Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio’s parents hung a painting above his crib in the grotty 1970s East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles when he was a baby. The painting wasn’t an action shot of Peter Rabbit or Curious George. No, it was a reproduction of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s three-paneled “Garden of Earthly Delights,” a dystopian visual description of Eden being found and lost. It is one of DiCaprio’s earliest memories.
“You literally see Adam and Eve being given paradise,” says DiCaprio, his blue eyes peering above sunglasses in a Miami Beach restaurant that has somehow worked “SoHo” into its name. Underneath the table he fidgets his feet in and out of canvas loafers. He drifts away for a moment. DiCaprio just finished shooting an interview for a -climate-change film he’s making. (Original working title: Are We Fucked?) He’s already been to India flood plains and the Antarctica polar cap, and now he’s not far from Miami playgrounds where he once reputedly left a nightclub with every woman from his VIP section. All, according to DiCaprio, could be washed away.
He snaps back to the painting. “Then you see in the middle this overpopulation and excess, people enjoying the fruits of what this environment’s given us,” he says. He laughs a sad laugh punctuated by the DiCaprio smile that can be mistaken for a sneer. “Then the last panel is just charred, black skies with a burnt-down apocalypse.” He stops for a second before shrugging. “That was my favorite painting.”
Halfway between mother and maker, Leonardo DiCaprio is not unhappily marooned between the bright light of his own life – a looming Oscar, a personal fossil collection, a chauffeured rental Tesla – and the bleakness of the overheated world he inhabits with denialist Republicans and a Bangladesh coastline that could be nearly a quarter underwater by 2050. He wants us to move off fossil fuels entirely and wonders where we would be if we had spent billions on finding renewable energy sources rather than on the Iraq War.
“He has an intellectual restlessness,” says longtime collaborator Martin Scorsese. “He devours books and texts and information.”
A friend might tell DiCaprio to lighten up, but that’s not going to happen. “There are very few civilians who have the same understanding that this guy has of climate change. Leo’s a wonk,” says Mark Ruffalo, who has just combined forces with DiCaprio on the Solutions Project, a group of scientists and stars hoping to move America toward full-renewable-energy use. “He’s putting his ass on the line.”
DiCaprio’s life-is-brutish-and-short worldview has permeated his post-Titanic film choices, especially his work with Scorsese, from Gangs of New York to The Wolf of Wall Street. He is now starring in The Revenant, the bleak tale of trapper Hugh Glass, whose body is demolished by a very angry grizzly, and who loses his family to the viciousness of the White Man. (Making matters worse, he must drag around Moses’ neck beard.)