December 1st, 2002

 

The Sunday Telegraph Interview

Titanic made him a star, but the frenzy that followed made Leo Dicaprio feel out of control. Now, after some had predicted a River Phoenix style demise he tells Katherine Tulich he's back in charge-with two heavy hitting films, his own production company and a passion to save the planet.

It's not the dashing Jack Dawson that bellows, 'I'm the King of the World!" from the bow of the Titanic or Baz Lurhmann's hip Romeo that comes to mind when you meet Leonardo Dicaprio. The character that keeps spooling through my head is the awkward retarted younger brother Arnie he played so brilliantely in What's eating Gilbert Grape?

Not that I'm suggesting that Leo is retarted; in fact he seems a thoughtful,intelligent young man. But there is something about his mannerisms, the awkward twist of hip as he writhes in his chair, the fingers that splay in front of his chest and his face as he gestures, the dipping of the head, the avoidence of eye contact that reminds me of Arnie.

We are sitting, make that lounging, on the floor (he slips from the couch a few minutes into the interview) in his West Hollywood office. It's the home of his new production company, Appian Way, and the paint till smells fresh on the walls. There is a receptionist, but for the most part the offices seem deserted. The only eyes on me is those of Robert Deniro and Robert Mitchum, who stare down from giant movie posters adorning the walls.

'They're neat aren't they'?, says Dicaprio,who sounds more 18 than 28. "I'd been collecting these posters for quite awhile now and now I have somewhere to put them. Look at these," he gestures behind him. "They are the actual gloves Deniro wore in Raging Bull". Outside the office a giant poster of Mean Streets hangs. ''Scorsese gave me that to me personally. It's a really rare poster from the Polish Release of the film," he says gleefully.

But the offices are not just an expensive space to store Hollywood memorabilla. Dicaprio explains it's part of his bid to find material outside of the studio system. ''A lot of times things are filtered and are not presented to you", Dicaprio says, "I wanted to have a place where anyone could send anything at any time; even if it's rejected somewhere else, it may have the opportunity to develop here".

There is a certainly nothing to suggest the swagger of a movie star about Leo Dicaprio, He is scoffing noodles from a cardboard takeaway box as I enter the room. His short sleeved check shirt and baggy jeans look like they have never made contact with a hot iron and his baseball cap almost covers his famous blue green eyes, He looks, well, nerdishHardly the powerful charismatic actor that comes to life on screen.

But he is a A lister actor, commanding in excess of 20 MILLION a picture these days, even though his most recent film, The Beach, came out 2 years ago and was a flop. Dicaprio has never relished the spotlight and has maintained a low profile since he was unwittingly catapulted to the status of superstar heartthrob in 1997's Titanic.

"I choose to not cater to the press as much as some people might ,but it allows me to retain who I am. It allows me not to be, you know, feel like I'm some kind of trained monkey for the public", he says fumbling trying to get his words out. ''Certainly after Titanic,where my face was on every cover around the world and the movie was such a phenonmenon, I had no control over that, So for the last couple of years, media wise, I've been trying to mainpulate my career-well, maybe not manipulate but choosing my own destiny and trying to control what people say about me."

So is he succeeding? "I don't know", he says brushing his mop of blonde hair underneath his baseball cap, "I think it is a test case now - we'll see if I am making the right decision."

His attempt to orchestrate his media exposure will be finely tuned juggling act in the next few months as the Dicaprio renaissance gains momentum. He is starring in two of this Summer's most hypes films GONY and CMIYC.

In the US the films are due for release within five days of each other. But Dicaprio's roles couldn't be any different. In GONY which is set in the 1860's, he plays an Irish immigrant set on the course of revenge when his father is murdered by a political fixer, Bill the Butcher. In CMIYC he plays real life con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. The Los Angles Times has called the dueling films a 'celebrity death match, pitting the light weight Leo against the heavyweight Leo'. In GONY he has bulked up to play the grubby street fighter and while he trimmed down and squeaky clean for his turn in CMIYC.

It's obvious from Dicaprio's shrine to Scorsese that he saw GONY as the chance of a life time. "I've wanted to work with Mr Scorsese since I was 15 and I actually changed agencies when I was 17 just to get a meeting with him", he says, "so I was over the moon when he wanted me for Gangs."

