The Rolling Stone Interview: Leonardo DiCaprio
The first time you see him, you wonder what all the fuss is about. It’s midafternoon in Los Angeles, and Leonardo DiCaprio is slouched in the front of a rental car, hat spun backward, sneakers propped on the dash — the most powerful man-child in Hollywood engrossed in a video game. If it wasn’t for the fact that 20th Century Fox is about to privately screen a cut of The Beach, DiCaprio’s new movie, you’d swear he was just another punk kid killing time at the mall.
But at twenty-five, DiCaprio is not a kid anymore, a notion that sometimes excites him but just as frequently leaves him talking about his own “Peter Pan syndrome.” So as DiCaprio scrutinizes himself onscreen, you watch the child actor in him squirm to get out while the grown-up power player in him fights for control. Ultimately, DiCaprio’s older half wins the day and diligently watches the film for the tenth time. It is, it seems, a pivotal stage in DiCaprio’s life and career.
“The last couple of years have really been, at the risk of sounding corny, a transitional time for me,” says DiCaprio.
Let’s recap. Titanic, released late in 1997, not only broke records for Oscars (eleven) and worldwide box-office grosses ($1.8 billion) but immediately transformed DiCaprio from an extremely talented and respected actor (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, for which he was nominated for an Oscar; This Boy’s Life; The Basketball Diaries; Romeo and Juliet) into a cottage industry unto himself. Just as Michael Jordan morphed into Michael and, finally, MJ, DiCaprio went from his many syllables to simply Leo: icon. At one point, ten books on the New York Times best-seller list dealt with DiCaprio or Titanic.
The obvious question pops up: Weren’t you sick of yourself? DiCaprio laughs. “Certainly with the Titanic thing,” he says. “I was over it as much as anyone else, know what I’m saying?”
Fueling the mania was the fact that DiCaprio dealt with post-Titanic stress disorder by seeking the comfort and serenity of virtually every club in Manhattan and in the greater Los Angeles area. If you spilled a drink in those places in the past two years, you probably drenched DiCaprio or one of his inseparable crew. They include actor Tobey Maguire (The Cider House Rules), director Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy) and magician David Blaine. Rumors of DiCaprio spinning out of control were rampant.
“I was indie boy before Romeo and Juliet and Titanic — I’d never dealt with any of that in my life,” says DiCaprio of the attention his antics have sparked. “I didn’t know what being somebody that recognizable entailed. I didn’t know what it meant. And Titanic is something that will never happen again. Nor will I ever try to repeat it.”
All of which has led us here to see The Beach, DiCaprio’s first film in two years and the reason he has emerged to see what kind of shadow he now casts in Hollywood.
From the outset, DiCaprio’s choice of The Beach was meant to show his independence. It also shows his clout. For Titanic, DiCaprio’s salary was a reported $2.5 million; The Beach represents his first $20 million payday. That kind of money gets you heard on the set even without a producing credit.
Based on the 1997 novel by Alex Garland, the film is the brainchild of the same London-based trio that created Trainspotting: director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald. Boyle’s easygoing directorial presence clearly pleases the actor more than the tyrannical grip of Titanic‘s James Cameron, whose style of filmmaking, says DiCaprio, has “a military feel.” DiCaprio plays Richard, an adventure junkie traveling alone in Thailand who stumbles upon a map to a paradise that, like any paradise, cannot stay pure once it is discovered by outsiders. Unless, by chance, your idea of nirvana includes marijuana fields patrolled by guards with AK-47s, shark attacks and manipulative sex. Richard is disillusioned, burned out on the excess of Western culture yet unable to escape the fact that he is as much the problem as the society he has escaped. It’s not difficult to see why the theme of The Beach has been DiCaprio’s chief obsession for more than a year.
In fact, when we sit down for the first of our interviews two days later, DiCaprio will begin by being entirely fixated on The Beach. But soon he settles into a discussion that stretches from his childhood (his parents, George and Irmelin, split before he was a year old, but both were active in his life) to adolescence (DiCaprio, who appeared on Romper Room at age five, began acting in commercials at fourteen, had a recurring TV role on Growing Pains and nabbed his breakthrough part opposite Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life at seventeen) all the way to his next role, in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. (“He’s a Rolodex of film,” says DiCaprio of Scorsese. “It’s mind-boggling.”)
Because the house DiCaprio recently purchased in the Hollywood Hills is undergoing construction, the interviews take place at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Our first meeting is in late December, and when DiCaprio takes a seat, he stares at the twenty-foot Christmas tree and says, “I just bought a tree this size for my living room.” You assume his new home is rather roomy.
Throughout the conversations, DiCaprio is friendly, matter-of-fact, and although he isn’t prone to a great deal of introspection, he manages to convey the feeling that he is as baffled and amused by his success as anyone. He peppers his conversation with B-boy-speak, but he is also, as he points out continually, at pains to redefine his career as an adult. Like Richard in The Beach, DiCaprio has dropped out and is now returning, hoping to make some sense of what he’s seen.
Which is difficult when reminders of your own fame are everywhere. Take the Chateau Marmont waiter who approaches the table at this very minute.
“Hey, that was a killer party you threw, man,” he says.
“Which one?” asks DiCaprio.
“The one where Jennifer Lopez showed up and walked in on me in the bathroom,” says the waiter. “That’s a dream come true.”
“Oh, yeah, that one up there,” says DiCaprio. He looks up toward a hotel room as the waiter walks away.
“I invited those dudes up from the hotel,” he says after a moment. “I had a dope party up there.”
He stares at the tape recorder and grimaces. You smile. This seems like a good place to begin.