The Kid Stays in the Pictures

Leonardo DiCaprio gawks at celebrities. Not gawks, exactly. He’s hardly awed by them, but he watches them like an outsider.

by Marshall Sella for NY Times | November 2002

He is lounging in the half-shade on a promenade at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, gazing out toward the hotel’s outdoor restaurant, where celebrated performers are sipping drinks under cream-colored umbrellas and, above those, the high hibiscus that buffers the hotel from the clamor of Sunset Boulevard. “Man, look at that,” he says. “There’s a celebrity at every single table out there! Val Kilmer, Heath Ledger, that guy from ‘Saturday Night Live.”‘

At 28, DiCaprio has already ridden the entire Hollywood arc of celebrity. After his first feature role, in This Boy’s Life he was greeted as a Wunderkind; this artiste phase was bolstered by his performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Total Eclipse. With 1997’s Titanic, of course, he attained rock-star status. But Icarus must plummet to earth; that’s his job. DiCaprio’s next two films were shunned. Critics thrashed The Man in the Iron Mask and The Beach. Rolling Stone’s DiCaprio cover issue at the time was one of the worst-selling in that magazine’s history. DiCaprio soon became better known for catting around nightclubs than for acting. No one can be king of the world for long, except for those who die young.

But DiCaprio is still breathing, entering what he would never, ever, characterize as his resurrection stage. Next month, he stars in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, which will be released within five days of each other. Gangs, in which DiCaprio stars as a dour, furtive Irishman out to avenge his father’s death in the Manhattan of the 1860’s, is Scorsese’s longtime dream project, a brutal allegory for the American experiment and a cinematic elaboration of the Balzacian truism that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Catch Me is quite the other thing: a breezy Spielberg romp, offering a once again lithe and charming DiCaprio as a real-life teenage con man who made millions while posing as an airline pilot, lawyer and doctor.

These days, DiCaprio is engaged in an amiable con game of his own — with the public. He wants to erase the tabloid memories of his past. He doesn’t want to discuss his failed romance with Gisele Bundchen, the fashion model, or his reputation as a late-night canoodler. In person, he’s easygoing and affable. But talking with him about his career is like playing a careful game of chess, and he always seems to be thinking three moves ahead. He routinely tracks back and reverses phrases he has just spoken; you can see him scrutinizing everything he says, as if he’s reading it in imaginary ink. Once freewheeling, even reckless, Leonardo DiCaprio has learned how to play the Hollywood game.

DiCaprio has also matured in the way he handles his career. He exercises more power in selecting his roles and has made an extremely savvy choice by straddling the Scorsese-to-Spielberg gamut. The two films, and the two DiCaprios, could not be more different. Gangs offers a life-bitten, brooding icon — an attempt to hack away the trappings of DiCaprio’s boyhood fame, as evidenced by the 30 pounds of muscle he gained for the part. He is hardly the sleek romantic lead that mesmerized fans of Titanic; he is driven and scarred. The film, he fiercely hopes, portends a future as a serious adult actor, in which he will be free to break from his dreamboat identity. At the other end of the spectrum, Catch Me offers perhaps the more natural Leo: unburdened by the weight of ordinary maturity, he plays a teenage boy. More important, Catch Me, with its combination of Spielberg at the helm and Tom Hanks as co-star, is the perfect career insurance policy. Even if the more daring Gangs flops, Spielberg’s confection will be ushered into American multiplexes a few days later. Though the dual release was somewhat accidental, DiCaprio now effectively owns Christmas. There’s never been a case in which a major Hollywood star had two films of such prominence sweep the country within one week. This is less a comeback than a full-blown assault.

DiCaprio signed on for Catch Me soon after embarking on the notoriously troubled, yearlong process of filming Gangs. For Titanic, he was paid a scant $2.5 million, but he joined the $20 million club with The Beach, and his price has never decreased. Still, box-office clout can be fleeting; ask Matthew McConaughey. Where Gangs was a labor of love — DiCaprio and Scorsese helped pay for cost overruns by donating $7 million of their fees — Catch Me is a safety net, though DiCaprio clearly relished the role. He has long revered Scorsese and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the director’s work; he is not similarly obsessed with the Spielberg canon. But as DiCaprio well knows, Scorsese films, like most high art, have often disappointed at the box office. Spielberg movies, particularly the lighthearted ones, are a license to print cash.

