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?"
DiCaprio raises his cup of coffee to his lips and takes a sip. "Ahhhh," he says, with preposterously fruity theatricality. He keeps a straight face for a beat or two, then cracks up, momentarily letting his guard down. "It's nice and warm," he says, then offers another "ahh." "Folgers Crystals," he adds, in a dopey pitchman's voice.
At first glance, Inception seems like a chance to lighten up: It's DiCaprio's first brush with any kind of fantasy or sci-fi in his 20-year career, and with its M.C. Escher-like imagery of phantasmagorical cities rearranging themselves at his feet, it's his first special-effects-driven movie since Titanic. It looks like it could be a rare summer blockbuster for grown-ups. "It's probably going to be my second-highest-grossing film," he says with a cheerful shrug.
But this is one complex and cerebral action movie, and his character has dark secrets that are tearing him apart. "It's a cathartic journey, a giant therapy session," says DiCaprio, who spent two months breaking down the script with Nolan, adding layers to the character, often unflattering ones. "Leo wants to explore the truth of the character at whatever cost to his image," says Nolan. "It's the opposite of what you'd expect from a movie star."
What's most lovable about DiCaprio's latter-day onscreen presence is that he obviously doesn't care if you love him. At the same time, though, he's created a public persona so dignified and controlled that it borders on grim – as if he's no longer the guy who cut a path through clubs on both coasts with pals like Tobey Maguire and Kevin Connolly (gossip columns called them the Pussy Posse, a term he despised and has sworn he never used himself).
He demands an intense emotional connection with his roles – and passed on both the Spider-Man and Star Wars franchises for that reason. "I love science fiction, but I have a hard time feeling for characters in a galaxy far away," he says. Titanic's success gave him freedom from all of that, and he's determined to use it wisely. "Choosing movies is the one thing in my life where there's no compromising," DiCaprio says. "I don't give a shit. I don't give a shit, because I would be too miserable on a set doing something that I don't believe in."
The following week, DiCaprio is steering his black Lexus hybrid sedan on La Cienega Boulevard – or at least he would be steering if his hands were on the wheel. Instead, he's gesturing extravagantly as he discusses one of his many environmental projects – a campaign to make tigers the poster animals for endangered species ("There's only 3,200 of them left in the wild, and they're stars, the Tom Cruise of animals") – occasionally remembering to keep the car on the road. Since wrapping Inception nine months ago, DiCaprio hasn't worked on a film. "I'm really OK with not working," he says. "If I can't do the movies I want to do, I'll go do this other stuff."
He has struggled to find financing for some of the projects he's pursuing, such as Wolf of Wall Street, a tale of insider trading in the Eighties: "I don't even know if we could get The Aviator financed today," he says, shaking his head. "The studio system is cutting out middle-ground, risky films." He's talking to Clint Eastwood about playing J. Edgar Hoover in a biopic, and he had discussed a Viking epic with Mel Gibson. When we spoke, Gibson's scandalous recorded rants had yet to emerge, but DiCaprio already knew working with him would mean answering awkward questions: "He's extremely talented – Apocalypto was a hell of an underrated movie. I'm my own man, he's his own man, we all make our own decisions in life," he said.
DiCaprio's current break is one of his longest since a two-year post-Titanic idle, when he used his free time rather differently. "I had a lot of fun when I was young," he says with a broad, wistful smile that suggests you can't even imagine how much. He feels badly for the Zac Efrons and Taylor Lautners of the world. "It was pre-TMZ. I got to be wild and nuts, and I didn't suffer as much as people do now, where they have to play it so safe that they ruin their credibility. I didn't care what anyone thought. The more people said, 'Leo's not working, he's running around with his friends,' the more I wanted to do it. The world was our fun playground.
"It was also about avoiding the tornado of chaos, of potential downfall," he adds. "It was, 'Wow, how lucky are we to not have hung out with that crowd or done those things?' My two main competitors in the beginning, the blond-haired kids I went to audition with, one hung himself and the other died of a heroin overdose. . . . I was never into drugs at all. There aren't stories of me in a pool of my own vomit in a hotel room on the Hollywood Strip. Have a drink, have a smoke, that should be enough. Life is grand, don't roll the dice."
He expected to be married with kids by this age, but his career, "this roller coaster," took over. "I feel like I'm 70 years old sitting here," DiCaprio says, breaking into a quavery old-man voice: "'I have no family, no children. This grand Hollywood monster's eaten me up and spit me out.' That's not the case. Everything will happen in due course." He won't talk about Refaeli or her predecessor, Gisele Bündchen, and the few answers he'll volunteer on the subject are almost sanitized enough to appear in Tiger Beat, circa 1997:
1) Chasing women was more fun before Titanic. "I had better success meeting girls before that. My interactions with them didn't have all the stigma behind it, not to mention there wasn't a perception of her talking to me for only one reason."
