Empire (UK) - February 2003

 

Leonardo DiCaprio

 

He was the biggest star in the world - and the press crucified him for it. This month, though, Leonardo DiCaprio is back, back, back with two of the biggest movies of the year. Setting the record straight, Leo lets us into his most private thoughts, starting in the most private place - his toilet.....

by Mark Dinning

 

"Well, it's pretty big," says Leonardo DiCaprio, unbuttoning the fly of his 501's. "Actually, scrap that. It's huge, it's massive, and it's a little bit intimidating." (This, we can exclusively confirm, is no mean boast.) "I haven't done this in a while though, so please bear with me," he smiles. "I'm kinda out of practice. But I do promise to try my best." Which is really rather sweet of him, all things considered.

Eleven am on a blustery LA day and by a fluke of bladder-related timing we find ourselves in the khazi. Not just any khazi, either, but the one in DiCaprio's recently-formed production company, Appian Way (he has the solitary key, and has just let EMPIRE in), located on the slow bend in the road where Sunset Boulevard trails off into Beverly Hills. As khazis go, it's sorta pleasant - equipped with 'luxury soft' toilet paper and a snazzy, metallic liquid soap dispenser that neither of us can quite figure out how to operate.

Back in his office, loo break over, talk once again turns to the issue of size, as Leo - "post-pee" we are understandably on first-name terms - ponders further the vastness of his present predicament (what did you think we were discussing?), and just how rusty he is at discussing it with members of the press. He's not afraid of it, he stresses, as nothing much scares him these days. But still, returning from a two-year career hiatus in two of the most anticipated films of the year, by arguable the world's two most important directors, and all in paltry month, is hardly for the faint of heart. "I may succeed, or I may fail. There may be backlash, or there may be positivity. Either way, I don't care anymore. I just don't care", he says, with almost enough conviction to ring true.

Be under no illusion here, beneath the backward baseball cap (emblazoned with a cute 'L' for Leo), lovely blond locks and sparkling baby-blues is the brain of a true survivor. That he looks a tad on the tired side, an unkempt goatee sprouding haphazardly from pale, lacklustre skin, blue jeans and shirt hanging from a gaunt, weary frame, is acceptable, to be fair. Very few could have been through what Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio has suffered and emerge, relatively intact, on the other side. Certainly nobody else could have done it with quite such panache.

In Gangs of New York, DiCaprio has realised a long-cherished ambition to work with Martin Scorsese. A measure of the movie's seemingly endless gestation period, Leo was just 16 when he heard that Scorsese was once again casting his ongoing dream project, and swiftly changed agents to that of his idol in order to facilitate an audition. Twelve years later, the move finally paid off. His office walls are proudly adorned with signed posters for Mean Streets and Raging Bull. And when he reminisces about first meeting the man himself, DiCaprio visibly shivers with nostalgic nervous energy. His impression of him, although not as polished as either his Michael Jackson or Charles Manson, is pretty good, too.

However, if committing to Gangs was from the heart, then the head was very much in gear when it came to Catch Me If You Can. As an insurance policy for a potentially risky career choice, an intriguing Steven Spielberg caper is about a copper-bottomed as they come. And whilst the pair being released within weeks of each other may not be DiCaprio's ideal time-frame - if he had had his way, one would have shifted to the summer - we should at this stage make one thing absolutely clear: this is one fight that Leonardo DiCaprio cannot lose.

 

Flashback a few years and only the foolhardy or teenage and female would have put any money on such a resounding resurrection. A critically-revered early CV - acting alongside Robert De Niro in This Boy's Life, earning an Oscar nomination for What's Eating Gilbert Grape - that had foretold limitless fortune and glory eventually fulfilled its prophecy when, having survived post-Colombine controversy over his trenchcoated turn in The Basketball Diaries and proved his stature as a leading man in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, DiCaprio went down on the Titanic and resurfaced the biggest star on the planet. From hereonin, the fall from grace was never in question. It was simply a matter of time.

His critics didn't have to wait long to be handed the pin with which to burst the bubble. It was called The Man In The Iron Mask. And then, before you could say "Emilio Estevez", DiCaprio found himself ignominiously washed up on The Beach.

These days DiCaprio looks back on his high-profile game of Snakes & Ladders as a valuable lesson in the somewhat insalubrious fickleness of fame. "I've learned to disregard any expectation of what people will think of a movie," he says. "You just never know how people will respond. And also I've learned to be comfortable within myself. I've seen both sides of the spectrum now. I've seen the illusion of what it's like to be at the top of the world, and I've seen what it's like to be put right back down. My celebrity will never get bigger than post-Titanic. That'll never happen. So I don't give a crap what people think." He balls a fist in frustration. "People have asked me if I thought I was 'over', but I just don't think in those terms. Fine, so by being out of the limelight for a while I may not have catered to my fans in the 'off season' as best I could have, but that wasn't what I was focused on."

Believe the media, of course, and during the period in question there were only two things that Leonardo DiCaprio was seriously focused on, and both of them belonged to (now ex-)girlfriend Gisele Bundchen. Then there was his gleefully-reported 'boozy rampaging' through the LA club scene and numerous strippers. The very public tiff with former friend - and current cuckoo - David Blaine. The expending waistline. The imprisonment of Dana Giacchetto, DiCaprio's financial advisor convicted of swindling him, and others, out of millions. The posse of friends (including Tobey Maguire, DiCaprio's defeated fellow additionee for the role in This Boy's Life and pal ever since) raising zany hell about town. The much-maligned soapboxing about "environmental issues". The tabloids were somewhere just south of seventh heaven. Lovely Leo had had his stind in the spotlight, and now it was a payback time.