In his noniconic form, DiCaprio has shed the weight he gained for Gangs. In his shape-shifting efforts to recast his public image, he skips without transition from environmental spokesman to serious artist to prankster. These are all aspects of his real personality, but now he’s learned which face to show, and when.

When adopting the pose of tabloid victim, DiCaprio resorts to the mantra that fame is a kind of infection, it’s all about the work. “My post-Titanic experience was a very empty existence,” he says, tugging at his cap. “I’d be driving around L.A. stressed out of my head and have to stop and think, ‘Wait a minute. What am I dealing with? Some movie that I don’t want to do anyway, three paparazzi chasing me. I have this person who I thought was my friend who wasn’t.’ I’d get headaches from dealing with pure unadulterated garbage. But you can’t help it. You’re suddenly defined in the media as a cutie-pie.”

Realizing that such labels can suffocate a career, DiCaprio has resolved to become a cipher. “Defining yourself to the public on a consistent basis is death to a performer,” he says. “The more you define who you are personally, the less you’re able to submerge into the characters you do. People are likely to think, ‘Oh, I don’t buy him in that role.'” Accordingly, DiCaprio now strives to live below the media radar. He ruefully laughs about his “strategy of not feeding the piranhas.”

When DiCaprio does consent to meetings with the media, they’re conducted in private, leafy enclaves like the Chateau. To stomp into a Midtown Manhattan eatery would cause chaos and, more important, distract him from the points he feels he needs to make. And he’s always trying to make points. He offers detailed history about 19th-century New York that he has gleaned from Gangs and extended tutorials on fossil-fuel emissions. Those kinds of rhetoric do double duty: first, he gets to share information he is truly enthusiastic about, and second, for a time, it keeps the conversation from veering into his private life.

French nobles used to attend Louis XIV’s morning ablutions as a kind of theater; that was the celebrity tabloid service of the time. We have a more efficient system today. In the icy wake of Titanic, the gossip sheets fixed their gaze upon every facet of the flawed DiCaprio diamond: here was the wastrel Leo being rebuffed by a stripper in a London nightclub and trawling through Manhattan with his “posse” of celebrity buddies like Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas. Here was the arrogant Leo, the mandolescent who asked supermodels, “Do you know who I am?” Or the petulant Leo, hurling manure at Italian paparazzi when no more sophisticated form of protest occurred to him. DiCaprio seemed to be everywhere at once, some sort of bad-boy superhero, able to defy the laws of time, space and morality. The tabloids ran with it all–the true, the not true and the somewhere in between. But those days are finished. DiCaprio has decided that it’s time to sculpture a more refined icon for himself. And like his elusive character in Catch Me, he’s remarkably deft at inhabiting a new role.

Beneath a translucent dome at the Hotel Bel-Air, DiCaprio is wearing wraparound sunglasses. Every time I’ve seen him, they’ve been either on his face or in reach. Hesitantly, I suggest to him that, worn indoors, sunglasses offer the opposite of anonymity; they draw attention from everyone but the blind. But DiCaprio has a different rationale. He resents scrutiny but likes to scrutinize. “I love these,” he says. “They’re my cocoon. It’s not so much to keep people from looking at you; it’s to be able to look at them and not have them know you’re looking. I can examine a whole room, and people will think I’m just looking at you, which is awesome.”

Steven Spielberg has told me that DiCaprio needs to do reconnaissance before venturing into public, that “his bum rap has made him the young man in the plastic bubble.” But DiCaprio denies this. “I can go wherever the hell I want,” he insists, jabbing a finger into the air. “I blend in. I dress like everyone else because I feel like everyone else, not because I’d normally be wearing snakeskin pants but because this is what I want to wear. People may recognize me, but when you dress like anyone else, they don’t come running.”

The master at the game of blending in, he says, is Robert De Niro. One of the best pieces of advice DiCaprio ever got about the art was simply to buy a pair of ordinary glasses. “Those are key,” he says. “I remember De Niro saying to me, ‘Leonardo, get yourself one pair.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘One pair of glasses. Don’t ever switch them. Always wear them.”‘ (For anyone who’s seen De Niro in public wearing glasses, that’s actually true. He is not himself.)