2) The parade of genetic wonders that is his love life doesn't keep him from finding more terrestrially cute girls attractive. "Of course not," he says, maybe a touch too emphatically.
3) "Who I date is always extremely dependent on their personality as well as an attraction. It has to be both those things, otherwise there's no way it's going to last."
DiCaprio does say he won't feel like a real adult until he settles down. "That's going to come, it's just a matter of when and how. Some of my friends have two children and their life has changed. That's going to be the giant leap."
Growing up in rough neighborhoods east of Hollywood, DiCaprio was, he says, "essentially a dwarf with the biggest mouth in the world." He's six feet one now, but he didn't get close to that height until he hit a growth spurt at 16. In the meantime, he received more than his share of playground beatings. "I would talk back to anyone and be up for any fight, and when you tell a kid that's three years older than you to shove it, you're going to get your ass beat."
He was never diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, but he was definitely "hyperactive," unable to focus at school. Obnoxious, too. "I was a real punk, there's no question about it," DiCaprio says, sounding rather proud of it. "Not so much to my parents, but any authority, and certainly other kids. In the movie Zebrahead, there's a guy that talks a lot of trash, and a girl says, 'Why do you speak so loud?' He goes, 'To be heard,' and I thought, 'Wow, that's me when I was little.' I needed to be heard, and I was too little to get any respect."
DiCaprio's hippie parents split when he was an infant but stayed close for his sake, mostly living in the same neighborhood a block apart. His mom, Irmelin, was a legal secretary. His father, George, was, in his son's words, "the Zelig of the counterculture" – an important figure in the underground comic-book scene who eventually made his living as a distributor of undergrounds to mainstream comic-book stores. In the Seventies, George wrote a raunchy, highly regarded comicbook series called Greaser. "George was one of the top guys out there," said comics legend Harvey Pekar, whom Leo remembers crashing on his dad's couch (Pekar spoke three days before his death). "He's a great guy – he put Leo first so many times." By the Seventies, George was also a close friend to Charles Bukowski (he'd push Leo in his stroller to visit him) and Timothy Leary, who presided over his wedding to his second wife.
As a kid, DiCaprio would ride around with his dad to comic-book stores all over Los Angeles. Along the way, he became a fan of such age-inappropriate characters as S. Clay Wilson's Checkered Demon, a horny devil whose adventures were often pornographic. "I'd hide that in a copy of Iron Man," DiCaprio recalls. He did read plenty of Marvel Comics too – for a guy who avoids superhero movies, he knows an awful lot about the characters: Playing backgammon one evening, he says "Bamf" each time he moves a piece – an obscure, and extremely dorky, reference to an X-Men sound effect.
His parents never had much money, and his neighborhood was dangerous enough that DiCaprio was often afraid to go out alone. "It was bad news – I stayed home a lot," he says. "My mom always says I'm exaggerating, and I'm like, 'Mom, you are sorely mistaken.' You'd go to get a piece of candy, and there'd be a dude standing there with every drug you could possibly imagine in his trench coat. Then there were all the prostitutes coming out of the hotel."
DiCaprio bristles at the idea that he might have resented his parents for raising him in that environment. "They were always very protective of me," he says. "They couldn't have been better parents. Thank God nothing bad happened." He credits them with helping him survive his fame without self-destructing. "My parents gave me complete freedom. I had nothing to rebel against, so I didn't."
For no particular reason, DiCaprio has started singing the theme song to Cheers – loudly, with substantially more gusto than ability. He has a half-empty pint of Hoegaarden in one hand, a half-smoked cigar in the other, and he's hanging out on the patio outside Goal, an upscale West Hollywood sports bar co-owned by his old friend Jonah Johnson, who was his personal chef on Inception. Moments ago, another close pal, actor Lukas Haas, who began his career as the Amish kid in Witness, soundly defeated DiCaprio in a game of backgammon. They all call each other "bro" a lot. "With people I'm close to," DiCaprio says, "I'm still a punk."
Finishing his song, he begins a mock-serious monologue. "What is the Ninth Symphony of Eighties-sitcom theme songs? There's 'Movin' on Up,' and there's 'Welcome Back, Kotter.' But they don't have the weight that Cheers does, the emotional depth, the undercurrent of sadness, life, happiness, all rolled into one area where a man can have a beer."
DiCaprio was himself a star on an Eighties sitcom, Growing Pains – albeit in the early Nineties, when the show was desperate enough to bring him on as a cute homeless kid who moves in with the Seavers. I point out that his character's arrival was a classic case of a show jumping the shark, and he looks baffled – somehow, he's never heard the term. I explain the whole thing – Fonzie, the water skis, the shark – and he files it away. "That is useful," he says.
Improbably, DiCaprio went straight from Growing Pains to the lead in This Boy's Life, opposite Robert De Niro. He's still grateful the show's producers didn't hold him to his contract, which would've kept him from the movie that changed the course of his career.
