GQ (UK) "Man of the Year" Issue - December 2006

 

 

Leonardo DiCaprio - Leading Man

With two confident, unsettling performances, the former boy wonder grows up (finally) and becomes the actor of his generation

 

by Chris Heath

 

He was already a successful, cheeky, sweet-faced TV actor when Leonardo DiCaprio saw the first two film performances that really turned his head. One was James Dean's in East of Eden. The other, in Taxi Driver was by Robert De Niro (whom the teenage DiCaprio had just been cast opposite in This Boy's Life. "I never said, 'This is what I'm going to aspire to be'," he remembers, "because at that age, it's something that's so beyond anything that's a possibility. But certainly it was something like, 'Wow, I would love to give a performance even close to that someday.'"

Everyone significant involved with East if Eden was retired or gone, but he realized that the auteur behind Taxi Driver was very much around. From then on, the director he most wanted to work with was Martin Scorsese. When he was about 18, DiCaprio even changed his represantation primarily because he believed that his new agent could get him access to a Scorsese project called Gangs of New York. For a while, nothing happened, but not long afterward he met Scorsese in a New York bar after the screening of a De Niro movie: "I was blown away that he even knew who the hell I was. He started talking to me about Bob and how Bob told him about me...." It turned out that after This Boy's Life, De Niro had advised Scorsese that this was a kid worth looking out for. "I was dumbfounded that he's even seen anything I'd done."

 

DiCaprio's wish would eventually come true. And by the time Gangs of New York was finally made, it was partly DiCaprio's participation and the commercial value he lent in the wake of his post-Titanic fame that allowed the film to go forward. (DiCaprio got the good news while eating pad thai in Thailand, where he was filming The Beach. But even then it was delayed, and DiCaprio was ready too soon: "I started working out and bulking up to be this Irish gangster, and the movie kept being postponed, so it was like a year and three months of having to work out, having to eat.")

Two more Scorsese-DiCaprio movies have followed: the Howard Hughes tale The Aviator, which DiCaprio calls "the most memorable and rewarding filmmaking experience I can recall," and the recent, electric tale of multiple deceit in Boston cops-and-Mob-land, The Departed. "The guy's a mentor to me, that's what it is," says DiCaprio, "and I'm blessed, honestly, to be in his presence when making these movies, because you cannot stop learning.... It's incredible. I couldn't have hoped for anything more."

In The Departed, DiCaprio may not have the flashiest role - whenever Jack Nicholson appears, he is a whirlwind and anyone else in his vicinity does well to even remain standing - but he has a quiet assurance that allows him to channel the darker currents at the film's turbulent center. Further Collaborations are under discussion, and no contemporary Scorsese interview is complete without some kind of testimony to DiCaprio and their bond: "His face is a battlefield of moral conflicts." "There's an inner story going on with DiCaprio that somehow I was able to tap into, which is similar to what I feel."

DiCaprio says he believes Scorsese still refers to him as "the kid", though not to his face.

"Thankfully," says DiCaprio, "he sees something in me that makes him want to work with me."

 

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We talk on the patio of a suite at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, where DiCaprio picks at a fruit plate and explains that he is jetlagged from a brief trip to Europe to meet with a director he won't identify about a project he won't discuss.

There's a supposedly scientific study reported in the Los Angeles Times today proving that famous people are more narcissist than others.

"I'm sure. Isn't that the very nature....? It wasn't mind-blowing evidence, right? I thought you were going to tell me the news about Pluto not being a planet."

No, but I'm not happy about that.

"Me either, I'm a Scorpio - I'm supposed to be ruled by Pluto."

So you're fucked.

"I know. I'm no longer part of the Zodiac."

What does it mean you are supposed to be like?

"Scorpions? Passionate [snorts derisively] ...driven.... secretive... highly sexual... and something else. And I know what your next question is going to be. 'And how accurate do you think that is, according to who you are, sir?'"

So does that seem like a vaguely reasonable summary?

"Very vague, yeah. Very vaguely."

 

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For his latest movie, Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio becomes a Zimbabwean gem smuggler hemmed in by some of life's usual hazards - greed, lust, danger, conscience - while he hunts down the one huge diamond he imagines will solve all his problems. Though it is far more than a film made simply to express a political point, Blood Diamond does attack the diamond industry in two ways. One of these ways - the diamond industry's sometime indifference to the source and human costs of the diamonds it sells (particularly those from Sierra Leone) - is presented as a matter of recent history. But the other - the suggestion that the diamond industry is a global scam based on artificially restricting supply to maintain the high prices of gems with little intrinsic value - seems more timeless, and hence more of a challenge. (It has been reported that the industry has now embarked on a marketing campaign specifically to combat and compensate for any damage caused by this movie.)

