Last night, Leonardo DiCaprio dreamed of monsters.
One by one, they came at him – "these ferocious, intense creatures" – and one by one, he subdued them. DiCaprio's new movie, Inception, takes place almost entirely within surreal dreams, but he seldom remembers his own. This one stuck with him. "I had these giant gloves," he explains the next evening, with faint embarrassment, "and I had to put my hand in their mouths as these monsters ravaged me and wrestle them to the ground. I had to time it perfectly as they went around me in a rotation – otherwise it would have caused mass destruction." By the time his alarm went off at 9:45 a.m. – he sleeps late between movies – DiCaprio had defeated the demons and saved the world. He woke up in his house in the Hollywood Hills feeling pretty good about himself.
DiCaprio knows that no dream could be more improbable than his own life story. Teen heartthrob at 17, Oscar nominee two years later, the prettiest, most profitable frozen corpse in cinematic history at 23 – and he has escaped all of that in the past decade, diving into ever-more dark and layered performances, becoming Martin Scorsese's post-Robert De Niro muse. He gets the fringe benefits of movie stardom – $20 million or so a film, supermodel girlfriends (most recently, 25-year-old Israeli beauty Bar Refaeli) – without the artistic compromise that usually comes with it: no franchises, no superheroes, no pirates, no spaceships. "Considering all that's happened in my life," he says, "I feel like I'm a pretty levelheaded person that has remained happy, and not let my shortcomings overtake the better part of me. I'm fulfilling the things I wanted to fulfill, and I'm still sane."
But he thinks too much. He gets anxious. He's worried that he's out of step with Hollywood's increasingly corporate ethos, that the ambitious, R-rated dramas he prefers are becoming impossible to fund (which is one reason he still doesn't know what movie he's doing next). He's a committed environmental activist – a role that could once have been mistaken for PR gloss on a hard-partying image – who is genuinely frightened at the prospect of ravaged oceans and post-peak-oil apocalypse (he recommends the recent documentary Collapse, which makes the case for imminent catastrophe: "It gives me shivers").
What he really sweats is the small stuff. As he prepares to head home one night, he gives himself a ritual pat-down: "Phone in my hand, cigar case in my hand, wallet and car keys there," he mumbles, ever so slightly evoking his performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. His stomach churns over "really stupid stuff, things that shouldn't make you anxious whatsoever. It's crazy how your mind will become this database to make you worry about things that are so arbitrary. I have a well-organized life, and I've put a lot of thought into the things that I do, and then, you know, my stomach will be . . . I'll just be sitting there, totally anxious about something ridiculous. You have to stop yourself during the day and say, 'It's just not worth it.'"
Whatever hardier demons lurk in DiCaprio's psyche, whatever the real roots of his worries, he's not telling. Or, despite years of on-and-off therapy, he still doesn't know. But it's hard not to conclude that you see a lot of it onscreen, in the parts he's drawn to again and again: cocky, charming guys cracking under pressure: hot-shots brought low; haunted martyrs, old before their time. "I obviously have that stuff within me, and it wasn't until I was pushed to do it at an early age that I realized that I could," he says. "It's a release – being able to enact those moments is a form of therapy."
His characters end up maimed, tortured, drug-addicted, insane, lobotomized, widowed; they die in frozen oceans or in African jungles. "I haven't died in a movie in a while," DiCaprio protests, ticking off recent movies where he survived: "The Departed, Body of Lies, Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island and Inception." He pauses. "I guess I did die in The Departed."
DiCaprio likes to order two drinks at a time, one with caffeine, one with alcohol. Some kind of balance thing. Right now, in a West Hollywood restaurant, that means he has a coffee and a vodka-soda in front of him, next to a neat stack of possessions: a plastic-wrapped Montecristo Open Master cigar, oversize Carrera sunglasses, wallet, BlackBerry. He's pulled a baseball cap low over his translucent blue eyes, which are drifting toward a TV that's showing World Cup results.
He's lost the delicate beauty that inspired Marlon Brando to snarl, "He looks like a girl" – his face is fuller, and he seems swarthier, as if his dad's Italian genes are overwhelming his German mom's. At 35, he finally looks his age. There are wrinkles around his eyes, and worry lines between his eyebrows. "I don't think about it – it's beyond my control," he says, rolling his eyes at the idea that he's deliberately roughened up himself onscreen: "What, like I scratched my face in sand pits?"
He's not especially vain – when not in training for a part, he doesn't even work out much, other than basketball with friends. His off-duty goatee merges with a patch of fuzz beneath his chin in a way that would look sloppy on almost anyone else, and his black shirt is rakishly unbuttoned at the collar, exposing a tanned, hairless chest. The overall look, complete with jeans, Nikes and white socks, should say "aging frat boy," but there's something elegant about his presence. "He has that timeless quality about him, like a Jack Nicholson or an Al Pacino," says Inception director Christopher Nolan, who also helmed The Dark Knight and Insomnia. "He's going to be a movie star forever."
Even when he's not really saying much, it can be fascinating to watch DiCaprio talk. His features are uncannily expressive, flashing a half-dozen emotions over a few seconds. "Leo is a great silent-film actor," says Scorsese, who relied so heavily on DiCaprio in the 2000s that you half-expected to see him on tambourine in the Stones doc Shine a Light. Scorsese points to the tense scene in The Departed where, as undercover cop Billy Costigan, DiCaprio warily circles a cellphone that's just received a call from a murdered colleagues number. "Look at his face! He, literally, at that moment, knows he's a dead man: How did he get himself in this situation? The panic and the paranoia, and the trying-to-keep-a-cool-head, what to do – it's in his eyes."
In real life, that ability makes DiCaprio slippery. "I use it every day, all the time," he says. "If you have the ability to convince somebody of something that you don't necessarily think is the case, it's a valuable asset. Not that I'm, like, a pathological liar, but we spend most of the day not fully being honest, you know?"
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