How Do You Become Leo DiCaprio?

You knew Leonardo DiCaprio was a movie star the first time you saw him on-screen. He keeps getting better because he watches the other movie stars he works with — and he learns. Here he talks about what he’s picked up along the way.

Yeah, I can tell you what I learned from the mustard jar.

When I was fifteen, I got this amazing opportunity to audition for this plum role opposite Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin in This Boy’s Life. Before that, it was The New Lassie or a Bubble Yum commercial.

They were using the mustard-jar scene in the audition. De Niro was going up to the kids with this almost empty mustard jar and cramming it into their faces, really pushing the kids’ buttons. The scene was being used to see if the kid could stand up to De Niro, and it was hard not to be overwhelmed. When he started bludgeoning me, I completely overcompensated. He said, “Is this empty? Is this empty?” I slapped the jar out of his hand, got right up in his face, and screamed at the top of my lungs, “Noooooooo!”

It was the most awful way to do the scene. I was supposed to be the victim, not the antagonizer, and there was complete silence. De Niro looks at me and goes, “Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh,” in that way only De Niro can laugh. “That was good. That was goooood. I like that. A little over-the-top but good.”

My audition was supposed to go on, but they just stopped it. Even though De Niro said he liked it, I left the room thinking, Oh, sh*, I’m a laughingstock. I’m buried. I’m done.

Getting that part felt like winning the lottery. Sometimes you’ve got to go to the wrong place just to show that you’re not afraid to go there.

What can you learn from a plate of spaghetti? I’ve never been asked that one before.

I loved that character in Gilbert Grape. You have to understand that Arnie was a creation that came out of going to a home in Texas and getting to hang out for a few days with some mentally disabled kids. I got to capture their youthlike innocence and that playfulness, that almost rebellious defiance they have for almost any type of authority.

I remember going to Lasse Hallström with this checklist for him to do with the character. It was really Lasse believing in me and allowing me to run amok in all these scenes. It was incredibly fulfilling because there were no rules. Zero. There was nothing I wasn’t able to do, no circumstance that I couldn’t create, even if it was in defiance of the narrative.

So Lasse would put a plate of spaghetti in front of me at the table, just to see how I could create chaos. You have to really look at that plate of spaghetti and understand how happy Arnie is because he’s getting to eat his favorite food. The fact that there’s this family dynamic going on around the table that’s filled with tension doesn’t matter if you’re Arnie. Arnie is happier than a pig in sh* because he’s getting to eat spaghetti.

I’m glad you remembered that scene. What I learned from Arnie is, I would love it if every character could be played like that.

I lived in a dangerous part of Hollywood when I was a kid. When I was about eight, I had a camouflage Velcro wallet with two two-dollar bills in it. I was proud of those two-dollar bills. I thought they were worth more because they were hard to get.

One day I said, “Mom, I’m going to go out and show everyone my two-dollar bills.” She said, “Leonardo, don’t you dare do that!” But out the door I go, down the alley. I see this kid in front of a garage and show him the money.

“That’s great,” he says. “Hey, you wanna see some more money?”

“Yeah, I wanna see some more money!”

“Put your head down in front of this garage. Under that dumpster is a big pile of money.”

“Really?” I drop down.

“No, no, put your head down farther… . No, farther. If you wanna see it, you’ve got to put your head all the way down.”

Pretty soon my head is on the concrete. The kid steps on my head, rips away my wallet, kicks me in the face, and runs down the block. This kid is twice my size and my face is bloody–but he’s got my two-dollar bills. I chase him like a wolverine out of the one-block perimeter where I’m supposed to play, chase him for three blocks. People get between us, and I never get my two-dollar bills back. But I came to understand money at an early age.

I saw so much of the drug culture in my neighborhood when I was young, people shooting up in alleys, or on blow. They looked like vermin, like some monstrous thing had taken over their faces and spirits. I saw lives destroyed early on.

When I was eighteen, River Phoenix was far and away my hero. Think of all those early great performances in My Own Private Idaho, Stand by Me. I always wanted to meet him. One night, I was at this Halloween party, and he passed me. He was beyond pale he looked white. Before I got a chance to say hello, he was gone, driving off to the Viper Room, where he fell over and died.

That’s a lesson.

What doesn’t Martin Scorsese teach you? Look, the man embodies the art of filmmaking. He lives and breathes cinema. He can’t refer to mutual human emotions without somehow connecting them to film. So here you have not only the best working filmmaker but a historian of movies. There’s no film that you mention to him that he will not know. Ask a question about how to play a scene and he’ll give you half a dozen examples of ways it’s been played before.

Any movie we do, we have screenings of different films to capture the style he wants to portray in a certain scene. He’s talking all through the screenings, commenting to his wife, to the cinematographer, yelling to someone in the third row, “Look at this, this is exactly how I want it to look.”

He needs you to feel comfortable in the shoes of the character. Because once the shooting starts, he leaves it up to you to navigate the scene.

That way, you can surprise him.

James Cameron is an unbelievable visionary. There are so few filmmakers able to command the multiple things he had to deal with on Titanic or Avatar.

