Detour - November 1996

Leonardo DiCaprio

Rebel Just Because



by Dennis Cooper

Leonardo DiCaprio walkes into the Dresden Room, a semi-legendary bar and restaurant in the East Hollywood district of Los Feliz. Heīs here to promote two films, "William Shakespeareīs Romeo & Juliet" and "Marvinīs Room", both in release this fall. Thatīs two movies to add to a catalog of credits that grew from a mid-80īs TV stint on "Growing Pains" into an Oscar nomination for "Whatīs Eating Gilbert Grape?" Heīs wearing a faded red T-shirt, loose blue jeans, running shoes, and has a girlīs barrett in his hair. Heīs six feet tall, lanky, thin but fleshy, and moves rapidly with a wary, teenaged lope. He looks like a very large adolescent boy with weirly knowing, nervous eyes. When I wave, he crashed down at my table, orders a Seven Up, and immediately bums a Camel Light wide off of me. Heīs friendly, reserved, and very focused. He has a flat, affectless L.A. accent and a mid-range, crackly voice with a sardonic edge. Heīs talkative, easily bemused, and very well mannered. In other words, he is nothing like what Iīd expected, i.e. a mischievous brat.

After two hours spending with DiCaprio, first doing the interview, than just hanging out taking about this and that, itīs hard to imagine how all the wild rumours about him got started. For instance, just a month before the interview, a friend told me heīd heard that DiCaprio had raped a girl and it was being covered up. Then another friend told me heīd heard that the rape story was a plant to hide the fact the actor is gay. Heīs supposedly been in and out of rehab, is a recent convert to Scientology, and I forget what else. People seem absolutely determined to make him into the new River Phoenix. You know, tormented, unstable, brilliant, self destructive. When you meet him, all this seems so absurd. To me he seems like a sweet, canny, clear-headed, sane, young heterosexual guy - fun-loving but a little sad and anxious, intelligent and slightly insecure about this intelligence - who likes going to art museums, loves his family, hated all the summer blockbuster movies, adores acting, and dreams of swimming with blue whales. Why people insist on projecting all that gloom and doom onto him, I donīt know. But I was determined not to perpetuate the myths. So I began the interview at square one.

In almost every article Iīve ever read about you, journalists ask the same questions, and make the same presumptions. You know, that youīre a party animal, that you have drug problems, that youīre gay and closeted, that youīre a brat...

Yeah, they are all kind of the same.

It always seems that journalists treat you fair and square when theyīre with you, but then, when they actually write the articles, they start speculating and drooling all over you.

(Laughs) Yeah.

I guess that "Details" cover story on you last year was the most notorious.

That guy .... I was really nice to him. I brought him over to my house, and introduced him to my mom, and then he twisted things around to make me seem like a bad-ass, when it wasnīt like that at all.

Everyone I know thought the piece was creepy. Well, Iīm going to try not to cover the sme old ground, and if I get creepy, you can be a bad-ass and throw your Coke in my face.

(Laughs) Okay.

Supposedly one can tell a lot about someone by what they find funny, so tell me a joke.

I just heard some good ones. Let me think. (Pause) OK. A guy hears a knock on his door. He answers it. Thereīs nobody there, but he looks down and sees a snail. So he picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later thereīs a knock on the door. He answers it, and thereīs this snail. And the snail says, "What the fuck was that about?"

(Both laugh) You tell me one.

This oneīs kind of old, but... What were Kurt Cobainīs last words?

I donīt know.

Holeīs gonna be big.

(Laughs) Thatīs pretty sick.

Well, something has just been revealed about you, but Iīm not sure what it is. So, I just saw a junk of "Romeo and Juliet", sort of a montage of scenes. From what I could tell, it looked amazing. Have you seen the film?

I saw a rough cut. Yea, it looks pretty wild.

Did you see "Trainspotting"?

Thatīs a great movie. I loved that movie.

Both movies are based on literary works that are very dense and complex on the page, and they both make this savvy decision to neutralize the difficulties of the language by being incredibly stylized and energetic. It seems like a great way to deal with Shakespeare.

Yeah. Some people have criticized the movie. You know, "You canīt do that to Shakespeare. You shouldnīt mess with Shakespeare like that." But Shakespeare was a genius. Iīm sure if he was alive he would have been totally behind what Baz (Luhrmann) is trying to do. And I see what you mean about the two movies. But Baz didnīt see "Trainspoting" until a few weeks ago, so itīs just a coincidence.

The movie has that wacky, surreal Australian fel, ā la "Priscilla" or "Murielīs Wedding".

