
one-block perimeter where I'm supposed to play, chase him for three blocks. People get between us, and I never get my two-dollar
bills back. But I came to understand money at an early age.
I saw so much of the drug culture in my neighborhood when I was young, people shooting up in alleys, or on blow. They looked
like vermin, like some monstrous thing had taken over their faces and spirits. I saw lives destroyed early on.
When I was eighteen, River Phoenix was far and away my hero. Think of all those early great performances — My Own Private Idaho.
Stand by Me. I always wanted to meet him. One night, I was at this Halloween party, and he passed me. He was beyond pale — he looked
white. Before I got a chance to say hello, he was gone, driving off to the Viper Room, where he fell over and died.
That's a lesson.
Read more at:
10 Essential Lessons from Leo DiCaprio
The photos are
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