The truth of the matter, however, is that DiCaprio's sabbatical was far from the mindless sojourn it was painted to be. Rather, it was a strategic, calculated retreat. Offers were put on the table throughout, and each politely declined. Anakin Skywalker, Patrick Bateman and even Peter Parker, Maguire's subsequent ticket to the big league, all were discussed but didn't happen. DiCaprio, born and raised in Hollywood, knew that his next move was crucial, and swanning about in spandex just didn't seem right.

And two years down in the line, Maguire's comic book hero may have battered the box office, but it's Leonardo DiCaprio who has just re-written the industry rulebook by becoming the first major star on Hollywood's lifetime to have two major films open in such close proximity. Talk about an encore.

After lunch, DiCaprio is noticeably feeling the strain, wearied by the negativity that has been levelled at Gangs of New York for the duration of its mammoth journey from script to screen. In typical fashion, he's positively bursting at the seams to recite his well-reheared history lesson on New York's chequered upbringing. Ask him about his character, Amsterdam Vallon, and he's delighted to expound on the motives of the young Irishman out to avenge his father's death, and similarly how, over a year's worth of training, he put on 30lb of pure muscle in preparation. But these practised lines are simply an interview safehouse, a handy distraction from difficult questions, and infinitely preferable to discussing more sensitive topics. Were he able to stretch them out for the entire running time, he undoubtedly would.

Realising the diversion isn't working, DiCaprio sits forward in his black leather chair and his eyes glaze over, from an effervescent blue to a watery grey, as he prepares to battle. No, he states, the rumours of him having said that the finished cut "won't wow the world" were bullshit, plain and simple. Ditto his alleged attempts to renegotiate a lump sum up front, rather than a share of the profits, and the numerous reports of his and Scorsese's falling out due to DiCaprio's timekeeping. "Come on, give me a break!" he bellows. "You'd have to be a complete idiot to go out partying all night and not show up on set for a Martin Scorsese picture at 27 years old. You'd have to be a total moron!"

Although, that said, he did throw the shit. "Ah yeah," he laughs, "throwing manure at the paprazzi. Well, let's just say that there are certain times when you have to take matters into your own hands. And, you know, they's overstepped the mark. There had been an accident on set that day and some people had been hurt. Trying to take pictures of them was out of line. The shit was just there, it was incidental.

Clearly, this is a subject that tests DiCaprio's already limited patience. The year-long shoot (longer even than that of Titanic) was certainly stressful, to the point that during one take he actually blacked out. But when you're working with your heroes, as well donating millions of your own fee to stem the overspend, muck-raking is the last thing you need. More importantly, when this is the role you've had ear-marked since you were back in short trousers as the one that would mark your transition into 'serious adult actor', then you'd prefer that the work were allowed to speak for itself, if that's all the same.

"Did I feel out of my depth? Who wouldn't? Working with Scorsese makes you feel that you're treading in De Niro's footsteps," DiCaprio concedes. "I was unquestionably nervous. I felt a huge weight of expectation on my shoulders. But once you become absorbed in the process, you get comfortable. And when you're working with Marty, you're in the finest set of hands there is in the business today."

 

One month later we reconvene in LA, this time within the confines of the Four Seasons Hotel. DiCaprio is well accustomed to life within its lavish walls, and today resembles far more the Leo of Catch Me If You Can variety (the cap is gone and he sports a black jacket over his white T), oozing a confidence that only $20 million-a-movie can truly bring. Indeed, his portrayal of Frank Abagnale Jr., the genial conman who became the youngest ever criminal to make the FBI's Ten Most Wanted, is the kind of role he can eat up with a spoon, feasting on its fundamental sexiness and perhaps also drawing just a little from personal experience. (Aside from the natural charm, DiCaprio earnt the nickname Leonardo Retardo at school, having cunningly cheated his way through most of his exams.)

Interestingly, though, the making of Spielberg's endearing flight of fancy was far from the romp the result might suggest. "You wouldn't have thought it, particularly considering how tough a shoot Gangs was, but the intensity of the way that Spielberg works was actually far more demanding than that of Scorsese," says DiCaprio. "The pacing of scenes in Gangs was far less stressful. Spielberg is incredibly intense, he makes you work so hard that I actually got sick with the flu three times because I was absolutely exhausted, just with the sheer number of takes." He sighs a melodramatic sigh. "We'd do a scene in Catch Me in a day that would have taken three days on Gangs. Man, it was hard work."

"But, you know, as much as they are both unquestionable masters of cinema, they are fundamentally different in the way they make movies. Scorsese takes much more responsibility upon himself as a director, whereas Spielberg is a conductor, absolutely the best at compiling all the different departments around him and making them work well together like a well-oiled machine. I mean, Scorsese very much puts everything onto himself and you definitely feel that. You absolutely don't want to let him down as it's pretty obvious that there are times when he's so stressed that he can't be getting much sleep at night...."

All of a sudden, the grand scale of things hits DiCaprio again, this time with a force that actually appears to knock him back in his chair. "I'm sorry, but it is kinda freaking me out to be sitting here comparing these two amazing guys," he laughs. "I guess in a way it really sums up my last couple of years."

In fact, all this could merely turn out to be the tip of one almighty, ahem, iceberg, with DiCaprio's impending second collaborations with Baz Luhrmann (Alexander The Great) and Martin Scorsese (his planned Howard Hughes biopic) set to move into production in a matter of months. The comeback is complete, the superstardom firmly back on track. Even if it has been pointed out to him, "many, many times today", that there's something of an irony that both of these new parts happen to be "damn Icarus figures", the former having bitten the big one at the tender age of 32, and the latter tycoon's sanity reputed to have flown the nest when he was in his mid-forties.

"You know what I say?" whispers Leonardo DiCaprio, crouching forward into a conspiratorial huddle. "Fuck Icarus."

 

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