The Rolling Stone Interview: Leonardo DiCaprio

The Oscar-nominated actor on his Titanic career

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio attends the UK Premiere of 'The Beach' at the Empire in Leicester Square, London, England, on February 9th, 2000. Credit: Gareth Davies/Getty

The first time you see him, you wonder what all the fuss is about. It's midafternoon in Los Angeles, and Leonardo DiCaprio is slouched in the front of a rental car, hat spun backward, sneakers propped on the dash — the most powerful man-child in Hollywood engrossed in a video game. If it wasn't for the fact that 20th Century Fox is about to privately screen a cut of The Beach, DiCaprio's new movie, you'd swear he was just another punk kid killing time at the mall.

But at twenty-five, DiCaprio is not a kid anymore, a notion that sometimes excites him but just as frequently leaves him talking about his own "Peter Pan syndrome." So as DiCaprio scrutinizes himself onscreen, you watch the child actor in him squirm to get out while the grown-up power player in him fights for control. Ultimately, DiCaprio's older half wins the day and diligently watches the film for the tenth time. It is, it seems, a pivotal stage in DiCaprio's life and career.

"The last couple of years have really been, at the risk of sounding corny, a transitional time for me," says DiCaprio.

Let's recap. Titanic, released late in 1997, not only broke records for Oscars (eleven) and worldwide box-office grosses ($1.8 billion) but immediately transformed DiCaprio from an extremely talented and respected actor (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, for which he was nominated for an Oscar; This Boy's Life; The Basketball Diaries; Romeo and Juliet) into a cottage industry unto himself. Just as Michael Jordan morphed into Michael and, finally, MJ, DiCaprio went from his many syllables to simply Leo: icon. At one point, ten books on the New York Times best-seller list dealt with DiCaprio or Titanic.

The obvious question pops up: Weren't you sick of yourself? DiCaprio laughs. "Certainly with the Titanic thing," he says. "I was over it as much as anyone else, know what I'm saying?"

Fueling the mania was the fact that DiCaprio dealt with post-Titanic stress disorder by seeking the comfort and serenity of virtually every club in Manhattan and in the greater Los Angeles area. If you spilled a drink in those places in the past two years, you probably drenched DiCaprio or one of his inseparable crew. They include actor Tobey Maguire (The Cider House Rules), director Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy) and magician David Blaine. Rumors of DiCaprio spinning out of control were rampant.

"I was indie boy before Romeo and Juliet and Titanic — I'd never dealt with any of that in my life," says DiCaprio of the attention his antics have sparked. "I didn't know what being somebody that recognizable entailed. I didn't know what it meant. And Titanic is something that will never happen again. Nor will I ever try to repeat it."

All of which has led us here to see The Beach, DiCaprio's first film in two years and the reason he has emerged to see what kind of shadow he now casts in Hollywood.

From the outset, DiCaprio's choice of The Beach was meant to show his independence. It also shows his clout. For Titanic, DiCaprio's salary was a reported $2.5 million; The Beach represents his first $20 million payday. That kind of money gets you heard on the set even without a producing credit.

Based on the 1997 novel by Alex Garland, the film is the brainchild of the same London-based trio that created Trainspotting: director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald. Boyle's easygoing directorial presence clearly pleases the actor more than the tyrannical grip of Titanic's James Cameron, whose style of filmmaking, says DiCaprio, has "a military feel." DiCaprio plays Richard, an adventure junkie traveling alone in Thailand who stumbles upon a map to a paradise that, like any paradise, cannot stay pure once it is discovered by outsiders. Unless, by chance, your idea of nirvana includes marijuana fields patrolled by guards with AK-47s, shark attacks and manipulative sex. Richard is disillusioned, burned out on the excess of Western culture yet unable to escape the fact that he is as much the problem as the society he has escaped. It's not difficult to see why the theme of The Beach has been DiCaprio's chief obsession for more than a year.