Jim knows exactly what he wants. Needless to say, when somebody felt a different way on the set of Titanic, there was a confrontation. Jim had it out with them right there in front of everybody. He lets you know exactly how he feels. But he’s of the lineage of John Ford. He knows what he wants his film to be.

I remember sitting in a theater after it was done and being in awe. He got what he wanted.

It’s hard to talk about the time period after Titanic because I get the feeling people think I’m complaining about being a movie star. The intrusion into my private life was insanely jarring, and it would’ve been difficult for anyone to deal with. I was in my early twenties, and I had no idea what was going on.

It wasn’t the era of penetrating Internet paparazzi that we have now. But my name wasn’t me anymore. I was sort of this thing. Kate felt it, too. But a lot of the attention was on me because of the teenage girls who repeatedly went to see the movie. I had the blond hair, and I was Jack Dawson, this heroic figure.

So I set up everything in my personal life to rebel against that image in order to strip it down. I had a lot of fun stripping it down. But ultimately, that knocked me a few rungs down the ladder.

That stage was a huge learning period, and I have no complaints. None of the stuff I’m doing now would be possible if it weren’t for Titanic.

A lot of things are risky. I don’t know where to begin.

What you risk just to have thrills when you’re in your twenties is absurd. It’s all part of that process of doing things that are daring to be accepted by your peers—and it’s absolutely insane. You can enter a never-ending vapid hole trying to reach the next exciting moment without ever stopping to appreciate it. I know it’s a cliché, but I’m happy to be alive. I went skydiving and my chutes didn’t open. Two of them.

I’ve seen people have near-death experiences or lose things that are really important to them, then they stop and say, ‘What is this crap that I’m focusing on? Why can’t I just be happy to put my pants on in the morning?’

That’s the one thing my dad always told me—Be happy to put your pants on every morning. If you can do that…

The only other person who knows as much about film as Martin Scorsese is Steven Spielberg.

I went from working with Marty on Gangs of New York to working with Steven on Catch Me If You Can. I thought it would be a huge transition to go from a nineteenth-century gang member slaughtering people like lambs to sipping champagne on planes in a James Bond suit. I had to publicize both movies at the same time, and people would always ask me, What are the differences between Spielberg and Scorsese?

All I could find myself talking about was the similarities.

What made it weird was there was no weirdness. There couldn’t have been a more comfortable environment to play a sex scene. Revolutionary Road was almost like a family theater production.

Kate Winslet is one of my dearest friends. We have the ultimate trust in each other and the best of intentions for what we want to do. I knew Kate before Sam [Mendes, her husband] even met her. So on the outside, it may seem strange to do a sex scene with a woman while her husband is directing. But it didn’t feel that way to me.

When the scene was about to start, Kate said, in front of the crew, “Wait, wait, this is totally weird.” She turned to both Sam and I and said, “Are you guys okay?”

We both looked at each other and said, Yeah, we’re totally fine.

She said, “It’s even weirder that you’re both totally fine.”

Most of the time, you’re not paying attention to the cinematographer. You’re focusing on what you have to do as an actor.

I remember working with Bob Richardson on The Aviator. They’d made up this fake XF-11 cockpit that has exploded. There are flames around me and I’m stuck in this bubble, trying to smash my way out. I don’t see anyone around me for a mile, because I’m up high on this sort of pulpit and there’s a wall of flames thirty-feet high in front of me.

I hear, “Action!” I’m bumping this thing, trying to smash through it. Through the flames comes this Zeus-like figure with long white hair, no protection, with his camera that zooms in and hovers. His back is almost on fire. I nearly stop and say, “what the hell are you doing?

As soon as they call “cut,” I say, “Bob, are you out of your mind? You just came right through a wall of fire.”

He says, “I know, buddy, that’s the best way to get the shot.”

“What about your hair? You have foot-long hair.”

“None of it burned. It’s all good. Let’s go again.”

He turned around, and I knew he’d do anything he could to burn a powerful image into celluloid.

That’s infectious.

I worked with a great acting coach, Larry Moss. One of the things he talks about is specificity—how the worst thing an actor can do when they come on set is go in and try to say the lines as naturally as possible.

At first, that sounds counterintuitive to what you’re supposed to do. But you have to do a tremendous amount of homework to get to that place of saying something naturally.

I read some Shakespeare in high school, but it wasn’t until Romeo + Juliet, where Baz Luhrmann made us buckle down and really understand the poetry of the words and the meanings of each sentence. There’s this other layer to it, too? And this has a triple meaning? How do you play a triple meaning?

When I see a movie I’ve done two years ago, I have crisp memories of being on set and what I felt the scene was supposed to be. But when I look at work I’ve done ten years ago, I can say, Oh, I see what people saw in that movie. Or, I see where this film went wrong. Yea, I get why people didn’t connect with that.

Detachment. You need that detachment.

I was eighteen when I got to work with Meryl Streep in Marvin’s Room. I remember going over my lines with her off camera, looking at her and thinking to myself, What is going on here? How is this going to look good?