DiCaprio says that he has bought diamonds - "girlfriends, my mom" - but not recently. When I suggest that the movie portrays diamond consumers as people buying some kind of marketing myth, he responds, What isn't a marketing myth, at the end of the day? To me, the point is to say we're all consumers." "And so," he suggests, "we should all be careful and responsable about everything that we buy."

I guess there is another weird kind of resonance in Blood Diamond in that this is the second movie you've made about searching for a big diamond.

[puzzled] "What's the other one?"

The famous one with the boat.

"Oh. Right."

 

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Crudely speaking, so far there have been four ages of Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor. First, there are his years as a teenage TV pinup, which began when he was cast on the one-season sitcom Parenthood and peaked when he joined the cast of Growing Pains. Second, there is a remarkable, precocious, teenage and slightly post-teenage work in movies like This Boy's Life, Romeo & Juliet, The Basketball Diaries, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (for which he got his first Oscar nomination). Fourth, there is his impressive and self-assured recent climb into manhood: the Scorsese movies and also his deft Steven Spielberg romp Catch me If You Can. And between these - the third age of DiCaprio - comes the once-in-a-lifetime disorienting meteor strike of the most successful film of all time, Titanic.

"I know, it's certainly the biggest thing I'll ever do. You know, not a bad movie at all."

In one of the interviews you did before you made Titanic, you said, "I just don't want to be big box office yet. The more you stay low-key at a young age, the more you have room for that stuff in the future....."

"Right. It was weird, because my initial reaction was to not do it because of those reasons. And then it became something that I just wanted to try. On a whim ! [laughs] I wanted to try it on a whim, to see what it was like to make that type of film. And this seemed like - and it was - a film that wasn't just about the action, it was about the love story, and I'd never really done anything like that. Something that had a budget like that, that had effects that were out of this world and insanely complicated, that had a climactic, action-orientated ending. But what I wanted to do was to try something completely different than what I'd been doing. Nobody could have foreseen the impact. It's mind-boggling."

You've always been careful to not seem ungracious about Titanic.

"I'm not ungracious about it, because it absolutely gave me the opportunity in every possible way as an actor to steer the course of my own professional career, which is what almost every actor dreams of."

Leonardo DiCaprio first saw Titanic at a test screening in the Los Angeles valley; he remembers the audience's excitement. Nevertheless...

"I had no idea. Even while it was happening. This time after - if you want to talk about the effects of what it was like to be in that sort of bubble - that was insane. It was a weird time, man. It felt like I was on the run. [laughs] Like I was on the lam or something. Like I was The Fugitive."

 

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DiCaprio is the only child of George, an American comic-book trader of Italian descent, and Irmelin, a German who had moved to America with her parents when she was 13. Their union didn't survive long past his birth, but after that they had lived yards from each other in East Los Angeles, and both raised him.

"Fortunately, I grew up close to Hollywood. And I certainly would not have been an actor or entered the acting industry if it hadn't been convenient like that. I probably would be doing local theater or something, but I don't know if I would have had the courage to have come out to Los Angeles, set up shop independently, and pursue the career with such vigor and passion."

So you don't feel like "If I'd grown up in Des Moines, there was so much of this acting stuff inside me that I would have had to burst out of town and find its home"?

"No.

Strange to think that geography plays such a big part in destiny.

"Oh, absolutely. But the basic fact that my stepbrother had done commercial and television spots, and he was 8 years old and had an agent - the mere concept would never have occured to me. I would have just stayed in school and stayed in drama class and have that to be my outlet and, on career day, figured out how to be a biologist or a travel agent. But I was not successful at getting an agent when I was 9 or 10 - I was a break-dancer, and my hair was in some sort of weird shaved Mohawk or whatever, and that wasn't conducive to Cheerios commercials."

How was your breakdancing?

I wasn't a good breaker; pop-looking was my thing." [briefly flails his arms robotically, just long enough to demonstrate that he still has some moves] "I did win a second place in the Oer-Erckenschwick break-dancing competition in Germany."

To what song?

"'White Lines' and then 'Jam On It'. You don't remember that song? 'Jay juh-juh jay juh jay jay-jay...'"

I presume you don't have many days now when you suddenly start dreaming about the travel-agent life you could have had?

"No. The reason I wanted to become a travel agent was to be able to get free trips. But I remember being really disillusioned on career day, because I knew I had absolutely no idea what I could seriously take on as a profession. I tried again to get an agent, and I suceeded, but there was a period of a year where I almost quit, because I went on a hundred auditions and I didn't get one job. Finally you get to the point where you're so disillusioned by the process that you kind of say 'I'm not going to care so much about what these people think of me.' And that's when I got my first television show."

