New York Times Magazine - November 24, 2002

 

 

The Kid Stays in the Pictures

By Marshall Sella

part 1

Leonardo DiCaprio gawks at celebrities. Not gawks, exactly. He's hardly awed by them, but he watches them like an outsider. He is lounging in the half-shade on a promenade at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, gazing out over a square of perfect green toward the hotel's outdoor restaurant, where celebrated performers are sipping drinks under cream-colored umbrellas and, above those, the high hibiscus that buffers the hotel from the clamor of Sunset Boulevard. ''Man, look at that,'' he says. ''There's a celebrity at every single table out there! Val Kilmer, Heath Ledger, that guy from 'Saturday Night Live.'''

At 28, DiCaprio has already ridden the entire Hollywood arc of celebrity. After his first feature role, in ''This Boy's Life,'' which also starred Robert De Niro, he was greeted as a Wunderkind; this artiste phase was bolstered by his performances in ''What's Eating Gilbert Grape'' and ''Total Eclipse,'' in which he played the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. With 1997's ''Titanic,'' of course, he attained rock-star status. But Icarus must plummet to earth; that's his job. DiCaprio's next two films were shunned, his pre-''Titanic'' tours de force suddenly a dim memory. Critics thrashed ''The Man in the Iron Mask'' and ''The Beach.'' Even the public turned against him. Rolling Stone's DiCaprio cover issue at the time was one of the worst-selling in that magazine's history. DiCaprio soon became better known for catting around nightclubs than for acting. No one can be king of the world for long, except for those who die young.

But DiCaprio is still breathing, entering what he would never, ever, characterize as his resurrection stage. In the public imagination, he has been off licking his wounds -- though that is hardly the case -- and is now returning with not one but two major films. Next month, he stars in Martin Scorsese's ''Gangs of New York'' and Steven Spielberg's ''Catch Me if You Can,'' which will be released within five days of each other. (''Gangs'' arrives on Dec. 20 and ''Catch Me'' on Christmas Day.) ''Gangs,'' in which DiCaprio stars as a dour, furtive Irishman out to avenge his father's death in the Manhattan of the 1860's, is Scorsese's longtime dream project, a brutal allegory for the American experiment and a cinematic elaboration of the Balzacian truism that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. ''Catch Me'' is quite the other thing: a breezy Spielberg romp, offering a once again lithe and charming DiCaprio as a real-life teenage con man who made millions while posing as an airline pilot, lawyer and doctor.

These days, DiCaprio is engaged in an amiable con game of his own -- with the public. He wants to erase the tabloid memories of his past, to reclaim his mantle as a young genius. He doesn't want to discuss his failed romance with Gisele Bundchen, the fashion model, or his reputation as a late-night canoodler. In person, he's easygoing and affable. But talking with him about his career is like playing a careful game of chess, and he always seems to be thinking three moves ahead. He routinely tracks back and reverses phrases he has just spoken; you can see him scrutinizing everything he says, as if he's reading it in imaginary ink. Once freewheeling, even reckless, Leonardo DiCaprio has learned how to play the Hollywood game.

DiCaprio has also matured in the way he handles his career. He exercises more power in selecting his roles and has made an extremely savvy choice by straddling the Scorsese-to-Spielberg gamut. The two films, and the two DiCaprios, could not be more different. Their diversity is an emblem of the actor's bifurcating persona. ''Gangs'' offers a life-bitten, brooding icon -- an attempt to hack away the trappings of DiCaprio's boyhood fame, as evidenced by the 30 pounds of muscle he gained for the part. He is hardly the sleek romantic lead that mesmerized fans of ''Titanic''; he is driven and scarred. The film, he fiercely hopes, portends a future as a serious adult actor, in which he will be free to break from his dreamboat identity. At the other end of the spectrum, ''Catch Me'' offers perhaps the more natural Leo: unburdened by the weight of ordinary maturity, he plays a teenage boy. More important, ''Catch Me,'' with its combination of Spielberg at the helm and Tom Hanks as co-star, is the perfect career insurance policy. Even if the more daring ''Gangs'' flops, Spielberg's confection, spruced up in swank white dinner jackets and cool sunglasses (and even a touch of doomed love) will be ushered into American multiplexes a few days later. Though the dual release was somewhat accidental, DiCaprio now effectively owns Christmas. There's never been a case in which a major Hollywood star had two films of such prominence sweep the country within one week. This is less a comeback than a full-blown assault.

