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
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
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,
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."
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