The last time I was in a room with Leonard DiCaprio was 2001 and it was his kitchen. I was interviewing his then girlfriend, Brazilian gorgeousness Gisele Bündchen. Her Yorkshire terrier was yapping and she was talking non-stop in a dizzying way with demanding eyes, lavish hair. She was warm, volatile, with a sense of entitlement, and Leo was withdrawn, quiet, perhaps a little lost while he was meticulously chopping in the kitchen. He was making food to take over to a friend’s house and kept saying, “Baby, we’re late.” But Baby carried on talking and demanding empinadas. Gisele and the yorkie were going crazy for the tasty meaty morsels. Leo just kept chopping vegetables.
Eventually Gisele drove me home. Joni Mitchell’s California was playing. We both sang. She told me Leo didn’t do karaoke, but life apart from that, life was great with him. It didn’t surprise me at all when they split up. It seemed like they had nothing in common. Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the most famous and perhaps one of the most beautiful men in the world. He could have anything he wanted. He never behaved in a brattish way of course, but he’s only ever dated supermodels, the current one being Israeli Bar Rafaeli.
Seven years on I’m in another room with him, a slightly smoky room at the Beverly Wilshire where he’s doing interviews to promote Body Of Lies, a hard hitting terrorists versus CIA set in the desert Ridley Scott movie; powerful, layered. He’s in a scruffy battered grey T-shirt, jeans, tall. Supposed to be six foot one but looks taller, perhaps because he’s long limbed, perhaps because one expects movie stars to be Tom Cruise sized. He’s not as chunky as the look he adopted for Gangs Of New York, where he gained 30 lbs and they seemed to stay with him in a gravitas I’m grown up sort of way. But he’s oddly powerful looking. The face is heart-shaped, with that I don’t know if I ever need to shave complexion. He looks older and younger than his 34 years.
His eyes are light, light beams even. They look at you in a penetrating way. Perhaps he’s trying to place me, but his eyes dart away again. If he did remember me from his kitchen, which I’m sure he didn’t, he would have been embarrassed, because that was a different Leo then, a lightweight Leo. I don’t want to embarrass him, so I don’t mention it. Instead he’s extremely polite, smiling, although guarded in an extremely subtle way that allows him to be enthusiastic and never hostile.
Body Of Lies also stars Russell Crowe. The last time they were together was in The Quick And The Dead, when he was only 18. This was pre Titanic when DiCaprio was known for his sensitive artsy portrayals as a retarded boy in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and being beaten up by his cruel stepfather Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life. “And he had just done Romper Stomper, so we were both very wet behind the ears back then. We were hand picked as two people who had done interesting performances that year. It was our first encounter in being in a big budget film.”
DiCaprio would go on to say how suspicious he became of big budget studio films, but that was after Titanic, which at the time was the biggest budget for a studio film ever and it distorted people’s perception of Leo. He became written off as a cherub faced tragic ruby lipped star that was chased and hounded by teenage girls who might have chased the Jonas Brothers today. His first encounter with Crowe was before they both became ubiquitous.
“He was very cool to me back then and supportive of me as a young actor, and seeing him again after all these years he was still the same guy and he is an even better actor than he was back then. He’s carved out a fantastic career for himself and is known as one of the most committed actors of his generation with some really powerful performances.”
Really, I thought that was you, one of the most committed actors of your generation. He rocks back in his chair and laughs, “Well, you know, people don’t say that sort of thing about themselves.” He’s giggling but part of him knows it’s the truth. He has graduated into heavy weight. Meticulous performances as the obsessive compulsive Howard Hughes in The Aviator (which won him his second Oscar nomination, the first was for Grape) and generally being taken under the wing of Martin Scorsese for Gangs Of New York and The Departed set among the Triads, has earned him gravitas, kudos, applause.
His third Oscar nomination was for Blood Diamond, which he considers a movie which changed things. De Beers certainly had to do some rethinking, and everyone is aware that Leona Lewis doesn’t wear conflict diamonds.