But itīs not like that, really. Itīs definitely surreal, but...

The black drag queen with the white afro?

Thatīs Mercutio. Thatīs at the ball where Romeo meets Juliet. Romeoīs on drugs, and thatīs him tripping out on Mercutio. Mercutioīs wearing the afro as part of his costume, but I trip out on him, and it grows about three feet. Thatīs a wild scene. In this version, the ball takes place at a club, and everybodyīs on drugs and dancing. Itīs crazy. But the movieīs very real, too. I donīt know how to explain it. You just have to see it.

Romeoīs a tricky role. Heīs so lovey dovey. In the Zefirelli version, the way Leonard Whiting played him, he was such a blond wussy guy.

Yeah. Well, at first I wasnīt sure about doing this. I didnīt want to run around in tights swinging a sword around, you know. But Baz convinced me to come to Australia and meet with him for a week, and while I was there he figured out what his vision was, and then I was really interested.

Is Romeo still a total innocent in this version?

Heīs pretty innocent. Well, in the first half he is. Then Mercutio dies and Tybald dies, and everything just goes wrong. Iīm crying all the time in the last half of the film. I cry a lot in this movie. That was hard.

You filmed in Mexico City. Is it as hellish a place as one hears?

Well, while we were making the movie, somebody on the crew got attacked, and somebody else got robbed, and somebody else got shot. And they say Mexico City has the worst smog of any city in the world. But it was nice, too, because itīs not a place where tourists tend to go. Itīs kind of undiscovered in that sense. And some people I know from New York were down, so that was fun. Thereīs a lot of poverty, and that was depressing, but there are parts of the city that are just like Beverly Hills.

Are there good clubs there?

There are some clubs. But we didnīt do that so much. We were more into silver.


(Grins) Silver.

In what sense?

We go into buying silver. You can buy these bracelets and necklaces and things, and these guys will etch your name into them, or these skulls. Weīd go out in the city wearing all this silver and people thought we were just ridiculous. (Laughs) I havenīt worn them out there, but theyīre nice to have, you know?

What kind of music do you like?

I like rap. Nas, Wu Tang, that sort of thing.

Are you political?

Not really. I try to stay out because itīs so damn confusing. I sort of want Clinton, because I donīt think heīs that bad (Laughs) He seems like a nice-guy President.

Are you religious?

Havenīt been brought up that way. But I have a weird Karma thing. Like I used to be able to steal bubble gum and stuff when I was younger, but Iīm really ridiculous with it now. If someone gives me the wrong change, I canīt deal with it, even if itīs a gigantic department store. Itīs not because Iīm getting money now. Itīs because I always think that when I go outside, something terrible is going to happen.

All that, and youīre not interested in Buddhism?

My brother is, and heīs constantly preaching to me. Iīm curious about it. I want to get into it, but I want to know a lot more about it. But yea, Iīd say it was the best religion. (Laughs) There I go again with my big thing: "Yeah, Iīd say Buddhism is the best religion." (Laughs) In bold print.

Hereīs a hypothetical for you. A friend posed this to me. Would you rather be really, really fat, really, really old?

You mean old looking?

No, old. Either youīre 95 years old or youīre your age and weight 500 pounds.

Iīd be really fat, and go out like Biggie Smalls every night, you know what Iīm saying? Iīd have people wheel me into places. Iīd have a woman on each leg. Iīd go out like a rock star if I was that big. Yea, Iīd rather be fat. I mean... realy old? Man.

I found the question harder to answer than you did. Maybe because Iīm older than you.

Well, I did "Gilbert Grape", and Mama was pretty big, but she was just the sweetest woman that I ever met in my entire life. I still talk to her every once in a while. And I have a firend whoīs... pretty large, and who I hang out with every day, and heīs the sweetest guy ever. I really like to have sweet people around me. I canīt stand bad-asses. Thereīs too many of them, especially my age in L.A. I like to get to know people, and you have to peel away so many layers of those people. Just give me someone whoīs relaxed and cool to hang out with, even if theyīre no studs.

Well, you being you, a lot of people must want to be your pal.

I have a good group of friends, people Iīve accumulated over the years. Some Iīve known since elementary school, some Iīve met recently. Theyīre just a good group of guys and gals. And I think they like me too.

But youīre never sure.

Youīre never sure. No, I know they like me. Because itīs not really about that, you know? Our friendships are completely seperate from everything else. I hardly know anybody whoīs ... in show biz. It sems like I do through all the press, but I really donīt.

