Rolling Stone - August 5, 2013


Photo by Mark Seliger

Leonardo DiCaprio Faces His Demons

He has a dream life and landed another dream role in 'Inception.'
So what's haunting Leonardo DiCaprio?

by Brian Hiatt


Last night, Leonardo DiCaprio dreamed of monsters.

One by one, they came at him – "these ferocious, intense creatures" – and one by one, he subdued them. DiCaprio's new movie, Inception, takes place almost entirely within surreal dreams, but he seldom remembers his own. This one stuck with him. "I had these giant gloves," he explains the next evening, with faint embarrassment, "and I had to put my hand in their mouths as these monsters ravaged me and wrestle them to the ground. I had to time it perfectly as they went around me in a rotation – otherwise it would have caused mass destruction." By the time his alarm went off at 9:45 a.m. – he sleeps late between movies – DiCaprio had defeated the demons and saved the world. He woke up in his house in the Hollywood Hills feeling pretty good about himself.

DiCaprio knows that no dream could be more improbable than his own life story. Teen heartthrob at 17, Oscar nominee two years later, the prettiest, most profitable frozen corpse in cinematic history at 23 – and he has escaped all of that in the past decade, diving into ever-more dark and layered performances, becoming Martin Scorsese's post-Robert De Niro muse. He gets the fringe benefits of movie stardom – $20 million or so a film, supermodel girlfriends (most recently, 25-year-old Israeli beauty Bar Refaeli) – without the artistic compromise that usually comes with it: no franchises, no superheroes, no pirates, no spaceships. "Considering all that's happened in my life," he says, "I feel like I'm a pretty levelheaded person that has remained happy, and not let my shortcomings overtake the better part of me. I'm fulfilling the things I wanted to fulfill, and I'm still sane."

But he thinks too much. He gets anxious. He's worried that he's out of step with Hollywood's increasingly corporate ethos, that the ambitious, R-rated dramas he prefers are becoming impossible to fund (which is one reason he still doesn't know what movie he's doing next). He's a committed environmental activist – a role that could once have been mistaken for PR gloss on a hard-partying image – who is genuinely frightened at the prospect of ravaged oceans and post-peak-oil apocalypse (he recommends the recent documentary Collapse, which makes the case for imminent catastrophe: "It gives me shivers").

What he really sweats is the small stuff. As he prepares to head home one night, he gives himself a ritual pat-down: "Phone in my hand, cigar case in my hand, wallet and car keys there," he mumbles, ever so slightly evoking his performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. His stomach churns over "really stupid stuff, things that shouldn't make you anxious whatsoever. It's crazy how your mind will become this database to make you worry about things that are so arbitrary. I have a well-organized life, and I've put a lot of thought into the things that I do, and then, you know, my stomach will be . . . I'll just be sitting there, totally anxious about something ridiculous. You have to stop yourself during the day and say, 'It's just not worth it.'"

Whatever hardier demons lurk in DiCaprio's psyche, whatever the real roots of his worries, he's not telling. Or, despite years of on-and-off therapy, he still doesn't know. But it's hard not to conclude that you see a lot of it onscreen, in the parts he's drawn to again and again: cocky, charming guys cracking under pressure: hot-shots brought low; haunted martyrs, old before their time. "I obviously have that stuff within me, and it wasn't until I was pushed to do it at an early age that I realized that I could," he says. "It's a release – being able to enact those moments is a form of therapy."

His characters end up maimed, tortured, drug-addicted, insane, lobotomized, widowed; they die in frozen oceans or in African jungles. "I haven't died in a movie in a while," DiCaprio protests, ticking off recent movies where he survived: "The Departed, Body of Lies, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island and Inception." He pauses. "I guess I did die in The Departed."

DiCaprio likes to order two drinks at a time, one with caffeine, one with alcohol. Some kind of balance thing. Right now, in a West Hollywood restaurant, that means he has a coffee and a vodka-soda in front of him, next to a neat stack of possessions: a plastic-wrapped Montecristo Open Master cigar, oversize Carrera sunglasses, wallet, BlackBerry. He's pulled a baseball cap low over his translucent blue eyes, which are drifting toward a TV that's showing World Cup results.

He's lost the delicate beauty that inspired Marlon Brando to snarl, "He looks like a girl" – his face is fuller, and he seems swarthier, as if his dad's Italian genes are overwhelming his German mom's. At 35, he finally looks his age. There are wrinkles around his eyes, and worry lines between his eyebrows. "I don't think about it – it's beyond my control," he says, rolling his eyes at the idea that he's deliberately roughened up himself onscreen: "What, like I scratched my face in sand pits?"

He's not especially vain – when not in training for a part, he doesn't even work out much, other than basketball with friends. His off-duty goatee merges with a patch of fuzz beneath his chin in a way that would look sloppy on almost anyone else, and his black shirt is rakishly unbuttoned at the collar, exposing a tanned, hairless chest. The overall look, complete with jeans, Nikes and white socks, should say "aging frat boy," but there's something elegant about his presence. "He has that timeless quality about him, like a Jack Nicholson or an Al Pacino," says Inception director Christopher Nolan, who also helmed The Dark Knight and Insomnia. "He's going to be a movie star forever."

Even when he's not really saying much, it can be fascinating to watch DiCaprio talk. His features are uncannily expressive, flashing a half-dozen emotions over a few seconds. "Leo is a great silent-film actor," says Scorsese, who relied so heavily on DiCaprio in the 2000s that you half-expected to see him on tambourine in the Stones doc Shine a Light. Scorsese points to the tense scene in The Departed where, as undercover cop Billy Costigan, DiCaprio warily circles a cellphone that's just received a call from a murdered colleagues number. "Look at his face! He, literally, at that moment, knows he's a dead man: How did he get himself in this situation? The panic and the paranoia, and the trying-to-keep-a-cool-head, what to do – it's in his eyes."

