Premiere magazine - November 1995

 

What's Eating Leonardo DiCaprio?

The most riveting actor of his generation on lovebites, naked wrestling and kissing men - only for the sake of his art

by Philippa Bloom

 

NEW YORK. SEPTEMBER 27, 1995. NOON. Leonardo DiCaprio is lying in his bed in a suite at the Essex House Hotel. I'm worried that I have woken him up. The first time we had an arrangement to meet (Los Angeles. May 10, 1995. Noon), the 20-year-old actor cancelled.

"Leonardo is not feeling well," his personal publicist told me then. "Leo isn't very good with mornings."

DiCaprio manages a laugh when I tell him.

"It's cool," he yawns. "I woke up half-an-hour ago.

Leonardo is in New York to film his latest movie, an adaption of the acclaimed play 'Marvin's Room', with Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. I am phoning him from London to catch up after the interview we did earlier in the year in Milan.

"I get sick about the same questions about films," he informed me then over dinner in his swish Italian hotel. So we agreed to talk about something else. He told me about his mum and dad, the secret language he uses with his friends, the things that make him cry, his earliest memories, his dog, Rocky the Rottweiler, the scar he got from being stung by a Portuguese man-of-war, what's it's like to kiss a man and wrestle naked for the screen, even about his dreams. He did impressions of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, and halfway through the interview he pretended to be blind.

Over the telephone to New York, when I remind him of all this, there is a very long pause indeed.

"Is this article turning out good or do I seem like a creep?" he finally asks. "I've been portrayed as a creep before, you know, a real jerk."

*

MILAN. JUNE 29, 1995. 7.30 PM. I am standing at the reception of the Principe Hotel. Through the receiver I hear the phone ring in a distant suite. Once, twice, three times. He picks up on the fourth ring.

"Hello. Leonardo?"

[Suspiciously] "Yeah?"

"It's the writer from PREMIERE. Are you ready to go to dinner?"

[Surprised] "Where are you?" [Even more surprised] "Oh, wow. In reception? .... How much time do you need? Are you here tomorrow? What time do you leave? Maybe we could do this first thing in the morning? .... Okaaay. They didn't tell me. Like I knew the interview was happening, but I didn't know when. Now? Well, I had made other arrangements with friends but I can work around that 'cause I know how important this is. I'll be down in three minutes. Ten minutes. Yeah. See you in ten."

Twenty minutes later he appears out of one of the hotel's lifts wearing a long-sleeved towelling shirt - white with rainbow stripes on the cuffs and hemline - and a pair of faded jeans. Later on he will invite me to roll the fabric of his shirt beteween my fingers to feel the softness of his texture. For some rather uncomfortable reason you feel a bit like one of the faithful tugging at the hem of His garment. You almost expect to be healed.

This is the young man already hailed at the most riveting actor of his generation by the media. He has been called "a really brave actor" here in Milan as a guest of the designer Giorgio Armani, whose clothes show he attended last night in a sweaty warehouse at the edge of this bleak industrial city. Jeremy Irons, Eric Clapton and Stephen Baldwin were there too, all sitting in a self-conscious row gazing appreciatively at Armani's coterie of models. Leo could barely sit still.

He's at it again now, shifting around in his seat the way you did as a kid and your mum used to asked if you had ants in your pants. The waiter has moved our table twice now and it has reminded Leo of what he dislikes about being in Europe.

He's just finished shooting 'Total Eclipse' for 'Europa Europa" director Agnieszka Holland. The film (scripted by 'Carrington's' Christopher Hampton) which tells the tale of the Gallic poet Arthur Rimbaud (DiCaprio) and his homosexual relationship with fellow scribe Verlaine ('Naked's David Thewlis), was shot on location in France. The French are not his favourite people right now.

"You know it's such a cliché about the French", he blurts. "but it's the most true thing I've ever experienced in my life, how rude these people are. Terrible. As soon as I got on the plane for Air France, I bring up a big carry-on bag and the guy goes," - and here he does the first in an expansive repertoire of voices - "'What in ze hell are you doing? Have you never been in a plane before, you stupeet leettle boy.' I said, 'Look, I've paid money to be on this flight, you can't talk to me like that.' The more you stand up to them, the nicer they'll be to you."

Fortunately, we are in Italy. The waiter glides away without a murmur.

Leo's middle name is Wilhelm. Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio. His mother, Irmalin, is German; his father, George, Italian; and they named him Leonardo because when his mother was pregnant, she and his dad were visting an art gallery when DiCaprio Jr. started kicking like mad in the womb. They were standing in front of a painting by Da Vinci.

"My dad's like, 'It's a sign! His name's Leonardo ! He's kicking at the Leonardo Da Vinci painting ! His name's Leonardo !"

To friends Leonardo is simply Leo, unless they want to be rude, or serious.

"Oh my god," says Leo. "When you really want to tell me something, you call me Leonardo DiCaprio, you know, and add a Wilhelm too."

So tell me some facts about Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio, I ask.