So, it is difficult for you when you attend say the Cannes Film Festival or something? You know, flash-flash-flash.

Iīm great at avoiding press, too (Laughs) Iīve been handling this thing pretty well. I keep thinking that something bad is going to happen, but itīs been pretty cool so far. Iīve maintained the same exact home life that Iīve had for 20 years. All I see is more people looking at me than before, but, you know, who care? You just canīt obsess yourself with this fame stuff. I used to take everything to heart. When the things they said about me in the press were detrimental, I thought it would kill me. But stuff keeps changing all the time, and now Iīm cool about it, and I just think itīs weird to watch it all happen.

I got the feeling that "Total Eclipse", about the relationship between the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, was a rather discomfitting experience for you. It wasnīt very well liked.

People hated it.

Iīm one of the only people I know who thought the film was interesting. But then I love Rimbaud. When I was a tenager, Rimbaud was my hero. Heīs still my hero, in a way.

Really? Thatīs cool. Yeah, I wanted to do the part because Rimbaud was such a bad-ass, but he was a genius, so he had the goods to back it up, you know? I think the only people who liked "Total Eclipse" were people who liked Rimbaud. But then a lot of people who liked Rimbaud hated it too. I donīt really know what to say about "Total Eclipse". The movie was made in France. Over there, Rimbaudīs like James Dean, but over here people really donīt know who he is. And I think maybe the film didnīt explain enough.

The way people reacted to the film, youīd have thought the whole movie was just a frame around the scene where you and David Thewlis, who plays Verlaine, kiss.

I know, I know. It was crazy.

And "Total Eclipse" came right on the heals of "The Basketball Diaries" another film nobody liked very much.

Yep. But you know what? It doesnīt really bother me what people think.

Before those movies came out, you were seen as the brilliant young actor, the Academy Award nominee, and then suddenly you were the actor everybody gossiped about. You were supposedly a junkie, and you were gay. Assuming that neither one of these rumours is true, that had to have bothered you.

Sure. But Iīm really glad I did those movies. Iīm proud of my work in them. In five years nobody will remember any of that, or the bad reviews, and my work in them will be seen as part of all my work. Iīm not worried about that. I just think people expected me to go a certain way with my career, and I didnīt do it. I didnt do the next John Grisham movie.

Did it make you gun-shy?

No. I want to keep doing different things. But I want to say this: I donīt do drugs. Iīve never done drugs in my life. Iīm just not interested. And if any of my friends start doing drugs, theyīre going to hear about it from me. What people donīt realize is that half of the reason I did "The Basketball Diaries" is because of the whole heroin craze, and... Iīm not saying I was doing a "Say no to drugs" special or anything, but I wanted to help make some kind of statement against heroin. But then of course, people decide Iīm into it, right? God damn. And I also want to say that Iīve had a girlfriend for a year coming up. Iīm sure people will make something out of that.

Itīs amazing to me, what with all the rumours about you, that you trust people at all.

I donīt, really. Like I had a friend who I did a short film with recently who slandered me. I was trying to do a favor for him. His name is R.D.Robb. Itīs scandalous. It was originally a short film, and then he tried to make it into a feature. I worked one night on it. He tried to make it into a feature. And I heard all this stuff about how he was going to pit the press against me if I didnīt go along with him and do the feature. I just did it as a favor, you know? And then all this stuff happens and you ask why. Why be nice if thatīs going to happen?

The editor of "Detour" wanted me to ask you about something. Answer or not as you fit.

Let me guess, sex and drugs.

Well, you tell me. In Vanity Fair, Alicia Silverstone is asked about you, and thereīs an implication that you and she were romantically involved at some point, and she says something in the order of, "I donīt even want to talk about that guy," meaning you. So...

Right (Sighs) Alicia and I did our first movies at about the same time. Weīve known each other for years. Weīre not really good friends or anything, but we know each other. Iīm sure she was asked that question, and she thought it was ridiculous, and she just said, "Iīm not going to answer that question," just like I would do.

Youīve played two brilliant young writers, Rimbaud and Jim Carroll. Iīm wondering if the way you think about acting is in any way related to the way they thought about writing.

Hmm. I wish I could come up with a brilliant answer to that, but I canīt.

An actor I know told me that for him, acting was like being in trance.

Iīve heard people say that. I never took acting lessons, so I donīt have a way to think about it like that. I know some actors get sort of lost in what theyīre doing. Iīm not like that. I like to know everything thatīs going on around me. I guess when Iīm acting I think of myself as the camera. Iīm watching myself act. Iīm trying to see how what Iīm doing looks from the outside.

