Oscar nominated at 19, sought after for just about every prestige young-man role in town, Leonardo DiCaprio is exactly what he's touted to be: the most gifted new actor in Hollywood. Here he talks about his childhood in a Hollywood "ghetto", his disastrous first date, his struggle to avoid being in "Hocus, Pocus" and his doubts about working with Marky Mark.
Leonardo DiCaprio comes flying into my suite at the Mondrian and nearly propels himself out the window. Which isn't such a great idea, considering that we're on the 11th floor.
"Holy shit!" he yells, leaning his whole torso out into the air. "No suicide bars! This is very cool."
"Whoa, boy," I say, pulling him back into the room. "It would make a great ending to the story, but not a good beginning."
With only two major features to his credit- "This Boy's Life", in which he played a cocky teenager who's mother (Ellen Barkin) marries a bully (Robert DeNiro), and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," in which he played a mentally handicapped boy in a family that gives true meaning to the word "dysfunctional" - Leonardo DiCaprio has garnered tremendous reviews, considerable awe and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (for "Grape")
Now he's got two more movies coming out: "The Quick and the Dead", with Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman; and "The Basketball Diaries", in which he plays poet/hipster/junkie Jim Carroll. DiCaprio, who is just 19 and likes to clown around like a kid, seems on the verge of major stardom.
Tall and skinny, wearing a mismatched outfit that makes him look like a scarecrow, and a haircut that appears to have been done with a bowl, DiCaprio in person doesn't radiate Hollywood cool. But ask around town, and it's his name that comes up over and over again as the perfect actor for this role or that, the guy girls want to meet, the one everyone's whispering about.
The sun is blinding us when we flop down on the couches. "Do you mind?" I ask, pulling out my sunglasses.
"Not a bit," he says, putting on his. We look like two beatniks in a bad 50's movie.
"What do I call you?"
"Leonardo is fine."
"Do you still live at home?"
"I did until recently. I get along great with my parents. My mom and dad were divorced before I was even born, so I never knew anything different."
"Hmmm. A happy childhood, a rare Hollywood occurence..."
"You're right, it's not common. Usually people..."
"Are you an only child?"
"Yeah, which is very cool."
"I've never heard anybody say that. Everybody says, 'Oh, I really missed having sisters and brothers,' or 'I never blah, blah, blah."
"No, I loved it, " he says. "They allowed me to do so much stuff I wanted."
"Were you a Hollywood brat?"
"No way. Far from it. When I grew up, I lived in the ghettos of Hollywood. Right near the old Hollywood billiards. It was the crack of L.A. My mom came to this country from Germany when she was very young. She met my dad in college. They moved out to L.A. because they heard it was such a great place and then my mom became pregnant. They moved right into the heart of Hollywood, because they figured that's where all the great stuff was going on in this great town. Meanwhile, it was the most disgusting place to be."
"Someone told me you had problems in school," I say.
"Who?" He asks, narrowing his eyes.
"I have my sources," I tell him.
"I cheated a lot," he says without a blush.
"I always wanted to cheat," I say, "but I was spaced out."
"It's a very unique art, I think," he says, sitting up and getting into character. His whole demeanor changes as he slouches and becomes inconspicuous, his eyes darting around to see the imaginary teacher.
"It has to do with being aware of how the teacher is, first off, and seeing how much they notice, and the time that they do notice and the time they don't notice, and just pinpointing the times when they don't. And being hidden by other people's faces, and having somebody next to you who you're friends with and is extremely smart. I have to commend this guy named Mustafa, who probably helped me through three or four classes completely, just because I sat next to him every time, and I got to copy the homework right before the class started. If I had problems on a test, I'd just look over, and Mustafa would show me his paper and I would write it down."
"You gotta know about people," he continues, "and how they operate. I had a rough time in school. I just never got over the fact that we weren't allowed to learn what we wanted to learn. But then I asked myself why can't I just create a space for myself where I don't have to do math? Because I'm not good at it and if I have a problem on my taxes, I'll get a tax man. " He looks at me as if this were the most obvious point in the world.
