Seven years after Titanic made Leonardo DiCaprio the object of global mania – and a $20 Million per picture star – he has finally satisfied a longtime obsession of his own. This month, in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, DiCaprio will play Howard Hughes, the visionary tycoon whose brilliance was swallowed up by madness.
Riding up an elevator in a no-frills office building at an unremarkable address, a short, middle-aged man looks up at the young guy in the backward baseball cap. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere?” the man asks, squinting his eyes. Bingo. “You’re that kid from Titanic.”
“Yeah,” says Leonardo DiCaprio, smiling awkwardly.
“Listen, I got a line of apparel. How’d you like to be the face of the company?”
“Thanks,” says DiCaprio as the doors open and he heads toward his six-person production company, “but I really don’t do that kind of stuff.”
“Really? Why not?” the man asks, hands out, apparently mystified.
It’s little surprise that some people think of DiCaprio as the “kid from Titanic.” It’s been seven years since the biggest blockbuster of all time, but DiCaprio, who is just turning 30 this month, has done only four films in the interim, not counting a cameo in Woody Allen’s Celebrity. The first two – The Beach and The Man in the Iron Mask – were critically skewered. The second two, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, strong as they were, didn’t amount to a one-two-punch comeback.
Who can forget that foremost trend of the late 90s, Leo-mania? “It was like a surreal Fellini film,” says DiCaprio with a sigh, this afternoon in the lush gardens of the Hotel Bel-Air. Then, inevitably, the backlash set in. DiCaprio was sharing an office building with apparel salesmen who didn’t know his name. The memory among film people of the great potential suggested by his films from 1993, This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, was beginning to fade.
No longer. With Scorsese’s The Aviator a thrilling film about the early years of Howard Hughes, DiCaprio has fulfilled the promise of 11 years ago and become the most compelling actor of his generation. Far from depicting the aging Hughes many people envision-“the hairy wolfman that sat up in his suite and overlooked the lights of Vegas,” as DiCaprio puts it – the film focuses on the young Hughes, a self made, brash visionary, driven by the need to break all boundaries in his path, in aviation, filmmaking, and collecting the world’s beautiful women. Throughout the film, Hughes’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (not yet a recognized condition) increasingly takes hold, causing him, for example, to repeat phrases over and over and break down at the sight of a spot on another person’s suit. Toward the end, a buck-naked Hughes holes up for weeks in his screening room.
In scene after scene, DiCaprio balances the swashbuckling genius who seduces Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Jean Harlow with the freakish paranoiac, too frightened of germs to open the bathroom door, radiating such charisma it is impossible to take one’s eyes off him. “The young Howard Hughes played by the young Leonardo DiCaprio is very strong and attractive,” Scorsese says, in an understatement. “There are ‘shape-changers,'” says Scorsese. “People who can change shape. This comes from ancient folklore or sagas from the North where men change shape in battle. They’d become ferocious animals or something. We found ourselves surprised at certain points of the picture when Leo would walk on the set. It was Howard, or at least it was our version of Howard… I hadn’t seen that happen for a long time in pictures.” For Scorsese, working with DiCaprio reminds him of his early days with Robert De Niro. “It is reminiscent of that process,” Scorsese says. “It’s an unrelenting process of probing and asking questions and trying things out.” He adds, “It makes me feel good. It makes me feel sort of complete, working as a director with an actor.”
DiCaprio has been working on this movie, in a certain way, since he was 21. “I read a book about Howard Hughes, by Peter Harry Brown, and I’d never known anything about the guy,” says DiCaprio, who is affable and easy-going but speaks with intensity, often locking eyes to indicate how important a topic is to him. Fascinated – and driven to read every book about Hughes out there – DiCaprio quickly realized there were two big hurdles in bringing Hughes’s life to the screen: first, in Hollywood, pictures about Howard Hughes were perpetually in the works; second, DiCaprio was too young to play him. Too young, at least, to play the old loon. Then a notion dawned on him: there was a younger Hughes who hadn’t been explored. “He symbolized the changing of our country, the industrial-revolution pioneers who took amazing chances,” says DiCaprio. “He romanced all the women that there were to possibly romance. He had the balls to finance films that were really groundbreaking. He made the first not just million-dollar movie but first $4 million movie in Hell’s Angels [a 1930 Jean Harlow film]. And he put his own money into it! That’s like one man financing, you know, Titanic or something!”
