Chicago Sun-Timesī Showcase - February 6, 2000

 

A King and his Sand Castles

by Cindy Perlman

 

 

Maui, Hawaii. -- Once again Leonardo DiCaprio was going down with the ship. But this time, the vessel wasnīt a luxury liner filled with thousands of passengers. It was a tiny rowboat.

And he wasnīt being thrown into the choppy waters of the Atlantic. It was a riptide in Thailand, where he was filming "The Beach (Opening Friday).

Itīs fun what a man thinks about when heīs almost drowning for the second time. Did his short, brilliant career flash before his ice-blue eyes? Did he ponder the things he someday hoped to have - an Oscar, a family, a wife?

Or was it even worse? Did the strains of Celine Dionīs "My Heart Will Go On" flood his mind as he plunged into the waters?

Now, as he sits serene and tanned on a veranda in Hawaii, he punches the reporter in the arm. "Good one! Low blow!" he says, twisting that famous boyish face into an impish smile.

In the last two years, Leo has learned to roll with the punches. As the wind whips his hair back James-Dean-style, and his black T-shirt flutters in the breeze, he says, "Iīm nothing if not a survivor.

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He has survived teen stardom to become the A-list talent of his generation. If Hollywood is survival of the fittest, DiCaprio can flex his might as a 25-year-old man-boy who now commands $20 million per picture.

But the price is daunting. Itīs like that song: Near, far, wherever you are, you canīt escape the legacy of "Titanic" when your name is Leonardo DiCaprio.

Thatīs why he made a movie about finding a sanctuary, called "The Beach". Privacy is his paradise. Perhaps DiCaprio identified because there is no such place for him in these days.

"I say the closest thing to my private island is when I get in my car and drive around. Iīm from Los Angeles, so I love driving," he confides.

But even that gets complicated.

He bores easily. "Iīll call my mum up and say, >Iīm sick of this car. Want a Lexus?<" He switches for practical reasons, too. "Now I have to change cars every few months. Iīve gotta keep moving so people canīt pick me out."

In the new film, he plays Richard, a guy who also likes to melt into the background and disappear.

A drifter (Robert Carlyle) hands him a map that leads to most pristine beach in the world. Itīs perfect - for about a minute. Richard learns that getting what you want is not the solution. Utopia comes with a price.

Again, DiCaprio can relate. "The guy in the movie realizes that paradise is a fake concept," DiCaprio says. "You have to make sacrifices to stay there."

Richard becomes selfish. He lies. He cheats on his girlfriend. The studio reportedly went berserk, insiting the Golden Boy should do none of the above. Producer Andrew MacDonald says, "I was told by studio honchos, >This is the most unsympathetic character Leo has ever played. Must he lie?< But that was the idea."

"From the start, Leo told us, >Look, Iīm not going to be Jack Dawson again,<" says Danny Boyle, director of "The Beach".

When told of all these behind-the-scenes machinations, DiCaprio becomes a little heated. "Richard is neither a hero nor a villain. He is flawed."

"Heīs all of us", DiCaprio says.

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Alas, DiCaprio is not all of us any more. For starters, he moves quickly through a crowd, as a stealthy superstar must. This morning, he seems satisfied, standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

His handlers are beside themselves. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel has warned that this spot isnīt safe. There are high tides and jellyfish. No one is supposed to be on this beach.

But DiCaprio likes to live - if not stand - on the edge. Few can tell him "no" these days.

"You might think that, like other young actors in the press, he had entered nightmare territory," says Boyle. "Itīs not true. He just comes and does his work. There were never any problems. He didnīt even want security. Leo is all about the work."

Thatīs one thing that seperates DiCaprio from Joey Lawrence. DiCaprio has actually gone from card-carrying teen hunkster to serious young actor. "For me it is about the work", DiCaprio says. "Look, I could have done five movies since "Titanic" if it was just about the money or the fame. But thatīs not the point. The point is acting."

"Itīs a trip away from myself."

*****

Yes, at this point, even Leo gets sick of Leo. "Iīm not one to sit here, be bitter and complain about the position that Iīm in these days," he says. "There are pros and cons to everything. I have adapted to this life that I have now."

That life comes with baggage.

Certainly there must be some drawback in working with the King of the World. "The only pain was the girls trying to infiltrate the set," moans Boyle.

They showed up in droves at the Thailand set of "The Beach" polite, pretty little island girls who would silence themselves when Leo begged them not to scream.

DiCaprio just laughs about the attention from the acne set. "When we made "The Beach", it got out that I was bitten by a jellyfish", he says. My female fans got a little worried, and one girl even wrote me a poem."

It read: "Oh to be a jellyfish/Swimming in the Sea/At least Iīd get to kiss you/How happy I would be."