So was the dynamic between you and Crowe the same? Did he still seem mentor? Could he be supportive in the same way? In the film Crowe and DiCaprio are on the same side but at loggerheads with each other and the tension is fascinating.
“It was strange that it hadn’t. It was just like walking into a room 15 years later, even though in 15 years a lot of things have happened to both of us, and a lot of changes have gone on in the world. But I have to say we are both developed as actors, we both have more experience under our belts, and there was a different way in which we conversed in that period and now in terms of arguing our characters points back and forth. I don’t think we did that back then. Not that we didn’t take it seriously, but we never had that type of responsibility that we do now, so yes, I noticed the difference in that regard for sure. I knew he was going to be like that because you can see it up there in the screen in all the work he does. He is very committed.”
He says the word committed as if he treasures that word, as if it is the highest accolade. DiCaprio was of course in the past thoughtful, hyper sensitive even, but through movie choices, taking risks in lower budget movies that were considered failures like The Beach and The Man In The Iron Mask, and the controversial Blood Diamond, and making his own eco statement in The Eleventh Hour, he gets to earn the moniker very committed too. Certainly for Body Of Lies there is no possibility of being a lightweight. It was a long tough shoot shot mostly in the desert. It involved several months in Morocco posing as Jordan.
“I had a very hard shoot, very rough. I’ve done a lot of action sequences before, but this is a Ridley Scott movie. I did a lot of my own stunts, not all of them. You are always moving locations at lightening speed. At any given second Ridley Scott would come in and say, ‘I want a helicopter come in and shoot two missiles and I want that to be on camera and I want to have a surveillance camera 2,000 feet in the air shooting on top of your head’. At some points you really don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a huge adrenalin rush for you as an actor because you have to be prepared dramatically to have any given scene changed at any moment. It makes you trust your instincts more. It makes you delve deep into yourself. The better you know your character the better you know how he would react in any scenario, and Ridley will throw curveballs constantly. He is editing seven different cameras at the same time and then he’ll say, ‘I don’t believe that. I don’t care how much we’ve talked about this scene, it’s not coming across, so I’m going to change everything’. He’s a very run and gun director. He likes to keep up the pace of a film unlike any director I’ve met. You’d better be prepared for anything. Someone like Scorsese I suppose is a lot more meticulous in the way he sets things up. He’s very specific and take a lot of time with each angle.”
Working with Scott to be much more adrenalin based. The pace of the film is fast and unyielding and there’s one scene where he’s being tortured at the end where I could hardly breathe. “Good,” he exclaims, looking like the cat’s had the cream. “I had a problem with that scene, so I’m glad it worked for you. It’s been written that I had a problem with the dust, but it wasn’t the dust I got sick from, it was that scene. It was a pivotal point in the whole movie. It was make or break.”
The scene in which DiCaprio is caught and tortured is graphic. So real I couldn’t finish looking at it. “If that scene didn’t work it hinged on everything else about the movie and the movie couldn’t sustain itself. I knew it was one of the most important scenes in the movie. We needed to make it important, pertinent and controversial. I spoke to ex-heads of the CIA about what my character would be doing and how he would be handling himself. Because so much hinged on it I had almost a physical breakdown at the end of it. So a lot of what you see on the film is my breaking point. I physically collapsed for a few days after that. Yes, I got sick, but not because of the dust. It was because of the intensity of it.”
One of the themes of the movie is truth. Who you trust. Who you tell the truth to. Who you give a version of the truth. And who you lie to. So, who would he lie to and why? “Intrinsically an organisation like the CIA relies on secrecy. It is about covert operations, so we’re doing a movie about modern day CIA operations and practises. I think we got as close as we could get on how the United States operates on this war of terror.”