Equipped with this notion, DiCaprio went around to several producers, landing, after some time, with Michael Mann. Mann got John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) to develop the script. Fresh off Ali, Mann felt that he couldn’t do another major biopic for five years and made the difficult decision to drop out as director, while remaining attached as a producer. But he would part with directing the project only if it ended up in the right hands. That meant one person.
Scorsese remembers the call from Rick Yorn, his and DiCaprio’s manager: “He said, ‘I think I’ve got something I want you to read.’ I said, ‘What? What is it?,’ ’cause I was busy on Gangs. He said, ‘I’m not going to tell you what it is.’ I said, ‘All right, don’t tell me – just send it.’ So he sent it, and I didn’t know anything about it. It was in my lap and it said The Aviator. Now, I’ve been on record many times saying how much I’m not a fan of flying. I’m fascinated by flying, but I have a serious problem with it. So I opened the cover and I looked and it said, ‘John Logan.’ I said, ‘O.K., I know him.’ So I started reading.” Logan’s script was remarkably complete, the narrative and details so fully fleshed out that Scorsese could see that relatively little needed to be reworked to take the project from page to screen. In fact, the making of the film, which cost more than $100 million and was mostly financed by Graham King, was free of any big-budget-production nightmares.
DiCaprio is on an almost Hughes-ian mission to analyze the film from every angle. He talks about a Django Reinhardt tune he got in there by begging Scorsese. “You wouldn’t even know what I’m talking about, but it’s my secret treasure,” DiCaprio says. “It’s the most tense piece of music you’ve ever heard.” He praises his co-stars, such as Alan Alda, who plays Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, the man intent on bringing Hughes down. “He’s more of a slimeball than anybody [who] could play that role. He was perfect.”
He talks about his favorite scene, in which Hughes, falling in love with Katharine Hepburn (played by Cate Blanchett), offers her a sip from his milk bottle. “Nobody could touch the rim of the milk that he drinks. And then the one moment – he’s sitting there looking at the milk, staring at it and wondering, ‘Am I going to give over this part of myself?’ And he pours it into her mouth.” He wants to know your favorite scene. Name it and he needs to know why, and what other scenes you liked.
His Hotel Bel-Air surroundings send him into an Aviator reverie. “Why don’t you dig up one of your bungalow girls?” he says – a couple of times, actually – out of the blue, quoting Ava Gardner, played by Kate Beckinsale in the film. “There are 20 stashed in the Bel-Air.”
DiCaprio is as passionate, as curious and analytical, when it comes to just about everything. He is fascinated by history – not just the history of human beings, but the history of the earth and its creatures. He will talk about extinct lizards, brachiosaurs, Pompeii, or a recent exhibition of human body parts in such long stretches that you begin to feel you’re hanging out with an incredibly precocious 11-year-old. In fact, the longer he talks, the more DiCaprio emerges as a deeply sensitive and wildly imaginative nerd-boy, whose massive fame and ability to get laid as often as he wants seem like bonuses that he never sought but that just happened.
As Meryl Streep, his co-star in the 1996 movie Marvin’s Room, puts it, “Leo possesses the wild gene – unpredictability – which makes his career seem to defy categorization, his life careen along the cliff edge, and his work vivid and bright and exciting.” His trappings, certainly, are all very “Hollywood.” He’s got the $20 million price tag, the supermodel (Gisele Bundchen), and the tight group of “homeys,” who include actors Tobey Maguire and Kevin Connolly (who plays the beleaguered best friend-script picker to the Leo-esque heartthrob movie star in the HBO show Entourage), and he routinely calls people “dawg.” But his mind is anything but.