"Easy for you to say," I say. "Now you're out of school, you're making a lot of money, doing a lot of movies, you can do anything, meet anyone, go anywhere, fuck anyone, buy anything..."
A warm grin spreads over DiCaprio's face. "Yeah," he says. "That's true."
"And?" I prod him.
"And what? It's great!"
"Were you popular as a kid?"
"Among my peers? No, I never was. What I would do in order to be popular was, I would put myself on the line and joke around and be wacky and funny, and I was always known as the crazy little kid. I did impressions, all of it. Then I realized that that's not what I want to do. I don't want to be a comedian to please other people."
"And now people think you're cool just because of who you are," I point out.
"Which is cool," he retorts.
"Okay," I say, laughing despite myself. "Let's talk about your movies. In the book "The Basketball Diaries," Jim Carroll does unbelievable things to support his drug habit. He's really the first out-of-control grown-up you've ever played."
"I'll say," he says. "I had to do all kinds of things I've never done. I had this one terrifying scene where I was supposed to stand in front of a really big group and read poetry. I have this thing, which I've pretty much cleared up, but I hate speaking in front of a large audience. I don't know where it came from..."
"From deep inside your soul," I say sagely.
"Probably. So in this scene, I was messing up over and over again, and Lorraine Bracco was the only person who was getting on me, saying, 'You can do it, you can do it.' And I finally ended up doing it right. She's the best woman I've ever worked with. Woman, as far as older than me."
He ignores me.
"And Bruno Kirby, which was a thrill, because I loved him in "When Harry Met Sally...That was the movie I saw on my first date."
I sit straight up. "How old were you? Where were you? What'd you wear?"
DiCaprio closes his eyes. "I went out with this girl named Cessi, this little Spanish beautiful girl. I was in the eighth grade. We had this beautiful relationship over the phone all summer, she was away, and we were so close and so bonded and we'd tell each other everything. And then she came home, and we went out to the movies for the first time, and oh God, I wanted it to be so perfect. So I put on my light-blue turtleneck, which I thought was cool at the time. It was a turtleneck I bought at Kmart or something. When I saw Cessi, I was petrified and I couldn't even look her in the eye or speak to her."
"After telling her your deepest thoughts on the phone all summer?"
"Exactly. That's the way humans are. And then we saw "When Harry Met Sally"... and I couldn't move, I couldn't look at her in the seat or anything. But the movie took me away. For two hours I was at peace because she was watching the movie and I didn't have this responsibility on me to be Superboy. And then afterwards, I remember eating a French dip and I was trying to get some control of the situation. So I was trying to not put her down exactly, but I was looking at her like she was ridiculous while she was eating this French dip. And she was really shy. And finally she said, "Do you have a problem with me eating this sandwich?" And I said, 'No, no, not at all.' But I was acting really weird. And that was our last date. I was in love with her for a year after taht but I couldn't go near her, because I was so mortified. So that's my first-date story."
"Go ahead," I say. "I love this stuff."
"I thought we were gonna talk about movies," he says.
"Okay, I heard you might be playing James Dean in a movie."
"I'm not sure, I've been thinking it over for months. I need to know what the script is like, who's going to direct, those things. It's probably the hardest decision I've had to make over any film, because I respect the guy's work so much. But at the same time there's this pressure that I put on myself to ask whether or not I'm gonna do James Dean as me or as him. There's pressure if you do James Dean- people are gonna be critical of you because there are so many fanatics. But in order to do it, I have to make him my own. Because there's no way to duplicate him exactly, nobody can do that, it's impossible. The question is, how am I going to do him?"
"I don't see what you get out of it," I say, giving my opinions freely. "If you're good, everybody says, 'Yeah, he's imitating James Dean.' And if it's not good, they say, 'Hmmm, he doesn't even look like him."
"Every person I talk to says that. All I know is that I'm going to do this movie "Total Eclipse," which is the story of Rimbaud, the poet. And David Thewlis is going to play Verlaine."
"Verlaine was his lover, no?" I say.