Thatīs interesting. It sems like it would make you feel really self-conscious.

I feel self-conscious all the time anyway.

After "Total Eclipse" and "The Basketball Diaries" youīre seen as a real risk taker. You must get a lot of weird scripts.

Youīre right, I do. But I donīt mind. Iīm always looking for something different.

Did you know John Waters wrote a film thinking of you for the lead? It was called "Cecil B Demented", and you would have played an avant-garde super-8 filmmaker who kidnaps a major movie star and forces her to star in this super-8 film. But the film didnīt happen for whatever reason.

Yea. I had dinner with John a couple of weeks ago at (photographer) Greg Gorman. Heīs one of the people whoīs really doing it, and I admire him a lot. And heīs just hilarious. He tells the best stories.

Johnīs the best. So do you any small, risky films in the works?

Iīve have one thing in the works, but weīll see.

Is that "The Inside Man"? You initiated that project, didnīt you?

Itīs not my project. Itīs just... this project came along and I really liked it, and I took it to Michael Mann because I loved "Heat". Heīs such an intelligent guy. Heīs like a computer, he knows so much. So heīs interested, and itīs in the works, and weīll see. I donīt really want to talk too much about it right now. But I have this huge movie coming up.

James Cameronīs "Titanic".


You seem a little nervous about it.

No, I just... Iīve never done anything like this. I never planned to do a movie like this, but I agreed to do it, and... it should be interesting. Itīs a huge movie, like I said. Huge. One-hundred-twenty-million-dollar budget, and a six-month shoot. Jim Cameron says he wants it to be a "Doctor Shivago" type of thing, and itīll be intersting to be part of that. Itīs an epic love story that goes backwards and forwards in time.

Do you go down with the ship?

(Nods) Dead.

Cameronīs films are generally amazing things, but I donīt think of his films as places where actors get to shine very much. Itīs more like they become parts of the machinery. But maybe "Titanic" wonīt be so special-effects oriented.

Phew. It is. Huge special effects. I donīt know. Iīm just going to do it, and weīll see.

Iīve read that you love to travel.

I do. I just skydived recently. My īchute didnīt open (Laughs).

Well, youīre here.

Yeah, Iīm here. It was a tandem thing, and I jumped out of the plane, and I pulled the cord, and my īchute didnīt open. And the next thing I know, the guy with me pulls out a knife and cuts this cord and we start free-falling. And you know, itīs not like a video game where if you mess, youīre OK, you lose a quarter. (Laughs) This is your life. The whole drip down I didnīt cry. I wasnīt weirded-out about it. I was just... depressed. (Laughs) Letīs see this year I also went scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef.

Iīve always wanted to do that.

Oh, God. Itīs like space. Itīs the best thing you could ever do. Better than anything.

I saw the IMAX film about it.

Yes, the one Meryl Streep narrates. That was trippy. Did you see that ill sea creature that was at the bottom of the ocean that was about a mile long? How trippy was that, bro? (Laughs) When I was young, I had this thing where I wanted to see everything. Itīs weird how thatīs sort of dies down. I used to think: How can I die on this earth without seing every inch of this works?

Have you been in a lot of places?

I have. Madagascar is where I really want to go next. I went to Africa for "Total Eclipse", but I didnīt see any wildlife at all. It was depressing. We shot between Somalia and Ethiopia, which is where all the refugees go, so it was life... kids walking around on all fours from polio, literally like animals.

Do you ever pick films because theyīre going to be shot in exotic locals?

Nope. Otherwise I wouldnīt have chosen Mexico twice. Iīm going to be spending a year of my life in Mexico.

Isnīt "Titanic" being filmed there?

Yeah. Rosarito beach. Thereīs garbage everywhere.

At least youīre in a profession where you get incredible opportunities, like being able to travel a lot.

It is fucking cool. I really love acting. I love it when itīs really about acting. I love it when you get to create stuff and collaborate with a director. You feel like what youīre doing is not going to waste. Itīs in the archives. Itīs going to be there for years. Pain is temporary, film is forever. Thatīs my big quote that ("This Boyīs Life" director) Michael Caton-Jones told me: "Pain is temporary, film is forever."

But then youīll get old and youīll have pain all the time.

Mm-hm. I donīt know. (Pause) My grandpa died last year. That was a big depressing thing. And my dog died. Our household dog. Last year was like the year of... misery. But this year, so far, I have to say Iīm liking it a lot.

No complaints?

No complaints.