You would be hard-pressed, for example, to meet a Hollywood actor as eager as DiCaprio to talk about his grandmother. “Oma,” says DiCaprio, smiling broadly, referring to Grandma Helene, who was the wife of a coal miner and lives in the German town of “Or-Er-ken-schwick,” Leo says, savoring each syllable. “I love spending as much time as I can with her because she is literally gangsta. And I mean that with an a.” Consider the private tour of the Musee Picasso, in Paris, that she and Leo were given by Picasso’s grandson Olivier. Though thoroughly unimpressed by the Cubist’s work, Oma heeded her grandson’s wish that she not say anything negative in front of Picasso’s relative. “She was being very good up until he asked her opinion.” recalls DiCaprio. “‘So what do you think of this painting?’ She goes, ‘You could tell me that was a snake, a flower, or a dog, and I would say, “O.K.” You know why? Because it looks like nothing.'” DiCaprio laughs proudly. “She will tell people exactly what she thinks to their face and look them in the eye. And she knows you ain’t going to do s*, ’cause she’s 89 years old.”
Oma is dear to DiCaprio also because she saved the life of his mother, Irmelin, during World War II, when she was a toddler, after a broken leg had landed her in a German hospital. “All these refugees from the war and all the soldiers came into the hospital,” she says, “She ended up contracting five or six major illnesses and stayed for two and a half, three years. My grandmother basically came every day and nursed her back to health because the nurses didn’t have time. When you see a picture of my mother, it’s heartbreaking. It brings tears to my eyes knowing what she’s been through in her life.” DiCaprio is so over the moon about his mom and Oma that he insists they appear as extras in almost all of his movies.
According to Steven Spielberg, “Leo’s humanity in all the characters he’s thus far played can be traced directly back to how close he is to every single member of his family.”
Still, young Leo spent a good deal of time getting beaten up by neighborhood bullies. “I was small, and I was a smart-ass. That’s a deadly combination,” says DiCaprio. He got his first performance experience break-dancing. “I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I was second place in the Or-Erkenschwick break-dance competition, in Germany,” says DiCaprio. “One out of 16 German children.”
DiCaprio’s early experiences with the cutthroat world of Hollywood seem indelibly marked in his psyche, and he talks about them so earnestly, it’s hard at first to know whether he’s joking. He’s not. First, there was his painful meeting with the casting agent at age 11. “I remember them lining us up like cattle. There were eight boys. A woman comes up and says, ‘O.K., no, no, yes, yes, no, no, no, yes. Thank you.'” Little Leo was a “no,” and he was traumatized. “I thought that that was my one chance into the business and that the community was now against me.” It took three years for the wound to heal. At age 14, he picked up the pieces and tried again, landing an agent and a Matchbox-car commercial. But then the offers dried up. “I hadn’t gotten a job in a year and a half,” he says. “That’s like over a hundred auditions. You get pretty disillusioned. One day I just decided I hated everyone. I hated all these casting directors. I hated them all. I was ready to quit.” Along came the chance to do Parenthood, based on the 1989 Steve Martin movie. DiCaprio was up for the role that Joaquin Phoenix had had in the movie. He analyzed Phoenix’s performance as if he were studying Olivier to play Richard III, and landed the part.
For This Boy’s Life all DiCaprio knew, prior to the audition, was that De Niro was really good in this movie Midnight Run, and what his dad had told him when they went to see it: See this guy? Now, this guy is cool. His name is Robert De Niro, O.K.? You remember that name. He’s cool.” Seeing how nervous the other kids were before their audition with De Niro, 18-year-old DiCaprio understood he had to do something special to stand out. “I just got up and screamed, ‘Nooooo!’ I was right in front of his face and, like, veins pumping. I’ll never forget his face. He burst into hysterical laughter. I thought I had bombed that ship.”
De Niro, who’d been inclined to go with another boy, was swayed.
For DiCaprio, the experience of making the film was a baptism of fire. “When [De Niro] showed up on the set, it was like the Pope showed up,” recalls DiCaprio. “Everything is on lockdown. ‘Shh, shh, quiet.’” But Leo, meanwhile, couldn’t help trying to provoke his co-star Ellen Barkin with wiseass little barbs. “It was good for the part,” recalls De Niro, who looked on with amusement. When it came time for the two to do scenes together, DiCaprio found himself totally perplexed when his older co-star strayed from the script. “I don’t know what the hell is going on,” he says, remembering his mind-set. “If he says something that’s not on the page, do I say ‘O.K., that was wrong’? ‘Oh, Bob, you said the wrong line’? See, no, I was supposed to come back and say something. I had no idea how it worked.” But De Niro was impressed enough to let Scorsese know that this was a kid to look out for. DiCaprio, meanwhile, credits the film’s director, Michael Caton-Jones, for guiding him through every step and paving the way for him to have “the ultimate trust [in directors], because that’s how I was brought into this movie world, by Michael Caton-Jones literally taking me under his wing.”