In fact, when we sit down for the first of our interviews two days later, DiCaprio will begin by being entirely fixated on The Beach. But soon he settles into a discussion that stretches from his childhood (his parents, George and Irmelin, split before he was a year old, but both were active in his life) to adolescence (DiCaprio, who appeared on Romper Room at age five, began acting in commercials at fourteen, had a recurring TV role on Growing Pains and nabbed his breakthrough part opposite Robert De Niro in This Boy's Life at seventeen) all the way to his next role, in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. ("He's a Rolodex of film," says DiCaprio of Scorsese. "It's mind-boggling.")

Because the house DiCaprio recently purchased in the Hollywood Hills is undergoing construction, the interviews take place at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Our first meeting is in late December, and when DiCaprio takes a seat, he stares at the twenty-foot Christmas tree and says, "I just bought a tree this size for my living room." You assume his new home is rather roomy.

Throughout the conversations, DiCaprio is friendly, matter-of-fact, and although he isn't prone to a great deal of introspection, he manages to convey the feeling that he is as baffled and amused by his success as anyone. He peppers his conversation with B-boy-speak, but he is also, as he points out continually, at pains to redefine his career as an adult. Like Richard in The Beach, DiCaprio has dropped out and is now returning, hoping to make some sense of what he's seen.

Which is difficult when reminders of your own fame are everywhere. Take the Chateau Marmont waiter who approaches the table at this very minute.

"Hey, that was a killer party you threw, man," he says.

"Which one?" asks DiCaprio.

"The one where Jennifer Lopez showed up and walked in on me in the bathroom," says the waiter. "That's a dream come true."

"Oh, yeah, that one up there," says DiCaprio. He looks up toward a hotel room as the waiter walks away.

"I invited those dudes up from the hotel," he says after a moment. "I had a dope party up there."

He stares at the tape recorder and grimaces. You smile. This seems like a good place to begin.

Let's tackle your reputation of being constantly on the Hollywood party scene. That must come from somewhere, correct?

Well, absolutely. I go out with my buddies whenever I want.

There have been so many stories about you being out of control, either drunk or on drugs. Was there ever a time you were worried that you were losing control?

Never. Never, ever.

Then what is true? How wild does it get?

I had a birthday party here.

OK, how late did that party go?

[Smiles] All I'm going to say is that I'm a healthy, happy person, and people can think whatever they want to think. I don't care. I understand that people are interested. But to sit here and fight rumors about yourself is a waste of time.

A lot of it is gossip, but some could be a concern. Look at River Phoenix: People knew before he died that he was out of control. There probably is actual concern that you're going to go down the same road.

If anyone knew me personally, they'd know that's not the truth. And that's all there is to it. Before this all happened to me, I'd hear rumors about other actors and think, "How can they live with themselves when they know those rumors are out there?" And you know what? You get in this situation, and you realize that any amount of fame comes with that negativity posted to it.

"The Beach" is really about trying to escape Western culture, and in a strange way you're a symbol of that. You're the thing people can't escape.

Yeah [laughs]. Richard goes to escape Leonardo DiCaprio [laughs].

Was that a draw?

Absolutely that had a lot to do with it. Richard's character in a lot of ways was escaping things that I was. It was escaping this whole whirlwind of stuff that was going on. The ironic thing is that I didn't fuel any of that. I can't help that I'm on People magazine's "Fifty Most Beautiful" whatever. I'm not saying these are horrible things. I'm just saying I wasn't aggressively promoting myself. I did one magazine cover before the movie came out, and then I didn't do anything else.

Come on. You were out at clubs all the time.

Yeah, but I can't do anything about that.

But if you don't want that attention, you don't have to be out with tons of women at the clubs. It wasn't hard to find you. You were out.

I'm not going to be a hermit. That was definitely a rebellious attitude I had toward the whole thing. My whole makeup was saying, "Just because you're in this position, you're not going to stop doing what you normally do." And, by the way, just to clear the air, truly ninety percent of what was written about me was fabricated. The core might come from somewhat real events, but it's turned into something completely different. I don't want to get into specifics, because it's just a waste of time, but I will comment on one. I don't know where it was coined, but they started calling me and my friends the Pussy Posse, and I think it's the most degrading thing toward women I've ever heard in my life. I've never used that term in my entire life.

