Boy Meets World

He’s played misfits and half-wits, and scored an Oscar nomination at nineteen. This month, Leonardo DiCaprio is a junkie-poet in The Basketball Diaries and a gunslinger in The Quick and the Dead. But the most fearless actor in Hollywood still lives with his mom.

by Rob Tannenbaum for Details | March 1995

Leonardo DiCaprio is throwing roundhouse karate kicks a few inches from my face. Whoosh. He hikes up his baggy jeans which instantly slide back down his nonexistent butt and kicks again. Whoosh. This one is a bit closer than the one before it.

This f**ing great actor, this rising phenom, this valuable celluloid property, still lives at home with his mother. They share a modest two-bedroom in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, their living room decorated in the black leather, chrome, and leopardskin patterns common in the ’70s. His messy bedroom could be any other twenty-year-old’s, except for the acting awards and movie posters signed by Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin.

Most adults can’t imagine living with their parents, except in an emergency – a fire, a flood, or the loss of cable TV. Leo has two good reasons. Like any other canny businessman, he understands that low overhead equals freedom. By avoiding the Hollywood Hills party palace, flashy cars, and DWI fines common among his peers, he can take film roles that excite him.

Also, Leo explains, “I’m away six to nine months of the year, and it’s nice to be taken care of, to not come home to a cold place. I have my mother and my Rottweiler here, and I can kiss ’em both.” He lives at home not only for convenience, but also because he loves his mother. When he has to play a sad scene, he imagines coming home from school one day and finding her horribly charred in a fire.

Right now, Leo’s trying to forget that I’m a reporter he suspects of subterfuge. He’s showing me a “typical evening,” hanging out in his small bedroom crowded with toys, African masks hung on the wall, and a Salvador Dali clock near the bed. His modest collection of books includes self-help shaman Anthony Robbins, a Callanetics exercise book, something about UFOS, and Nancy Friday’s sex-lib tome Women on Top, which he says, embarrassed, a friend left behind. He turns on a large TV, perches on the edge of his bed, and intently attacks Donkey Kong. His features are delicate: nearly translucent skin, the mouth and nose both small and upturned, eyebrows arched high above slim eyes. With just 140 pounds on his six-foot frame, he’s a male waif. He shaves once a week, and then only his chin and upper lip. His forearms are hairless. Sidebums would be impossible.

On-screen, amidst robust adults, he seems coltishly energetic, frail, and somehow fibrous. “All the other actors of his age want to be cool,” notes Sharon Stone, “and don’t want to demonstrate vulnerability.” But while Leo may project vulnerability just as naturally as Carrey projects stupidity, he still wants to seem bold and strong and macho. Stone once likened DiCaprio to a “rare and delicate flower,” and the memory of this quote still causes him to grimace. He confesses a “fear of having people see me as flowery.” As he sits playing Nintendo, in his mother’s house, his hair is tucked delicately under a braided leather hair band-hardly the picture of machismo. More bad news for Leo: Stone isn’t his only costar who invokes a horticultural simile. Lorraine Bracco calls DiCaprio “as vulnerable as any flower that God’s given us.”

HERE’S AN ALARMING DREAM HE HAD RECENTLY: HE’D SIGNED up for a role in a James Bond film, then read the script and found it to be a dismal “video game version” of a spy movie. His character would infiltrate the White House, steal secret files, and escape detection by turning into a baby-the special effects would include Hollywood’s favorite new budget balloon, virtual reality. What’s worse, he met Pierce Brosnan in the dream and found him “cheesy,” which is Leo’s most damning insult. “That was a really upsetting dream. It kinda shows it is hard to deal with all this bulls* that’s – I’m cussing a lot, aren’t I? People lie to you. Like if they have the same sort of movie that’s been done before, an action movie, and you say you want something different, they say, ‘Well, he has a black wife! How ‘different’ can you get?’