DiCaprio signed on for ''Catch Me'' soon after embarking on the notoriously troubled, yearlong process of filming ''Gangs.'' For ''Titanic,'' he was paid a scant $2.5 million, but he joined the $20 million club with ''The Beach,'' and his price has never decreased. Still, box-office clout can be fleeting; ask Matthew McConaughey. Where ''Gangs'' was a labor of love -- DiCaprio and Scorsese helped pay for cost overruns by donating $7 million of their fees -- ''Catch Me'' is a safety net, though DiCaprio clearly relished the role. He has long revered Scorsese and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the director's work; he is not similarly obsessed with the Spielberg canon. But as DiCaprio well knows, Scorsese films, like most high art, have often disappointed at the box office. Spielberg movies, particularly the lighthearted ones, are a license to print cash.

In his noniconic form, DiCaprio has shed the weight he gained for ''Gangs.'' His expanded upper body remains, but his legs are lean, giving him a strange air of having been stitched together at the waist. He routinely wears the uniform of chaise-culture L.A.: faintly hip-hop, with the ever-present backward baseball cap and an array of T-shirts he has collected from all over the world. On offdays, he has a trace of a goatee, though it seems that's still the only hair that occupies his face when given the chance. There are two sharp vertical creases in the center of his brow: one for bafflement and one for rage. (Every part of an actor's visage serves a function.) In his shape-shifting efforts to recast his public image, he skips without transition from environmental spokesman to serious artist to prankster. These are all aspects of his real personality, but now he's learned which face to show, and when.

When adopting the pose of tabloid victim, DiCaprio resorts to the mantra that fame is a kind of infection: it's all about the work. ''My post-'Titanic' experience was a very empty existence,'' he says, tugging at his cap. ''I'd be driving around L.A. stressed out of my head and have to stop and think: Wait a minute. What am I dealing with? Some movie that I don't want to do anyway, three paparazzi chasing me. I have this person who I thought was my friend who wasn't. I'd get headaches from dealing with pure unadulterated garbage. But you can't help it. It becomes who you are. You're suddenly defined in the media as a cutie-pie.''

Realizing that such labels can suffocate a career, DiCaprio has resolved to become a cipher. ''Defining yourself to the public on a consistent basis is death to a performer,'' he says. ''The more you define who you are personally, the less you're able to submerge into the characters you do. People are likely to think, Oh, I don't buy him in that role.'' Accordingly, DiCaprio now strives to live below the media radar. He ruefully laughs about his ''strategy of not feeding the piranhas,'' always adding that ''this experiment is a work in progress.''

When DiCaprio does consent to meetings with the media, they're conducted in private, leafy enclaves like the Chateau. To stomp into a Midtown Manhattan eatery would cause chaos and, more important, distract him from the points he feels he needs to make. And he's always trying to make points. He offers detailed history about 19th-century New York that he has gleaned from ''Gangs'' and extended tutorials on fossil-fuel emissions. (DiCaprio is an ardent environmentalist, which has made him an easy target for media ridicule.) Those kinds of rhetoric do double duty: first, he gets to share information he is truly enthusiastic about, and second, for a time, it keeps the conversation from veering into his private life.

French nobles used to attend Louis XIV's morning ablutions as a kind of theater; that was the celebrity tabloid service of the time. We have a more efficient system today. In the icy wake of ''Titanic,'' the gossip sheets fixed their gaze upon every facet of the flawed DiCaprio diamond: here was the wastrel Leo being rebuffed by a stripper in a London nightclub and trawling through Manhattan with his ''posse'' of celebrity buddies like Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas. Here was the arrogant Leo, the mandolescent who asked supermodels, ''Do you know who I am?'' Or the petulant Leo, hurling manure at Italian paparazzi when no more sophisticated form of protest occurred to him. DiCaprio seemed to be everywhere at once, some sort of bad-boy superhero, able to defy the laws of time, space and morality. It was red meat for the tabs, and they ran with it all: the true, the not true and the somewhere in between. But those days are finished. DiCaprio has decided that it's time to sculpture a more refined icon for himself. And like his elusive character in ''Catch Me,'' he's remarkably deft at inhabiting a new role.