Most of your friends are actors. Are there people whose work we'd know, other than Tobey Maguire's?

Ethan Suplee — he was the big guy in American History X. I don't know if you'd know the other guys — Jay Ferguson, Kevin Connelly.

There is also the story out there that you and your friends tried to hit on "Showgirls" star Elizabeth Berkley and got in a fight with her boyfriend, Roger Wilson.

That, again, I had zero involvement in. Zero. When I say zero, I mean zero. The truth will come out in the end.... But this has been such a learning experience. I'm glad I went through it. It made me so much stronger.

You said that ninety percent is untrue. Well, that allows you to get away with the other ten percent and just say, "It's all lies."

[Laughs] Well, nobody's going to believe me about anything anyway. I don't think most people know what they're going through until they look at it in the past tense. You need time away. It also has a lot to do with – not to say I went insane or anything – but the great thing about Richard sort of going nuts on this island is that when you're in that state of mind, you don't know you're in that state of mind. In fact, you usually think you're more clearheaded than ever. Only later on do you realize what you've done and what you were clearly going through.

Did you take the role in Woody Allen's "Celebrity" to make fun of your image as a drinking, drugging, sex-crazed, hotel-trashing party boy?

People assumed that, but not at all. Woody Allen called me to do a funny-ass character. I based it on a lot of full-of-shit people I've met, a lot of Hollywood types.

I heard you based it on your "Gilbert Grape" co-star Johnny Depp.

No. I guess the only similarity would be that both the character and Johnny Depp destroyed a hotel room. You gotta understand, Woody Allen wrote everything. I just played it.

Does it surprise you that people want to believe the bad stuff?

It doesn't matter in the end. Look, I admired River Phoenix before he unfortunately passed away, and I heard all these things about him, and it changed my image of him. But at the same time, I never got an opportunity to know the guy. I don't know the truth. And none of that stuff matters in the end. All that's left is the acting. That's all that matters.

Are you a better actor today than you were at seventeen and working with Robert De Niro in "This Boy's Life"?

I don't know. I don't watch anything of mine much. I haven't gone to drama school, or college, either. I just like to watch other actors in action. I learned so much from working with De Niro. I'd be in a scene with him where I was supposed to be acting, and I was just watching. I don't ask other actors questions. I think that's too intrusive. I just watch. I don't want to be constricted to an idea of what acting is by anyone else. I want to take my own education.

Would you take the role in "Titanic" again, knowing what it would do?

Yeah, I would, definitely.

Is there anyone besides your parents who will tell you if you're turning into an asshole?

My friends. I had a period when I was sixteen where I started to get a big head. I was going through puberty, and I was nominated for an Academy Award. My head got inflated. My friends were the real ones who said, "You're acting different." But the truth is that I don't need that, because I don't get out of hand.

Didn't you fly a gang of your friends over to Thailand at the expense of 20th Century Fox during the filming of "The Beach"?

Yeah [laughs]. If a studio is going to offer me the opportunity to invite my mother and grandmother and all my friends to visit me free of charge in Thailand, I'm going to take that opportunity.

When I saw you watching "The Beach," it was your tenth time. Since you said you don't like watching yourself, this intense involvement must be a new experience.

Yeah. The last couple of years have really made me buckle down and focus on the process in which I would like to make films. And that is to hopefully get as involved as possible without interfering with the director's vision. Basically it's a transition away from the child actor and looking at the director more as a partner and less as a big brother.

The most obvious difference between the book and the movie is that the movie has less violence and more sex. Did you have input into that?

I was encouraging more violence, but the truth of the matter is, it's interesting sex. To me, it's not sex for the point of having a passionate scene. It's more about characters manipulating each other.... But I'd like to talk about what The Beach is a metaphor for.