By the time DiCaprio was working on his next film, Lasse Hallstrom’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) he was left to his own devices. “Lasse didn’t really tell me anything about actually what he thought I should do. He just said. ‘Do what you think.'” So DiCaprio embarked on his first experience with research – what he refers to as “doing your homework.” He spent time at a home for mentally challenged children and compiled a list of “a couple of hundred little attributes.” He dutifully went to Hallstrom to go through the ones he wanted to try, and Hallstrom essentially waved him off—fine, fine, fine. “It was the most freedom I had ever had with anything I’d ever done,” DiCaprio says. Anybody who remembers Arnie’s hopeless reliance on his brother, or his heartbreaking realization that his mother was not going to wake up from her nap saw that here was an actor with extraordinary vulnerability, serious chops, and a face every bit as cute as Depp’s.
DiCaprio vividly remembers the actor Brendan Fraser telling him that he was really good in the movie, and how taken aback he was at the compliment. The praise snowballed. He earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Magazines started putting him on their covers. Suddenly, he was the next Brando – and DiCaprio started to believe it, too. “As soon as enough people give you enough compliments, and you’re wielding more power than you’ve ever had in your life, it’s not that you become an arrogant little prick, or become rude to people but you get a false sense of your own importance and what you’ve accomplished,” says DiCaprio. “You actually think you’ve altered the course of history.” (He notes that he see the same phenomenon happening with some of today’s young actors. A pure professional, he won’t name names.)
His father helped keep him in line and reminded him that it was all about the work. For his countercultural dad, that meant work that was unusual. He guided him to two projects, both about anti-Establishment writers, The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse. While The Basketball Diaries had a kind of built-in cool that appealed to a young actor, the latter required more convincing. “Let me explain to you who this guy [Rimbaud] was,” DiCaprio’s father said to him. “He was a radical artist, and you need to pay attention to this.” DiCaprio was sold by the anti-bourgeoisie pitch. “It’s like, who wouldn’t want to play Louis Armstrong?” says DiCaprio. “Someone who came in when most music in America was step-dancing and foxtrot and ‘Grab your partner.'” He was less enthusiastic about the make-out scenes with Verlaine. “I did not want to do that,” DiCaprio says. “I’m not going to sit here and be the artist and say otherwise.”
His next film was Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and at the premiere DiCaprio’s manager, Rick Yorn, saw the seeds of Leo-mania. “Leo and I were walking in and there were all these young girls, kids, behind a barricade, and they broke through. He was like a Beatle. They’re screaming and it was like, ‘Whoa…’ That hadn’t happened before. I had seen that happen with other people, but not at that level… I called back to L.A. and talked to some people, and I was like ‘this is going to be just a taste.”
Yorn, wanting a major hit for his client, brought him Titanic. “I was resisting it for a long, long time,” DiCaprio says of the movie.
“He laughed at me and it’s like, ‘No chance,'” Yorn recalls of DiCaprio’s reaction to the script. There was no heroin, no angry poetry writing—nothing! Except, that is, for Kate Winslet, whose acting cred, like DiCaprio’s, was top-drawer. “We were both having the same reservations,” DiCaprio says. They finally decided, If you jump, I jump, and made the movie.
There has been much speculation that DiCaprio thought director James Cameron was an arrogant jackass on the set and that they often came to blows. But the actor deconstructs the persona of Jim Cameron with relative charity. “It takes somebody with a general-like attitude to storm the beaches of Normandy, to start an epic battle, which is what this film was to me.” he says. Reliving the details of the shoot is exhausting for him. “You’re sitting in a five-story ship that has been re-created to scale that’s on hydraulics. And the hydraulics are pushing the bow of the ship into the ocean. And a crew of 400 is sitting there as a wall of water is shooting itself through one of the floors directly at you. And there’s lights on 20 different cranes that are blasting down on you, and the director coming in on another crane through the window. I mean it, it was, I mean it was – I can’t even describe it.”