DiCaprio’s co-stars say that his celebrity has not changed him a whit. But DiCaprio’s insulation has turned him into a rare and odd creature whose work hours demand brilliance and whose time off can be spent as a scruffy tearaway, a dilettante activist, whatever he likes. That’s a privilege afforded the extremely rich and the extremely famous, and DiCaprio walks in both camps.

The most famous mark of DiCaprio’s eccentricity, of course, is the posse. He has known all of his closest friends since well before becoming famous; Tobey Maguire auditioned for the DiCaprio role in This Boy’s Life, and the two have been tight ever since. A few posse members, however, have been jettisoned. Dana Giacchetto, DiCaprio’s money manager, turned out to have swindled the star and others out of millions. (He’s now in prison.) After David Blaine, the magician, publicly disparaged the idea of being DiCaprio’s hanger-on, the association abruptly ended.

These days, DiCaprio likes to present the posse not as a party crew but as a family. “My newest friend became my friend seven years ago,” he says. “People may hear that and say, ‘He’s unable to trust,’ but I can. I just have a great nucleus, 10 great friends who I love to hang out with.” He pauses. “You know, hang out with my buddies, drive around in my electric golf cart” — by this he means his hybrid electric car, a Toyota Prius.

Since DiCaprio is famously a basketball freak, I ask if it’s any coincidence that he always specifies that he has exactly 10 pals: two teams. “Yeah, I have 10 friends for that exact reason,” he jokes. “It’s also why I’ve chosen short friends. It has nothing to do with their personalities.”

The posse is now closed to new members. This may be because of the privacy factor; Tobey, for example, makes it a point to say little about Leo, just as Leo does about Tobey. Or it may be that 10 is a sizable group to have padding around the Hollywood Hills mansion at all hours.

“I don’t really have time for new friends,” he says. “I’m not closed off to new encounters with people. But I’m not looking for new friends. I got my boys.”

“What about female friends?” I ask. “Do you have many?”

“Two or three,” he says vaguely. “But I wouldn’t include them in the 10.”
Since most of the members of the posse are noncelebrities, there’s a good bit of chiding that goes on. The fame thing makes for good running jokes. “I have a whole bit with my friends where I pretend to be the most obnoxious guy in the world, and they go along with it,” DiCaprio says. “I actually embody that person. Like, ‘No, he doesn’t want to do that.’ Speaking of myself in the third person. I say ‘L.’ Like, ‘L doesn’t want to do that.’ It’s a fun bit.”

You rarely read about Kate Winslet’s high jinks, though she was caught in the Titanic dazzle lights, too. DiCaprio likes to say there’s no guidebook when it comes to dealing with his late-90’s level of fame. Not even De Niro, he says, would be able to advise him.

Besides, in this process of overhauling his image, the Moomba phase of DiCaprio’s public persona is fading. These days, his boldfaced name still splashes out from every tab’s “Sightings” column, but it’s more common for him to be seen in hushed business conversations over lunch or engaged in other noncarousing pursuits.

Still, from the overwhelming success of Titanic — paradoxically, one of his least-challenging performances — DiCaprio has been relegated to a strange critical realm where everything he does, acting and otherwise, becomes an external commentary on his fame. He’s the star of an endless movie he never auditioned for. Which has made the long run-up to Catch Me, and especially Gangs, all the more keenly scrutinized.

It’s a happy, almost surprising, fact of his life that for all DiCaprio’s mind-bending renown, his indulgences have left no permanent scars. The same sweet, convulsive temptations that have brought low any number of American icons, from James Dean to River Phoenix, thus far have not visited him. DiCaprio has died a little, but he has survived.

Baz Luhrmann, who directed DiCaprio in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and is slated to work with him again on a film about Alexander the Great in 2004, credits DiCaprio’s groundedness with his family. “He came from a radical upbringing,” Luhrmann says. “Leo was never looking to be wild — that had been his childhood! Still, even experienced people get thrown by that level of fame.”

Another day, another posh enclave. DiCaprio is in Manhattan at the St. Regis, but not in a suite. He favors a small room, he says, because at the end of the day, what does it matter? Though he is in the late morning of life, that’s one of his favorite phrases, “at the end of the day.” I arrive to find him watching hippos attacking one another on the Discovery Channel; he’s fresh from a nap and rumpled head to toe, but the nature footage acts on him like a stimulant. “Vicious water pigs!” he suddenly shouts past me. “Oh, they’re gnashing at each other!”