Beneath a translucent dome at the Hotel Bel-Air, DiCaprio is savaging a croque monsieur, which he's been having quite a lot lately. It's his new kick, to the point where he quips that he's becoming a ''croquehead.'' As ever, he's sporting a backward baseball cap, which is emblazoned with an ornate L.

He's also wearing his wraparound sunglasses. Every time I've seen him, they've been either on his face or in reach. Hesitantly, I suggest to him that, worn indoors, sunglasses offer the opposite of anonymity; they draw attention from everyone but the blind, who have dark glasses of their own to worry about. But DiCaprio has a different rationale. He resents scrutiny but likes to scrutinize. ''I love these,'' he says. ''They're my cocoon. It's not so much to keep people from looking at you; it's to be able to look at them and not have them know you're looking. I can examine a whole room, and people will think I'm just looking at you, which is awesome.''

Steven Spielberg has told me that DiCaprio needs to do reconnaissance before venturing into public, that ''his bum rap has made him the young man in the plastic bubble.'' But DiCaprio denies this. ''I can go wherever the hell I want,'' he insists, jabbing a finger into the air. ''I blend in. I dress like everyone else because I feel like everyone else, not because I'd normally be wearing snakeskin pants but because this is what I want to wear. People may recognize me, but when you dress like anyone else, they don't come running.''

The master at the game of blending in, he says, is Robert De Niro. One of the best pieces of advice DiCaprio ever got about the art was simply to buy a pair of ordinary glasses. ''Those are key,'' he says. ''I remember De Niro saying to me, 'Leonardo, get yourself one pair.' I said, 'What do you mean?' 'One pair of glasses. Don't ever switch them. Always wear them.''' (For anyone who's seen De Niro in public wearing glasses, that's actually true. He is not himself.)

DiCaprio's co-stars say that his celebrity has not changed him a whit. But DiCaprio's insulation has turned him into a rare and odd creature whose work hours demand brilliance and whose time off can be spent as a scruffy tearaway, a dilettante activist, whatever he likes. That's a privilege afforded the extremely rich and the extremely famous, and DiCaprio walks in both camps. He is an autodidact and an idealist, but his every misstep is blown out of proportion -- possibly as much by his own conduct as by the tabloid press.

The most famous mark of DiCaprio's eccentricity, of course, is the posse. He has known all of his closest friends since well before becoming famous; Tobey Maguire, now a star in his own right, auditioned for the DiCaprio role in ''This Boy's Life,'' and the two have been tight ever since. A few posse members, however, have been jettisoned. Dana Giacchetto, DiCaprio's money manager, turned out to have swindled the star and others out of millions. (He's now in prison.) After David Blaine, the magician, publicly disparaged the idea of being DiCaprio's hanger-on, the association abruptly ended.

These days, DiCaprio likes to present the posse not as a party crew but as a family. ''My newest friend became my friend seven years ago,'' he says, tugging his sleeves up onto his shoulders until his T-shirt becomes a tank top. ''People may hear that and say, 'He's unable to trust,' but I can. I just have a great nucleus, 10 great friends who I love to hang out with.'' He pauses. ''You know, hang out with my buddies, drive around in my electric golf cart'' -- by this he means his hybrid electric car, a Toyota Prius -- ''and scream at people, stuff like that. That's actually what we do; it's hilarious. One of my boys and I made such a joke out of it that we were in the golf cart, and he was shouting at other cars: 'You're all a bunch of polluters! You're poisoning the environment!' At the top of his lungs. Hilarious.''

Since DiCaprio is famously a basketball freak, I ask if it's any coincidence that he always specifies that he has exactly 10 pals: two teams. ''Yeah, I have 10 friends for that exact reason,'' he jokes. ''It's also why I've chosen short friends. It has nothing to do with their personalities.''

The posse is now closed to new members. This may be because of the privacy factor; Tobey, for example, makes it a point to say little about Leo, just as Leo does about Tobey. Or it may be that 10 is a sizable group to have padding around the Hollywood Hills mansion at all hours.

''I don't really have time for new friends,'' he says. ''I'm not closed off to new encounters with people. But I'm not looking for new friends. I got my boys.''