He makes no attempt to answer this question as a personal one. But the answer is long and articulate and important. It makes it difficult to interrupt. The theme that you cannot trust terrorists and that you also cannot trust Americans.
“That is very symbolic of the truth. You have this character that is in a deceitful world trying to catch the enemy that he could never trust. But it is a dirty ugly war. He’s trying to hold on to a semblance of morality and a belief in his country while his country is letting him down simultaneously, and ironically he’s starting to trust people that are while not exactly the enemy, but aren’t the people he’s beholden to. You have to start thinking out of the box. He starts to question his patriotism, what he stands for morally. This character is not somebody who is either good or bad. He is trying to hold on to a certain belief system that is lost.”
And then you realise that he probably is talking about himself. When you ask him about Bush or Palin he is not at all equivocal. His anti-Palin rants are legendary. He says simply, “I hope that Barak Obama wins because I haven’t been happy with the last eight years and that has been reflected in the polls. It is not secret that the Bush administration and the way they handled not only the war on terror but everything else has only a ten per cent approval rating. So yes, I can only hope for Barak Obama. For a brilliant mind to come in and change everything. It is a scary world that the United States has ventured into. And Barak Obama can come in and set this country on a different course.”
You get the impression that while many Hollywood stars might sell a photo of their baby and sell its proceeds for an eco charity, might at the same time enjoy a film studio’s Lear jet to be at their personal disposal, you can’t fault Leo or his eco credentials. He drives what he calls a golf cart car, a Prius, and made the eco movie The Eleventh Hour, an extensively detailed documentary about our planet in crisis. He cares “about human beings regarding this planet as a service station, but the earth should be cherished for future generations.” He is at the helm of two diametrically opposed worlds; the greed, instant gratification and materialism of Hollywood and the impassioned environmentalist. But he pulls it off and he’s good at it. For instance he once stole a journalist’s tape recorder just after they’d both ordered lunch but when the hack went to make a phone call and he babbled on to it that he shouldn’t be eating hamburgers, even though he himself had ordered one, because the methane gas cows release is the number one contributor to the ozone layer. But you can’t have tuna either because the nets capture innocent little dolphins. He was being jokey but serious at the same time. He doesn’t mean it to preach. He meant to be quite gentle in his earnestness. As well as all this he has remnants of Hollywood bad boy that liked to throw horse shit at Italian paparazzi, hang out in after hours bars with gaggles of models wearing tiny outfits. The contradictions all work to make him human. That’s why he relished the idea of playing a character that was neither a hero or a villain.
He laughs. “Of course it was so much easier to play someone caught in a moral web, who tries to manipulate people as best he can, but he knows he is also being manipulated. He goes on a personal journey where he realises that he is not part of any specific nationality any more. It’s not about nationality. It’s about what’s right or wrong for him.
“When you are given an opportunity to make a film about what’s very much on the consciousness of the general public, like Body Of Lies, and I would put Blood Diamond in the same category, of course you jump at these opportunities. Blood Diamond shed a different light on the diamond trade.”
I would like to think, as Leo believes, that Body Of Lies, would shed a different light upon the war on terror. It came out in the US already in a very bad week that involved the Wall Street crash and had to settle for third place in the movie charts where the box office was topped with Beverly Hills Chihuahua. In a crisis people don’t see why there’s a crisis, they want to escape it. Quarantine, a cheaply made horror film was in second place. Still DiCaprio argues gamely, “I know historically at some point in time we are going to look back at this type of movie and it will reflect the period and make people really think what was going on in that time period.”
Ridley Scott, for all his nuanced multi-layered brilliance, is not in vogue at the moment. One imagines that DiCaprio will have greater success with Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road which reunites him with Kate Winslet but without the Celine Dion soundtrack and gallons of water. It is a haunting, gnawing movie derived from the novel by Richard Yates. It is set in the mid Fifties, post World War II, but pre Mad Men. The revolution was a long way off. Winslet and DiCaprio’s relationship is sour, thwarted, spiralling. They play a young married couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who find themselves trapped in suburbia, trapped by the social confines of their lives, of their time. Frank Wheeler is a man with a meaningless job who has lost his nerve and lost his way. April – Winslet – is a trapped housewife, homemaker, who wants to go to Paris and be bohemian, but finds herself pregnant with a third baby.
