The Toronto Sun - April 9, 1995

Diary Of A Genius

What's Eating Leonardo DiCaprio In The Basketball Diaries?


By Bruce Kirkland

 NEW YORK -- When Leonardo DiCaprio was growing up, as a gangly, goofy, awkward kid from a seedy Hollywood neighborhood he calls Scumville, his school chums dubbed him Leonardo Retardo.

When he emerged as one of - if not the - hottest young actors in Hollywood, it was his fearless portrayal of a retarded boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape that served as his catapult, flinging him into the maelstrom of fame.

Even his own parents (who have been separated for 19 years but are both working full time in their son's career) figure he is weird, although wonderful. "We think he's actually an alien," his father, George DiCaprio, told the New York Times. "There's something going on in him that we don't understand."

From Gilbert Grape, DiCaprio garnered an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor and heard accolades that included praise as extreme and laudatory as "the best actor of his generation" and, from Sharon Stone, "a genius." There are several hundred scripts piled up in his mother Irmelin's garage in Los Angeles (the 20-year-old DiCaprio still lives with his mom, although, thankfully, they are no longer in Scumville). The scripts are the basis of Hollywood movie offers that are designed to exploit his odd appeal and ride his rocket to the stars.

But DiCaprio confounds the obvious. He is in his denial stage, even though he obviously enjoys the attention. "I feel it's sort of separate from me, even though I live in the heart of it," DiCaprio says, flipping his limp brown hair out of his eyes, shuffling slightly in his seat but looking and sounding calmer than the manic, nervous kid I met two years ago in Toronto when he emerged playing Robert De Niro's son in This Boy's Life.

"It sounds sort of contradictory because I live in Hollywood and I'm around this sort of people all the time," he says of the professional career-makers who want a piece of him, "but I really don't take them seriously for some reason."

The first movie role he grabbed after the Oscars was as a cocky young gunslinger in Sam Raimi's gonzo western farce The Quick And The Dead. It was a secondary supporting role in what turned out to be a throwaway film, and now he seems lukewarm, even slightly hostile, about the memory. "It was all right, you know. It was a good time, I suppose. From not working for a year since Gilbert Grape, bam, I was there and I had to sort of adjust to that. I had a good time doing the character. I mean, who couldn't? That kid was just a nut job."

The next role he took was playing a 17-year-old loser from the streets of Manhattan, a young man who butchers his own promise as a high school basketball star by sliding into the horrors of heroin addiction. The film is The Basketball Diaries (set for Toronto release April 21) and it's based on the true story of the childhood of poet-musician Jim Carroll, who beat his addiction, wrote about his experiences and turned them into The Basketball Diaries, a book which defined growing up senselessly in the '60s.

"I fell in love with the book," says DiCaprio of his motivations in shooting Diaries with former MTV music video director Scott Kalvert, who makes his feature film debut. "It was such a brilliant book. And the script captured a lot of what the book was about, so I wanted to do it."

Since he wrapped up shooting Diaries, the busy DiCaprio has filmed Total Eclipse, a European production from veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland in which DiCaprio plays notorious French poet Arthur Rimbaud. The story is a fictionalized version of his love story with another poet, Paul Verlaine (played by English actor David Thewlis of Naked fame).

For the future, DiCaprio is negotiating to play James Dean, a legendary actor DiCaprio is occasionally, if recklessly, compared to by critics. "Scary!" DiCaprio says of any such comparisons. "A little much! To tell you the truth, I can't even look at my acting for real because I know it's all fake."

Playing Dean, however, would be exciting, he says. "I'm interested in James Dean just for the fact that he can be such a damn challenge."

So are all the roles he is shooting now. DiCaprio is a risk-taker walking on the dark side. The Basketball Diaries, with its relentlessly bleak saga of drug addiction, petty crime, seedy prostitution and personal degradation, certainly is a risk. It was also an exploration, a learning curve. Despite growing up near Hollywood's notorious House of Billiards, in the middle of a drug- and prostitution-infested area, DiCaprio is still naive, if knowing.

He had a lot to learn to play Jim Carroll. DiCaprio says he has never tried any drugs himself (although the Times reported that his mother lit up a joint during an interview at her house). "I've been little mister goody two-shoes as far as that goes," DiCaprio says of drug use. "I've always been clean. (But) I've always known what this stuff can do for you and it wasn't some big lesson I learned after seeing the movie."

What he did have to learn is specifically how using different drugs would affect his actions, his motions, his emotions and therefore his performance in The Basketball Diaries. "We had a specialist who had taken most of the drugs in the world come in and give us the rundown on each of them, with the effects on your body."

DiCaprio has no idea if The Basketball Diaries will be a boon or a bust in his career. He cares - but not to the point of paralysis. He tries to be philosophical.

"I don't want to have a big expectation on me to be great in every film I do," DiCaprio reflects, struggling to come to terms with the fame he embraces and rejects simultaneously. "I want to have room to make mistakes as well. I think that's where you learn the most. I'm just taking it how it comes right now."