Paper magazine - September 5, 1995


Leo Rising

by Tom Murrin


Ten years ago I went to a New Year's Eve party in Hollywood with my friends, George and Peggy, who brought along George's son, Leonardo, who was 9 or 10 at the time. The party was packed with musicians, painters, performance artists and cartoonists. At one point there was dance music playing, but no one was dancing -- except Leonardo, who was spinning and dropping, moon-walking and breaking. I remember thinking, "This kid is pretty cool."

In his early teens, he would come to my mom's house in L.A. for holiday parties. (My mom still does a nice imitation of him checking out his hair whenever he passed the hall mirror.) Later, I'd see him at various Johanna Went performances. His stepmom, Peggy, danced in her shows, George and I were roadies and Leonardo videoed. He had a good eye for the visual, and he liked capturing the fun and fury of Went's theatrical rituals.

George, a proud and supportive father, always kept me posted on his son's activities. Following the lead of his stepbrother, Adam, he did some commercials. Then, without any formal acting training, he landed a couple of TV roles, including a spot on Growing Pains for a year, which attracted bags of fan mail from adoring girls.

Five years ago, George and I were on the old Columbia Pictures lot in Culver City. He was very excited as he pointed to a building across the street; he said that Leo (which is what his friends call him) would be auditioning there the following afternoon for Robert De Niro. He landed the featured part in the coming-of-age drama This Boy's Life and more than held his own with Ellen Barkin and De Niro.

Leonardo DiCaprio's free-spirited portrayal of the mentally challenged Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And this spring he starred in The Basketball Diaries, playing poet Jim Carroll on the heroin-laced streets of the Lower East Side.

Today, the buzz in the industry is that this young lion could become the finest actor of his generation. And he's about to prove it with the release of Total Eclipse, directed by Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) and written by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons). Set in Paris in the late 19th century, it chronicles the knock-down, drag-out true story of the creative/destructive romance/friendship of two poets: Paul Verlaine, played by David Thewlis (Naked), and Arthur Rimbaud (played by Leonardo), who came to Paris at age 16 to learn about life and art under Verlaine's tutelage. But this isn't a movie about two effete poets. These guys were more like pirates! They fucked each other, tried to kill each other and somehow inspired each other to write great poetry.

In an appropriately French-styled sitting room at the St. Regis Hotel, DiCaprio and I sit at a small table by a window overlooking 55th Street. Wearing a loose-fitting, long-sleeved, dark blue shirt with beige pants and black-and-white sneakers, he is very relaxed and composed. He has a good sense of humor and is very straightforward and forthcoming about playing one of history's great artists. Focusing on his answers, he often looks out the window, which causes passers-by at the sunset hour to stop and take a second look. I can see the "Isn't that...?" expression flashing across their faces, but DiCaprio never seems to notice their curious stares.

Tom Murrin: Rimbaud has been described as a "handsome youth with cruel blue eyes and a pimento mouth." I can't tell if your eyes are blue or green.

Leonardo DiCaprio: They're blue-green sort of things.

TM: I don't know what a "pimento mouth" is. How would you describe your mouth?

LD: Sort of like a red pepper.

TM: Your dad says there is a resemblance between you and the young Rimbaud.

LD: In my opinion, no. But if you see any pictures of him, he has this eerie, almost psychotic look, almost like a killer. He's this young kid and he has this blank, spacy stare that I found so interesting.

TM: I know you went all over Paris -- to bookstores, places where he lived -- and read all the books about him.

LD: I certainly talked to a lot of people about him. I read books comparing him to Jim Morrison. They had a lot of similarities; a lot of weird, trippy things. I read Henry Miller's book, which portrays him as some sort of god. Some of the books by French writers make him out to be this untouchable thing. My main problem was to try to make him a human being. You keep hearing about these wild, ostentatious, psychotic and deranged things that he did. I tried to make him have normal thoughts and emotions. I mean, he wasn't a superhero, but he wrote beautiful poetry and he was a rebel.

TM: Your dad says absinthe was the LSD of the late 19th century. Did you ever try it?

LD: No. It was never available to try. I don't know if I would even want to because I hate psychedelic drugs. I think they're terrible.

TM: Well, did you try to imagine what it would be like to be on absinthe?

LD: I would daydream constantly about meeting Rimbaud now and what a freakish event it would be if I were walking along the street and just ran into him. I'd shake his hand and say, "Hi, I'm Leonardo. I'm sort of an actor right now and I'm getting a lot of good roles. I know you know nothing about me, but they have this thing called film, and I'm portraying you -- sort of like onstage. Can you tell me anything at all? Can I watch you for an hour or two? Could you let me know some things?" And I wonder how he would react. He'd probably go, "Ah, merde!" Shit!

TM: Tell me about the scene where you're in the salon and one guy starts to read a poem about absinthe. At first you cheer, and then his poem starts criticizing it and you get up and sweep everything off the table.

LD: It's one of the most climactic scenes in the movie. This guy is doing almost a children's "Say No to Drugs" poem and Rimbaud completely objected to that. I had to really feel anger toward the guy. I attack everyone with a sword and run around and scream this big speech: "In the days of the François Premier, wise and benevolent giants roamed the countryside, and one of their primary functions was to rid the world of pedants, fools and writers of no talent by pissing on them from a great height." And then I piss on him and his poetry...