It resonates with DiCaprio because “What is the American dream supposed to be? And how similar are we now to that era in a lot of ways? It’s about two people going crazy in that kind of environment. Being stripped of their identity and feeling they are living a life of cliches. What gravitates me towards it was that it’s very reflected of the United States moral position in the 1950s and this is where we still hinge ourselves morally, how we view our family, our fundamentals, and also I am a huge fan of Kate and Sam.”
He seems already uneasy that working with Kate again conjures up Titanic. After Titanic his life changed. He couldn’t go out without a million girls chasing him screaming. He hated that effect. He turned down everything big box office after it. Said no Anakin Skywalker, American Psycho, Heath Ledger’s part in The Patriot, and Spiderman which turned his best friend Tobey Maguire into a star. He feared it.
“It was never my intention to have my image shown around the world.” Or barbers in Afghanistan arrested as they enraged the Taliban by offering a Leo DiCaprio style haircut labelled ‘The Titanic’. When he was travelling through Europe, at the airport in Paris, a teenager grabbed his leg and pressed her head into it, clutching desperately as if she were about to sink her teeth into it. He would say, “What are you doing sweetheart?” And he looked at her and tried to grab her face trying to tell her if she would get off his leg he would talk to her, but she wouldn’t leave and the incident horrified him and left him marked. He wanted to be an actor, not a celebrity. He didn’t do any movies at all for a couple of years because he was said to be suffering from ‘post-Titanic distress syndrome’. The kind of fame where everyone wants to talk to you but nobody wants to listen to what you’ve got to say.
“The moves that I’m doing now are the movies that I’ve always wanted to do. If when I was younger I’d had these opportunities I’d have done them in a heartbeat. But you don’t always get the opportunity to make films that you have a kinship to when you’re starting off. I took some time off after Titanic because I needed to let the dust settle so to speak and recharge my battery. I felt OK, I’ve been given a tremendous opportunity, what are you going to do with it? Now your name can finance movies that you do want to do. That wasn’t something that I wanted to squander. I wanted to wait until I felt I could really contribute something that had the kind of edge that I’d always been looking for since I started.” Although these films might have had edge without box office, the combined effect was to make Leo an almost impossible combination, an edgy Hollywood star. “Of course after Titanic there were a lot of offers of films like that, but it was very easy to turn those movies down.”
His character in Revolutionary Road might be his best bet for an Oscar win yet. He seems to light up when he talks about his darkness. “It’s a film about the disintegration of a relationship. We’re putting a smile on our face and doing all the things you should be doing in a loving relationship, but the darker side is taking over. It’s people who are holding on to their love in circumstances that are ripping apart. I’m more attracted to doing that sort of thing these days because things in this world they aren’t easy, they’re very complicated.”
You wonder if his relationship with Bar Rafaeli is uncomplicated. He is a scorpio with libra rising. “That means I’m trying to balance the passionate dark insane parts of scorpio the best I can, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job.”
DiCaprio started off strangely shy around women. He says, “I’ve always been a slow starter. My first date was with a girl called Cessi. We had a beautiful relationship over the phone all summer and then when we met I couldn’t look her in the eye.” He doesn’t seem to look many people in the eye directly for long, but that hasn’t stopped him romancing Kate Moss, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova, and Amber Valletta.