"That's not what the story is about, but yes, I will have to kiss him on screen."
My eyebrows go up and down. DiCaprio laughs. "I don't have a problem with doing a film about a relationship of love with another man," he says. "That's just acting, you know what I mean? But as far as the kissing stuff, that's really hard for me, I'm not kidding. But I've faced the fact that I'm gonna have to do it, and I'm gonna do it because I supposedly loved the guy. But the movie isn't about homosexuality, although I'm sure that's what the press is gonna be all over. Have you ever kissed a girl?"
I hesititate, wanting to phrase this so he'll understand. "No," I finally say. "Not in the way you mean."
"Could you?" he asks.
"Could I what?" I say.
"Kiss a girl." He seems to be liking asking the questions.
"For money?" I ask.
"Oh, yeah, for money. Because the money's gonna be there, you're making a film. So could you?"
"Yes," I answer, no faltering.
DiCaprio smiles. "I'll tell you about the first kiss that I had," he says, "It was the most disgusting thing in my life. The girl injected about a pound of saliva into my mouth, and when I walked away, I had to spit it all out. It was awful."
"Have you ever kissed a guy?" I ask.
He looks at me with all seriousness. "My publicist told me that if I felt uncomfortable with a question, I should just say so."
"You little shit!" I shreik. "You asked me first..."
He's laughing. "I'm only kidding. I'm not uncomfortable. And no, I've never kissed a guy. But when I have to do that scene, I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm going to go in there, and I'm going to walk over to him, and I'm going to stick my tongue down his fucking throat and probably swerve it around a bit. That's it, end of story. On that day I will have no fears or qualms about it."
"I know actors how have to get drunk before they do the scenes that really scare them."
"That has to do with insecurity. If I commit myself to a movie, I'm gonna have to go through with it. I think that's sort of cool of me, actually."
"Yes, it's very big of you, Leonardo."
"Excuse me," he says. "I have to go to the bathroom." He heads in there and continues talking, not closing the door behind him. "The thing I love to do is to get into different characters. And you find with each one that there are things that make you uncomfortable. That's the part I like, to get past the unease." He comes back and flops down on the couch.
"Don't you shut the door?"
"Guess not. It's usually just me and my mom at home, so I guess sometimes I just pee with the door open. So where were we?"
"I think we were discussing swapping spit."
"Actually," he says seriously, "it's pretty disgusting when you think about it. I mean, people are so concerned about eating off the same fork as someone else, and even though you like somebody, do you know that the human mouth is one of the dirtiest things on this planet? A dog's mouth is cleaner. There's so much bacteria and slime and disgust and trapped food and bad breath in a mouth..."
"Jesus, Leonardo, keep this up and I'll never kiss my boyfriend again."
"I'm just saying," he says.
"Wait, you have kissed a girl?"
"Yes, I have," he says. "But I have to be really happy with the girl, if you know what I mean."
"Enough," I beg.
"Can't you get herpes form kissing?" he asks, as if I'm Dr. Ruth.
"I mean venereal herpes," he says.
"I give up," I say, throwing my hands in the air.
We order lunch and try to get this interview back on track. He gets the grilled chicken breast and mashed potatoes. When it comes, he cups his arm around his plate and basically shovels the food down in big gulps. He continues talking the whole time.
"Tell me about what it's like attending the Academy Awards as a nominee," I say.
"Okay, this is what I thought. The Academy Awards was a big burden for me because of my problem of speaking in front of big audiences. I'm doing a lot better with it now, but it was just this gutwrenching fear of slipping up and doing something horrible..."
"In front of three billion people.."