Fair enough. What was it about for you?

Essentially, it's about how the human animal is pretty much preprogrammed to destroy the natural order. It's why Richard was such an engaging character for me. He's searching for paradise, but at every turn he destroys it by wanting more and wanting to go to the edge with every experience. He's like today's primate. He thinks he wants to live in a very primitive, isolated world, and no matter how much he tries to escape it, he is a product of the technological revolution. He's a Sony PlayStation boy no matter how much he tries to fight it.

So much so that he becomes a video game in the movie.

Exactly. Within the forces of nature, he makes up his own video game. That's what he knows. He's like this silicon man.

Do you think it's a cynical movie in the end, or is it hopeful?

If you're really listening to the end, I think it is hopeful. It's a cliché, but you have to make the best of life and the memories you have.

Do you expect the audience to take that message away, or is it going to be fourteen-year-old girls who think you're cute?

Well, I don't like a film that bombards you with a million ideas you're supposed to be affected by, and it's all set out and told to you. I like the subtlety of looking at a movie and interpreting it.

This new input you have into movies you do, does that apply to your upcoming movie with Scorsese?

It's not like a designated thing. It's not like a mattress tag that comes with me now: "If you work with Leonardo, you're going to have to take his input." It's just something, for me, at this transitional time in my life, where I've decided to take the reins more.

Which will be much tougher if the movies don't turn out well.

Yeah, it's much more on me now. It's not like, "I'm just a little kid, I just got hired."

People think of you as a kid, but you're twenty-five. You're not a kid anymore.

Unfortunately [laughs]. Man, I'm twenty-five. In other walks of life, I'd be considered a full-grown adult. But I'm looking forward to it. I know there were times where I would have liked to speak out, but as a teenager I didn't think I was allowed to. I just felt lucky to be involved.

Is there a theme to the characters you've chosen to play?

I think I'm drawn to the abstract, things that are not of the traditional mold. I can't get myself to do the typical films you see a lot of. A lot of it has developed from my dad's taste.

Which is what?

It comes from the underground art world. He's always steered me and said, "I know this seems like great art or a great writer, but there's a whole other world that has just as much relevance and is just as socially important."

In many ways, your characters — from "This Boy's Life" to "The Basketball Diaries" to "Total Eclipse" to "The Beach" — have all been rebelling against something that they can't even name.

Right. They're looking for something dangerous.

That must be a part of you.

Believe it or not, in life I play it very safe. I feel like I'm in such a lucky position. This all happened because of some profound luck that's been bestowed upon me. So I play my life safe. But, yes, when I go do movies, that's my release. That's where I vent.

So you seek out characters who seek out danger? Or at least try to push the envelope of their own life to the breaking point?

I'm fascinated by that. And I think a lot of people are.

Do you take these roles hoping some of those characters' qualities rub off on you?

That's the good thing about playing a character. You're able to be that person.  

And what happens when the movie is over?

If you're in a position to choose these characters, it's also in some way a reflection of you. It's something you want in yourself. It is my creative release. People always tell me I should paint or do something else creative. No. This is what I do. I'm not going to go paint [laughs]. I'm an actor. I'm fortunate enough to know what I love to do. I won't be having an album coming out soon.

So what performances of yours are you most proud of?

I don't know.

Of course you do.

They're all my babies [laughs]. OK, I like certain scenes. I like the scene I did in The Basketball Diaries by the door. I love that scene, just because of what it took to get there. It was the first week, and I'm alone in New York for the first time, walking the streets. And that scene wasn't even scripted. It was a great moment.

Are your tastes changing as you get older?

Yeah, it's kind of weird. You don't have to be so hard-core. It's not that you soften, it's just that you're not so damn concerned with being cool. You realize that sometimes trying to be so cool can be really boring.

It's limited, because it's usually someone else's version of cool.

Exactly. I was the most hard-core dude in the world, but it got to the point of, "How many times are you going to do the same thing? You've gotta do something different." For me, choosing Romeo and Juliet was a big thing because it was a love story. I thought I never wanted to do a love story in my life. Lovey-dovey crap.