His suspicion of the entertainment business began, understandably, when he joined the sitcom Growing Pains at sixteen, as the homeless urchin Luke. The show, about the affluent Seaver family of suburban Long Island, was nearly the antithesis of Leo’s bohemian background. His edgy presence in the cast was instantly incongruous, like seeing Pacino play Fiddler on the Roof in Florida dinner theater. “It was actually a good experience for me,” he says. “I got to know what I don’t want to do. I had these lame lines-I couldn’t bear it, actually. Everyone was bright and chipper.”

He’s jet-lagged, having stopped in New York on his way home to L.A. from Paris, and his usual energized spontaneity flags a bit. But he’s a fine mimic, happy to display his impersonation of Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron, the Joey Lawrence of the late ’80s. He simulates Cameron’s beatific, dimpled grin. “Kirk gave me a lesson in the Bible,” Leo smirks. “He’s quite religious, quite a family man. He gave me a constant positive perspective on life.” DiCaprio quickly joined Cameron as pinup fodder for junior-high school girls, a role he hated. But there was some compensation “I learned from Alan Thicke how to put the moves on women.”

Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries reads like a twisted cross between J.D. Salinger and William Burroughs. Though the 1978 autobiography had been optioned for movie adaptation many times before, its scummy themes only recently became fashionable. The film combines poetry, basketball, and heroin-three activities popular among kids, and not necessarily in that order. As though avoiding Cameron’s mantle, Leo has chosen troubled, almost ugly film roles, avoiding the quick payoff of an action movie. If we ignore Critters III, as Leo would like us to, his screen career began as a petulant 1950s teen in This Boy’s Life. Alternately glaring and wincing, he held off champion scene-stealer Robert De Niro, until the climactic moment when the bullying De Niro beat Leo’s head against the ground. In that chilling scene, DiCaprio answered simply with a wordless howl.

His next role, though less subtle, was more dazzling. Hunched and snot-faced in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he found a new way to depict mental retardation – not with pity but with joy. (Certifying a tradition, he was again beaten around, this time by Johnny Depp.) He won an Oscar nomination, and half of Hollywood seemed to fall in love with him. Recapping the best movies of 1993, Misery screenwriter William Goldman sighed, “Please don’t let anything bad ever happen to Leonardo DiCaprio.”

Until The Basketball Diaries, he’d never kissed a woman on-screen. He was kissed by a boy, though, with even a hint of arousal, in This Boy’s Life. The film version of The Basketball Diaries greatly curtails the queer hustling and SM violence. (Naturally, Leo is beaten again, this time by a disappointed drug client.) Fans of the book may regret the loss of the most lurid eroticism, and notice that when Leo tums gay tricks for drug money in the film, he’s sickened, where Carroll was partly turned on.

In Hollywood it’s okay for male actors to play queer, as long as they move quickly back into straight roles, as when Keanu balanced My Own Private Idaho with that model of butch heroism, Speed. Leo, though, will go from playing Carroll, a sinful, drug-addled, queer-friendly modern poet maudit, to playing Arthur Rimbaud, a sinful, drug-addled, queer-friendly poet maudit of the nineteenth century. After that, Leo’s committed to star in the biopic of James Dean, modem cinema’s most beloved bisexual icon.

DiCaprio doesn’t make a big deal of his penchant for characters with slippery sexuality. “I’m not a spokesperson on any of it, really, and I’m not a practicing–I’m not a part of that,” he says. “It just seems to come up in films I’m interested in. I want to do some pretty crazy stuff-play a lizard-man. I like what Gary Oldman did in True Romance-that kind of stuff.”

His most macho characteristic, perhaps, is his competitiveness. While filming The Basketball Diaries, he played two-on-two against Marky Mark, who portrays Leo’s best friend and fellow junkie, Mickey. And although Mark’s wrists are about the size of Leo’s thighs, Leo gleefully declares he “obliterated” Mark, the contest ending in blustery trash-talking. (Though Marky gives a fine performance, DiCaprio admits he was initially opposed to having the dethroned Calvin Klein pinup in the film.) We discuss basketball as a metaphor for life: “It’s sort of a five-on-five game: my publicists, my agents, my lawyers, my family, and me. I’m like the point guard, the one who decides where the ball should be passed.” The ball, he continues, is the film. And the cheerleaders are the groupies, “one of the nice things about the game.”