"Yeah, or crying, or doing something that's embarrassing, because I'm such a critical person of other people, when I watch people who do that, I go, 'Oh God, what a fuckin' idiot.' And I put that pressure on myself. So I was dreading winning. It was like this weight on my shoulders for so long, and there were some people who were saying, 'Hey, you might have a chance.' And I was saying, 'No,no, I'm not gonna win.' And I was convincing myself and I said, 'I'm not even gonna plan a speech because I know I'm not gonna win.' And I invited my mom and my dad and my stepmom. I was so and when I get nervous my palms start to sweat, and i just start to twitch, sort of like an animal. And then I came to the Awards and people started telling me, 'You know what, you have a pretty good chance of winning tonight.' And this thing started to consume me and I started shaking in my seat and having this posed smile, and inside being petrified. And mine was the first one up, and my mom had to go to the bathroom. And they said, 'Okay, the nominees for best Supporting Actor...' and my mom wasn't there! And I knew if my mom wasn't there, it would be terrible. I saw this guard holding my mom back. She was trying to jump through a bunch of people, and they showed the first person, and said 'Tommy Lee Jones' in "The Fugitive.' I knew I had to do something. My mom had to be next to me. So I turned to the security guards and I mouthed, 'Let her fucking in.' And then the guy looked at me, and I said, 'I'm a nominee.' I never do that kind of shit, but I figured this was really important. And my mom just scooted by and jumped in the seat and in, like five seconds, she adjusted herself. I adjusted myself, and I was sitting there with this smile on my face like, 'Aw, God, this is great.' Meanwhile, I'm about ready to die. And when they announced Tommy Lee Jones had won, I wanted to get down on the ground and thank God. Nobody was happier for him than me, that's the fucking truth."
"People were so blown away by your performance in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." You know those disability parts often win the Oscar," I say.
"'Gilbert Grape' was a fantastic experience for me. Before that, I didn't know where I wanted to go as an actor."
"Do you know now?"
"I'm getting there, yeah. During 'Gilbert Grape' I didn't know where I was gonna go as an actor so I didn't know what types of movies I wanted to do. I just felt like doing a movie is doing a movie, I get money and fame, and that's great, and I can act and have fun. And I was up for a movie called 'Hocus Pocus' with Bette Midler, and I knew it was awful, but it was just like, 'Okay, they're offering me more and more money. Isn't that what you do? You do movies and you get more and more money.' But something inside of me kept saying, 'Don't do this movie.' And everyone around me was saying, 'Leonardo, how could you not take a movie?' And I said to myself, 'Okay, I'll audition for this movie 'Gilbert Grape.' If I don't get that, I'll do 'Hocus Pocus'. I found myself trying so hard, investing so much time and energy in Gilbert Grape', I worked so damn hard at it and I finally got it, and it was like such a weight off my shoulders."
"Well, besides all the other great things 'Gilbert Grape' is, it's also the movie that saved you from 'Hocus Pocus.' That's fabulous. And so, what was it you figured out that you wanted to be doing as an actor?"
"I want to do things that are different. Not necessarily different just to be different, but something that I can get into with other actors who are quality actors and a quality director and a good script."
"Oh, that," I say, as if there aren't 20 million other actors wanting that same, easy thing from life.
"With 'The Quick and the Dead', I really had to think it through for a long time. It was honestly not my idea of the type of movie that I wanted to do next. I turned it down like at least 10 to 20 times. Then on the last day, they said, 'Hey, look, they really want you, and this is the last day you can have the role, because they're gonna hire somebody else.' Everyone around me was saying 'Look, this is a good movie.' I had this thing about not doing big commercial movies, because all the big commercial movies, not all of them, but most of the mainstream movies are just pieces of garbage that have been done over thousands of times. But then I looked at 'The Quick and the Dead', and I thought, 'Okay, Sharon Stone's in it, and I think, disregarding her superstardom, the woman definitely has something going on, and Gene Hackman's in it, and Sam Raimi is a completely innovative director. My character's somebody that's so completely insecure in himself that he has to put on a show to dazzle everybody, and that to me started to become interesting. But the kid was cool at the same time, he developed this thing about being cool, he wasn't afraid of anybody, except for his father, Gene Hackman. So I thought, look, I'm not working, I could do something different and I can have fun with this movie and why not? So I did it, and there's a difference between doing something that's mainstream and big budget and schlocky, and doing something that's mainstream and big budget and has something interesting in it. I just went in there, I did what I had to do, and it was fun and I'm glad I did it."
Whew, this boy can talk! "How'd you decide to do 'Basketball Diaries?'
"'The Basketball Diaries'" was the first time where I actually read a script and I didn't want to put it down. Then I met Scott Kalvert, the director, who hadn't done a movie before. He had done these Marky Mark videos. So that was a bit of a problem. I wanted to do this movie, but I didn't want it to turn out ot be some After School Special about drugs, which is what it could have turned out to be. But when I met Scott, he seemed like a cool guy. He didn't have all the Hollywood director shit going on. And he was willing to listen to my opinions. I'll tell you this story. We were looking for someone to play this kid Mickey, and Scott wanted to bring in Marky Mark. He'd worked with him and really liked him. And like any normal human being, I freaked out. Because I figured somebody who's a singer like that, which is not necessarily music I'm a fan of, was not right for the part. I told Scott no, we can't audition him. He said, 'I worked with Marky and you gotta stop thinking that he's gonna pull some macho thing with the film, he's not like that. When you get to know him he's a really cool guy.' And I said no, no, no, absolutely not. I don't care, there's plenty of cool people out there, just find one of them. But I finally thought about it and I said, 'Look, I know if I had done something [like] what Marky Mark did, and got a bad reputation like he does, I'd feel really bad if some young actor wrote me off just because he was in agood place in his career.' We had read so many kids for the character, but everyone just didn't get it. They were putting on this false toughness and this false street thing which just didn't work. And so I met Marky and as soon as I met him I wanted to find something wrong with him, because I had this fear of what other people were gonna think of him and what I'm gonna think of him, like he's gonna do something terrible in the movie. But as soon as he came in he was really cool and he said hello so matter-of-factly, and did the scene and I couldn't help but be charmed by what he did. He brought an element of reality to it, and he brought an element of being truly street, because that's what he is. And he was the best person for the role by far. But I still had this problem, I didn't want to admit it. And finally I got myself to say, 'Okay, he's the best person for the role, I can't see anyone doing it much better than him. He's Marky Mark, so what? We'll do it.' And I got a lot of shit from everyone about it, but you know what? He's great and they're all gonna have to admit they were wrong."
"When you guys were shooting in New York, there were stories in the paper all the time about how you and Marky Mark were out on the town..."
"It's funny," he says. "Here I am doing this film that deals with this kid who has nothing going wrong for him, but gets trapped in this world of drugs. And his whole life completely changes. He pushes off everything in his life just for this heroin addiction. And I don't do drugs! At night, Marky and I would go out. New York, it's a fucking hard town, huh? Let me just tell you about all this shit that was fabricated and ridiculous. Me and Marky did goout on the weekends and have a good time at clubs. That was all, but they want to escalate it to something different, which is what the tabloids are all about. Supposedly we were at the same club one time that Derrick Coleman was at, the basketball player. He's like seven feet tall or whatever. But supposedly I get into a fight with Dereck Coleman. I never even saw the guy, but supposedly I get into a fight with him and I argued with him about something, which would be completely beyond the realm of possiblity. Marky supposedly comes to save the day and helps defend me. We all get in a fight with Derrick Coleman."
"And beat the shit out of him, I hope," I say.
"No, it just said we got into a big fistfight. And I could just see my little skinny white self fighting with this guy. So they wrote up a lot of garbage about us, which is cool, I guess. What the hell."
"The rumor around town was that you were the new River Phoenix."
"If they mean that I was in trouble, that's total bullshit. I've always liked River's work. I'm discounting the drugs and whatever he did in his personal life, because the drugs weren't who he was. But as far as his acting and as far as who he was as a person, I respected him a lot. I think I'm different from him, but I hope that I can somehow be thought of as someone who is unique and thoughtful, someone whose work will be respected."
"I think that's it," I say, standing up.
"Wait," he says. "Did we go over everything? We didn't talk about what I think about acting, but who cares about that shit anyway? Okay, I guess this is really it."
I expect him to just sail out the window, but like a mere mortal, he leaves through the door.