Claire Danes said that you're either completely transparent or the most complex person she's ever met, and she can't figure out which. Do you have an idea what she means?

I think she's essentially saying that we didn't get to know each other that well [laughs]. No, what am I going to say? That I'm complex? I think it's hard for people who see you running around like a kid with your friends to know where your performances come from. I'm just able to walk away from the characters I play. I just walk away. It's as simple as that. That's just how I do it. I don't know how else to explain it.

Did you start acting because you were dying to perform or because you knew your family could use the money?

The earliest memory I have of myself as a child is me with this strange, almost sickening desire to perform. I guess it's my aiming-to-please issues. I don't know where it comes from. But the earliest memory I have is me at some hippie concert with my dad, and the band hadn't come on. There was an audience of hundreds of people chanting for the band, and my dad scooted me onstage — I don't know how old I was, probably three or so — and I got up there and tap-danced for hundreds of people. That's the personality I have. I want to please this mass audience.

Yet you had more of an arty, hippie upbringing.

I didn't grow up in the back of a VW van or anything, but for the most part I've had sort of a bohemian upbringing. I was just thinking the other day about when I was a kid. One of the coolest memories: The whole lake at Echo Park was drained for a while, and all these homeless people and neighborhood people went through, waist-high in mud, trying to find remnants of things that people from the last eighty or a hundred years had thrown into the lake. My family went, and I was neck-high in mud. I found an old gun and a wallet and, like, forty bottles from the Twenties and Thirties. It was like a treasure hunt.

It also sounds like you had a revolving group of characters in and out of your house.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. We'd have artists come in for parties. There'd be Robert Williams and R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar. My dad was always showing me their art after I'd met them. Instead of concentrating on baseball cards or even Marvel comics, my dad was saying, "Check out the [Fabulous Furry] Freak Brothers."

Was it a conscious decision by your dad to teach you that?

It's just the way he chose to live his life. Most of my life, on weekends I'd go from bookstore to bookstore with my dad. And I went to a lot of hippie parades.

What do they do in a hippie parade?

Have you heard of the Do-Da Parade? It's this group of guys, the Mud Men, and these performance artists. We'd go to performances where there were, like, giant flaming cocks that shoot at the audience and walking private parts. They were not afraid to show me anything. I joined the Mud Men with my dad. These guys smeared their bodies with mud and put rags over their genitals and made these mud masks and ran around.

Really? My dad played tennis.

[Laughs] I remember being a kid and being smeared in mud, and I started walking around on my own, and I hid behind a hot-dog stand. A woman went to get a hot dog, and I popped up as this aboriginal mud creature. She lost her shit. My dad had to rescue me. Stuff like that was awesome. It was dope.

Was your stepbrother basically a brother to you?

Absolutely. I've known him my entire life. I was kind of a loner as a kid. I didn't have that much of a neighborhood, or neighborhood kids. If I wanted to play with a friend, my mom would have to drive me an hour to Santa Monica to play with my friend from school. That was the dope thing about my mom. Even though we were kinda poor, she gave me a really enriched life. She took me to this great school that's part of UCLA, even though it was an hour out of her way every day. She's from Germany, and she took me to Germany every now and then. My grandma lives there. I went to Germany, like, ten times.

How dangerous was the neighborhood you grew up in?

I don't want to do the whole stupid rags-to-riches-story deal, but for the first ten years, my playground was like a junkyard with crack addicts around the corner. I'd walk down the street and there'd be a guy opening his coat with, like, needles and heroin. And the corner was a whorehouse. And there was a lot of violence around, too. Nothing ever happened to me. And it's good that I got to see that. And at the same time, she took me away every day to go to school with, well, essentially a bunch of rich kids [laughs].

Did your parents move when you started making TV money?

No, they didn't use any of my money, ever.

How often do you talk to your parents now?

Every day. Both of them. They're both great people. I just like to have them in my life. It's not like I'm doing it out of obligation because they're my parents.

