Catch Him if You Can

This is a tale of two Leos.

Actually, this is a tale of two pairs of Leos.

The first two Leos are the first films in almost three years from movie star and teen idol Leonardo DiCaprio, who cruised to international superstardom on Titanic, a film that broke all the records and rules at the box office.

The two films are the dark epic Gangs of New York from Martin Scorsese, which opens everywhere Dec. 20, and the light and breezy Catch Me If You Can from Steven Spielberg, which opens everywhere just five days later.

No movie star in memory has had two such high-profile films open in the span of one week.

And then there are the two other Leos. There’s the official Leo, the one who co-stars, filmmakers and friends insist is the real Leo, a serious actor who proved himself in such edgy films as This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which earned him an Oscar nomination.

Then there’s the tabloid Leo, who lives the high life, dates the world’s most beautiful women (most famously and formerly Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen) and is referred to as a “legendary hell-raiser” as he carouses with showgirls and supermodels.

At last, DiCaprio, 28, is ready to talk about all four Leos — as well as a certain doomed ship that sent his notoriety soaring as it sank to the bottom of the sea.

Titanic completely transformed my life,” says the lifelong Los Angeles resident. “I would suddenly find myself being chased by four or five different paparazzi in places that I had been driving my whole life or walking in my whole life. Any place that I went, somebody would leak stories about me being there. In retrospect, I probably should have just — “
DiCaprio stops cold.

“I was about to say maybe I should have stayed in my house more,” he says. “But I had to be a kid in my mid-20s and do whatever I wanted to do and have different experiences in life. I don’t regret anything. But it was certainly a learning experience for me. It made me focus more on the decisions that I made as an actor.”

“What a strange rite of passage he has been forced to go through,” says Daniel Day-Lewis, DiCaprio’s co-star in Gangs of New York. “It’s as if he were born with the advent of Titanic and is now somehow forced to bear a burden for the success of that film. But Titanic bears no relation to the great work that he’d done some years before that. He’s never given a bad performance that I have seen.”

Another Gangs co-star and longtime friend, Cameron Diaz knows the perils of a pretty face.

“People need to put labels on actors to keep them at a level that’s comfortable,” Diaz says. “People get uncomfortable if they think that somebody who is good-looking has talent, too. It has nothing to do with the person they’re judging. But it makes the people who are being judged have to work a little bit harder.”

Which, by all accounts, DiCaprio is doing. “In fact, I had to stop him from doing more,” says Scorsese, whose troubled Gangs kept DiCaprio busy on location in Italy for longer than even the marathon Titanic. “I would be saying, ‘Come on, let’s move on to another scene.'”

Scorsese says an oft-repeated Italian report that he had to admonish his star in front of the crew because of his late-night carousing was false. “Nobody believes me, but I swear it’s not true.”

For all the effort, DiCaprio will probably not startle those who have seen him in similarly sympathetic roles in Titanic and the subsequent The Man in the Iron Mask. In Gangs, he plays a dashing, penniless 19th-century orphan who links up with the gang leader (Day-Lewis) who killed his Irish immigrant father.

The real eye-opener is Catch Me If You Can, in which DiCaprio plays real-life ’60s con man Frank Abagnale. He not only portrays seductive street kid Abagnale but also all of the roles Abagnale impersonated, including a pilot, a surgeon and a lawyer.

And he does it convincingly.

“That was in large part thanks to the days that I spent with the real Frank Abagnale,” DiCaprio says. “He understood whatever those hidden mechanisms are that convince people to trust you.”

Knowing who is conning you and whom you can trust is essential to anyone who becomes suddenly famous, DiCaprio says.

“There are people that come into your life who are better actors than you think, and who can deceive you more than you even realize,” DiCaprio says grimly. “Considering the number of people that came into my life (after Titanic), I did a pretty good job of fending off a lot of the weirdos.”

The good news, DiCaprio says, is that you become even closer to the people you trusted before the explosion of renown. “It got me closer to the people I already knew.” (One of his famous buddies is Tobey Maguire of Spider-Man fame.)

“Leo loves his grandma and his mom a lot.”

But what about that wild Las Vegas casino birthday party last month, reportedly featuring scantily clad showgirls and openly smoked pot?  Isn’t any of that true?

“There’s a grain of truth in everything,” DiCaprio says. “Once you’re put in the media spotlight, people really exaggerate encounters you have. Often times in situations like that, people have their own agendas, and they want to heighten things to extremes that weren’t the reality whatsoever. They want to promote their restaurant, their hotel, their club.”

DiCaprio attributes his absence from the screen not to a hedonistic lifestyle, but to travel, to learning about global warming, running his production company and to “being a guy in his mid-20s doing everything else that a normal guy would be doing.”

But surely being a sex symbol has its advantages. After all, most of those girls who had Leo posters on their walls are now of age.

“I don’t think about stuff like that,” DiCaprio says. “The whole phenomenon that happened after Titanic, with me being splashed all over the media, was truly something that I never sought out. Those girls grow up; I grow up. And it would just become boring and repetitive for me, as an actor, to try to perpetuate that.”

Instead, DiCaprio uses his Titanic leverage to ensure that he works with only the best directors. He has seen great scripts diminished by second-rate directors, and second-rate scripts elevated by great directors, so he figures that watching the director is the smartest way to go. Still, the script had better be good, too.

“I don’t want to do a recycled version of something I’ve seen a million times before,” DiCaprio says. “What I’m not excited about is your typical action film. I often wonder, with all the money and all the resources in Hollywood and all the talent that can be tapped into, why can’t there be a writer out there who can actually weave some intelligence into some of these mundane, ridiculous action movies that I see all the time?”

DiCaprio is even less enamored of contemporary comedies. “If I did a comedy, it would have to be something that was reality-based, because I just don’t think anything else is funny. Slapstick doesn’t really get me going.
“I have to have some feeling and attachment for the characters to even laugh. I played a cameo in one real comedy, Celebrity. I liked it, because I believe the worlds that Woody Allen creates in his movies.”

And if all goes according to plan, the hunky heartthrob hell-raiser Leo someday will be forgotten.

“Ten years from now, I want to look back and say that I portrayed a variety of characters in films people still talk about,” he says. “What I don’t want is for people to say that I never took any chances as an actor. Because I think I do.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in USA Today Dec.2002.

December 11, 2002 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links