''What about female friends?'' I ask. ''Do you have many?''

''Two or three,'' he says vaguely. ''But I wouldn't include them in the 10.''

Since most of the members of the posse are noncelebrities, there's a good bit of chiding that goes on. The fame thing makes for good running jokes. ''I have a whole bit with my friends where I pretend to be the most obnoxious guy in the world, and they go along with it,'' DiCaprio says. ''I actually embody that person. Like, 'No, he doesn't want to do that.' Speaking of myself in the third person. I say 'L.' Like, 'L doesn't want to do that.' It's a fun bit.''

As in any self-respecting posse, there's a code of respect. For instance, though Maguire is now an international star, DiCaprio has never been spurred to give him the benefit of his experience. (Not even a decent pair of glasses to hide behind in public.) ''I think that, to a degree, he's watched what's happened in my career and made a plan for himself,'' DiCaprio says. ''But I've never advised him. I'd think that would be patronizing. Besides, Tobey? I feel like he was born for this. He really doesn't care.''

DiCaprio pauses and weighs the inflammatory potentials of this remark. ''Of course, Tobey cares,'' he says.

Leonardo DiCaprio, of course, is no man's victim. The tabloid microscope is an integral part of the Hollywood machine. This is the life he has chosen, and for a number of years, he has given the rags plenty to soak up. You rarely read about Kate Winslet's high jinks, though she was caught in the ''Titanic'' dazzle lights, too. DiCaprio likes to say there's no guidebook when it comes to dealing with his late-90's level of fame. Not even De Niro, he says, would be able to advise him.

Besides, in this process of overhauling his image, the Moomba phase of DiCaprio's public persona is fading. These days, his boldfaced name still splashes out from every tab's ''Sightings'' column, but it's more common for him to be seen in hushed business conversations with Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax tycoon, over lunch or engaged in other noncarousing pursuits.

Still, from the overwhelming success of ''Titanic'' -- paradoxically, one of his least-challenging performances -- DiCaprio has been relegated to a strange critical realm where everything he does, acting and otherwise, becomes an external commentary on his fame. He's the star of an endless movie he never auditioned for. Which has made the long run-up to ''Catch Me,'' and especially ''Gangs,'' all the more keenly scrutinized.

It's a happy, almost surprising, fact of his life that for all DiCaprio's mind-bending renown, his indulgences have left no permanent scars. The same sweet, convulsive temptations that have brought low any number of American icons, from James Dean to River Phoenix, thus far have not visited him. DiCaprio has died a little, but he has survived.

Baz Luhrmann, who directed DiCaprio in the hep ''William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet'' and is slated to work with him again on a film about Alexander the Great in 2004, credits DiCaprio's groundedness with his family. ''He came from a radical upbringing,'' Luhrmann says. ''His dad was the Zelig of the counterculture: he hung out with Bukowski and the Velvet Underground. Leo was never looking to be wild -- that had been his childhood! Still, even experienced people get thrown by that level of fame.''

Another day, another posh enclave. DiCaprio is in Manhattan at the St. Regis, but not in a suite. He favors a small room, he says, because at the end of the day, what does it matter? Though he is in the late morning of life, that's one of his favorite phrases, ''at the end of the day.'' I arrive to find him watching hippos attacking one another on the Discovery Channel; he's fresh from a nap and rumpled head to toe, but the nature footage acts on him like a stimulant. ''Vicious water pigs!'' he suddenly shouts past me. ''Oh, my God, they're gnashing at each other!''

His obsession on this tepid night is not water pigs but ''Gangs'' -- no surprise, since he's about to see a rough screening for the first time. As he discusses the project, DiCaprio's strategy comes into clear focus. He wants to focus on the educational content of his work, to convey to the public what he's been learning -- in lengthy detail, information that has nothing to do with him personally. Perhaps naively, or perhaps not, DiCaprio wants to be a conduit, not a subject.

''The cool side fact about 'Gangs' is that because of the Draft Riots, New York is structurally what it is today,'' he says, forming his fingertips into a tiny cage. ''They literally made, like, a fireproof city. It had been an industrialized city, cottages and tenements made out of wood. So the New York we see today has a direct correlation with the Draft Riots, with the burning and the looting of the city.''

