It was the nightmare where you walk into a classroom and a teacher you've never seen sits you down for the final exam. I am not a professional interviewer, not even a gifted amateur, and had no way of recording DiCaprio's responses to whatever questions I might think up in the next few minutes. Fortunately, Amanda Vender of the TIME News Desk found me a tape recorder and expertly hooked it up to my office phone. Luckily too, DiCaprio was agreeable and articulate, ready to discuss his two big Christmas films, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" and Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can" for a half-hour or more.
Only a smidge of the conversation appeared in the magazine. Here, exclusively for TIME.com, is the whole thing (well, most of it), as ably transcribed by MarcArthur St. Juste of the magazine's Arts & Media staff. My gratitude to them all. And yes, concerned reader, I did get to "La Bohème" on time. R.C.
LIVING IN NEW YORK
TIME: You've got two movies made by men recognized as perhaps the most gifted and significant American filmmakers of the past 30 years. Let's start with Martin Scorsese and "Gangs of New York." How did that go?
DiCAPRIO: My experience with him was pretty amazing. He understands the journey that he wants the character to make, but he lets you go through your own process to get to the end result which I think he's already understood. I felt I was working with a great visionary, somebody who can masterfully assemble these hidden mechanisms that people don't realize make a movie operate seamlessly, and with great dramatic force immerse you in the world he creates.
TIME: As a screen actor, you put yourself in the director's hands not knowing which takes he'll think worth printing. Now that you've seen the film, did your best stuff get on screen?
DiCAPRIO: What I really loved was the tidal wave: the bounce between history and the characters. You realize that, eventually, the tidal wave of time and the transformation of the country will overwhelm these people until they almost become fossils.
This is a moment in history that I learned nothing about as a child. For most people I talk to, it's forgotten. So I read books like "Gotham" and [Herbert Asbury's] "The Gangs of New York," just to try to get a feel and essence of this time. It truly is a forgotten time; it's like the wild west in New York. I mean, at one point New York really wanted to succeed from the union. They thought of themselves as an entity unto themselves.
TIME: I think that sometimes the rest of the United States thinks of New York as an entity unto itself.
DiCAPRIO: That's absolutely how I feel too. But you know this was the port city. And the arrival of all these immigrants was basically a volcanic eruption, and the ashes changed the global climate. Irish people poured into the Five Points [section of Lower Manhattan], and they became a large part of this criminal underclass. They were just waiting for this flashpoint of civil riot to express their rights and loot the city.
LIVING IN NEW AMSTERDAM
TIME: Tell me about Amsterdam Vallon, your character in "Gangs."
DiCAPRIO: He was a composite character, a representative of the Irish immigrant forming a gang, trying to best adapt his surroundings and survive in this underbelly of society. We wanted to maintain this historical significance, not to make a bald statement about the time but to give a picture of what it would be like. On the other side you have this coming-of-age story, the transition of this young man whose ultimate goal is to avenge his father's death. So, we wanted him to represent the plight of the Irish immigrant, and what it was like to live in these conditions in this unique world, while making sure the characters had dramatic impact and the story had resonance.
TIME: What about Amsterdam's antagonist, Bill the Butcher, played by Daniel Day-Lewis?
DiCAPRIO Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam both have their own politics. But it's played out on a primal, street level. Both of them you can understand. You can sympathize with each man's views on America and democracy that was so interesting and complex to me. Bill was based on Bill Poole, a great leader of the Nativists, somebody who almost became a folk hero. There were definite changes as it was adapted into a screenplay; it's not entirely specific. But it gives you a feel of what it would be like to be immersed in the Five Points in this flashpoint of history.
TIME: I'm not quite sure how the central conflict of you and Daniel Day-Lewis fits into the larger historical event of the Draft Riots of 1863. In most movie epics "The Birth of a Nation," "Gone With The Wind," even "Pearl Harbor" the characters have a small but crucial connection with the huge event, the war. Here the Draft Riots happen independently of the antagonism between Amsterdam's gang and Bill's gang, don't they?
DiCAPRIO: Yeah, but eventually both gangs are slaughtered indiscriminantly by these explosions. The Nativists and these "foreign hordes," they die side by side in this democracy, as Americans. Their deaths need no distinctions.
LIVING WITH VIOLENCE
TIME: Some people have criticized the film for its scenes of violence. What do you have to say about that?
DiCAPRIO: My view on it is that this is documented history. The film submerges you in that reality. It is the brutal form of expression of people fighting for their rights as Americans at the beginning of a pluralist society. But if you look closely at the film, you'll see that much of it is just suggested through the editing and the sounds and certain visuals. There is a lot less then was originally intended.