But the real craziness came after the movie’s release. The surreality of the Leo-mania crystallized one day when he was traveling in Europe and a 14-year-old girl grabbed his leg and held on for dear life. “I looked at her and she just pressed her head against my leg,” DiCaprio recalls. “And I said, ‘Hi… What are you doing, sweetheart?’ And she kept clutching. There was just a sort of obsessed look in her eye. She wasn’t looking at me, though, [just] my leg, I guess. And I looked at her and I sort of grabbed her face and said, ‘Hi, it’s O.K., no, you can, you can get off my leg. It’s fine.’ She kept saying, ‘No, no.’ I had to gently pry her hands off.”
Some girls got considerably luckier. According to press accounts, he went through a slew of models (Kate Moss, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova, Amber Valetta, Bridget Hall) and actresses. DiCaprio won’t comment on any specifics, but he’s not a total dodger. “I had fun,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. He is quick to point out, however, that he couldn’t sleep with every woman he wanted, and that actually liking people is important to swordsmen, too. “You always ask yourself, [Could I be in love with this one?] You’re always yearning for a partner in life.”
Perhaps. But, for the tabloids, 23-year- old Leo’s night-crawling with a posse was an irresistible opportunity to snark.
Even reputable magazines jumped on the bandwagon, culminating in an inane piece in Time headlined WHAT’S EATING LEONARDO DICAPRIO?, in which writer Joel Stein, who’d begged DiCaprio to let him tag along while he bought groceries, decided to focus his profile on what DiCaprio gets at Ralphs. “He prints my grocery list…. It’s like, ‘Chuck steak, and deodorant, and broccoli,'” recalls DiCaprio. “I seemed like the most immature, juvenile punk in all of these articles that were written about me.”
It didn’t help his public image that DiCaprio took two years to choose his next project. “Some people say to me, ‘Oh, you were basking in the glory of being famous.'” Instead, DiCaprio claims, “I wanted to make sure that I was being chosen for a movie for the right reasons…. [You] wait for the ashes to settle, and regroup.”
While DiCaprio still considers The Beach an important commentary on such issues as globalization and the destruction of primitive cultures, the film was generally panned. A “Benetton take on Lord of the Flies,” the critics said. DiCaprio was disappointed. “I don’t think people really gave it a chance but I totally expected whatever might follow up [Titanic] was going to be looked [at] under a microscope.”
All this was significantly softened by the entrance into DiCaprio’s life of Martin Scorsese.
DiCaprio approached the role of Amsterdam, a young apprentice thug, with the kind of all-transforming intensity that Robert De Niro brought to Raging Bull. “I came in that movie looking like a billy goat,” says DiCaprio, who recalls the mangy mop of hair growing under his chin and the fact that he was bench-pressing 250 pounds. “I was Johnny Protein Shake.” It served him well for the fight scenes he had with Daniel Day-Lewis, the man whom DiCaprio kills to avenge the murder of his father. “We’d want to really get into it, so we’d wrestle for five minutes before,” DiCaprio recalls. “We’d beat the crap out of each other and then really, like, try to make those hits look real. And we’d have tons of leather on, and straps, and makeup. Blood bursting, blood caked on our face and then the dirt getting in the blood, and then our eyes. Doing this all day.” In spite of some impressive reviews for DiCaprio it was Day-Lewis who stole the movie and walked off with the best-actor Oscar nomination. Scorsese lost out in the best-director category to Roman Polanski for The Pianist.
Like most serious movie fans, that Scorsese has never received an Oscar – that his direction of GoodFellas lost to Kevin Costner’s for Dances with Wolves – DiCaprio believes is a travesty of justice. “He doesn’t care at this point,” says DiCaprio, “but I want to see him up there accepting an Oscar. I want the film community to recognize him. I really, really do.” The odds are good with The Aviator. “I wanted to express…the obsession with speed,” says Scorsese, who has been awed by the World War I aviation fight scenes in Hughes’s Hell’s Angels ever since he first saw the film at N.Y.U. in the 1960s. “Speed, speed, speed, always being faster, faster, doing five films at once…seeing a thousand women at once. This voracious appetite for speed, that is what interested me in the picture, because the bottom line; underneath it all he’s destroying himself ultimately.”