He’s rambling a bit, giddy from jet lag. He smacks his face, trying to revive, slouching in his chair, and twisting his hair around one finger. “My brain is, like, swollen,” he says.

“I WAS SECONDS AWAY FROM NOT COMING,” DICAPIO SAYS sleepily a couple nights later. He’d been dozing in bed until a few minutes earlier, when his mom roused him. He’s chosen to meet me at a dumpy French bistro a few blocks from his house in Los Feliz. Because he believes nice clothes are merely kindling for the firestorm that will envelop the city after the next imminent earthquake, he’s dressed with his usual disregard, in jeans, a navy parka, and an Australian outback hat pulled low, nearly covering his eyes. Though the nighttime temperature is in the forties, he wants to sit outside. “You look terrific,” he says pertly. “Your pores are emanating light.”

Suddenly, a bit awkwardly, he makes a request about our earlier interview: If l quote him expounding on basketball as a metaphor for life, would I add a phrase – perhaps ‘Leonardo then grins’ to indicate he was joking. He only answered the question to humor me. “You always have to make the writer feel good-thus the compliment about the emanating pores.” But he’s worried people might “misunderstand, and think I’m a real cheeseball. My humor is sort of sarcastic, and sometimes it doesn’t come across.” It becomes increasingly evident that he’s worried that minor events can be exaggerated and presented as major themes in an article.

A waiter comes, and Leo orders only hot tea. Although we’re meeting over dinner, he’s already eaten at home, where his mom cooked. Irmalin DiCaprio, a handsome blonde woman, is, Leo says, “a very tough lady,” who was born in a bomb shelter in Germany during World War II, grew up poor and ill, and left the country at age eleven. She and Leo’s father, George, split up when she was pregnant with Leo, their only child. They have remained married, though, and by all accounts they are still close.

Leo spent a lot of time with his father, who’d been at the social center of antiestablishment culture. Living in New York in the mid-’60s, George roomed with Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison and created a comic book, “Baloney Moccasins,” with Laurie Anderson, his then-girlfriend. He moved to L.A. in the early ’70s and distributed underground comix, tattoo magazines, and Beatnik literature to local bookstores, also arranging readings for William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

“Leonardo got a very alternative look at things early on,” recalls George DiCaprio. Three days after Leo was born, novelist Hubert Selby Jr. brought a gift of tiny boxing gloves. Abbie Hoffman’s son America was Leo’s close friend. Alcoholic poet Charles Bukowski was a neighbor and frequent houseguest, as were comix legends like Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb. Leo, his dad notes, was “never excluded from conversations about sex or drugs.” At times, these influences may have been confusing: When Leo was nine, says George DiCaprio, he got in trouble at school for drawing a swastika on his forehead and imitating Charles Manson for the class.

However, when your parents were pot-smoking hippies, it’s hard to rebel effectively. “Whatever I did would be something they’d already done,” Leo explains. “I mean, my dad would welcome it if l got a nose ring.” So Leo didn’t bother to rebel. Besides, he hates nose rings: “I’m afraid of leaving a little hole in my face. Or having a tattoo and living with that stupid painting for the rest of my life. Why not just get a poster and put it up in your room?”

When the waiter returns, Leo orders more tea and dessert. “Do I sound like somebody who’s just preaching great things about myself?” I suggest that he’s essentially a sensible guy, with little patience for pretense, whether it’s tattoos or Kirk Cameron.

“I am a sensible guy. It just struck me I sound like Mr. Goody-f**in’-two-shoes. I’m not saying I am old and wise, but my father has told me that many times. If you ask my friends, they’ll say I’m mischievous.”