His obsession on this tepid night is not water pigs but Gangs — no surprise, since he’s about to see a rough screening for the first time. As he discusses the project, DiCaprio’s strategy comes into clear focus. He wants to focus on the educational content of his work, to convey to the public what he’s been learning — in lengthy detail, information that has nothing to do with him personally. Perhaps naively, or perhaps not, DiCaprio wants to be a conduit, not a subject.

“The cool side fact about Gangs is that because of the Draft Riots, New York is structurally what it is today,” he says, forming his fingertips into a tiny cage. “They literally made, like, a fireproof city. It had been an industrialized city, cottages and tenements made out of wood. So the New York we see today has a direct correlation with the Draft Riots, with the burning and the looting of the city.”

“It’s about the nativists, whose families’ blood was spilled to create this new land, versus the hordes of immigrants.”

He stops short, recalling that, earlier, I teased him with a jokingly rude question about his private life. “Oh, I could go on forever,” he says, laughing and slapping my knee. “But I’m sure you want to get back to your Page Six-type questions.”

His big break came with This Boy’s Life in 1993. At the time, DiCaprio hadn’t the faintest idea what movie work entailed. “I had no experience starring in a film like that,” he says. “I think what got me the role was my complete ignorance to the whole filmmaking process and who I was working with. I knew of De Niro, but I was, like, 16 years old. I’d seen two, maybe three of his movies. I hadn’t seen Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. I think it helped that I was the only kid there with a complete lack of knowledge who didn’t respect what it was like to read with De Niro. During an intense scene, I walked across the room and got in his face and went, ‘Nooo!’ And he just laughed in my face. He said, ‘O.K., kid, O.K., calm down.”‘

De Niro was impressed. “I knew he had something when I saw him read,” De Niro recalls. “So I said, ‘I’m tellin’ you, use this kid, if you want my advice.’ I’m glad they saw what I saw.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that DiCaprio’s performances in This Boy’s Life and Gilbert Grape were a phenomenon. His emotions lived so close to the surface that it was almost unnerving. Watching Gilbert Grape viewers who knew nothing of him assumed that he truly was mentally disabled.

Unbeknown to DiCaprio, even Martin Scorsese got wind of the new kid. “De Niro and I check in with each other on each project we’re working on,” Scorsese says. “And when he tells me about somebody — unsolicited — a flag goes up. When he did This Boy’s Life, he said, ‘This is a young person who bears watching.’ Then I saw Gilbert Grape. And I didn’t quite know Leo was an actor! I couldn’t quite tell.”

DiCaprio got his first taste of controversy with The Basketball Diaries, based on the autobiographical book by Jim Carroll. The film was still fresh in the public memory when the Columbine killings occurred, and the trench-coated DiCaprio, seen gunning people down, elicited harsh protests.

But those movies were the sparks. The film that made Leonardo DiCaprio a star — recognized both for his acting talent and his charisma — was Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. “The acting machine, we called him,” Luhrmann says. “He had the ability to drop right into the emotion of a scene. It was unbelievable. And to open a film, at 19, that’s unbelievable, too.” The movie was an unexpected success, and it did particularly well among teenage girls.

Then Titanic hit. Nobody could have seen it coming. “He became global culture, in much the same way as the Beatles or Elvis,” Luhrmann says. “I’ve been in mud huts in Egypt and seen two posters on the walls: Leonardo and Michael Jackson. You know, Titanic is Romeo and Juliet. Those two films made Leonardo the tragic romantic icon of his generation.”

The actor’s fame was so far-reaching that in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, barbers started peddling a DiCaprio-style haircut dubbed “the Titanic.” The Taliban reacted unsportingly, arresting 22 barbers, and were especially enraged that the coif was evidence that citizens were screening forbidden videos.

After The Beach, whose environmental themes still deeply resonate with him, DiCaprio decided to take a strategic breath in his career. Despite the appearance that his box-office draw was a cooling ember, Hollywood offered him everything that came down the pike. He said no to all of it: the role of Anakin Skywalker, American Psycho, Heath Ledger’s part in The Patriot and even the lead in Spider-Man, which subsequently turned his best friend into a star. This was no time in his career, he reckoned, to play a superhero. With Gangs on the horizon, he resolved to make his next screen appearance a Scorsese creation, to work at last with his dream director.

