The Sunday Times (UK) - 8 March 1998


It´s all character building

Leonardo DiCaprio´s angelic charm belies a tough upbringing, discovers GARTH PEARCE


Leonardo DiCaprio has never been far from conflict. His hippie parents, German mother Irmelin and Italian father George, split when he was a baby, and he was raised in one of the toughest districts of Los Angeles. Yet to meet him, it is as if he was brought up by nuns. There is an almost angelic quality to his features, and he speaks so softly, like a choirboy, who needs to impart information in cathedral cloisters between hymns.

This disarming concotion of steely background and innocent appearance has helped him, at the age of just 23, to muscle into a position so envied by many in Hollywood. A succession of notable screen performances - which began with an Oscar nomination at 19 as the Best Supporting Actor as the mentally impaired youngster in What´s Eating Gilbert Grape? and carried him through to a definite screen Romeo in Baz Luhrmann´s Romeo & Juliet last year - has culminated in the lead role of the world´s most successful film of all time, Titanic.

In truth, he does not appear to be swept away by the excitement. As one for whom Hollywood was seen through childhood eyes as nothing more than what it is - a seedy Los Angeles suburb of rundown shops, tawdry cafes, beggars and prostitutes - he knows there is a price to pay for everything. It currently comes in the form of total rejection at the Academy Awards (his co-star, Kate Winslet, and the director, James Cameron, are both in the running) and a starring role in The Man in the Iron Mask (which opens here on March 20).

"I have always been nervous of big-budget studio films," he cautions, I did not want to do Titanic at first for that reason: the hype and the marketing frightens me. It was the same with The Man in the Iron Mask. But the appeal of working on a great script of a story as big as Titanic became too much. On The Man in the Iron Mask, I just had to look at the line-up of other actors and what they had achieved to know I should probably say yes."

DiCaprio, dressed in a conservative black suit with an open-neck white shirt, sound even more sotto voce and uncertain, perhaps already realising that on this one, at least, he should have followed his instincts. The actors he admires so much - John Malkovich, Gérard Dépardieu and Jeremy Irons - are equally lost amid the big-screen retelling of Alexander Dumas´ story of musketeer swashbucklers, and need every square inch of their shoulder-length wigs and false moustaches to cover the blushes. Leonardo´s characters - the tyrannical boy king, usurped by his identical twin, having been rescued by the aging musketeers - at least bring unintended humour to the couple of hours of old tosh. For an actor who turned down Robin in the Batman series, it is somehow ironic to have his baby-faced good looks hidden by an iron mask of polystyrene.

DiCaprio gives a heavy sigh and momentarily sounds as worn as his co-stars look: "I am now going to take a year off, because I want to slow down career-wise." He adds, with remarkable good sense: "I have been working really hard and haven´t had time to develop any outside interests. Success came early and there can be many disadvantages to that. Don´t think I am complaining. I just feel there are other things I need to do."

Compared to the early years, this is a hiccup. He and his mother lived in a two-bedroom wooden bungalow (he has since moved her and himself to the right side of the Sunset Boulevard). Neighbours included junkies and prostitues. He witnessed a homosexual act taking place, in public, at the age of five. Such street education seemed the only thing that counted at his local school, which he left, with few qualifications, at 16.

As with many actors, he must have found it preferable to play someone else rather than face up to his own teenage lifestyle? He lookes genuinely perplexed at the suggestion. "Money was always on my mind when I was growing up," he says, with the steady gaze of blue eyes that look as if they can´t tell a lie. "If I am honest, it was what inspired me most to come into acting. I was aware that a lot of people in Los Angeles were earning great money. I was always wondering from where, and how we were going to afford this and that. Acting seems to be a short cut to getting out the mess."

"I was lucky enough to get some auditions and commercials when I was 14 and 15, and then a part in a television show (the aptly named Growing Pains) at 16, which turned me on to the whole process. I was hooked - not on the prospect of money any more, though that was great - but on the simple process of acting itself. Something happened. I found I could think myself into the parts, and it gave me the biggest thrill."

Even Kate Winslet, herself a two-time Oscar nominee at just 22, found his natural talent infuriating. "He would just go from being Leo to turning on a great performance in about three seconds flat," she recalls. "I would go: Leo, I hate you". And the usual cool of the taciturn Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons is momentarily broken when he remarks with enthusiasm: "He is so talented, very normal and a very nice guy."

DiCaprio has played a heroin addict in The Basketball Diaries and the poet Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, in which he famously ended up having to kiss David Thewlis. "My worst moment in films," he says, endearingly, ignoring in its entirety The Man in the Iron Mask.

DiCaprio´s fame, so quickly accrued, has already delivered scandal. The most recent were his meetings with Demi Moore, wife of Bruce Willis and mother of three, recorded triumphantly by the paparazzi. "We were out as no more than friends, so that was instrusive," he says. "These things are not good to have to deal with. But there are going to be plenty of events like that in the future."

But what next? DiCaprio discernibly relaxes as he lists: "Travel, scuba diving, art classes and buying some paintings. I will invest in certain things, but the truth is I do not see a need to spend much. It is an immediate thrill and not very long-lasting to spend money on outlandish, expensive things."

He is obviously not in any hurry to get in front of the cameras again. And he does speak good sense, insisting, "I do not trust agents all that much." His father, towards whom he bears no ill will for condemning him to life as a single child of a one-parent family in slumland, is what he calls "my Buddha figure", with whom he shares thoughts on all his scripts. His mother, though, remains his manager.

"The strangest thing about Hollywood is that the things I wished and hoped for have become reality," he says. "That is bizarre, and I am still trying to come to terms with it. As for the drugs culture or heavy drinking or going crazy... " He gives his most beaticic smile: "With parents like mine, I didn´t need to rebel against anything."