Leonardo DiCaprio| Fresh Blood

Is this 20-year-old actor the next River Phoenix? If not, why do we like pretending he is?

The boy with the most beautiful name in Hollywood was once told by an agent to change it to Lenny Williams. More recently, producers have advised him to star in movies about teenagers who strangle their girlfriends, or in tacky, fast-money Westerns like The Quick and the Dead, which opened Friday. In his short career — he just turned 20 — Leonardo DiCaprio has seen all the twisted ways people respond to a prodigy’s gift: change it, own it. 

It’s not that DiCaprio is magnetic or studly: a growth spurt two years ago left him more gangly than statuesque, and his eyes, though piercing, are vacant. Idling on a playground set, he’s unremarkable, an empty vessel; his co-star Mark Wahlberg has a far more electric physical presence. But when rehearsal begins, it’s DiCaprio you watch: his movements are smallest, his stillness is deepest, his lines are tossed farthest away. His acting is effortless and, in the best way, unschooled. Plucked at 17 from Growing Pains to play the abused stepson in This Boy’s Life, he stole the movie from Robert De Niro. Then, in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he transformed a grab bag of schoolyard stereotypes into an achingly lyrical portrait of a misfit. The resulting Academy Award nomination made it official: DiCaprio was being groomed for one of Hollywood’s classic scripts, the one in which talent equals torment and youth is public domain.

So far, DiCaprio has managed to resist, but how much resistance is it fair to expect from a kid with plenty of cash and hormones? He acts his age. He tells bathroom jokes, goofs on waiters. Here on the set, as the sun disappears and rain machines start spouting, he rejects the ministrations of a wardrobe person who’s trying to drape a coat on him; of course, he gets drenched. He’s oblivious, and it’s just as well. Better not to think about the millions of dollars riding on him in his first starring role. Until DiCaprio came along, The Basketball Diaries, had steadfastly defied translation to the screen — mostly because there wasn’t an actor plausible and strong enough to play the young addict. Well, maybe River Phoenix, some said.

Upon introduction, DiCaprio says only, “How you doin’, bro?” then sits by himself in the cold, on a bench, not so much preparing, it appears, as preserving himself for the moment in which it will be safe to be alive. But the director persists in waiting for the “magic hour,” that brief time just after sunset when the light has a strange and heartbreaking glow. And DiCaprio waits too.

“I was at a Halloween party two years ago, at the house of these twin actors,” DiCaprio says, “and I remember it was really dark and everyone was drunk and I was passing through these crowds of people so thick it was almost two lanes of traffic, when I glanced at a guy in a mask and suddenly knew it was River Phoenix. I wanted to reach out and say hello because he was this great mystery and we’d never met and I thought he probably wouldn’t blow me off because I’d done stuff by then that was maybe worth watching. But then I got caught in a lane of traffic and slid right past him. The next thing I knew, River had died. That same night.”

With its running cadence and predictable ending, DiCaprio’s tale of missed opportunity is the Hollywood version of a campfire story, one of many that go like this: Young man, talented, beautiful but damaged, makes too much money, parties all night, gorges on drugs, womanizes, drives too fast and courts disaster; the body is found at a hotel, crushed in a car, flat on the sidewalk outside a club. Or: The sweetheart teen, an agent’s daughter, blossoms on her sitcom while nearly starving herself to death. Or: The doctor’s child, not quite pretty enough to be an actress, retools herself as a Hollywood madam, making money off such men as the above, until she’s busted.

These stories are not abstractions to DiCaprio. The Viper Room, where Phoenix died, is owned by Johnny Depp, the star of Gilbert Grape. The brave little thin girl, Tracey Gold, played opposite him on “Growing Pains”; her father was, until recently, his agent. Even closer to home – a few yards from a house DiCaprio grew up in — the cautionary shingle of his pediatrician still hangs: Paul Fleiss, M.D. And now, as if to bring the story of Hollywood tragedy full circle, DiCaprio has been asked to star in a film biography of the prototype, James Dean.

