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Leonardo DiCaprio Faces His Demons

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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."

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