LFP Presents Leonardo (Fanzine)
by Sandy Stert Benjamin
Leonardo DiCaprio knows all about rejection. At the age of ten he was turned down for representation by a talent agent simply because he had a bad haircut. But what a difference some scissors can make! That bad hair day was 13 years ago, and today DiCaprio has proven that heīs a cut above the rest, and one of the biggest box-office draws on the Hollywood landscape.
A first-generation American, the actor - whose Italian father and German mother raised him in a hippie environment - says he grew up surrounded by creative people, and some of "the strangest ones" camped out at his childhood home. Everyone from beat poet Allen Ginsberg to "Naked Lunch" author William Burroughs took advantage of the familyīs hospitality.
Given his colorful acqaintances, it came a little surprise to DiCaprioīs parents when their son announced that he wanted to become an actor. After practicing in school plays and rehearsing with impromptu performances at home, he ultimately found regular work on television, landing some 15 commercials as well as guest spots on a number of different series. Soon, the big screen beckoned, and before long DiCaprio proved that he was a capable and versatile performer who appealed to both young and older audiences.
With 13 films under his belt and several more in the works, the popular actor graciously took time out from his busy schedule to discuss his background and high-profile career.
Do you remember the very first time when you walked aut on a stage?
Yes. I was probably about five or six, waiting with a crowd of people in L.A. for some band to perform, but the group was a half-hour late. So my dad scooted my little hiney up onstage and said: "Entertain us," and I thought, "Why not?" Anyway, I remember having long, blond hair down to my shoulders, a little red jumpsuit, striped shirt and tap-dancing shoes on, and I just got up there and started performing. I really didnīt have any conception of other people watching me besides my dad. But then as more onlookers started to gather, I liked the feeling of having people feed off of what I was doing. And from that moment on, you could say I was hooked.
You really didnīt turn professional until you were a teenager though. What kind of direction did you have in mind for your career?
At that time I really didnīt have a clear image of what I wanted to become. I knew that acting was fun, that it could get me out of school for a couple of days, and that Iīd also get paid for doing it. So that was the ultimate dream for 13- or 14-year-old. Plus, my friends got to see me on TV! But then, when I did the series Growing Pains, I started to learn more about what I wanted to do, and realized that this fictionalized version of life on television was not what I was suited for. My favorite thing was to recreate real life on the screen, and that was the direction I then wanted to take.
Thatīs very much what you did with your role in "Titanic".
Very much so. I mean, growing up I had always heard about the "Titanic", and there was always an air of mystery about what really happened. Then when I read about it and researched it, I found that it had a lot of important themes for humanity. It had much to do with manīs arrogance and putting our blind faith in technology, and where we are and what weīve gone through in this century in terms of respecting Mother Nature instead of being so sure of only ourselves.
"The Basketball Diaries" also gave you an opportunity to re-create real life on the screen, being that it was based on the true story of Jim Caroll.
Yeah, and the movie was emotionally draining, to say the least. But I think an actor gets the most rewards out of doing something like that, īcause the main thing that kept going through my head was, If I really give it my all now - and it turns out great - itīll play on the screen forever. And thatīs sort of been my philosophy when I do films. Pain is temporary, but films are forever.
I remember reading a quote when you were about 15 and playing the motionally scarred Gary Buckman on TVīs "Parenthood". You said, "I havenīt played a cheerful boy yet." And then a few years later you played a mentally disabled teen in "Gilbert Grape". Is there a challenge in portraying those kinds of characters?
Mainly in the audition process, when I have to prove what Iīm capable of doing. I believe in research when it comes to preparing for a role, so when I was offered that part, I went to interview about ten guys my age with disabilities, and realized they were completely in their own dimension, just happy with what was there and dealing with whatever was directly in front of them. So I just took a lot of those attributes and incorporated them into the character of Arnie.
Was it hard to stay in character for the three months that the movie was in production?
It was strange. I had pudding on my face; I was dirty; I had a chili-bowl haircut and a weird plastic thing on my lip to make my face look a little distorted. Plus, my character had to constantly burp and gag and laugh loud and scream - all the things my mother always told me not to do! So it was different, but kind of fun.
That role earned you an Oscar nomination. Was it disappointing when you didnīt win?
You know, I really didnīt want to win, because then I felt there would be too many expectations of me. People would then want me to be perfect all the time and if I didnīt live up to it, their attitude would be, "Well, he was lucky once and now weīre done with him." So I just want to keep doing what Iīm doing, and hopefully people will continue to watch my movies without any preconceptions.
One assumes a lot of young actors today are looking up to you as someone to emulate. Did you have any role models along the way?
I donīt think of them so much as role models, but I thought River Phoenix was really great, as well as John Malkovich, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro. I just saw a lot of different people in the way these actors were able to interpret their characters, and I thought, Ya know, I can do that, too.
You actually had a chance to work with Robert De Niro early in your career. Did he give you any advice?