"Facts." He runs long fingers through a flop of ash blond hair. "My father's a hippy. My mother is a walking miracle, because she was in World War Two in Germany, and she had so many brushes with death. My family name comes from Capri in Italy, where I've never been to. I'm in Italy right now, and I'm still not going to see Capri, which I should. OK. I like to be around people. I don't really like to be alone that much, but I think I've found that the older I get, the easier that is to deal with. You've got to be on your own sometimes, right? What else? You've got to give me some direction."

Pet loves and pet hate?

He misinterprets what I'm asking. He thinks I'm talking about four-legged friends.

"My dog Rocky is probably one of the most unfortunate hounds in the world. He's a Rottweiler. He was the runt of the litter. He's got stolen and almost sold to the black market when he was two. He has epilepsy. And he has constant seizures, and he's on medication, so he's tired. He's overweight because of the medication, and now we've just found that he has cancer. But my mom treats him like a newborn child so he is happy."

Greatest fear?

"You've heard about the 'USA Today' poll, right? One of the number one greatest fears is speaking in front of large audiences. The number two is death. Isn't that funny? Death. Freaks me out. But I don't know about an afterlife. I'm not religious, you know. But some people that I know that I completely trust tell me stuff about ghosts and afterlife that I cannot argue with. My cousin saw his dead father's face in front of him: he woke up, closed his eyes, smacked himself, and still saw his father sitting there." Spooky. "There's got to be something else."

Leonardo spent a number of his formative years with his dad, an anti-establishment figure in New York in the mid-'60s who roomed with Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison and created his own comic book, 'Baloney Moccasins', with one-time girlfriend Laurie Anderson. When he moved to LA in the '70s, he continued to distribute underground comics and beatnik literature to local book.stores, and arranged readings with the likes of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

When Leo was born, novelist Hubert Selby gave him a tiny set of boxing gloves; Abbie Hoffman's son was his close friend. And George DiCaprio was Leo's best friend. One of his earliest meories is of being taken to a performance festival by his dad - "I had my red jump-suit on and my tackiest shirt" - and his dad saying, "Hey, go up on sttage," and Leo looking round at all the expectant faces, and finally starting to dance.

"Tappity,tappity, tappity," goes Leo on the table-top, drumming out the rhythm with his hands. "They were like, 'Yeah, more.'"

Tappity, tappity, tappity, tap, tap, tappity, tappity," goes Leo again.

"There's me getting more attention, me like, Hey. There was no stopping me. My dad had to pull me off the stage.

*

Instead of going to Drama School, Leo joined the cast of the US TV sitcom 'Growing Pains', as a homeless urchin called Luke. He was still 16. The programme didn't sit too well with his bohemian background and he stayed only long enough to find out what kind of work he didn't want to do. His technique has just sort of evolved.

"I really don't know what I'm doing," he blusters. "I don't. It's terrible. I go in there, and I try and learn how to be like the character and do the best I can, and be that while I'm on screen, and that's all I really do. The director might say he wants to try something else, or I might want to try a little different angle, but as far as, like [he whispers theatrically] spending a week in a log cabin, getting the feel of the woods, of nature, of growing a beard and not showering. Mmmmmmm. Reading poetry.... I've never done it. It's just not me."

When, like Leo, your dad was a pot-smoking hippy, getting back to nature presumably sounds rather mundane. Did his dad's excesses leave him with nothing to rebel against?

"Yeah," laughs Leo. "It did."

Take, for example, this snapshot from the DiCaprio family album: Leo, aged six, in the car with his dad.

"The first time I had sex, I was your age," George DiCaprio is telling his son. "You should try it."

"Shut up, dad," snorts young Leo. "I don't want to try it."

"But it'll be nice, you asshole."

"No," insists Leo. "I'm gonny do all my homework instead."

George DiCaprio is now what Leo describes as "the health-nut hippy". Here's what else Leo says about him: he doesn't eat any sugar, he has long black hair and a beard, he wears black trousers every day, and a different Hawaiian shirt for each day of the week.

"I've set him up with the dopest Hawaiian shirts", grins Leo. "And I've gotten hundreds of free shoes so he has 60 pairs of shoes that I've given him throughout the years - one pair for every occasion. But these shirts are the coolest Hawaiian shirts ever. Not just like ordinary stuff, 'cause he likes them the bigger the better, you know, like Greek statues, flying fish, and devils, and he just struts around in black jeans, the shoes I gave him and the shirts I gave him. And he's set. He's so cool."

Leo gets a lot of free clothes. He keeps a special basket for them in his bedroom, and gives them away to friends. One designer gave him $25,000-worth once.

"I love getting free stuff," he bubbles. "It's one of my favourite things on earth. One of the more exciting things is walking into a place and they say, 'OK pick out what you want, it's on the house.' Woah! Stuff you'd never dream of ever wearing, like, Hey, I could develop a whole new style. I don't mind the red tank-tops with the nipples on the chest. That would work for me."

There were no tank-tops on show at Armani, of course. Not that Leo was particularly interested. "There were some cool clothes out there, but I'd never want to go shopping to find them," he says. "And, of course, I'm certainly not gonna pay that outrageous amount of money for them.

*

to part two

*

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