This goes on for a solid 20 minutes: how the film portrays a seminal moment in the creation of America, how it represents the rise of our pluralistic society. ''It's about the nativists, whose families' blood was spilled to create this new land, versus the hordes of immigrants.''

He stops short, recalling that, earlier, I teased him with a jokingly rude question about his private life. ''Oh, I could go on forever,'' he says, laughing and slapping my knee. ''But I'm sure you want to get back to your Page Six-type questions.''

Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio was what the English like to call a late developer. Until he was 16, he was short and scrawny, always available to be bullied. His most humiliating moment in life, he says, was a schoolyard thrashing. He refused to return some tough kid's basketball and was knocked senseless for the temerity. ''I woke up about 10 minutes later on the blacktop,'' he recalls. ''I had about 30 kids all around me throwing spitballs and kicking me. I tried to run away. But they'd tied my shoelaces together, so I took one step and fell flat on my face. I had to hop off the blacktop while they were still kicking me.''

After his 8-year-old stepbrother worked briefly as an actor, DiCaprio became intrigued. The stepbrother's agent rejected him out of hand by virtue of his Mohawk haircut. But in time, TV found him: he landed a recurrent part on the sitcom ''Growing Pains.''

His big break came with the acclaimed ''This Boy's Life,'' directed by Michael Caton-Jones in 1993. At the time, DiCaprio hadn't the faintest idea what movie work entailed. ''I had no experience starring in a film like that,'' he says. ''I think what got me the role was my complete ignorance to the whole filmmaking process and who I was working with. I knew of De Niro, but I was, like, 16 years old. I'd seen two, maybe three of his movies. I hadn't seen 'Taxi Driver' or 'Raging Bull.' I think it helped that I was the only kid there with a complete lack of knowledge who didn't respect what it was like to read with De Niro. During an intense scene, I walked across the room and got in his face and went, 'Nooo!' And he just laughed in my face. He said, 'O.K., kid, O.K., calm down.'''

De Niro was impressed. ''I knew he had something when I saw him read,'' De Niro recalls. ''So I said, 'I'm tellin' you, use this kid, if you want my advice.' I'm glad they saw what I saw.''

It's no exaggeration to say that DiCaprio's performances in ''This Boy's Life'' and ''Gilbert Grape'' were a phenomenon. His emotions lived so close to the surface that it was almost unnerving. Watching ''Gilbert Grape,'' in which DiCaprio played a mentally disabled boy, viewers who knew nothing of him assumed that he truly was mentally disabled; it is hard to imagine another actor who could have behaved so out of control, especially within the strin-gently controlled framework of a Hollywood film.

Unbeknown to DiCaprio, even Martin Scorsese got wind of the new kid. ''De Niro and I check in with each other on each project we're working on,'' Scorsese says. ''And when he tells me about somebody -- unsolicited -- a flag goes up. When he did 'This Boy's Life,' he said, 'This is a young person who bears watching.' Then I saw 'Gilbert Grape.' And I didn't quite know Leo was an actor! I couldn't quite tell.''

DiCaprio got his first taste of controversy with ''The Basketball Diaries,'' based on the autobiographical book by Jim Carroll. The film was still fresh in the public memory when the Columbine killings occurred, and the trench-coated DiCaprio, seen gunning people down, elicited harsh protests.

But those movies were the sparks. The film that made Leonardo DiCaprio a star -- recognized both for his acting talent and his charisma -- was Baz Luhrmann's ''Romeo and Juliet.'' In Hollywood slang, he opened that film. ''The acting machine, we called him,'' Luhrmann says. ''He had the ability to drop right into the emotion of a scene. It was unbelievable. And to open a film, at 19, that's unbelievable, too.'' The movie was an unexpected success, and it did particularly well among teenage girls.

Then ''Titanic'' hit. Nobody could have seen it coming. ''He became global culture, in much the same way as the Beatles or Elvis,'' Luhrmann says. ''I've been in mud huts in Egypt and seen two posters on the walls: Leonardo and Michael Jackson. You know, 'Titanic' is 'Romeo and Juliet.' Those two films made Leonardo the tragic romantic icon of his generation.''

to part 2

*

INTERVIEWS & ARTICLES

MAIN