Time - Januar 10, 2005

 

 

Leo - Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist

 

Maniacally focused on showy parts in prestige movies, DiCaprio doesn't want your love, just your admiration

by Josh Tyrangiel

 

If Leonardo DiCaprio has caping wound in his soul, that fuels his art and keeps him up nights, then he truely is the greatest actor of his generation. "At the end of the day, being an actor is just not that difficult, dude", he says in his warm, unburdened California monotone, while birds sing beneath him in the garden of the legendary Hotel Bel-Air. "It's difficult to give certain types of performance, but most of the time you're in character for about 10 seconds, and editing makes it complete. The toughest part is sustaining a career, and that's about choices. It's the choices you make that decide your longevity and the type of actor you are. You just have to be smart, dawg."

DiCaprio is so Zen that, with his Lakers hat glued to his head backward and his giant moon face tipped back to enjoy maximum sunlight, sitting across from him can be a lot like talking to a surfboard. But having traversed the pitfalls of being a child actor and a teen heartthrob and then figured out exactly what he would like to do with the next four decades or so of his professional life, DiCaprio is entitled to chill. At 30, he has been a working actor for 17 years. He knows he's pretty good, but he recognizes that talent is not the only factor in success. "I owe a lot to 'Titanic'," he says. "That movie gave me the ability to steer the course of my own destiny." Now DiCaprio has reached a point at which he has the ability to do whatever he wants and an understanding of exactly what he wants to do. "I'd like a resumé of great pieces of art under my belt," he says. "I want to make movies that people will look and appreciate in 50 years. That's it. That's all, dude."

Of course, no one sets out to make a pile of terrible movies - not even Ben Affleck. Since 'Titanic's release, DiCaprio has starred in four films. The first, 'The Beach' was a mess. The others - 'Gangs of New York', 'Catch me If You Can' and now 'The Aviator', a Howard Hughes biography that began rolling out across Europe last week - are big-budget period pieces directed either by Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, in which DiCaprio plays historically inspired, convention-bucking protagonist. These are serious gigs - Robert De Niro-when-he-was-young-and-good gigs. DiCaprio has done three of them in four years - and nothing else. Scorsese, who was recruited by DiCaprio to direct 'The Aviator', believes that Leo "is one of the few people with the emotional range" to play those kinds of bravura roles convincingly. John C. Reilly, DiCaprio's friend and co-star in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape', 'Gangs' and 'The Aviator' particularly admires his buddy's restraint. "After 'Titanic', he could have cranked 'em out in a major way, been a superhero many times over. But he shames his peer group with his commitment to quality. He's used his capital wisely."

It took DiCaprio a few years to get comfortable with the idea that he had capital, largely because his 'Titanic' hangover had surprising staying power. Before that film, DiCaprio had balanced being a 'Tiger Beat' cover boy and a critical darling thanks to his early work in 'This Boy's Life' (with De Niro), 'Marvin's Room' (with Meryl Streep) and 'Romeo & Juliet' (with Shakespeare). But when the boat sank, the balance between actor and phenomenon went under with it. On a trip to Brazil, DiCaprio was recognized by rainforest Indians, and in Camarillo, California, word that he attended a Sunday Mass caused a 30% spike in worshippers.

He was, of course, photographed far more frequently emerging from nightclubs than from churches. (DiCaprio vehemently denies ever being in a self-proclaimed "p____y posse" with friends Tobey Maguire and the magician David Blaine, thought his rumoured conquests at the time read like a 'Maxim' version of 'Who's Who'). It did not help matters that his few public comments about fame - "I hate being selected as 'Babe of the month' and being called 'hunk'", he said in 1998 - suggested that he thought of himself as a virtuoso being celebrated for a nursery rhyme. (His self-satirical cameo in Woody Allen's 'Celebrity' might have helped matters, had anyone actually seen the movie.) Now DiCaprio understands the even the tiniest complain about fame reads as petulance. He has stopped speaking about his personal life and learned "not to to give the paparazzi guys anything" by hiding his face when they approach. That makes him a very boring celebrity, a very cautious person and an almost maniacally focused movie star.

On his doorstep are large piles of the choicest Hollywood scripts, most of which he sees before any other leading man under 40. (He could have been Spider-Man or Anakin Skywalker, but neither role passed his passion test.) DiCaprio "reads almost all of them" but believes that "92%, to give you a precise number, are pure crap." Money matters - "If they're not able to get close to what you feel you deserve, you wonder who's financing it and backing it" - but is seldom a deal breaker. "Usually when I want to do something," he says, "I know immediately, and then I do it."

What turns him on is not particularly surprising. In 'Catch me If You Can', he played someone with access to millions of dollars who can get away with anything but chooses not to. Howard Hughes is an older, crazier version of the type. "The guy had everything in the world, was at the forefront of all these really exciting things in our country, and quite the swashbuckler too," says Dicaprio. "Yet still he was unable to be a happy person. Fot somebody like myself who's been very fortunate in life, to see that as an example - I don't want to say it's a moral thing, but it's interesting."

DiCaprio knew he wanted to play Hughes when he read a biography of the mogul in 1995, and started developing 'The Aviator' in earnest in 2000, first with director Michael Mann and then, when Mann bowed out, with Scorsese.

As executive producer, DiCaprio led Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan ('Gladiator', 'Any Given Sunday') through 15 script revisions over two years, mostly in an effort to make Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder meaningful but not maudlin. "I loved those meetings," says DiCaprio. "Just talking about ideas with people, giving the movie time to breathe - that's like complete heaven to me." He spent plenty of time preparing to play Hughes. "I don't know what he's talking about with this 10 seconds of focus stuff," says Scorsese, and laughs. "Don't let him kid you - he's incredibly thourough." DiCaprio read thousands of pages of Hughes biographies, watched old newsreel footage and spent days with obsessive-compulsive disorder expert Dr. Jeffrey Schwarz, but is so conditionned to tamp down interest in himself that he is reluctant to discuss it. "Trust me, dawg," he says dismissively, "you don't want to hear about it."

By smothering his personality and focusing on cinema greatness, DiCaprio may succeed in transforming the spooky adolescent lust he once inspired into admiration, but he runs the risk that his earnestness will eventually exhaust audiences. He knows that and says he's quite open to playing "a Cary Crant thing", though he immediately adds, "only if there's a certain amount of reality and authenticity to the characters. I can't get into things where I just don't buy it." (Don't look for him opposite Sandra Bullock anytime soon.)

"I'll probably make s____y choices in the future, I'm sure," he continues. "You need a 'Heaven's Gate' in there once in a while," he says, referring to the legendary film flop. "But what thrills me right now is disappearing into a role that matters, in movies that matter." Of course, DiCaprio is too rich, too pretty and too famous ever to disappear completely, but if he will never quite be a character actor, at least he is on his way to being an actor with character.

 

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