Leonardo DiCaprio looks older than you’d think.
DiCaprio carries himself deliberately. He doesn’t walk; he saunters. He speaks intensely, mulling his words while locking his eyes on you. He looks all of his 30 years, if not more. There’s only a trace of the boy who starred seven years ago in the biggest box office hit of all time.
“Yes, I can play younger than my age,” he says with a grin over chocolate-dipped strawberries and biscotti at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “But I can play characters older than I am, too. I’m not an actor who can just play the kid.”
DiCaprio gets his chance to prove that with The Aviator. Martin Scorsese’s sprawling epic about legendary airman and playboy Howard Hughes puts DiCaprio in foreign territory–playing a character who is older, richer and more famous than himself.
For Scorsese and DiCaprio, the movie marks something personal–a shot at a first Oscar for both men.
Despite earning $20-million-a-movie paychecks and global stardom since 1997’s Titanic, DiCaprio hasn’t been nominated for an Academy Award since 1994’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Scorsese is Oscar’s latest bridesmaid, having been nominated for best director four times but never taking home the prize.
“Marty has helped bring out the man in Leo,” says film critic Emanuel Levy. “No one believed Leo could play Howard Hughes, who has always been seen as a man’s man. But that’s changed now. Leo is a lock for a best-actor nomination.”
DiCaprio, in turn, “seems to have brought out the kid in Scorsese,” Levy says. The Aviator is “more reminiscent of his brilliant early work like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, just more commercial and enjoyable.”
Scorsese, 62, acknowledges that the young actor has given him new energy.
“Directing is a real headache. But working with Leo, who forces you to talk and talk and talk about your movies, gets you excited about what you do.”
There has been talk about making a film biography of the legendary airman and filmmaker for decades.
But where to start — or stop — such a film? Hughes was as much a force in Hollywood as he was in aviation. He broke speed records while financing some of the industry’s most expensive films, including the $4 million Hell’s Angels in 1930. He was commandeering TWA while courting the film industry’s biggest stars, including Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow and Katharine Hepburn.
“And that was before he succumbed to his illness,” DiCaprio says of the obsessive-compulsive disorder that left the germ-phobic millionaire the poster child for seclusion and paranoia. “His life was just too big for one movie.”
Scorsese says. “[DiCaprio] doesn’t so much play the roles as he becomes consumed by them. It’s fascinating to watch.”
Indeed, DiCaprio became obsessed with the part in a manner that might have made Hughes proud. He spent days with a man who had obsessive-compulsive disorder so he could observe the facial tics and mannerisms. He read a half-dozen biographies and watched hours of archival footage of the brash Hughes.
He wasn’t the only one immersed in research. Cate Blanchett tackles the challenging role of the legendary Hepburn.
“It was great fun trawling through her films,” Blanchett says. “It’s one thing to play on screen someone who people have an image of and regard as an icon. But it’s another thing to play her in the very medium in which she has become so revered. The truth is that I don’t think I would have attempted it for anyone other than Martin Scorsese.”
DiCaprio echoes his co-star. “Marty’s got such an encyclopedic knowledge of film, especially old movies. You have to know your character inside out, or he’ll let you have it.”
That included Hughes’ mental breakdown. DiCaprio rehearsed scenes for weeks that called for him to repeat a single line, over and over.
“Howard would get a line in his head and couldn’t stop saying it,” DiCaprio says. “One half of your brain is stuck in the record groove, while the other knows you sound like a fool. I was trying to figure out how you do that, how to say the same line again and again but express everything else that’s going on inside your head.”
And like Hughes, DiCaprio has dated his share of famous women, having been stalked by paparazzi snapping him with Kate Moss, Demi Moore and, most recently, model Gisele Bündchen.
But that’s where the similarity ends, he insists. He demurs from talking about his love life but says there is an emotional bond behind every relationship that Hughes’ liaisons lacked.
“I think Howard thought of women the same way he thought of planes,” DiCaprio says. “He wanted the fastest thing, the newest model. That is not how I approach dating.”
He also is careful to approach fame differently from how Hughes did.
DiCaprio is selective about his films and his public appearances. He has starred in only five movies since Titanic, in part so that a single film would not define him as that one did.
He has acknowledged that it was a mistake turning down Boogie Nights in favor of the James Cameron film, which made him Hollywood’s pinup boy for a generation of teenyboppers.
But he has since come to terms with that fame and says he takes no film in the hopes of getting an “anti-Titanic reaction.”
“I think people read the tabloids because they want to see you eating a burger, or out of your makeup or doing something stupid because they just want to see that you’re like everyone else,” he says. “And that’s OK. I don’t want to catch myself anymore saying that my life is hard, because the good far outweighs the bad in my life. And it’s easier to focus on those things, on the things that are important.”
Like an Oscar? DiCaprio was snubbed when Titanic managed 14 Academy Award nominations (and 11 wins) in just about every category, including an acting nomination for co-star Kate Winslet. But DiCaprio’s name was noticeably absent.
“Anyone who tells you that they don’t want their work recognized by their peers is lying,” he says. “I’d love this film to be the one, especially for Marty. That he didn’t win an Oscar years ago is still a mystery to me.
“But he’s the reason you make movies,” DiCaprio says, moving to the edge of his couch cushion as he speaks. “You learn after you’ve been in the business for a while that it’s not getting your face recognized that’s the payoff. It’s having your film remembered.”
He grins slightly at the notion of calling himself a Hollywood veteran. “And I guess I have been in the business for a while now.”
So has Scorsese. But lately, he says, he isn’t feeling his years.
“After I finish a movie, I think, ‘Wow, that was really hard work. What the hell am I doing this for?’ ” he says. “But then you meet an actor like Leo and start talking about movies and storytelling, and suddenly you’re interested again. Just talking now, I’m ready to go start another one.”