On many mornings during the three-month New York shoot of Basketball Diaries, DiCaprio woke to find himself heralded [for his] debauchery. “He seldom sleeps, so intense is his partying,” Liz Smith trumpeted in her syndicated column. “He hits Manhattan clubs . . . and brawls with locals,” Rolling Stone snorted in its annual Hot List. “He seems poised to assume the mantle of River Phoenix.”

It’s no secret that such items are often fabricated. Publicists are paid to plant false stories about celebrities patronizing their clients’ establishments; to that end, a brawl is as good as a burger, if not better. Either way, DiCaprio would brush his teeth in the bathroom of his hotel suite and head out to the set — never late, never unprepared — for another 15-hour day.

In the suspiciously dim lobby of the Royalton hotel in New York bursts young DiCaprio, handler in tow, sent by his publicist to protect him from his own reputation. But he doesn’t need protection. The reputed debauchee looks like an unfeathered bird. His hair falls into his face just enough to require frequent pushing away. He shows off his first “really good ring” and crows about frequent-flier miles. He doesn’t need a handler; he needs to be left alone.

“They obviously don’t know who I am,” he says of the columnists. “But scandal sells. Come on, I’ll admit it. I want to hear about Joe Blow the actor doing drugs on the corner — that’s interesting to me.” He assumes the simpering voice of the weasel: “I really respect his work, but did you know he’s doing heroin? Oh …, that’s terrible . . . tell me more about it.

“So they make it sound like I go to clubs to wreck myself silly, get into fights, sleep with all the ratty girls there. It’s true that while we were filming, Marky and I went out for a little dancing, a little socializing, a little flirting. And one morning we wake up to find that, according to the paper, I picked a fight with Derrick Coleman, forward for the New Jersey Nets! Like I’m going to get into an argument with him. Yo, Derrick! He’s six foot a hundred. He could spill a drink on me, I’m not going to fight. And as for romances they’re just my friends. Can’t I have friends?”

“But people want you to be a crazy, out-of-control teen brat. They don’t want heroes; what they want is to see you fall.” The weasel voice, now bitter, returns. “You’re no better than me!” he hisses. “You’re just like us!” With another swig of Coke the storm passes. “And I probably am,” he adds.

DiCaprio is driving too fast through the picturesque roads of Griffith Park, high in the Hollywood Hills. He loves his car: a cobalt blue Jeep Grand Cherokee with cellular phone and a P.A. system. He veers off-road several times as if nature itself demanded he exercise the Jeep’s four-wheel drive. 

“When you don’t have a movie to do and you want to stay out of trouble, you have to find something nice to look at,” he explains. “It’s so easy for a teenager to be in the wrong situation at the wrong time. I don’t want to preach, but sometimes I go to clubs or parties and get a terrible vibe and have to leave. You get people in your face who want something out of you. Hey, dude, I’m promoting a club, you should come by. You can look in their eyes and see that they’re lost. And directors too. They try to put some big Hollywood ball of feta cheese to me, saying that the way to do movies is, one for art and one for profit. One for the studios, one for yourself. And when you say no, the answer is, Here’s more money, more money, more money! And I have to say, ‘That’s your plan, not mine.'”

Not that DiCaprio has always lived by these words: he made The Quick and the Dead because “it was quick,” and now seems to regret it. But a day spent driving with DiCaprio is a day of contradictions and hairpin turns. However calm the narration some machine inside keeps him careening from attitude to attitude: impudence, dorkiness, self-mockery, zeal. The one he keeps coming back to is cynicism, which he sips like a drink he knows is too strong and then pushes away. Which he does with a vengeance.

Now he high-tails it out of the park; after a few minutes, he pulls into the driveway of a shabby bungalow. “Here’s where I lived from 11 to 15. There’s my old basketball net. And there’s where I used to get on the roof and throw avocados at people.” He snickers briefly and drives on. He pulls up to a grim old shack at the end of an alley. “My first house,” he announces. “Smells like huevos rancheros.”

“So you see where I come from,” he continues. “Which is why the money they throw around doesn’t get me. What would I need all that money for anyway? I’d be miserable in a mansion, all by myself. I don’t want to sound like I’m some underprivileged kid, but you learn certain values. Like not accepting that because you’re in a hotel you have to pay $5 for a Coke — just go down the block for a $3 six-pack! On the other hand, I have a $600 leather jacket. And my $35,000 Jeep.”