Then when I sat in the theater, it was, Oh! She’s the only person who looks completely natural. She’s the only person who has actually made her character into a real human being who would have an erratic moment because those erratic moments are what make you more human. That was a huge moment of discovery.

Meryl may be the greatest actor in the world.

You need a good costume designer because you’re never really able to be in the skin of a character until you get into their clothes and walk around in them. You need to feel the fabric they feel, the kind of watch they have on their wrist.

As soon as I started to try on clothes for Revolutionary Road, I began to slump a little with my cigarette, my belly popped out a little more. I felt this nostalgic guy who’s gone through war and is now so relaxed in the suburbs, who thinks everything is just fine with his wife, so it’s okay to go cheat on her. The clothes told me: She’ll be around because we’re comfortable.

Out of any actor, I can’t think of anyone who’s got more memorable moments in cinema than Jack Nicholson.

Jack never takes a single line straight on. Never takes an emotion written in the script at face value. He brings terror into what you thought was supposed to be a light moment and makes a light moment out of a cutthroat vicious line. He flips everything on its side.

When you’re working with somebody like that, it’s just a matter of keeping up.

In Departed, we had this confrontation scene. How would I react to him being suspicious of me being the rat? We did the scene, felt good about it, and that was it for the day. But I believe Jack went up to Marty afterward and said, “I don’t know if he necessarily believed me. I don’t know if he was sincerely threatened.”

Marty said, “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”

So I come on the set the next day and hear we’re doing the scene over for lighting reasons. Okay. But then a prop guy comes over to me and says, “Just to let you know, there were some props Jack asked for. I had to get him a fire extinguisher, a bottle of whiskey, a lighter, and a gun.”

I have to say, I’m pretty proud of Shutter Island. I’d love to tell you a particular story about it, but I can’t. I’m not going to talk about it in any detail because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who’s going to watch it.

My grandmother was one of my favorite people. It was great to bring her around because she was true to herself in any environment.

I once took her to the Picasso Museum. She knew what Picasso meant historically, but that didn’t resonate where she came from. To her, when you paint a flower, it’s supposed to look like a flower. So before we go in, I tell her, “Look, Oma, I know how you feel about Picasso, but we’re getting a tour from his grandson, so whatever he asks, please just be nice.”

Right at the end of the tour, of course, the moment arrives. Bernard Picasso says, “So, Helena, what do you think of this painting?”

“I don’t like it.”


“I’ll tell you why. If you paint a woman, it should look like a woman. If you paint a snake, it should look like a snake. You could tell me that this painting is an airplane and I’d say, ‘Okay, it’s an airplane.’ You know why? Because it looks like nothing.”

Ohhh, nooo, I’m thinking. How’s he going to take that?

At the hotel, I get a three-page letter from Bernard Picasso. It says, “Speaking with such clarity was the true spirit of what my grandfather embodied. Your grandmother has worked too hard her entire life to make friends for the sake of who they are. That’s what I love about her. Please bring her back.”

I don’t think I’m capable of honesty to the extent of my grandmother. But people tell me I have that quality. If it’s true, it must come out in different ways.

The earliest memories I have are jumping up onstage before concerts in downtown L. A. and trying to get on the mic and break-dance, or do imitations of my mother’s friends or my father’s friends, or be a comic in class. I was the most insane child you can imagine, pretty intolerable to be around. High-octane energy all the time, never wanting to focus on schoolwork.

Probably the only thing I knew with complete clarity was that I wanted to be an actor. But there was a lot of rejection early on, and so it never felt like, Hey, I’ve got something here. There was always an element of me that needed to prove something to myself. It’s something I don’t want to get rid of, because it’s what drives me. I’m never settled and I’m never satisfied.

I do try to think of myself in the long term. But I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in the future. So all I can tell you is, I haven’t quenched my thirst.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Esquire Mar.2010.

Why Leo DiCaprio Is an Essential Actor

Commitment. Adventurousness. A sense of truth. An ability to hold the screen. These are among the rare qualities that make Leo DiCaprio an essential actor.

There’s an old phrase that certainly applies to Leo: The camera loves him. In other words, his presence before the camera magnetizes us instantly, draws us into a mystery, compels us to follow him.

Of course, the camera loves a lot of faces, but there are very few actors who can work from that gift, who can take us deep into their own inner journey, which complements the greater journey of the film itself. You need talent, sensitivity, fortitude, and absolute fearlessness. Leo has it all.

I know I can trust Leo to keep not just his character but the arc of the whole film in mind while he goes as far as he needs to. And I know he’s not going to let vanity get in the way. That can be a stumbling block for many actors, and understandably so, because their images define them as artists and as public figures. For Leo, it’s not a question. His commitment to the truth of his character, no matter how ugly or inexplicable, is total. This is one of the qualities that I admire most about him.

Leonardo and I have worked together on four pictures now. It’s been one of the great adventures of my career. He is absolutely essential to me, to all of us, and essential to the history of movies.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Esquire Mar.2010.

February 17, 2010 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links