In the storm of all that followed Titanic, it’s impossible not to wonder if part of him regrets the film. “No, nothing I regret,” he says. “I did go through a transformation, but there’s been case after case of people who’ve been put in that position and conformed to the public’s perception of them. They’ve essentially become the cliché that people have made up for them.” He winces and pulls a survivor’s smile. “What grounds me is, at the end of the day, I don’t bring my work home with me.”

It would be absurd to imagine that DiCaprio has been the hapless victim of unadulterated lies, orchestrated by a penny-press. The shocking fact is that he has gone clubbing. His cocktail of choice is vodka and cranberry juice. He has got drunk and propositioned women and, through his wilder years, has stayed up way past his bedtime, more than once.

Naturally, the notion that DiCaprio is a nonstop party boy has been exaggerated. But even the tabloids weave their caricatures with some strands of factual thread. Jim Carroll remembers DiCaprio’s discovery of the nightlife. “It was Marky Wahlberg who turned him on to the club scene,” Carroll says. “The women who’d come to the Basketball Diaries set — models, all these girls. He plowed right through ’em, man.”

Martin Scorsese scoffs at the uproar. “This is a very good-looking young kid,” he says. “What’s he doing? He’s going to a club! Is he crazy? “

For his part, DiCaprio prefers to focus on other personal flaws. “What I still have to master about myself is I have compulsive problems,” he says. “I waste time obsessing over meaningless garbage. Like collecting every childhood toy that I’ve ever wanted. Just stupid stuff like that.” The inevitable moment of self-editing ensues. “O.K., that just sounded like the most lightweight confession you’ve ever heard,” he quickly adds, a bit appalled. “This is my big flaw, I collect childhood toys!’ But I concern myself with garbage a lot of the time. I’m trying to stop that. I tend to be judgmental of people without giving them a chance. But in all fairness, that comes from meeting a lot of jerks.”

DiCaprio rounds on me. “Besides, let’s be honest here,” he says. “As much as I want to be fair, aren’t your flaws the last damn thing you’d want people to know about you?” He laughs and pokes my arm. “If you had, like, an addiction to kiddie porn, would you want to see it in an article?”

His tone abruptly shifts. Playful porn discussions are clearly not wise. “Porn is extremely destructive, man,” he says, flickering into solemnity. “More than people understand. There’s this great line in The Mind of the Married Man on HBO — like, ‘Why can’t you just be with your wife?’ And the guy says, ‘How can I, when I have 200 channels of porn scrolling through my mind every five seconds?’ And it’s true. I don’t like to watch that stuff.”
“Isn’t going to strip clubs a form of porn?” I counter. “Yeah. And I’ve done all that stuff. But I think, ultimately, it mutates your ability to just be with one person.”

Despite this newfound stateliness, DiCaprio doesn’t seem to crave an especially Ozzie-and-Harriet existence. “I want a kid someday,” he says. “I would love to have a wife I feel comfortable with. It just has to be the right person, where you still treat each other as equals, and you’re both independent enough to a point where you can go off to Alaska at a moment’s notice with your friends and leave for two weeks, and it won’t be an issue. And that it won’t get monotonous, so you don’t feel like you’re wasting your life just lying around all afternoon with your wife. You know what I mean?”

“You’re not in a relationship right now, are you?”

“No. Hey, I’m not going to sit here and say that I wasn’t a little bit of a Don Juan in the past. But I’m certainly not like that anymore. Not that I’m sitting here saying I’m ready to settle down.”

In the wake of Gisele and the other single-namers who have sashayed through DiCaprio’s life, it doesn’t seem he’s in the market for another Burton-and-Taylor-style romance. “It is tougher to date another celebrity,” he says. “You have a lower-percentage possibility of having a successful relationship. There are just that many more people chasing after that person. How many Hollywood relationships have been successful? Tracy and Hepburn . . . I don’t know.”