Thanks to the indiscriminate and lazy wonders of YouTube, random snatches of DiCaprio the teen star live on. In one of his first interviews, filmed on the set of Parenthood and taken from a program called 50 Cutest Child Stars, he explains his motivation as an actor, oozing a bratty, grinning, cat-got-the-cream geekiness: "I like to act. I like... I think it's going to get me ahead in life. I must admit I like the attention."

"It's hard for me to draw upon what was exactly going through my head there, but I can definitely say that was a direct result of finally having others kids in my school acknowledge my existence. Finally getting a little attention at school. Because I was an entirely unpopular student, so to have someone say, 'Hey ! I saw you on The New Lassie, dude ! Awesome !' would have me leave school gleaming."

Why do you think you were so unpopular?

"Why? Because I was.

 

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The movie that Leonardo DiCaprio believes has watched more than any other is The Shining. "It's a damn good movie, man," he says. When I ask him what it was like acting opposite Jack Nicholson, he refers me to the documentary Stanley Kubrick's daughter made about the making of The Shinig and in particular to the remarkable footage in which Nicholson, in preparation for a scene, starts jumping and jabbering and contorting himself in a terrifying and seemingly insane manner. "It's him amping himself up," says DiCaprio. "It's almost like a coach pep-talking himself."

And he was doing that while you were acting next to him?

"Sure. It's a part of his... What was fantastic was finally sitting there as an actor doing a scene with him, being able to sit at a table with him and not being able to predict anything he's going to do."

Before one scene, the prop guy tipped off DiCaprio that Nicholson had somewhere near him, a gun, a fire extinguisher, matches and a bottle of whiskey.

"You have to expect the unexpected," says DiCaprio. "You have to walk on the set knowing that you don't know what's going to happen."

 

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Tobey Maguire first met Leonardo DiCaprio at the audition of Parenthood. "I would see the same circle of kids getting close," Maguire remembers, "and Leo was kind of new to me, and I actually just kind of wrote him off. I was sizing up my competition, I guess, looking around. He was so relaxed he seemed unfocused. But in fact, he was just really relaxed and prepared."

In his first real movie (no one sane remembers much about Critters 3, including DiCaprio), a film adaption of Tobias Wolff's memoir, This Boy's Life, DiCaprio played the young Wolff. Robert de Niro was already cast as Wolff's stepfather, and the final eight or nine young actors in contention auditioned opposite him. Maguire, who was also auditioning, says that he had just started reading books about acting history and techniques, and about the kind of preparation actors like De Niro would do, and that may be why he froze: "I just was so freaked out by his presence... I don't think Leo was as aware at the time. There wasn't that extra weight for him to go and meet De Niro."

DiCaprio endorses his premise - "I didn't quite grasp that he was the embodiment of what an actor is for an entire generation" - but says he did realize that this wasn't an audition he could just float through. "I knew I had to do something to stand out." In the scene, when De Niro presented him with a virtually empty mustard jar and asked him wether it was empty, instead of merely saying that it was, he yelped the answer with a kind of wild, unexpected, unintimidated defiance, and it worked. "There was a whole generation of actors there, and I happened to get lucky that day, and I guess I made a decision that sort of altered the course of my life."

He still had a lot to learn. "It was all mind-boggling stuff to me," he recalls. I'd just never seen people take it that, sort of, seriously, for lack of a better term." He credits the director, Michael Caton-Jones, for showing him how such a thing could and should be done. Suddenly, he wasn't another teen TV star; he was an actor. "He knew that if I was awful, his film wouldn't have worked. So he took me very seriously, which is what I needed... I have the most unbelievably fond memories of that movie. Whenever it comes on cable or anything, it gives me that little bump in the throat. I get a little bit emotional when I see it, because I was so excited and happy to be there. Just being there as a kid, working with Robert de Niro and being the star of a film, it was like winning the lottery."

I was reading an old interview with Michael Caton-Jones, and he said about you, quite clearly affectionately, "He was a smart-mouthed little fuck," and even provided the example. Ellen Barkin apparently lectured you about clowning around on-set with her and Robert De Niro and said that you should behave more like the two of them. And you're supposed to have retorted, "Like the two of you? Let's see, on one hand he did Raging Bull. On the other hand you did Switch. And you're the one who's telling me what to do?"

[laughs, vincing slightly] "Oh boy. Yeah. I was a little brick back then. Wow."

Do you rember saying that?

"I don't remember saying that exact quote, but I wouldn't doubt it. I'm sure I did say something to that effect. But that was part of the reason, I believe, why he cast me. That was my life - I was always the smaller kid during junior high and high school, where I hadn't had my big growth spurt, so I would defend myself with my mouth. We'd have these things in school called bagging contests, where you basically sit and berate and insult each other for an hour, and I had to learn to hold my own, because I couldn't do it physically. Live or die by those in school - it's of the utmost importance."

 

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To Part 2

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