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Leonardo DiCaprio Faces His Demons

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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.

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