Rolling Stone - March 2000
The Rolling Stone Interview
by Chris Mundy
Titanic is something that will never happen again. Nor will I try to repeat it.
The first time you see him, you wonder what all the fuss is about. Itīs midafternoon in Los Angeles, and Leonardo DiCaprio is slouched in the front of a rental car, hat spun backwards, sneakers propped on the dash - the most important manchild in Hollywood engrossed in a video game. If it wasnīt for the fact that 20th Century Fox is about to privately screen a cut of The Beach , DiCaprioīs new movie, youīd swear he was just another punk kid killing time at the mall.
But at twenty-five, DiCaprio is not a kid any more, a notion that sometimes excites him but just as frequently leaves him talking about his own "Peter Pan Syndrome". So as DiCaprio scrutinizes himself on screen, you watch the child actor in him squirm to get out while the grown-up power player in him fights for control. Ultimately, DiCaprioīs older half wins the day and diligently watches the film for the tenth time. It is, it seems, a pivotel stage in DiCaprioīs life and career.
"The last couple of years have really been, at the risk of sounding corny, a transitional time for me," says DiCaprio.
Letīs recap. Titanic, released late in 1997 not only broke records for Oscars (eleven) and world-wide box-office grosses ($1.8 billion) but immediately transformed DiCaprio from an extremely talented and respected actor (Whatīs Eating Gilbert Grape?, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, This Boyīs Life, The Basketball Diaries, Romeo and Juliet) into a cottage industry unto himself. Just as Michael Jordan morphed into Michael and, finally, MJ, DiCaprio went from his many syllables to simply Leo : icon. At one point, ten books on the New York Times best-seller list dealt with DiCaprio or Titanic.
The obvious question pops up: Werenīt you sick of yourself? DiCaprio laughs: "Certainly with the Titanic thing," he says. "I was over it as much as anyone else, know what Iīm saying?"
Fueling the mania was the fact that DiCaprio dealt with post-Titanic stress disorder by seeking the comfort and serenity of virtually every club in Manhattan and in the greater Los Angeles area. If you spilled a drink in those places in the past two years, you probably drenched DiCaprio or one of his inseperable crew. They include Tobey Maguire (The Cider House Rules), director Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy) and magician David Blaine. Rumours of DiCaprio spinning out of control were rampant.
"I was indie boy before Romeo and Juliet and Titanic - Iīd never dealt with any of that in my life," says DiCaprio of the attention his antics have sparked. "I didnīt know what being somebody entailed. And Titanic is something that will never happen again. Nor will I try to repeat it.
All of which has led us here to see The Beach, DiCaprioīs first film in two years and the reason he has emerged to see what kind of shadows he now casts in Hollywood. From the outset, DiCaprioīs choice of The Beach was meant to show his independence. It also shows his clout. For Titanic DiCaprioīs salary was reported $2.5 million; The Beach represents his first $ 20 million payday. That kind of money gets you heard on the set even without producing credit.
Based on the 1997 novel by Alex Garland, the film is the brainchild of the same London-based trio that ceated Trainspotting: director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew MacDonald. Boyleīs easygoing directorial presence clearly pleases the actor more than the tyrannical grip of Titanicīs James Cameron, whose style of filmmaking, says DiCaprio, has "a military feel." DiCaprio plays Richard, an adventure junkie travelling alone in Thailand who stumbles upon a map to a paradise that, like any paradise, cannot stay pure once it is discovered by outsiders. Unless, by chance, your idea of nirvana includes marijuana fields patrolled by guards with AK-47s, shark attacks and manipulative sex. Richard is disillusioned, burned out on the excess of Western culture yet unable to escape the fact that he is as much the problem as the society he has escaped. Itīs not difficult to see why the theme of The Beach has been DiCaprioīs chief obsession for more than a year.
In fact, when we sit down for the first of our interviews two days later, DiCaprio will begin by being entirely fixated on The Beach. But soon he settles into a discussion that stretches from his childhood (his parents, George and Irmelin, split before he was a year old, but both were active in his life) to adolescence (DiCaprio, who appeared on Romper Room at age five, began acting in commercials at fourteen, had a recurring TV role on Growing Pains and nabbed his breakthrough part opposite Robert De Niro in This Boyīs Life at seventeen) all the way to his next role in Martin Scorseseīs Gangs of New York. ("Heīs a Rolodex of film," says DiCaprio of Scorsese. "Itīs mind-boggling.")