In real life, that ability makes DiCaprio slippery. "I use it every day, all the time," he says. "If you have the ability to convince somebody of something that you don't necessarily think is the case, it's a valuable asset. Not that I'm, like, a pathological liar, but we spend most of the day not fully being honest, you know?"

DiCaprio raises his cup of coffee to his lips and takes a sip. "Ahhhh," he says, with preposterously fruity theatricality. He keeps a straight face for a beat or two, then cracks up, momentarily letting his guard down. "It's nice and warm," he says, then offers another "ahh." "Folgers Crystals," he adds, in a dopey pitchman's voice.

At first glance, Inception seems like a chance to lighten up: It's DiCaprio's first brush with any kind of fantasy or sci-fi in his 20-year career, and with its M.C. Escher-like imagery of phantasmagorical cities rearranging themselves at his feet, it's his first special-effects-driven movie since Titanic. It looks like it could be a rare summer blockbuster for grown-ups. "It's probably going to be my second-highest-grossing film," he says with a cheerful shrug.

But this is one complex and cerebral action movie, and his character has dark secrets that are tearing him apart. "It's a cathartic journey, a giant therapy session," says DiCaprio, who spent two months breaking down the script with Nolan, adding layers to the character, often unflattering ones. "Leo wants to explore the truth of the character at whatever cost to his image," says Nolan. "It's the opposite of what you'd expect from a movie star."

What's most lovable about DiCaprio's latter-day onscreen presence is that he obviously doesn't care if you love him. At the same time, though, he's created a public persona so dignified and controlled that it borders on grim – as if he's no longer the guy who cut a path through clubs on both coasts with pals like Tobey Maguire and Kevin Connolly (gossip columns called them the Pussy Posse, a term he despised and has sworn he never used himself).

He demands an intense emotional connection with his roles – and passed on both the Spider-Man and Star Wars franchises for that reason. "I love science fiction, but I have a hard time feeling for characters in a galaxy far away," he says. Titanic's success gave him freedom from all of that, and he's determined to use it wisely. "Choosing movies is the one thing in my life where there's no compromising," DiCaprio says. "I don't give a shit. I don't give a shit, because I would be too miserable on a set doing something that I don't believe in."

The following week, DiCaprio is steering his black Lexus hybrid sedan on La Cienega Boulevard – or at least he would be steering if his hands were on the wheel. Instead, he's gesturing extravagantly as he discusses one of his many environmental projects – a campaign to make tigers the poster animals for endangered species ("There's only 3,200 of them left in the wild, and they're stars, the Tom Cruise of animals") – occasionally remembering to keep the car on the road. Since wrapping Inception nine months ago, DiCaprio hasn't worked on a film. "I'm really OK with not working," he says. "If I can't do the movies I want to do, I'll go do this other stuff."

He has struggled to find financing for some of the projects he's pursuing, such as Wolf of Wall Street, a tale of insider trading in the Eighties: "I don't even know if we could get The Aviator financed today," he says, shaking his head. "The studio system is cutting out middle-ground, risky films." He's talking to Clint Eastwood about playing J. Edgar Hoover in a biopic, and he had discussed a Viking epic with Mel Gibson. When we spoke, Gibson's scandalous recorded rants had yet to emerge, but DiCaprio already knew working with him would mean answering awkward questions: "He's extremely talented – Apocalypto was a hell of an underrated movie. I'm my own man, he's his own man, we all make our own decisions in life," he said.

DiCaprio's current break is one of his longest since a two-year post-Titanic idle, when he used his free time rather differently. "I had a lot of fun when I was young," he says with a broad, wistful smile that suggests you can't even imagine how much. He feels badly for the Zac Efrons and Taylor Lautners of the world. "It was pre-TMZ. I got to be wild and nuts, and I didn't suffer as much as people do now, where they have to play it so safe that they ruin their credibility. I didn't care what anyone thought. The more people said, 'Leo's not working, he's running around with his friends,' the more I wanted to do it. The world was our fun playground.

"It was also about avoiding the tornado of chaos, of potential downfall," he adds. "It was, 'Wow, how lucky are we to not have hung out with that crowd or done those things?' My two main competitors in the beginning, the blond-haired kids I went to audition with, one hung himself and the other died of a heroin overdose. . . . I was never into drugs at all. There aren't stories of me in a pool of my own vomit in a hotel room on the Hollywood Strip. Have a drink, have a smoke, that should be enough. Life is grand, don't roll the dice."

He expected to be married with kids by this age, but his career, "this roller coaster," took over. "I feel like I'm 70 years old sitting here," DiCaprio says, breaking into a quavery old-man voice: "'I have no family, no children. This grand Hollywood monster's eaten me up and spit me out.' That's not the case. Everything will happen in due course." He won't talk about Refaeli or her predecessor, Gisele Bόndchen, and the few answers he'll volunteer on the subject are almost sanitized enough to appear in Tiger Beat, circa 1997:

1) Chasing women was more fun before Titanic. "I had better success meeting girls before that. My interactions with them didn't have all the stigma behind it, not to mention there wasn't a perception of her talking to me for only one reason."

2) The parade of genetic wonders that is his love life doesn't keep him from finding more terrestrially cute girls attractive. "Of course not," he says, maybe a touch too emphatically.

3) "Who I date is always extremely dependent on their personality as well as an attraction. It has to be both those things, otherwise there's no way it's going to last."

DiCaprio does say he won't feel like a real adult until he settles down. "That's going to come, it's just a matter of when and how. Some of my friends have two children and their life has changed. That's going to be the giant leap."

part 2