The Irish Times - April 5, 1997
Supplement Page 3


Leonardo, Leonardo, wherefore art thou Leonardo

by Michael Dwyder


Cinema's latest Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, was looking tall, slim and golden-tanned - and remarkably boyish for a 22-year-old - when at his London hotel last week. One of the most versatile and adventurous American actors of his generation, he has mostly chosen his roles wisely in his extremely busy six years as a movie actor, and he makes a perfect Romeo: spirited, passionate, romantic. "He's an extraordinary young actor, and I thought he'd made a great Romeo," says Baz Luhrmann. "He does seem to symbolise his generation."

It's a mutual admiration society. "Baz is the most precise director I've ever worked with," says DiCaprio. "He knows exactly what he wants to get out of you as an actor. He's got a very clear vision of what he's doing and he's very articulate about conveying that."

DiCaprio says making the movie was "like going to Shakespeare camp - I've never been trained as a Shakespearean actor, so I was concerned about speaking the original language, but Baz told me not to worry. He assured me that he wanted it to sound conversational, that he didn't want us to sound like Shakespearean actors.

He's surprised the movie has become quite as successful as it is. "I didn't think teenagers actually would go and see a Shakespearean picture, but they did and it really opened their eyes to Shakespeare. I've had a lot of teachers telling me that it made their students really get into Shakespeare for the first time. It wasn't tedious to them anymore and they wanted to read more."

Born and brought up in Los Angeles, the epicentre of the US film business, DiCaprio says he always wanted to be an actor. He was an only child. "That was great," he says. "I wouldn't have it any ether way. My parents were divorced when I was really young, but they treated me very well. Both of them are ex-hippies. They were part of that 1960s scene in New York and their attitude has carried on to me and really influences my decisions in the roles I choose. My dad was a comics distributor and then a writer and now he really helps me out. He weeds out the horrible scripts and tells me the ones I should pay attention to. I listen to him a lot."

In his early teens, Leonardo got some work in commercials and landed a recurring role, as a homeless boy, in the ABC television series, Growing Pains. When he was 16, he was cast in his first substantial cinema role in This Boy's Life, Michael Caton-Jones's underestimated film based on the writer Tobias Wolff's traumatic teenage years with a domineering stepfather. DiCaprio's touching performance more than held its own in the company of Robert de Niro as the stepfather and Ellen Barkin as the boy's mother.

"There was a big cattle call with thousands of young actors from all over the world auditioning for the part," he says. "I think it was probably my ignorance, not being afraid of de Niro at the time, that got me the part. It was a huge role for a kid of that age to get, and I got the opportunity to work with Robert de Niro right off the bat. It was like a complete learning experience for me, watching de Niro acting every day. Like a drama school. That showed me what real actings all about and it moulded me for the rest of my career. It was scary, absolutely, at first, and how could it not be?"

In his second movie, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, in which he co-starred with Johnny Depp, DiCaprio brought a beguiling innocence to the role of an ebullient, mentally-impaired youngster. His performance earned him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. "That was a dream come true," he says. "I knew I wouldn't win, so I didn't have a speech prepared or anything like that. What made me happiest was having my mother with me at the ceremony.

He went on to play rebellious poets in two movies where his performances transcended the material with which he had to work - first a wrenching portrayal of a junkie and writer which charged the film of Jim Carroll's book, The Basketball Diaries, and then as the 19th-century poet, Rimbaud, in Agnieska Holland's Total Eclipse, which deals with the tempestuous relationship between the bisexual poets, Rimbaud and Verlaine. Yet to be released here, the movie unhappily echoes Ken Russell's hysterical pictures on the sex lives of creative artists. The screenplay by Christopher Hampton is based on a play he wrote when he was 18, which helps explain its juvenile tone. DiCaprio is aptly precocious as Rimbaud with David Thewlis as a glum, sexually confused Verlaine.

"I like the film for what it is," says DiCaprio in its defence. "If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would say yes again because it's such an interesting character to get to play. A lot of the time, real-life people can be a hundred times more interesting than any stories writers can create in their heads. And that character was one of the first rebels around and he revolutionised poetry at the age of 16. Of course, he was an ass at times, he was so cocky."

Sandwiched in between those two movies was the western, The Quick And The Dead, which he eventually accepted after its star and executive producer, Sharon Stone, persisted in casting him. He was reunited briefly with Robert de Niro in Marvin's Room, which also features Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton and is due here in June.

"I have only one line with de Niro this time," he says, "but Meryl Streep was such an experience to work with. I've never seen someone act quite the way she does. Male or female. She's just unbelievable. I can't even describe it. She's completely spontaneous and she has such out-there ways of doing lines. But it works and it seems completely real. She's just a master, a true master."

Next came William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, which was filmed in Mexico, and he returned to Mexico very soon afterwards to star with Kate Winslet in James Cameron's mega-budget Titanic which opens here in the summer. "I play a fictional American artist who has spent a lot of time in Paris," he explains, "and he meets Kate Winlset, an upper-class girl and falls in love. It's a great story and Kate's one of the best. "There was a lot of intimate stuff between the two characters, and that was fun, but there was so much of the basic work, running through the Titanic bursting through doors, over and over. You know, that gets kinda tedious after a while. It was a very long shoot. I was there for seven months. It went over budget and over time. It's the first big studio thing I've done and it taught me that's not what I want to go for. But I figured if I was going to work with an action director, Jim Cameron had to be the one.

Leonardo DiCaprio continues to work with barely a break between movies and he's about to star in a new version of The Man In The Iron Mask, to be directed by Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace. "It was to be shot in Ireland, which would have been cool, but they decided against that for some reason and it's going to be made in France. I'm looking forward to it. I've got the dual role of the Man in the Iron Mask and the evil King Louis, and I've got John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons and Gerard Depardieu as my musketeers!"

What happened to the project in which DiCaprio was tipped to play James Dean? "There was talk of that," he says, "but I admire James Dean so much that if the picture was a disaster, it would have been such a dishonour to him. Also, playing another actor is a weird thing to do, I think. But I want to keep doing interesting roles, trying new things. I want to take risks and be the best actor I can possibly be."