Leo: Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist


    TAKING THE LONG VIEW: DiCaprio says projects have to pass his passion test

    If Leonardo DiCaprio has a gaping wound in his soul that fuels his art and keeps him up nights, then he truly is the greatest actor of his generation. "At the end of the day, being an actor is just not that difficult, dude," he says in his warm, unburdened California monotone, while birds sing beneath him in the garden of the legendary Hotel Bel-Air. "It's difficult to give certain types of performances, but most of the time you're in character for about 10 seconds, and editing makes it look complete. The toughest part is sustaining a career, and that's about choices. It's the choices you make that decide your longevity and the type of actor you are. You just have to be smart, dawg."

    DiCaprio is so Zen that, with his Lakers hat glued to his head backward and his giant moon face tipped back to enjoy maximum sunlight, sitting across from him can be a lot like talking to a surfboard. But having traversed the pitfalls of being a child actor and a teen heartthrob and then figured out exactly what he would like to do with the next four decades or so of his professional life, DiCaprio is entitled to chill. At 30, he has been a working actor for 17 years. He knows he's pretty good, but he recognizes that talent is not the only factor in his success. "I owe a lot to Titanic," he says. "That movie gave me the ability to steer the course of my own destiny." Now DiCaprio has reached a point at which he has the ability to do whatever he wants and an understanding of exactly what he wants to do. "I'd like a resume of great pieces of art under my belt," he says. "I want to make movies that people will look at and appreciate in 50 years. That's it. That's all, dude."

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    Of course, no one sets out to make a pile of terrible movies — not even Ben Affleck. Since Titanic's release, DiCaprio has starred in four films. The first, The Beach, was a mess. The others — Gangs of New York, Catch Me If You Can and now The Aviator, a Howard Hughes biography out nationwide Dec. 25--are big-budget period pieces directed by either Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, in which DiCaprio plays a historically inspired, convention-bucking protagonist. These are serious gigs — De Niro-when-he-was-young-and-good gigs. DiCaprio has done three of them in four years — and nothing else. Scorsese, who was recruited by DiCaprio to direct The Aviator, believes that Leo "is one of the few people with the emotional range" to play those kinds of bravura roles convincingly. John C. Reilly, DiCaprio's friend and co-star in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Gangs and The Aviator, particularly admires his buddy's restraint. "After Titanic, he could have cranked 'em out in a major way, been a superhero many times over. But he shames his peer group with his commitment to quality. He's used his capital wisely."

    It took DiCaprio a few years to get comfortable with the idea that he had capital, largely because his Titanic hangover had surprising staying power. