With two hot new movies poised to set the world alight, Leonardo diCaprio is being reborn.
There is certainly nothing to suggest the swagger of a movie star about Leonardo DiCaprio. He is scoffing noodles from a cardboard takeaway box as I enter the room.
His short-sleeved check shirt and baggy blue jeans look as if they have never made contact with a hot iron, and his baseball hat is almost covering his famous blue-green eyes.
He appears, well, kind of nerdish. Hardly the powerful charismatic actor that comes to life on screen.
But he is an A-list actor commanding US$20 million ($38 million) a picture these days, even if he has never relished the spotlight. Since he was unwittingly catapulted to the status of superstar heart-throb in 1997's Titanic, DiCaprio has kept a low profile.
"I choose to not cater to the press as much as some people might, but, you know, it allows me to retain who I am. It allows me not to be, you know, feel like some kind of a trained monkey for the public," he says, fumbling to get his words out.
"Certainly after Titanic, where my face was put on every magazine cover around the world and the movie was such a phenomenon, I really had no control over that. So for the last couple of years, media-wise I've been trying to regain some control in what people say about me."
So is he succeeding? "I don't know," he says, brushing his mop of blond hair under his baseball cap.
"I think it's a test case now - we'll see if I'm making the right decision."
His attempt to orchestrate his media exposure will be a finely tuned performance over the next few months as the Leonardo DiCaprio renaissance begins. He is starring in two of the year's most hyped film releases, Catch Me If You Can and Gangs of New York, directed by two of the industry's biggest heavyweights, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
But the actor's roles couldn't be more different. Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can is set in the 60s and co-stars Tom Hanks. DiCaprio plays the real-life teenage con artist Frank Abagnale jnr, who was the youngest man to be on the FBI's most-wanted list.
In the film he gets to play dress-ups as he impersonates a doctor, a lawyer and an airline pilot.
Gangs is set against the background of a violent chapter of New York history in the 1860s. DiCaprio bulked up for his role (gaining 14kg) to play an Irish immigrant set on a course of revenge when his father is murdered by a blood-thirsty political fixer, Bill the Butcher (played by Daniel Day-Lewis).
We are sitting, make that lounging, on the floor (he slips from the couch on to the floor about two minutes into the interview) in his office on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. It's his newly formed production company, Appian Way, and the walls are covered with Hollywood memorabilia, including a giant poster of Mean Streets personally autographed by Scorsese and the gloves worn by Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull.
It's obvious from his shrine to Scorsese throughout his office, Gangs was the chance of a lifetime for the actor.
"I've wanted to work with Martin Scorsese ever since I was 15 years old," he says. "So I was over the moon when he asked me to do it." He was in Thailand at the time shooting The Beach and didn't even bother to read the script. He was in.
Even when the production ran into trouble and the budget began to blow out over US$100 million ($192 million), DiCaprio lent his support by agreeing to a drastic salary cut.
"Well it's a risk to do a movie of this calibre on a subject matter and a point in history people are not very familiar with. It's a tough subject to sell - so salary-wise you have to make sacrifices to make a certain film happen," he says.
"I would have been an idiot to pass up the opportunity to work with Mr Scorsese."
Scorsese called DiCaprio "The Kid" on the set of Gangs.
"It would be Daniel (for Daniel Day-Lewis) and Cameron (for Cameron Diaz) but for me it was always, 'Hey, kid, come over here'," he says, with a slight laugh in his voice. The actor may be nearing 30 but he is still being called - and cast - as the kid.
His baby-face and youthful demeanour will probably typecast him as the man/child well into his 30s. If it rankles him, he's not letting on.
"I might as well enjoy it while I can," he laughs. "There is nothing I can do if someone has a certain perception of me, whether they think I'm a boy or spoiled or egocentric, whatever is in their minds. All I can do is try and pick roles that I feel challenge me.
"I didn't come into the business knowing much of anything - how you present yourself in the business, how you go about being an actor," he continues. "I wasn't brought up in that world, so it was completely alien to me. All I knew was that I wanted to be an actor. I didn't know in what capacity - I just wanted to be an actor. Since then, it's all been a learning experience."
Dicaprio grew up in Echo Park, which in the 70s and 80s was a particularly seedy part of East Los Angeles, known for its corner crack addicts.
"I didn't grow up in the best environment. There were prostitutes, gangs and drug addicts all around me," he says.
His mother was a German immigrant, while his father was of Italian descent (the story goes that the unborn DiCaprio gave a good kick in his mother's womb while she was looking at a Leonardo Da Vinci painting). His father produced underground comic books, while his mother worked as a legal secretary. He grew up in a liberal "hippie" household and guests would include comic book artist Robert Crumb and writer Charles Bukowski.
"My parents never focused on the fact that we were poor. They took me to museums. They showed me art and would read to me," he recalls. (The DiCaprio home is now a local library where DiCaprio has donated funding for books and computers.)
They divorced when he was only a toddler, but DiCaprio describes them as "good parents" and both remained active in encouraging their son's showbiz ambitions, with his father fielding scripts and his mother giving up her job to help to manage his affairs.
After a string of auditions, and agents suggesting he anglicise his name to Lenny Williams, he began securing regular work when he turned 14, appearing in numerous commercials and TV shows. His big-screen break came when he beat hundreds of others to land the role as the teen rebel son of parents Robert DeNiro and Ellen Barkin in This Boy's Life.
The following year he received an Academy Award nomination for What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. He was now considered a talented actor worthy of attention, but it was Titanic, a role he initially thought too commercial for his taste, that spun him into the stratosphere.
A Beatlesque frenzy ensued, with DiCaprio's face plastered on every magazine cover, and girls running down the street trying to rip his shirt off. He responded by sequestering his own rat-pack, which included future Spider-man star Tobey Maquire.
They would run their own "gangs of New York", partying hard in clubs and schmoozing with supermodels till dawn almost nightly.
His exploits had the press speculating a River Phoenix demise. But DiCaprio insists his behaviour was never out of control, and was for the most part "an empty experience".
These days he would prefer to talk about his exploits campaigning for the environment.
He has set up a foundation to provide funding for various environmental groups, and has actively campaigned against a number of causes, including Arctic drilling, greenhouse gas emissions and saving endangered species.
With his own production company and a slew of new films planned (including Alexander the Great and The Aviator about the career of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes) it seems DiCaprio is really back.
"Everyone is saying to me, 'Hey, now's your comeback'," he scoffs, "but I really don't see it that way. I don't have any crystal ball on my career.
"All I know is that when you make a movie it's something you have to live with forever. It's not a job I take lightly."
* Catch Me If You Can opens on Thursday, while Gangs of New York will screen next month.