He says that he would love to have a wife he feels comfortable with. He says that he wants a kid “someday”. We have to skirt borders very carefully when talking about intimate things. There’s never a froideur that comes up, but you know he doesn’t want to be defined by his relationships with supermodels. For a long time he would take his mum to premieres instead of an inamorata. He’s never liked to talk about his girlfriends, be pictured with them, or give tantalising details away because that would feed the paparazzi, who have made him miserable. Instead he’s one of those actors who feels, “Defining yourself to the public on a consistent basis is death to a performer. The more you define who you are personally the less you are able to submerge into the characters you do and people will think I don’t buy him in that role.”
Instead the image we have of him is amorphic, a bad boy superhero, soulful but likes to party, committed to his work but not necessarily to his long-term girlfriends. He once said his ideal wife would be one who was independent, who wouldn’t mind if he went off to Alaska at a moment’s notice with his friends. Robert De Niro is his friend. Not the kind of hanging out with friend, but the friend who recommended him to Martin Scorsese. “I was humbled by that. De Niro/Scorsese is my generation’s choice of greatest actor director dynamic. It is to the previous ones Brando/Kazan.” He has completed three movies with Scorsese, Gangs of New York, Aviator, Departed, and is about to start a fourth, Shutter Island. They are muse and mentor. “I have so much respect for him. Who doesn’t, you know?”
Scorsese had to wait years for his Oscar. Does he himself mind missing out three times? “I would say this. I have a theory. We all have our personal choices of who we think should win, but there are certain times you look back at the movie that won that year and you think how was that humanly possible?”
Sometimes people get the Oscar for the wrong movie. They get it because the Academy was guilty because they recognised they gave it to the wrong person last year. ‘Yes, but the Academy is about recognising someone who is deservant (sic) or not. I am not feverishly hunting one down. I am trying to do the best work I possibly can and making movies that will have resonance for years to come. I think you can never dictate what you want people to think. If you control that you lose connection from the audience. I think if you try for an Oscar or a goal like that, the more people are going to see it as transparent. It’s not on my radar. If it happens great, but I’m happy to continue working as I am, really.”
He is happy being an active person. “Life’s too short to be lazy and passive and I don’t like to stay in one environment for too long and get set in one way of thinking. I love to travel, get involved in different environmental projects. Stimulate myself. I couldn’t be more miserable when I don’t have anything to engage in.”
It’s been written that you like to be on your own a lot. “No. I think I’m more of a people person.” Is it true that you have the same set of about ten really good friends that you grew up with because you don’t need new friends and never lose old ones? “Mm,” he considers. “I suppose, yes. I do have about ten really good friends. But the fact I don’t have new ones is not true.”
He was born on November 11th, 1974 in East Hollywood. His mother, German born Irmelin, split from his father George, a comic book artist, when their son was about a year old. His father, a Hollywood bohemian, has had a distinctive influence on his mind and career, to always think out of the box. His father was part of the underground comic book scene and hippie movement. He was acquaintances with Charles Bukowski. He still has friends from his childhood. “It’s true that you don’t necessarily know who to trust. People who are celebrities are shrouded in mystery. You don’t know if they’re good people or not. Generally, people in the arts are good people. When you work on movies you go, what’s that actor like? This is my opinion of them. I am almost always proven wrong. You realise they are completely normal people. You hear horror stories of people’s reputations. You think they might be arrogant or self-righteous. But the majority of people I’ve met who do movies are not. They are conscious people who don’t have this side that the public attach on to them. Jack Nicholson said, ‘By the very nature of being well know you meet more people in an average week’. Because you are constantly having interactions with people in that regard it makes you hold on to the people you know and trust. But at the same time I try to keep an open mind because there are a lot of fascinating people out there. Being an environmentalist and also doing this business opens me up to entirely different worlds and I love to juggle those things.” So it seems there are two entirely contradicting Leo: shy, untrusting circumspect Leo and gregarious up for anything. He’s been careful to display both so I’ll never pin him down as one or the other. He’s answered everything, but not very exactly. But he’s played a perfect game. He keeps you smiling and he’s laughing even. He doesn’t let you get too close but he doesn’t let you notice the distance.