TM: How was that done? Did you have a stunt pisser?

LD: [Laughs.] I had a little hot water bottle in my pants, and I just squeezed it and it peed out.

TM: That scene must have been fun.

LD: One of my favorite opportunities as an actor is when you have no limitations and you're supposed to go crazy, because that's what I like doing most of the time. It's fun.

TM: What about your costar, David Thewlis? He was amazing in Naked.

LD: He's so cool, man. He's so real. I can't say enough good things about David. He doesn't have an ego about anything, and he's very humble and totally into his work -- and he doesn't even know if acting is what he wants to do for the rest of his life. I think he's one of the most interesting people I've met in my life. Him and Jim Carroll.

One of the best things we talked about was that when people meet us, it seems there's almost this automatic expectation that we become the characters we play. You can see it in their eyes. From his work in Naked and my work in Gilbert Grape, I think people expect us to be bizarre, charismatic sort of oddballs that have an interesting story about everything. The times when I'm most charismatic in life is when my friends are all sitting around watching TV and not wanting to do anything, and I sort of get up and piss them off, jump around and annoy them. I love annoying my friends more than anything. If you ask any of my friends, they'll just love to tell you how annoying I am sometimes.

TM: Are your friends not in the business?

LD: I have a group of about 20 good friends, and 5 or 6 solid good friends. At this point I don't want to accumulate more friends than that because it starts to get so confusing and you never know who to trust. Through the development of our relationships over the years I've learned to trust them, and that's a hard thing for me to do, especially now.

TM: How do you see your progress as an actor?

LD: Right now I just want to keep on growing and stretching and trying new things. It's hard to sometimes not "do the right thing" all the time. I don't want to do the right thing all the time because, I think, once you start doing that, then you're: a) not happy with yourself, and b) you turn into what's expected. Like I know there's so much great talk about Brando and his genius, but I think one of the greatest things Brando ever did was Guys and Dolls. I thought that was terrific. I heard that Montgomery Clift went to the premiere of that movie and he threw up, he was so upset.

TM: Well, you've made some good role choices so far. A couple of them, like Rimbaud and Jim Carroll, are artistic outsiders. I've also heard talk about you doing James Dean and even Kerouac. Do you consciously gravitate toward those types of roles?

LD: It's hard to describe how these roles have come about, but it all sort of boils down to finding an interesting character to get into -- the ones that are the most complex and the things that I can bring out in a character -- because that's what keeps me entertained. Otherwise I'm on set and bored constantly because there's nowhere for my character to go. The lines are just really tedious. So the roles that I've been interested in have been real-life people who have been written about or talked about and have led interesting lives. Ninety-nine percent of the time it seems more interesting to me than something that's made up. But I don't consciously go out and say, "I want to play all the great artists of the last century."

TM: So are all these roles -- like the obsessive, jealous relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud -- preparing you for your own relationships in the future? Will you know what not to do?

LD: [Laughs.] I don't know if I can ever have a relationship. Being an actor, it seems like it would be awfully hard to develop something like that, unless you take a year break -- or a two-year break -- and devote every day to that person.

TM: Do you feel that you were well-grounded by your family and your upbringing?

LD: Oh, totally. My mom and dad have been divorced for a long time, but both of them, thank God, have been able to be around me all the time. They have always been parents who have let me do what I wanted to do. And I think their decision was to make me discover stuff on my own, but tell me what's right from wrong. And I definitely think my dad taught me how to be a kind human being. My mom is the type of lady who was always "no bullshit," always telling me the basics about stuff.

TM: What about some of the other younger stars who have had problems, like Macaulay Culkin or River Phoenix?

LD: It makes me sad to see all that. It's just weird how crazy people can become. I'm not blaming the younger actors, I'm blaming everyone around them -- especially someone like Macaulay Culkin. He was this tiny little kid and then he became successful as a sort of Schwarzenegger icon. We've all heard about the terrible things that have happened in Hollywood to young kids; it's almost a cliché at this point. It was really a letdown when I saw what happened to River Phoenix because I had thought maybe people had it under control now. You can't let anybody control you like that. I'm glad I got into it at an age where I was relatively able to know who I am in a nutshell, to have some common sense and be able to stand up for myself about things.

TM: Who acts as your manager?

LD: Me, my mom and my dad. My dad goes through hundreds of scripts a month and just weeds out the stuff that's already been done a hundred times. The understanding that we have is to just try to get something original on our hands.

TM: Your dad tells me you get big-money offers all the time.

LD: It's hard to sit there and pass up a movie when you get up in the millions category. I'm sitting there like, "God, what can I get for this?!" But in the end -- not that I have any sort of a career plan -- it's just the fact that I want to be around for a while, and I know the way to be around for a while is not by doing things you don't believe in. When you start going in that direction, it's like a burnout. You're never surprised, people that watch you are never surprised and you sort of get lost in the shuffle. And then, all of a sudden, you end up doing television again.

I don't want to be ahead of the pack. I don't want to be the gigantic romantic lead guy. Not to say there's anything wrong with that, but as long as I can stay along with the pack and keep running with it, in the end I'll probably have a good body of work to look back on. The only thing I'd probably consider doing -- as far as those types of movies are concerned -- is the next Star Wars trilogy. If that were ever to come up, that would be a tough decision, 'cause that would be awesome.