There’s a long pause, as he tries to think of his most recent mischief. “I sort of got into a fight in L.A. a couple of months ago,” he says, hiding the revelation in a near mumble. “I drank a little tequila as a matter of fact-and I sort of took on a different personality and kind of picked on a kid on purpose, and really pushed him to the edge. I was playing a role, a tough-guy thing. I really was looking for a fight, and I sort of hurt the kid a little bit. It was a mistake, and I felt so guilty afterward.

“I’m a good person-let’s emphasize that,” he says. “But you’re bored with that. You don’t want me to be good. You want me to be corrupt, a little Hollywood brat. If we’re talking about my devious side, I like to pick fights. If I see a weakness in somebody, it’s fun for me to pick at it, and see a side they wouldn’t normally show. I won’t do it with you, because I want you to like me. But if I were to meet you at a bar, I would probably f** with you. I don’t like being an adult all the time. Ask me a question,” he says.

Whose sudden death would cause you to secretly rejoice? “Oh, I don’t want anybody to die. I mean, beat up might be a little better.” And here, Leo names an arrogant, goateed young actor who recently advanced to romantic leads. “I think he deserves a good ass-kicking. Then he mentions a roguish Brat Packer now in action films. “I’m just so sick of the James Dean wannabes.” With the dramatic whisper he reserves for sarcastic abuse, he adds, “They’re all distressed and they have to lash out and be pissed off because that’s cool. Think of something new.”

At this point, apparently, the sugar from his dessert kicks in. Leo grabs the teapot and tosses hot water on the sidewalk. He empties his water glass, too. Then he picks apart his dessert, throwing pieces into the street. “You know,” he says, now making fun of himself, “I do s* like that all the time. It’s impulsive. I don’t know where it comes from.” And, despite his earlier pledge not to make mischief with me, he starts making fun of my hair.

THE CORRECT PHRASE IS “ASSHOLE BANDITS OF SHOWER room rape.” It comes in the middle of a long monologue DiCaprio delivers in The Basketball Diaries, a warning about the dangers that can befall a young man when trying to bathe at the notoriously brutal prison on Riker’s Island.

“Let’s do it in one take, I wanna go home tonight,” an assistant director calls out. It’s the second-to-last day of filming, and most of the crew seem ragged. On a chilly May night, they’ve occupied a sprawling art gallery and theater on the quiet outskirts of SoHo in Manhattan. Leo sits cross-legged on a stage, delivering the monologue in the passionless spirit of cool. But he stumbles over the line “asshole bandits of shower-room rape,” instead saying “faggot ass-f**ers.” On the next take he messes up the same line.

A dozen takes later, director Scott Kalvert says enthusiastically, “This is it, Leo, I feel it.” This time DiCaprio mistakenly says “shower-room rope” and curses himself. No one laughs: “It’s only a movie,” soothes Lorraine Bracco. “Don’t say that,” replies Kalvert, until now best known as the director of Marky Mark videos. “It’s Vietnam.”

Bracco whispers encouragement to DiCaprio before the next take. This time, though, he says “shower-room rap.” It’s long past midnight, and the crew quietly sets up for another take as Leo looks over the script.

One of the principals of the film walks over to me, clearly impatient with DiCaprio’s performance. “He could have memorized the speech last night, if he wasn’t out club-hopping.”

WE’RE IN HIS TIDY BLACK JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE, DRIVING along Hollywood Boulevard. On a residential street, he stops suddenly for a green light, then goes on. We drive to Echo Park, “the heart of scumbag L.A.,” he says, where he grew up “lower middle class” with his mom, a legal secretary, until he was ten. As we pull into a narrow driveway, he points out their house, now visibly neglected. At first he wanted to be an oceanographer. Then “I got attention by being funny at school, pretending to be retarded, and jumping around with a deformed hand.” His stepbrother Adam, three years older, was in a Golden Grahams cereal ad “that made him f**in’ millions of bucks,” and Leo gave up oceanography. A neighbor comes outside and eyes his car suspiciously, and Leo backs out of the driveway.