It seems like what they made for you was a life where you could create your own fun.

Absolutely. The weirdest thing is that none of us are used to having money at all. I don't think we're spending it on the most practical things. I suppose art is practical, but that's what I spend my money on.

And you brought three houses.

Yep. I've gotta give my parents a place to live, after all. But I'm not going to be getting a yacht anytime soon.

Any purchase you've felt guilty about?

Not really. There was some art I bought that I was tricked into liking. Some of that contemporary New York crap [laughs] — you know, a painting that's a white canvas with two lines, and it's supposed to be man's descent into different dimensions. So now I just collect what I want. But I don't splurge, no.

What's your fascination at the moment?

It has been art for the last year or so. And I tried to collect a lot of the stuff I didn't have as a kid. I went through a period of buying every comic and toy that I ever wanted. That was a short period. But a fun one.

What kind of stuff did you get?

Everything that I wanted when I was a kid. It was the whole Peter Pan syndrome [laughs].

Have you learned what you know about the world through acting?

Absolutely. I was born in Los Angeles. This is my home. I pride myself, just for myself, on knowing that I'm not the stereotype of what an actor in my position would be. I try to enrich my life with a lot of other interesting stuff. But I cannot deny that I am from Los Angeles and I was born in Hollywood. Hollywood — it's not even like the outskirts.

Are you someone with a lot of regrets?

You have regrets, and then you learn from them. I regret certain things that I did or didn't do professionally, and certain decisions I made in my personal life.

Like what?

In a way, I wish I hadn't said, "Screw this, I'm not going to conform and become a hermit. I'm going to go out there and do whatever the hell I want to do, whenever the hell I want." I still have that attitude, but it's more tapered down. I wish I hadn't had that rebellious feeling I immediately had when all that stuff was going on, because then I wouldn't have fueled that fire. That's a regret. I could have played it a little cooler. But the ironic thing is that I wasn't doing anything wrong.

Having been through all this, with the famous trying to meet you, are there still people you'd like to meet?

There are a lot of people I'd love to have met. I'd love to have met Basquiat; that would have been dope. In terms of people now, oh, God, who haven't I met? I'd love to meet Marlon Brando.

Young actors always say Brando.

He was, dare I say it, the best.

But you said the other day you were more of a James Dean fan than a Brando fan.

Well, he's gone, isn't he?

Whose work do you admire today?

I think Jim Carrey's a genius. If he died today, he'd be regarded like Peter Sellers squared. And De Niro. He's probably the most influential.

If you're in the position of power now, what kind of career do you want to shape?

I absolutely believe that something beneath the surface in film has been bubbling, and it has to do with a lot of people's complaints about too much business being mixed with art. I look at all the Schwarzenegger and Stallone epics that were out when I was a kid — not that some of them weren't great — but that was all there was. Everyone always talks about the Seventies, but I think we're entering an even more interesting time in film. There's been so much crap out there that people are relying on word of mouth. I used to think that famous people were so full of crap. You'd read articles about them, and I'd never believe anything they said. I always thought there were such huge publicity machines around them and that they must be so trained to deal with questions.

A lot of them are full of crap.

The good thing is that no matter what they say, you can get an overall sense of whether or not they have a good soul.

Yet if an actor can't act charming during an interview, he's probably not very good.

That's true. You have to take this all with a grain of salt.... To look on the bright side of it, fame is a great source of a lot of entertaining things to happen in my life. It makes life not boring, which is cool. A lot of interesting stuff happens to me as a result of fame.

What are the three biggest perks?

The biggest perk has to be the opportunities in the work I do. That's Number One. It's pretty much the only thing, but if I'm going to add two, I'd say the things that are offered you other than film. You're given a lot of opportunities. It's kind of ironic that someone who has everything they want keeps being given more. It's crazy. And third? That kind of covered everything [laughs].

What you're saying is, you're rich and famous, and it doesn't suck.

[Laughs] Basically.