Because the house DiCaprio recently purchased in the Hollywood Hills is under going construction, the interviews take place at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Our first meeting is in late December, and when DiCaprio takes a seat, he stares at the twenty-foot Christmas tree and says, "I just bought a tree this size for my living room." You assume his new home is rather roomy. Throughout the conversations, DiCaprio is friendly, matter-of-fact, and although he isnīt prone to a great deal of introspectation, he manages to convey the feeling that he is as baffled and confused by his success as anyone. He peppers his conversation with B-boy-speak,, but he is also, as he points out continually, at pains to redefine his career as an adult. Like Richard in The Beach, DiCaprio has dropped out and is now returning, hoping to make some sense of what heīs seen.
Which is difficult when reminders of your own fame are everywhere. Take the Chateau Marmont waiter who approaches the table at this very minute.
"Hey, that was a killer party you threw, man," he says.
"Which one?" asks DiCaprio.
"The one where Jennifer Lopez showed up and walked in on me in the bathroom," says the waiter. "Thatīs a dream come true."
"Oh, yeah, that one up there," says DiCaprio. He looks up toward a hotel room as the waiter walks away.
"I invited those dudes up from the hotel," he says after a moment. "I had a dope party up there."
He stares at the tape recorder and grimaces. You smile. This seems like a good place to begin.
Letīs tackle your reputation of being constantly on the Hollywood party scene. That must come from somewhere, correct?
Well, absolutely, I go out with my buddies whenever I want.
There have been so many stories about you being out of control, either drunk or on drugs. Was there ever a time you were worried that you were losing control?
Never. Never, ever.
Then what is true? How wild does it get?
I had a birthday party here.
OK, how late did that party go?
(Smiles) All Iīm going to say is that Iīm a healthy, happy person, and people can think whatever they want to think. I donīt care. I understand, that people are interested. But to sit here and fight rumors about yourself is a waste of time.
A lot of it is gossip, but some could be a concern. Look at River Phoenix: People knew before he died that he was out of control. There probably is actual concern that youīre going to go down the same road.
If anyone knew me personally, theyīd know thatīs not the truth. And thatīs all there is to it. Before this all happened to me, Iīd hear rumors about other actors and think, "How can they live with themselves when they know those rumors are out there?" And you know what? You get in this situation and you realize that any amount of fame comes with that negativity posted on it.
"The Beach" is really about trying to escape Western culture, and in a strange way youīre a symbol of that. Youīre the thing people canīt escape.
Yeah (laughs). Richard goes to escape Leonardo DiCaprio (laughs).
Was that a draw?
Absolutely, that had a lot to do with it. Richardīs character in a lot of ways was escaping things that I was. It was escaping this whole whirlwind of stuff that was going on. The ironic thing is that I didnīt fuel any of that. I canīt help that Iīm on People magazineīs "Fifty Most Beautiful" whatever. Iīm not saying these are horrible things. Iīm just saying I wasnīt aggressively promoting myself. I did one magazine cover before the movie came out, and then I didnīt do anything else.
Come on. You were out at clubs all the time.
Yeah, but I canīt do anything about that.
But if you donīt want that attention, you donīt have to be out with tons of women at the clubs. It wasnīt hard to find you. You were out.
Iīm not going to be a hermit. That was definitely a rebellious attitude I had toward the whole thing. My whole make-up was saying, "Just because youīre in this position, youīre not going to stop doing what you normally do." And, by the way, just to clear the air, truly ninety percent of what was writen about me was fabricated. The core might come from somewhat real events, but itīs turned into something completely different. I donīt want to get into specifics, because itīs just a waste of time, but I will comment on one. I donīt know where it was coined, but they started calling me and my friends the Pussy posse, and I think itīs the most degrading thing toward women Iīve ever heard in my life. Iīve never used that term in my entire life.
Most of your friends are actors. Are there people whose work weīd know, other than Tobey Maguire?
Ethan Suplee - he was the big guy in American History X. I donīt know if youīd know the other guys - Jay Ferguson, Kevin Connelly.
There is also the story out there that you and your friend tried to hit on "Showgirls" star Elizabeth Berkley and got in a fight with her boyfriend, Roger Wilson.
That, again, I had zero involvement in. Zero. When I say zero, I mean zero. The truth will come out in the end... But this has been such a learning experience. Iīm glad I went through it. It made me so much stronger.
You said that ninety percent is untrue. Well, that allows you to get away with the other ten percent and just say, "Itīs all lies."