Dicaprio was only 3 when the master auteur first tried to get Gony on the screen. Scorsese has found the story about warring 19th century immigrant groups in lower Manhatten based on the non fiction book by Herbert Asbury, a hard to sell to the Hollywood studios, only to be given the green light when Dicaprio's name was attached 3 years ago. He was shooting in Thailand at the time shooting The Beach and didnt even read the script. He was so keen to do it,

He even agreed to a drastic salary cut as the movie's budget blew out to more than 180 million. "Well,it's a risk to do a movie of this calibre on a subject matter and a point of history people are not very familliar with, it's a tough subject to sell-so salary wise you have to make sacrifices to make a certain film happen", he says. "I would have been an idiot to pass up an opportunity working with Scorsese."

Scorsese called Dicaprio "the kid" on set. 'It would be Daniel and Cameron but for me it was always "hey kid come over here" recalls Dicaprio. The actor is nearly 30,but he still is getting cast as the kid. His baby face and youthful demeanour will probably typecast him as the man/child well into his 30's. If it rankles him, he's not letting on. "I might as well enjoy it while I can", he says laughing, "there is nothing I can do if some one has a percieved perception of me, wether they think I'm a boy or a egocentric, whatever is in their minds. All I can do is try to and pick the roles I feel challenge me.

I didn't come into the business knowing much of anything-how to present yourself in the business, how you go about being an actor", he continues. "All I wanted to be is an actor."

Dicaprio grew up in Echo Park, which in the 70's and 80's was a particulary seedy part of LA known for its corner crack addicts. "The were prostitutes,drug addicts and gangs all around me", he says. "My playground was like a junkyard with crack addicts and a whorehouse on the corner."

His mother was a German immigrant and his father was of Italian descent (the story goies that the unborn Leo kicked his mum while looking at a Da Vinci painting. Father George produced underground comic books while his mother worked as a legal secretary. He grew up in a liberal 'hippie" household where guests included Robert Crumb. "My parents neer focused on the fact they were poor. They took me to museums. They showed me art and would read to me", recalls Dicaprio. Though they were divorced when he was a toddler, Dicaprio describes them as 'good parents' and both encouraged his showbiz ambitions. His father fielded scripts and his Mum gave up her job to help manage his affairs.

After a string of auditions and agents suggents he anglicuse his name to Lenny Williams, he began to secure work at the age of 14 appearing in commercials and tv shows. At 16 he landed a recuring role as a homeless boy in the teen sitcom Growing Pains, His big screen break came a year later when he beat hundreds of others to land the role as the rebel son of Robert Deniro and Ellen Barkin in This Boy's Life. The following year he recieved the Academy Award Nomination for What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. He was now considered a talented actor worthy of attention ,but it was Titanic, a role he initially thought too commercial for his tastes, that spun him into the stratosphere.

A Beatlesque frenzy ensued, with Dicaprio's face plastered on every magazine cover and girl's running down the street trying to rip off his clothes. He responded by sequestering his own Rat Pack which included Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas. They ran their own Gangs of New York, partying hard in NY clubs and schmoozing with supermodels till dawn. His expolits had the press predicting a River Phoenix style demise.

Dicaprio insists his behaviour was never out of control, and was for the most part "an empty expierence". These days he would prefer to talk about his work campaigning for the environment. He has set up his own foundationto provide funding for various environmental groups and has actively campaigned against Artic drilling, greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of endangered species.

When he talks about himself or his movies, his language is barley comprehensible, with broken sentences and thoughts, but get him chatting on the environment and he turns into an articulate advocate. He'll rave about his hybrid car and how he spent time communicating with Koko the gorilla, I wonder if his global consciousness is a fringe benefit living with his hippie parents.

"Not really",he says "i was just fanatical as a kid watching every film documentry I could. I always thought that humans regard their importance on this planet far more then it really is."

There are no environmental epics on his schedule but plenty of history lessons. He is slated to rejoin Baz Lurhmann for Alexander and Scorsese is rumoured to be directing The Aviator.

"Everyone is saying to me 'Hey now is your comeback, but I dont see it that way. I dont have any crystal ball on my career. All I know is that when you make a movie its something you have to live with forever, it's not a job I take lightly."

Thanks to Amanda Lea & Shaolin !

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