Recalling the main sequence of Hughes’s breakdown in the screening room, Scorsese reveals the grueling, exacting, almost scientific approach he and DiCaprio followed during filming. “[The Sequence] took about two weeks of shooting, and Leo had to go through seven hours of makeup a day… Every gesture you see there, every move of his body, even the blinking of his eyes, was worked on way in advance and ultimately on the set.” He might do as many as 20 takes, “each one slightly different in terms of the intensity of the disorder – including with a nervous cough, twitches, touching his knee, as I say, eye blinking. Soft version, soft reading, stronger readings, stranger readings.”
Cate Blanchett describes just how immersed DiCaprio had become in Hughes’s madness. “It was through the voice that you hear the history, the pain, the psychology of the character,” she says, recalling the scene in which her Hepburn speaks with Leo’s Hughes from the other side of the screening-room door, without laying eyes on him. “Just hearing his voice through the door, I found it heartbreaking. That’s when I really knew that he’d been transported or that he’d journeyed somewhere that he had never been before, because there was no trace of Leo at all.”
DiCaprio, a major basketball fan, and not one to dwell on craft, compares it to being ‘in the zone.’ “There’s moments when you’re acting wherein something comes over you where you all of a sudden feel as if the entire set and the director aren’t there. It’s almost like a weird, trance-like state you get in. Everything is a hundred percent eliminated.” To the point where DiCaprio at times felt he was nearly going mad himself. In one scene, for example, Hughes goes on an obsessive-compulsive roll, frantically repeating, “Show me all the blueprints, show me all the blueprints, show me all the blueprints, show me all the blueprints, show me all the blueprints…” “After the 24th take, I just stopped and said, ‘I am losing my f**ing mind.'” He confesses that the making of the film has re-awakened in him a mild form of O.C.D. that he had as a child.
DiCaprio’s next project is The Good Shepherd, about James Jesus Angleton. one of the original officers in the O.S.S., the World War II-era spy agency, which became the C.I.A. It will be directed by Robert De Niro, whose choice of DiCaprio as a star was a given—even necessity. “He’s an intelligent person,” Di Niro says, “and especially for this part, I need somebody who doesn’t have to do much in certain ways in order to convey that. I think without certain people in the movie, I might not even have wanted to do the movie.”
Meanwhile, DiCaprio has formed his own production company, Appian Way. While he could have chosen any of Hollywood’s hottest young producers to head it, instead he plucked 30-year-old Brad Simpson from Killer Films, a tiny, boutique operation that is widely seen as the smartest, edgiest production company in New York. Following the trajectory of DiCaprio taking on muscular roles based on real people, Appian Way is developing the new book Public Enemies, about the crime wave that launched the F.B.I., with director Michael Mann, and a film about the life and death of bear expert Timothy Treadwell, whom DiCaprio knew.
Should there be any further doubt that DiCaprio has totally fallen for Scorsese’s film-nerd cool, one might take a look around the Appian Way office, which is covered with dozens of old movie posters that DiCaprio has collected over the years. In a scene that could be straight out of Entourage, a 25-year-old junior agent saw DiCaprio at the Golden Globes and boldly called out, “Hey. Leo, when are you going to sign with me?” Leo laid into him with a list of movie questions—”Who directed The Leopard? Who directed The Bicycle Thief? all of which had the poor guy stumped. Well, that answered that. (Correct answers: Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica.)
It remains to be seen whether a film made by, starring, and about obsessive-compuslives will become the Christmas blockbuster. In any case, no one besides Scorsese and DiCaprio is making films that aim higher artistically and have all the resources of Hollywood at their disposal. And with a third collaboration in the pipeline. DiCaprio has become, for all intents and purposes, Scorsese’s new De Niro. He begs off addressing the comparison himself – “I have no comment, nor could I” – with reference to the work, “It’s a really obvious thing to say, but the more people know too much who you really are – and it’s a fundamental thing – the more the mystery is taken away from the artist, and the harder it is for people to believe that person in a particular role.”