Despite the fact that Scorsese, among many others, compares him to a young Brando, Leonardo DiCaprio is anything but a method actor. He performs in spurts. His technique is to know the material and work the character instinctively in the moment, then drop it the moment the cameras stop rolling. “I rehearse it; I think about it — usually the night before,” he says. “But I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis in the sense that I’m sharpening knives during lunch. I’m eating during lunch. I think I might go crazy if I were in character 24 hours a day. I have a limited focus. Daniel, he’s an intense dude. That said, he’s not unapproachable.”

“And you?” I ask. “Are you difficult to work with?”

“I don’t think I am at all,” DiCaprio says after an age. “I’m pretty damn easy to work with. I don’t pull ridiculous movie-star stuff. I can honestly say that.”

Day-Lewis says that he admires DiCaprio’s natural technique. “Leo’s loose,” he explains. “The work doesn’t look pondered over. He’s got a head working there, but there are times when your mind can become an impediment.”
Spielberg agrees. “Leo doesn’t have an intellectual approach to acting,” he says. “Which is great, because I don’t get him polished — I get him raw.”
Of course, DiCaprio’s current obsessions are not confined to acting and non-canoodling. He’s engaged in any number of environmental causes. As with everything DiCaprio, his interests are magnified. When Leo DiCaprio pores over environmental abstracts, he ends up interviewing the president of the United States on ABC, to the dismay of experts. “I believe in doing a couple things and doing them really well,” he says. “And being an actor and being an environmentalist are things that I’m going to do. One of the things coming up is a new documentary on PBS. I’m going to produce it and be the, I don’t know, the anchor kind of guy. It’s going to be pretty cutthroat about what we’re doing to our environment, how the United States is terrible in that respect. Because we’re the worst. We’re the worst of the worst.

“Take frogs. The frog is the barometer for the condition of a certain habitat. They’re amphibians, and they’re really susceptible to the forces of nature. I remember when I was a kid and I used to go frog hunting in Malibu. They’re wiped out now, never to return.”

DiCaprio, in his career, has not come full circle. He has finished one arc and is starting a fresh one. That is the hard environmental reality of fame. But it’s striking that — for all the chat about his fall after Titanic — he is now working with the two most powerful directors in this country, and both want to work with him in the future. His next film, again with Martin Scorsese, will be The Aviator, a film based on the early years of Howard Hughes.

Of course, though the two directors have their similarities — DiCaprio never fails to equate them as masters of the form — Scorsese and Spielberg live at opposite ends of the creative spectrum. Scorsese is the quintessential New Yorker, engrossed in every detail, and presents stark, metaphorical visions of America. Spielberg is the ultimate Hollywood insider whose films are often paeans to purity and simpler times. So it’s striking that DiCaprio struck up a shorthand with both. Initially, he hadn’t expected to like Spielberg, given rumors that he’d heard about the director being “difficult and power-trippy,” but now DiCaprio speaks glowingly of him. Liking Scorsese, on the other hand, had always been a foregone conclusion.

“He reminds me of that excitement when De Niro and I stumbled upon a way of working together — a similar kind of energy of the actors in the 70’s,” Scorsese says. “It’s very rare for me to find that kind of connection again. Leo will give me the emotion where I least expect it and could only hope for in about three or four scenes. And he can do it take after take.”

The contractual game of selling a movie is something Scorsese has always despised, which partly accounts for his pleasure in having found a star he considers not only talented but also — he hopes — bankable. With the many delays the $97 million Gangs has suffered and the well-publicized friction between Scorsese and Miramax over the film’s length and budget, the director has a lot on the line. And in Hollywood, delay inevitably carries the stench of failure.

For DiCaprio, however, the advent of this double release is a win-win proposition. Presented with the dueling icons of Leo the grimy avenging angel and Leo the breezy Cary Grant-style scoundrel, the market will decide which DiCaprio will get his Christmas wish. If even one of the films is a hit, he’ll be back on top. The kid stays in the pictures.

Well, not “kid.” DiCaprio bristles at being characterized as a man-child. He repeatedly makes a point of saying that now that he’s older, he’s seizing far more control over his career and is prepared to be more difficult on the set when he needs to be. That said, Spielberg can’t resist describing his work with DiCaprio as being that of a “paternal director.”