TIME: It may seem more violent precisely because of Scorsese's power as a filmmaker. I think people are used to scenes of violence where hundreds of people die, but they're disturbed by the intimacy of the face-branding and head-bashings.
DiCAPRIO: These were basically Celtic tribes set in the landscape of a new world. This was Europe forming a new society in America. People had a different code of ethics at the time. For example, guns were considered a dishonorable weapon, not a manly way to settle your differences. More specifically, I think that branding has more to do with the dynamic between Bill and Amsterdam with the ancient code of ethics that these men had, a code of respecting the person you're opposing, and fighting things out the old fashioned way.
TIME: The brand your character gets on his face does seem to disappear fairly quickly. You didn't become the Phantom of the Opera.
DiCAPRIO. Well, there were certainly arduous make-up sessions!
LIVING A LIE
TIME: I've seen two movies recently that are about young men who creatively live a lie, who pretend to be people they're not. And you star in both films: "Gangs of New York" and "Catch Me If You Can."
DiCAPRIO: That's me.
TIME: Amsterdam Vallon in the 1860s and Frank Abagnale, Jr., in the 1960s they're both really actors, aren't they?
DiCAPRIO: Well, more so Frank. He's somebody who is testing the boundaries of society, the structures that most people live by. And he's constantly pushing the envelope, to see how far he can go.
TIME: He's provoking events, whereas Amsterdam is reacting to them.
DiCAPRIO: We tried to make Amsterdam more human through the course of the film tried to embody what it would be like for him achieving success, getting emotionally attached to a woman for the first time, and receiving admiration from a father figure who ironically is the one who dispatched his own and show how all these things would affect him as a person. Eventually he realizes that his father's battle wasn't really an individual one, but more a battle for his people.
TIME: Both Amsterdam and Frank are living out their father's dreams. Each is doing what his father taught him to do, and each on a grander scale.
DiCAPRIO: Absolutely. Frank is unconsciously propelled by his father's resentment toward huge corporations and the Government and the IRS, and he goes out and fulfills some of what his own father was missing in his life.
TIME: What do you think Frank Junior had that Frank Senior didn't have? Bigger balls? Better actor?
DiCAPRIO: Frank had mastered the art of misdirection; in many ways he was like a magician. He also had this unbelievable and profound ability to gain people's trust. It was amazing to actually meet the man, 40 years after all his exploits, because it is so inherent in him something that is almost unconscious.
TIME: In other word, he's still got it. It's not something he does, but something that he is.
DiCAPRIO: That's right.
LIVING IN A FILM
TIME I wonder whether a film that's as tense and intense as "Gangs of New York" has a different mood from the one you might get on a film like "Catch Me If You Can."
DiCAPRIO: I get asked this question a lot about the difference between Marty and Steven Spielberg. But it would only be fair for me make that distinction if I worked on similar films with both of them. Like an epic with Spielberg, or something that was like an independent road movie with Marty. They're most definitely Great American master filmmakers, but it's hard for me to compare.
TIME: I just wanted to know whether the mood of the story spills on to the set.
DiCAPRIO: Certainly in "Gangs of New York" we felt cocooned in this entirely different world. Every day we woke up and came to New York. Of course we were in Rome shooting at Cinecittà, but we walked on the set immersed in New York history. Life really started to bubble around us as the extras walked around in period garb. Every day, we felt we were walking into a time transport.
"Catch Me If You Can" was in essence a much smaller film. Spielberg wanted to keep the pace and the adrenaline going, because he felt that embodied what Frank Abagnale's journey was like. So the shoot was this constant rocket, moving locations, moving from one high-energy scene to the next. And I think it worked even though I became sick for most of the movie, from all the hours and the locations.
LIVING IN THE PAST
TIME: You must like working with Scorsese, since you're making another film with him: "The Aviator," a biography of Howard Hughes. I guess that film will take a little less time to get finished than "Gang" did.
DiCAPRIO: I can almost guarantee it.
TIME: You've made a historical drama in "Gangs of New York," and a real-life comedy-thriller in "Catch Me If You Can." Soon you'll be playing Alexander the Great for Baz Luhrmann, and Howard Hughes for Martin Scorsese in "The Aviator." Will you ever play a fictional character again?
DiCAPRIO: It isn't a conscious decision on my part. But some of the most amazing stories come from real-life occurrences, and for some reason they have a certain resonance with me. Real-life journeys made by Howard Hughes or Alexander the Great or Frank Abagnale they just strike a chord with me.