With that he apparently reaches his credit limit on earnestness. “Let’s get out of here,” he says, backing out. But a car has blocked the narrow street. “Will the driver of the silver Dodge please move your vehicle!” he intones over the P.A. When the Dodge finally responds and we escape his old neighborhood, he improvises a little song: “Rags to riches! Here I come! Central heating! Bum bum bum!” And now he’s reached his limit on dorkiness.

Irmelin, his mother, a shy, pretty, German-born blonde, manages the multicolored chart of DiCaprio’s monthly agenda; across the hall, his father, George, winnows scripts, selecting for his son’s consideration the few worth reading. 

Irmelin’s pleasant East Hollywood ranch house is a vast improvement over the homes her son has shown me, but it’s still awfully modest for a hot young actor. The pool is the size of a postage stamp. Perhaps this is a relief for Leonardo, who lives here when not avoiding the $5 Cokes at fancy hotels. 

It’s tempting to credit Leonardo’s survival to this laid-back atmosphere (“We already did the craziness for him,” Irmelin says). Talent is even harder to account for. Perhaps because of his name — which he got, in utero, by kicking Irmelin as she studied a Leonardo da Vinci at the Uffizi — the DiCaprios thought he’d be a painter.

“Leo is on a quest to find out how many things he can do in life and not do them straight,” George says, bemused. “He would walk to the guillotine and act goofy. We think he’s actually an alien, wired a different way than us. There’s something going on in him that we don’t understand.”

“I’m overwhelmed,” Irmelin continues. “I can’t see him as other people do. All I’m concerned about is his health — sleep more, exercise more, eat better. That’s the litany. The rest, I wouldn’t care if he gave it up tomorrow.”

Well, not exactly. George and Irmelin are full-time employees of their son’s production company. They’ve mostly given up their other work, with no regrets. “I couldn’t imagine working for — with — anyone better,” Irmelin says. “I’m in heaven.” She doesn’t look as if she’s in heaven, but for someone born in a German bomb shelter, maybe this is what heaven is. She sighs, waves vaguely, perhaps at her past. “Whatever I was doing before, it wasn’t as interesting as what’s happening to Leonardo.”

On the linoleum floor, alphabetized by title, several hundred movie scripts await disposal. Is one of them the magic one? The one her son will be remembered for? The one that will move him out of the house?

“Basically it’s about stepping into the unknown,” DiCaprio says. He’s calling from the Paris shoot of Total Eclipse

“To be that courageous!” DiCaprio continues. “Rimbaud wasn’t blasé about anything. He did things that were unheard of! If I could just scratch the surface of that — I don’t mean to compare myself with him. But I identify with.. . .”

It is almost too obvious to say what he identifies with. Rimbaud was utterly untutored in his art, except by the experience of making it; DiCaprio has the same bad-boy reputation. More to the point, Rimbaud had a gift, which was also his undoing. When I’d asked DiCaprio, back at the Royalton, if he had “a gift,” he’d cringed into the puffy white sofa. Eventually he admitted that he did, though it pained him to sound like a Hollywood idiot. Now I ask if the gift is a burden.

“How could it be a burden?” he snorts. “Then don’t use it. I can’t! I can’t ignore my burden!” — the voice of the weasel emerging again. “Yes, I have big social problems. I can’t sit down and have long conversations about a croissant. I feel like an alien in life, like my father says. But I’m not going to sit here and tell you the dark stuff. It’s there, but it’s for me. People want to know about it, they want companionship in their victimization — that’s the burden! I can relate to that need. But I’m not going to feed it.

“And it’s nothing I can’t handle. Thinking about Rimbaud, it seems that artists aren’t sure if they’re truly artists unless some big disaster happens. I pray that won’t happen with me. I respect the gift, but acting is not the biggest deal in the world. If the gift means disaster, I won’t go there. There’s no guarantees, but I won’t be ending up like Rimbaud. You mark my words. So if you hear of any incident about me — a fight, a change of clothes, a little extra gel in the hair. . . .” He resists the weasel voice, but just barely. “Don’t believe it ’til you talk to me.”

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in The New York Times Jun.2006.

June 1, 2006 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links