When DiCaprio was filming The Basketball Diaries, he appeared in the New York tabloids almost as regularly as the horoscope. “He seldom sleeps, so intense is his partying,” Liz Smith wrote. There were reported rumors of barroom brawls, and quieter whispers of heroin use. When I ask how he prepared for the film, Leo cracks a deadpan joke: “I became a heroin addict, I did a little prostitution.” Actually, he says impatiently, the drug rumors are based on widespread misconceptions, “รก la River Phoenix,” that young actors naturally succumb to temptation. “I wasn’t using heroin and I wasn’t getting into brawls.” On the set, for drug scenes, he snorted Ovaltine. At the end of each day, he used a Q-Tip to scrape crusted chocolate powder from inside his nose.

He’s proudly scornful of fame, along with most of the other attendant benefits of Hollywood. Including available sex. “Girls approach me damn well knowing who I am, and pretend like they don’t.” The subterfuge irritates him.

Anyone who’s suffered through teenage testosterone delirium can imagine the temptation to accommodate those grateful admirers. On this subject, Leo turns unusually silent. “That’s actually a very private question.” He’s dating a girl he won’t name, “not really a girlfriend.” Asked about losing his virginity, he repeats firmly, “I don’t want to talk about it. What about the intellectual aspect of an actor preparing for his role? Doesn’t that interest you?” I tell him, honestly, that sex is far more interesting than the Method.

He requests a thumbnail review of The Basketball Diaries: “Would you recommend it?” he asks. “Is it better than My Own Private Idaho? Is it better than Drugstore Cowboy? What do you think it’s better than?”

It’s better than Leonard Part 6. I saw that movie. It’s time for a little personality quiz.
I’m sure it’s gonna be very devious and conniving, but I’ll go along with it.

Which do you prefer, John Hughes or John Waters?
I’ve probably unknowingly, or unwantingly, seen more John Hughes films. I hated all those teen movies when I was growing up. I’ve never seen Sixteen Candles, and I didn’t see The Breakfast Club until I was sixteen.

Which of them did you identify with?
That’s such a bad question. (sarcastically) Probably the rebel, because that’s what I’ve been all my life. Or maybe it was the princess, because Mommy always put me first.

Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich?
Who’s Newt Gingrich?

Okay, then. Batman or Superman?
Oh, wait a minute, I’ve seen Newt on TV – he’s that funny-looking guy. I haven’t really been following politics lately.

Blondes or brunettes?
Um, brunettes. (pauses) Maybe because there’s a lot more brunette girls.

Snort or skin-pop?
Ah, well, that doesn’t really apply now, does it, Mr. Steer-me-in-the-wrong-direction?

LEO WALKS ME BACK TO MY CAR, A FEW blocks away. Our plans to play basketball never materialized, so he simulates what our game would have been like, backing in to show his one-on-one moves, leaping for an imaginary lay-up, gloating over the shot. He offers to climb up a telephone pole and get arrested: “I bet you’d like that.”

He mentions another role he’s considering, a new version of Romeo and Juliet, the Sixteen Candles of Elizabethan theater. DiCaprio will be playing the female lead, the star-crossed teen bride. “It’s a drag version of it,” he explains. “A woman’s going to play Romeo. It’s going to be funny.”

I’m starting to construct a question, designed to solve the riddle of his attraction to perverse, tragic roles like Rimbaud, Dean, and gender-bended Shakespeare. Then I notice a smirk arising on his straight face. It was a lie, this notion of playing Juliet-of course he’ll be Romeo. “I’m f**ing with you a little bit.” He laughs triumphantly.

So many of his responses have seemed strategic, but right now he thinks the story’s over, and his defenses shut off. I’m left with one final glimpse, perhaps the first unguarded one: Leo sprinting down Highland Street, leaping high to touch the store awnings, a twenty-year-old running home to his mother and his dog.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Details, Mar.95.

March 1, 1995 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links