“As a parent, I don’t direct my kids,” Spielberg says. “I may misdirect them so they discover that, Gee, dad can be wrong sometimes. When you misdirect a child, the child will make a discovery that empowers him to say, ‘Wow, I found something out all on my own.’ I encouraged Leo to watch his takes over and over again in video playback. And he would watch with the focus of a subparticle physicist. Then he would nod his head and say: ‘I have an idea. Let’s do one more for the Gipper.’ That was his mantra. He would do Take 9 with an abandon that showed me how deep his courage ran as an actor. And often, that was the take I used.”

Spielberg, of course, often explores themes involving the purity of youth; even at 55, he wouldn’t flinch were he to be called boyish. “This whole movie’s about the death of innocence,” he says. “But Leo has not lost his. The thing I often say to Leo is: ‘Don’t ever lose that little boy in you who can get his feelings hurt so effortlessly. That’s going to serve you well as an actor.’ There’s something that we want from Leo — always to be who we’ve forgotten we are.”

Scorsese doesn’t see it that way at all. Unasked, knowing that DiCaprio attained his highest degree of fame as a teen idol, he simply says: “This is not a boy. This is a man .”

It’s a strange coincidence that in the wake of his own experience, DiCaprio’s next two roles (after Gangs and Catch Me) will both be Icarus figures. Scorsese wants to explore the flaws of Howard Hughes — the era before the tycoon’s sanity went bankrupt. “It’s the idea of someone who wants to be the fastest man in the world,” the director says, “to fly up to the sun. But the wings get melted.” The planned Baz Luhrmann epic of Alexander the Great has that same element: a profile of Messianic charisma, of a man Luhrmann describes as “the first to understand self-promotion, the first to be a legend in his own time. The cult of personality was born with him. His only flaw was that he chased the unattainable.” So DiCaprio may be able to draw on the Icarian experience of his fallen-idol phase, if he ever truly fell.

In the meantime, he can burnish his public persona and join De Niro below the media radar. “The odd thing is, the number of people who want to associate with you is multiplied when you have a movie coming out,” he says, narrowing his eyes to convey savvy. “And they don’t even realize that. I’ve seen people around who don’t say hello to me. Then, when it’s movie time, they’ll come up and say hello. It’s a great barometer for, like, who’s a jerk and who’s not.”

He pauses, then reverts to the sanctuary of his environmentalist discourse. “See, that’s essentially my frog — my barometer.”

At the end of the day, there’s always sports. At the Chateau Marmont there is a Ping-Pong table, and DiCaprio is unable to resist a challenge.

We hit the table, and it’s soon clear that this is going to be a sound pummeling. At first, he taps through a few friendly volleys, trying to be civil. But as the game begins, he’s smashing the ball savagely and with expert spin, occasionally shouting gleeful phrases in German, which he speaks passingly from his boyhood summers in Europe. More than a few times, the Nepalese elephant etched on his T-shirt becomes little more than a blur, as he slams the ball so hard that it gets lost in the ivy of the brick wall behind me.

“Watch it in here,” he says, stabbing into the leaves with his paddle. “This is where rats like to live!” Whacking away at the thicket, it’s unclear at times whether he’s trying to find the ball or kill rodents. Beyond the politeness of our practice volleys, he has no mercy; this is the sports equivalent of one of his on-set spurts, and he has no intention of failing. So he wins one for the Gipper. 

Leaving the hotel, he’s keen to show me his “golf cart.” We drive around a bit, and he’s effusive about the car; it qualifies both as one of those toys he collects and as a noble invention that spares the environment. “See, every time you brake or coast, it recharges the battery,” he says, explaining the complex monitor on the dashboard. “The reason why all cars don’t use this technology is because of the oil companies.”

Just then, we pass a tree-shrouded driveway to the hotel, where a stylish blond woman is disgorging from a black S.U.V. “That’ll be Nicole Kidman, I suppose,” he says sardonically. On cue, the woman turns slowly to collect something from the back seat; DiCaprio does a double take and shouts in exasperation. “It is! It is Nicole Kidman.”

The car buzzes along a few beats as he ponders the irrationality of stardom, of all the beautiful people who spend their work lives crafting their dramatic personas and then watch strangers craft their real-life ones. “Nicole Kidman,” he repeats, rasping like an old-time studio exec. “That’s Hollywood, baby!”

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in NY Times, Nov.2002.

November 24, 2002 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links