His sigh is not one of disgust. He is merely amused. "There is no handbook you can go out and buy on whatīs like to be famous and what you do to survive it," he says. "Iīve had to come to the place where I realized that fame is its own monster and I have no control over my life. Iīve had to endure on my own and make my own mistakes. You might have read about them.

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Youīve read that he runs with a posse. Youīve read that he has a different woman each week. Youīve read that he parties hard.

"Any time I talk to someone, Iīm dating them."

"Iīve learned that I canīt take everything too damn personally. Iīve learned not to freak out", says DiCaprio.

As for the rumours, he is upfront. "You might have read that I got my co-star Virginie Ledoyen pregnant on the set of "The Beach". Itīs not true. I read that we were bitten by sharks. Not true."

Would he like to make a rumour that we could print? Leo laughs, loudly. "Could you write that I killed a shark while saving Virginie?"

Yes, we could, but then animal activists would be after him.

"Oh, no! No!" he cries. "Just put that I wrestled him, but I let him swim away."

Speeking of wrestling, DiCaprio is struggling with the concept of leading the life of a 25-year-old guy. Yes, he loves the night life. He likes to boogie. "I am of the opinion that because I am an actor, I do not have to be a hermit", he says. "I will live my own life and defy my fame by going out when and if I want."

He has no girlfriend. "Iīm not brooding about it. Iīm single. Happy. What more can I say?" DiCaprio says.

*****

He canīt say enough about his craft. Of course, some thought it was extremely crafty - or stupid - of him to wait two years after "Titanic" to practice that craft.

"You know why I took time off?" says DiCaprio. "I went away because somebody once said something important to me. He sais, >Leo, itīs not the movies that you donīt do. Itīs the movies that you do that matter.<"

During his hiatus, he didnīt worry about being replaced in the hearts and lockers of his younger fans.

"Someone replacing me is actually the furthermost thing from my mind", he says, chuckling. "For me, itīs not about being on some stupid A list. Itīs about finding the right material."

"After "Titanic", I really wanted to take my time." He pauses and adds, "I donīt want to sound protentious, but Iīm constantly experimenting with the types of movies I want to do and the type of performances I want to give and what I want to be as an actor."

"After "Titanic", I went into the phase of saying, >I want to put a lot more focus into the prep time with the movies. I want to be really involved with my character. I demand the time to be clear about him.<"

"I donīt want to feel the movies I do are a blur from one to the next."

*****

The big blur began for DiCaprio as a child growing up in artsy Los Feliz, California, which is near Hollywood. His mother is a German refugee. His Italian father wrote comic books and led a hippie lifestyle. Family friends included Timothy Leary, poet Allen Ginsberg and cartoonist R.Crumb.

"I grew up in an eclectic environment", DiCaprio says.

A slew of commercials led to a recurring role on TVīs "Growing Pains". At age 17, he kicked off his film career with "This Boyīs Life" (1993).

And then there was 1997īs "Titanic".

There has been speculation that DiCaprio didnīt even like the Oscar-winning movie "Titanic". In a recent article in Talk magazine, it was hinted that he doesnīt look back fondly at the filming of the ship flick.

"Titanic" will be remembered forever. Itīs a part of worldwide culture. Itīs cemented in time. Iīm proud of the movie", DiCaprio says, finally clarifying his position.

He denies rumours that the reason he didnīt show up at the Oscars when "Titanic" won was because DiCaprio wasnīt nominated for best actor.

"Nothing against those award shows, but I feel really uncomfortable at those places", DiCaprio says. "No, I wasnīt nominated, but I wasnīt upset about it by any means.

Scripts are piling up at his new Los Angeles pad. The truth is that DiCaprio was the King of the World without a castle. Virtually homeless since "Titanic" shot, he has been living on film sets. "I donīt even have a stick of furniture", he says.

His money is spent in other ways.

"I take care of my parents really well", he says.

Those $ 20 million checks help. "I donīt worry about the box office", DiCaprio says. "The only thing I can do as a performer and artist is give everything I have and try to be a part of interesting films."

******

In the end, he just wants to stay afloat. And heīs good at it, which is why the boating accident on the set of The Beach" didnīt faze Leo. "It was a really stormy day in Thailand and the current just swept us out", he says. "Waves started crashing into my little rowboat. And the next thing you know, the boat was underwater and people were freaking", DiCaprio says. "Equipment was everywhere. And the crew was in the water."

"I was not frightened", says DiCaprio. "I donīt mean to say that Iīm an idiot. I just understand one thing from "Titanic". The human being floats."

"And when all else fails, you have to remember something else. The human being really isnīt in control."

"I have no control -over the box office, over the rumors, over my life to some respect", he says, throwing his hands up and feeling the brisk winds whipping over the ocean.

He looks like the King of the World again, his tousled hair and boyish good looks making it seem like anything is possible.

"At this point, I just let go and hope for the best", DiCaprio says.

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