He didnīt sit me down and say anything like, "Okay, kid, this is how you act." It was more of an experience where I just learned things by watching him. De Niro is a self-contained kind of actor. He really wants to get his part down, and then he takes it from there. Much like me, he prepares a lot for his characters. Heīs an extreme professional and knows what heīs doing.
You seem to come by your own acting instincts so naturally. Were either of your parents in show business?
Neither one. My dadīs a distributor and my momīs a photographer. But theyīve both had a big impact on my life. My dadīs one of the kindest guys in the world, and heīs taught me how to be a truly loving person; and my mother is just plain cool! She genuinely cares about what I do as a person, but she doesnīt pretend that my career is anything more than just my job. Sheīd have the same enthusiasm for me if I was working at 7-Eleven. Sometimes my momīs even too honest with me. Iīll ask her about a part I played and sheīll go, "Yeah, it was good, but I liked your other movie better. Just try harder next time!" But itīs refreshing to hear that kind of critique, especially in this business.
You talked earlier about acting being an excuse to sometimes ditch school. What were you like as a kid in the classroom?
Probably more of a class clown than a campus jock. Sometimes Iīd get detention for goofing off, yelling things from the back of the room or imitating people. One time I went to school as Charles Manson. I didnīt know who he was or what he did - I just innocently impersonated him. So I did the swastika thing on my forehead and started talking about biting dogsī heads off, and I was sent home and didnīt know why! That was the sick part of it. I didnīt know I was doing anything wrong. I was just young and imitated people. I guess I was always an actor. I just had to get myself an agent!
You seem so passionate about the direction youīve taken with your life. What means the most to you personally when youīre working on one of your films?
Iīm passionate about working with really good directors. Of course, I love good material too, but Iīm most impressed with being able to portray a character that allows me to do a lot of things that I donīt do in my normal life. It gives me an excuse to go nuts with the character, and the more nuts I go, the deeper I get into that characterīs depression, anger or happiness, which is always fun to do.
Do you think youīd be as passionate about your work if you had a regular nine-to-five job?
Itīs hard to say because, from a young age, Iīve been trying to juggle my acting career while leading a normal life. I suppose if I worked at a shoe store I wouldnīt be talking about it all the time with friends and family because the acting is obviously more exciting. But I think itīs important to remain a normal person and not take the movie business all that seriously. You have to be a regular guy at home, and Iīve always tried to maintain that. I have friends in show business, but my main real friends are the ones Iīve known for years. Thatīs not to say Iīm friends with everyone I ever went to preschool with, but I donīt need to have a lot of "new" friends constantly hanging around.
Speaking of that, you certainly have lots of new friends in the form of your fans. Whatīs it like to be recognized practically everywhere you go?
Iīm dealing with it as best as I can. I know that a lot of people are recognizing me more than before, and Iīm trying to adapt to that. Itīs weird īcause I will go to the mall or something and see more eyes trailing me, and then I start to wonder, is it because they recognize me or because I have something sticking to my face? And then I realize itīs because people recognize me. But you donīt wanna be cocky about it, so itīs hard to know how to react. A few years ago girls would come up to me and bat their eyelashes and say things like, "Youīre fine! Uh-huh!" and Iīd go, "Gee, thanks", and run to my dressing room trailer. But now I guess Iīm handling things a little bit more professionally.
Getting back to "Titanic", one imagines it must have taken a lot of dedication on everyoneīs part because the movie took so long to make.
When you go in to do an epic picture like "Titanic" you know itīs going to run over budget, run over time, and that itīs going to be a rough experience. But everyone who signed on for it was prepared for that, even though it turned out being a lot harder than we anticipated. But after seing the outcome, the movie even defied my expectations of what I thought it would be. You see all the different camera angles that were required to make it mesh as it did, and seeing it all come together on the screen almost went beyond the film, in my opinion.
How did this compare with some of your other characters? For a change, Jack Dawson was just a normal guy, one without your usual demons.
Thatīs an interesting question, because, for me, I didnīt realize how hard it was going to be just playing someone with no internal angst or "demons" to fall back on, as you put it. It was a lot more involved than I ever imagined it would be. The endurance it took to stay focused and stay in character that long was really rough.
With this movie destined to become one of the biggest films of all time, one would think that itīs got to put pressure on you in terms of selecting your future projects. How does an actor manage to keep his sanity in a rarefied position like that?
You just canīt worry about those kinds of things. Just because youīve done good work or picked a good project doesnīt mean that itīs going to happen again. Thatīs why so many actors go a little nuts, wondering to themselves, Whatīs happened to me? People used to love me. Itīs an easy trap to fall into, and I canīt say that I wonīt be in a loony bin someday myself. But, for now, Iīve just decided that it doesnīt matter what people think or say, as long as I feel good about what Iīm doing. With actors, it gets to a point where when youīre hot, youīre hot, and when youīre not, youīre not. And thatīs just the way it is.