October 2006

 

DiCaprio connected with the undercover world of 'The Departed'

by Joe Neumaier

 

He has been the dramatic new talent, the male ingenue sideswiped by a film phenomenon, the politically angry young man and, recently, the revitalizing muse of director Martin Scorsese.

To bend a line used in his 2002 "Catch Me If You Can": It's time for the real Leonardo DiCaprio to stand up.

The 31-year-old actor does just that, as well as go mano a mano with Jack Nicholson, in Scorsese's "The Departed," opening Friday. As Billy Costigan, a troubled Boston police recruit who goes undercover working for a mob boss (Nicholson) - while the mobster's weaselly protégé (Matt Damon) becomes a mole among the cops - DiCaprio essentially plays two versions of the same character. Or three, if you include being the secret lover of a police psychologist (Vera Farmiga). And DiCaprio, whose work was always threatening to be more interesting as he got older, makes good on the threat.

Billy Costigan is the most stark of the identity-conflicted guys DiCaprio has played since the millennium turned. His first teaming with Scorsese, 2002's "Gangs of New York," required a similar moral slipperiness. In Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me," he was a 1960s chameleon con man. And Scorsese's "The Aviator," in 2004, was a DiCaprio pet project about the early high-flying days of soon-to-be-freak Howard Hughes.

Now, as he sits down to talk about "The Departed," DiCaprio is revved up from a visit from Al Gore (the former vice president, wearing all black in an accidental mirroring of the star's outfit, chatted with DiCaprio about the environmental concerns they both share), and reveals that "The Departed's" theme of identity as a by-product of chance rang true for him.

"Just talking about acting, if I hadn't grown up close to Hollywood, where I could go to auditions, I would've had a completely different life," DiCaprio says. "I grew up in a lower middle-class background ... [and so] it was really location that brought me to where I am.

"I remember career day in high school, when you had to make choices that might affect the rest of your life. I could easily have done something entirely different. 'Am I gonna be a biologist or travel agent? I have to decide in the next week.' I wanted to be an actor but never thought it would be something I could do professionally.

"I guess you could say that we are all products of our environment ... but the coin can so easily be flipped on the other end. It [brings up] questions of, 'What are the decisions we make that steer the course of our destiny?'"

The course of DiCaprio's life was changed early from aspiring actor to the real thing. The son of two free spirits (his father produced underground comics), he has a half brother, Adam Farrar, an actor who demonstrated how to audition at those nearby casting calls.

DiCaprio's brief time as a kid TV performer (including a stint as, essentially, the "cousin Oliver" of "Growing Pains" in the early '90s) ended when, at 16, he was picked by co-star Robert De Niro for "This Boy's Life," the 1993 drama from Tobias Wolff's memoir about the author's life with an abusive stepfather in 1950s Washington State.

The juicy role led to "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993), in which DiCaprio played the retarded brother of Johnny Depp - and got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. A slew of diverse parts ("The Basketball Diaries," "Total Eclipse," "Marvin's Room") followed.

"I've never had formal acting training, and my education has really been watching the actors I've gotten to work with," DiCaprio says. "From De Niro to Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hanks, Nicholson - I've gotten to see [how] they do what they do, and I've been able to take note.

"And Meryl Streep, too," he adds with a smile. "I remember doing scenes with her for 'Marvin's Room' and saying to myself, 'What is this lady doing? She's all over the place!' There I am at 19, saying, 'Oh God, that'll look terrible!' And then I saw her on screen of course and thought, 'Wow, she's running circles around everybody!'"

Then came the history-making success of 1997's "Titanic," which, in retrospect, had an odd effect on his career: He wasn't among the film's 14 Oscar nominations, and while his standing in Hollywood shot through the roof, it wasn't exactly what he'd been working toward. So as teenage girls and gossip columnists shadowed his every move, DiCaprio kept a low profile. "The Man in the Iron Mask" (199 , filmed well before "Titanic's" release, kept his face in theaters, and though he wasn't averse to partying or dating models, he clearly decided less is more. He did a star-mocking scene in Woody Allen's "Celebrity," returning in 2000 to star in "The Beach."

"Becoming very much in-the-world in my early 20s, because of 'Titanic' - that changed a lot of things," he says. "But my attitude never altered as far as the kind of movies I want to do. [Though] I don't ever know how people will react to my work."

For instance, he adds, "How long are people going to put the word 'heartthrob' before my name? I read reviews of 'The Aviator,' a film where I accomplished a goal and put this figure up on the screen after 10 years of development" - and which got him a Best Actor nomination - "and still that word was used. And I get it, I get it; people either buy you or they don't, and there's almost nothing you can do about it.

"And I've heard the phrase" - he lowers his voice now, as part of the spoof - "'Well, he's become a MAN in this film!' I don't know how to react to that, because you have a certain intent with a film or role, and you think it'll affect people a certain way, but you never know how people will perceive you.

"I guess as long as you know you have no control over it, you can get on with the work."

"'Titanic' is the biggest movie ever made, and it's not something Leo's going to get away from too easily," says Graham King, a producer on all the DiCaprio-Scorsese collaborations. "But hopefully, the press will soon wake up and say, 'Hey, this isn't the "Titanic" kid anymore, he's one of America's best actors.'

"But do I think 'The Aviator' matured him. I think that was where people saw him start to do something new. And the chemistry between he and Scorsese is hard to describe. It really is two guys having the same vision."

Says Vera Farmiga, "With Leo, you can see his mind ticking, his brain working - you can see it all in his eyes. When you think 'movie star,' he's not that at all. He's so real. And he thinks about the whole picture, and about how he clicks with everyone else's performances."

Coming up this December will be another move into tough territory with the adventure drama "Blood Diamond," in which DiCaprio is a mercenary in South Africa. And he's producing "11th Hour," a documentary due next year about global warming and other issues.

But "The Departed" left him with one dream fulfilled.

"I don't know if there's 'Before Marty' and 'After Marty' in my career," DiCaprio says, "but certainly, if you would've asked me at 16 years old, 'What kind of movie would you like to be in?' I would've definitely said, 'Man, I would like to be in a gangster movie by Martin Scorsese!' And at 31, I say the same thing."

Thanks to Shaolin !

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