(Laughs) Well, nobodyīs going to believe me about anything anyway. I donīt think most people know what theyīre going through until they look at it in the past tense. You need time away. It also has a lot to do with - not to say I went insane or anything - but the great thing about Richard sort of going nuts on this island is what when youīre in that state of mind, you donīt know that youīre in that state of mind. In fact, you usually think youīre more clearheaded than ever. Only later on do you realize what youīve done and what you were clearly going through.
Did you take the role in Woody Allenīs Celebrity" to make fun of your image as a drinking, drugging, sex-crazed, hotel-trashing party boy?
People assumed that, but not at all. Woody Allen called me to do a funny ass character. I based it on a lot of full-of-shit people Iīve met, a lot of Hollywood types.
I heard you based it on your "Gilbert Grape" co-star Johnny Depp.
No. I guess the only similarity would be that both the character and Johnny Depp destroyed a hotel room. You gotta understand, Woody Allen wrote everything. I just played it.
Does it surprise you that people want to believe the bad stuff?
It doesnīt matter in the end. Look, I admired River Phoenix before he unfortunately passed away, and I heard all these things about him, and it changed my image of him. But at the same time, I never got an opportunity to know the guy. I donīt know the truth. And none of that stuff matters in the end. All thatīs left is the acting. Thatīs all that matters.
Are you a better actor today than you were at seventeen and working with Robert De Niro in "This BoyīsLife"?
I donīt know. I donīt watch anything of mine much. I havenīt gone to drama school or college, either. I just like to watch other actors in action. I learned so much from working with De Niro. Iīd be in a scene with him where I was supposed to be acting, and I was just watching. I donīt ask other actors questions. I just watch: I donīt want to be constructed to an idea of what acting is by anyone else. I want to take my own education.
Would you take the role in "Titanic" again, knowing what it would do?
Yeah, I would, definitely.
Is there anyone besides your parents who will tell you if youīre turning into an asshole?
My friends. I had a period when I was sixteen where I started to be a big head. I was going through puberty, and I was nominated for an Academy Award. My head got inflated. My friends were the real ones who said, "Youīre acting different." But the truth is that I donīt need that, because I donīt get out of hand.
Didnīt you fly a gang of your friends over to Thailand at the expense of 20th Century Fox during the filming of "The Beach"?
Yeah (laughs). If a studio is going to offer me the opportunity to invite my mother and grandmother and all my friends to visit me free of charge in Thailand, Iīm going to take the opportunity.
When I saw you watching "The Beach", it was your tenth time. Since you said you donītlike watching yourself, this intense involvement must be a new experience.
Yeah. The last couple of years have really made me buckle down and focus on the process in which I would like to make films. And that is to hopefully get as involved as possible without interfering with the directorīs vision. Basically itīs a transition away from the child actor and looking at the director more as a partner and less as a big brother.
The most obvious difference between the book and the movie is that the movie has less violence and more sex. Did you have input into that?
I was encouraging more violence, but the truth of the matter is, itīs interesting sex. To me, itīs not sex for the point of having a passionate scene. Itīs more about characters manipulating each other ... But Iīd like to talk about what The Beach is a metapher for.
Fair enough. What was it about for you?
Essentially, itīs about how the human animal is pretty much preprogrammed to destroy the natural order. Itīs why Richard was such an engaging character for me. Heīs searching for paradise, but at every turn he destroys it by wanting more and wanting to go to the edge with every experience. Heīs like todayīs primate. He thinks he wants to live in a very primitive, isolated world, and no matter how much he tries to escape it, he is a product of the technological revolution. Heīs a Sony Playstation boy no matter how much he tries to fight it.
So much so that he becomes a video game in the movie.
Exactly. Within the forces of nature, he makes up his own video game. Thatīs what he knows. Heīs like this silicon man.
Do you think itīs a cynical movie in the end, or is it hopefully?
If youīre really listening to the end, I think it is hopeful. Itīs a cliché, but you have to make the best of life and the memories you have.
Do you expect the audience to take that message away, or is it going to be fourteen-year-old girls who think youīre cute?
Well, I think like a film that bombards you with a million ideas youīre supposed to be affected by, and itīs all set out and told to you. I like the sublety of looking at a movie and interpreting it.
This new input you have into movies, does that apply to your upcoming movie with Scorsese?
Itīs not like a designed thing. Itīs not like a mattress tag that comes with me now: "If you work with Leonardo, youīre going to take his input." Itīs just something for me, at this transitional time in my life, where Iīve decided to take the reins more.
Which will be much tougher if the movies donīt turn out well.
Yeah, itīs much more on me now. Itīs not like, "Iīm just a little kid, I just got hired."