DiCaprio didn't initially understand how big a leap he was making. He recently ran into Ellen Barkin, who played his mom in the movie. "She remembers we had lunch after some of the final auditions, and I was acting like I already had the part. She was like, 'Who is this kid, why is he acting like the audition's over?'"
When he did get the part, he realized it was time to get serious. "I got to watch Robert De Niro – his focus, his improvisational ability, all the intricate detail that went into it. I'd never seen anything close to that before." Around that time, DiCaprio gave himself a crash course in film history, spending three months watching movies every day on the little TV in his bedroom, riding his skateboard to the video store to pick up rentals. "I hadn't seen Raging Bull, I hadn't seen Taxi Driver, so bam, I started watching these movies. They blow my mind, it takes me back into the people that influenced them – James Dean and Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando and all these guys. These vulnerable guys from the Fifties that ripped their heart out onscreen, playing jazz for the first time as actors. I said to myself, 'Those are the types of movies I want to do, the type of work I want to achieve.' That hasn't changed."
Sitting outside in the cool of the evening, DiCaprio is fully visible to passers-by, who interrupt us several times as we smoke cigars and talk. DiCaprio handles it gracefully, even when one guy asks him, apropos of nothing, if he's ever eaten at some pizza place in Boston. When DiCaprio makes eye contact with a group of cute girls in their early 20s, they stop. "We're totally not those girls," one of them says, requesting a picture for a friend who, they claim, had brain surgery that day. He poses. Later, a well-dressed woman in her 50s comes over, says, "We love you," and walks away.
At the height of Titanic-mania, DiCaprio wouldn't have been safe in such an exposed spot. Around then, he flew to Japan without so much as a bodyguard, and found 25,000 teenage girls waiting for him at the airport. At home, six SUVs full of paparazzi followed him everywhere. But he never took any of it in too deeply. "It was like there was a separate entity out there," he says. "It felt like, 'I have my own secret, because I'm watching people's attachment toward this character, but I'm also inside of myself, knowing that's somebody else they're talking about.' Not to use a James Cameron reference, but it was like being in a little bit of an avatar." He cringes. "That's going to sound extremely self-indulgent. It's going to sound like, 'Oh, I was a frickin' avatar,' give me a break, I'm already vomiting."
It's getting late, and DiCaprio has to get home to pack for a multidestination trip, with at least one of his bros along. First stop is South Africa, where he will reportedly bug Mick Jagger with a vuvuzela during the World Cup. His friend Vincent Laresca, a soulful dude in a white T-shirt who was in Romeo + Juliet him, tries to interest DiCaprio in a few more drinks at Trousdale, a nearby bar. "A little Truzy?" Laresca says. "A couple of gentleman drinks?"
"I'm gonna rest, dude," says DiCaprio. "I don't have the energy."
Laresca shakes his head, smiles and looks at me. "He's getting old," he says.
Not long ago, DiCaprio nearly died. He was on an ecotour off the Galapagos Islands, scuba diving with a group that included marine biologist Sylvia Earle ("More than any environmental situation, the oceans are the most screwed," DiCaprio says). "I was following a school of golden stingray who met up with 30 spotted stingray," he recalls, taking a sip of beer. "I was trying to get footage with a rinky-dink camera."
He got excited and moved far from the group. "I looked down, because I was exerting myself a lot, and I think the tanks weren't fastened properly, and I had, like, 40 pounds of pressure." He had one breath of air left in his tank, and he was too deep to go to the surface without getting the bends. With his last breath, he propelled himself back to the others, who shared oxygen with him until they all could surface. "All you think about at the moment is, like, 'Get me the hell out of this situation.'"
And afterward? "It makes you feel excited all over again to be alive," he says. "I'd hate to die. I try to assess as many different ways as possible not to die. To limit the things that would put me in those predicaments. But there's no way to control any of it, because accidents happen."
DiCaprio is pretty sure that when he does die, he won't end up back in Titanic heaven. "There's some insane statistic that 70 percent of people believe in angels," he says. "I'm not an atheist, I'm agnostic. What I honestly think about is the planet, not my specific spiritual soul floating around. I know that sounds slightly eco-boy, but I think about the idea that there's going to be a mass extinction, and then something else is going to evolve."
Mass extinction aside, DiCaprio is still striving for one kind of immortality. He's fond of the phrase "Pain is temporary, film is forever," and he fondly recalls rough shooting days. One of the most brutal was the final scene of The Aviator, where Howard Hughes shatters, choking out the phrase "the way of the future" again and again. DiCaprio remembers shooting the scene at least 45 times; Scorsese says it was 20. "When you do something like that, you feel exhausted emotionally and mentally. You sit in your hotel like a zombie afterward," he says, eyes shining. "But it feels good, it's the good kind of pain. Because you feel that you've done this incredible day's work. And you know that it will never disappear."
This story is from the August 5th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.