Parade - The Maui News - December 12, 2004


"I Want An Authentic Life"

His gifts as an actor have brought him worldwide fame. But Leonardo DiCaprio says that he inspires more.

An Interview by Dotson Rader


"I Needed Something Different."
Bright, restless, disillusioned with fame, Leonardo DiCaprio sought new purpose beyond the chaos of Hollywood.

"Every person has demons," Leonardo DiCaprio said. "We all have horrible fears and insecurities that we need to overcome. Mine came from never feeling accepted by any group, never being received."

Di Caprio, 30, has been a movie star for a decade - since getting an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape". Three years later, he starred in "Titanic", the highest-crossing movie ever. It brought him worldwide fame and wealth. It also overwhelmed him, he said, bringing self-doubt, unwanted change and a need to find authentic purpose. "When that giant wave hit me, I could not deal with it," he said. "It was never part of what I wanted to achieve."

His new movie, "The Aviator" - an epic biography of the eccentric entrepreneur Howard Hughes, directed by Martin Scorsese - may well be the best film of the year. DiCaprio, cast as Hughes, delivers a haunting performance.

"He wanted to be the best movie producer, aviator, golfer and Casanova of his time," DiCaprio said. "He was obsessive-compulsive, traumatized in his childhood, yet he was a pioneer in so many ways. He fascinated me."

"I've had some success myself," DiCaprio went on. "But at the end of the day, some of the happiest times were when I had nothing. I remember that innocence of youth."

Leonardo is the only child of George and Irmelin DiCaprio, who divorced when he was 7 months old. His father, now 61, distributed underground comic books. "My dad's still a die-hard, left-wing hippie," DiCaprio said, "and will be 'til the day he dies."

Leonardo was primarily raised by his mother, now 59, a German refugee. "My mother was born in a bomb shelter," he stated. "Her father was a coal miner who didn't believe in the Nazi regime, and the family tried to flee Germany." They endured years of starvation and sickness. "Their determination to survive was amazing," DiCaprio continued. "Eventually, they got to New York, where my mother met my dad - an Italian from Flushing, Queens - at City College."

In 1974, a few months after the DiCaprios moved to Los Angeles, Leonardo was born. Although his parents soon seperated and his father remarried, the family remained close.

"My mom and I lived at Hollywood and Western, a drug-dealer and protitute corner. It was pretty terryfying. I got beat up a lot. I saw people have sex in the alleys. I remember I was 5 years old, and this guy with a trench coat, needles and crack cornered me. Early on, seing the devastation on my block, seeing heroin addicts, made me think twice about ever getting involved in drugs. It's evil. Once you take that step and experiment, drugs can take over your life. You are not yourself any more. That's something I never wanted."

"I didn't have a lot of friends growing up," he added. "It was kind of just me and my parents. But because of them, the neighborhood did not have a bad effect on me. My dad introduced me to artists, and every few months we'd go to some hippie doo-dah parade as Mudmen in our underwear, carrying sticks and covered with mud."

"My mother", he continued, "did everything to get me into the best schools she could find." A secretary, she drove her son four hours each day to and from school.

Small for his age, Leonardo was a bright, lively boy, a natural mimic who enjoyed history and drama class but was poor at maths and hated tests. "I loved creating characters and doing imitations of my parents' very bizarre friends," he said. "I loved the attention. In school I was about a foot shorter than anyone else, always jumping up and getting laughs - a little smart-ass with a big mouth. School was like this wild safari where I could make a name for myself, but it never really worked. They just basically looked at you as the class clown and dismissed you. I never belonged."

As a child, Leonardo wanted to be a biologist or a travel agent - jobs he thought would let him see the world. He embraced acting after learning that his step-brother, Adam Farrar, had done a TV Commercial. "I realized, 'Wow, I can be an actor !'" he said. "I had wanted to be all these other things because I never thought acting was a possibility."

"A few weeks ago, I visited my grandmother in Germany [Helen Indenbirken - Leo calls her "Oma" - is 88] She kept saying, 'Leonardo, you went always this way.' She told me that my grandparents couldn't even watch TV because I'd be dancing in front of it, doing crazy imitations. She said, 'We should have known then.' One day I looked at her and said, 'I'm going to do it, Oma, I'm going to be an actor.'"

As a teenager, he did a handful of commercials and acted in children's educational films. Then, in 1992, DiCaprio landed a continuing role on the TV series "Growing Pains".

The following year, Robert De Niro chose him for "This Boy's Life". That performance, as a boy hiding his emotional vulnerability beneath teenage bravado, established him as one of our best actors. He was 18.

"It's my favorite," he said. "It's the only movie I still get teary-eyed watching, because it was so much about me growing up. I give Michael Caton-Jones, the director, all the credit. He taught me what it was to make a movie. I'd come in through the world of commercials and television, where personality is what matters. Michael taught me how to create a character and how serious filmmaking really is."

"I think that cinema is the greatest modern art form. No painting makes me want to stare at it for two hours or gives me an experience that a movie does. There's a quote that will be instilled in me always - 'Pain is temporary, film is forever' - meaning that whatever you're going through in your personal life, you have to channel that into what you're doing. In film, if you don't go where you need to go, you'll never get another chance to burn it into the public world forever."

Where does the desire to act come from? "It certainly comes - 100 percent - from the need to be loved. And any actor who says this isn't true is lying."

In 1993, DiCaprio played a mental disabled boy in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" starring Johnny Depp. Two years later, he gave astonishing performances as a teenage junkie in "The Basketball Diaries" and as the French poet Arthur Rimbaut in "Total Eclipse". A year later, "Romeo & Juliet" made him a teen heartthrob and a box-office star.

My conversation with DiCaprio took place in downtown Manhattan, where his girlfriend, Brazilian model Gisele BŁndchen, lives. I inquired if they were going to get married.

"Married?" he replied, laughing. "I respect marriage but don't necessarily believe in it at this point. I know happiness has to do with finding a partner. But I am not going to risk ruining that ideal by rushing into something for a false sense of security."

In person, DiCaprio is boyish, unpretentious, energetic and kind. He is now surprisingly tall - 6 feet 1 - and very slender. He has a sharp inquisitive mind with a quick sense of humour. He relishes debate about art, politics, history, movies and music, like someone who knows a lot and misses having occasions to prove it. But mostly there is an itchy, intellectual restlessness in him, a searching for elusive answers to necessary questions and attractive openness about what he does not know.

"Titanic" changed his life forever. "I was probably the world's No.1 poster boy," DiCaprio stated. "Everywhere I travel, people identify me with that movie. It wasn't the kind of recognition I wanted at 24. It put a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn't handle it. I got sick of seeing myself. At a younger age, I thought I valued fame. But once I achieved it, I discovered that I don't value it at all. It was not authentic - so shallow and empty. That's why I took a break and didn't work for two years. I was very conscious that I needed to do something different."

During that time, he thought about his life and its purpose. He found it in environmental causes. Today - through public advocacy, political action and fund-raising - he works to stop the rise of global warming and extinction of species.

"When I was very young," he explained, "biology, the diversity of life, was one of my main interests. I know there's this image people have that I'm this spoiled, cocky punk of an actor. Honestly, that's not who I am. I really care that so many species have been wiped out, like genocide of entire races. I believe in the divine right of all species to survive on this planet. So I decided I want to be active as an environmentalist. I learned. I asked experts. I got active. I created a Web site and made a short dilm called "Global Warming".

Di Caprio also served as global chairman of Earth Day 2000. "I do all that I can," he said. "We've been given this gift, our planet, and we've found no other place in the universe that we can inhabit. I want to do something to create a radical change to help to save it. It's our responsibility."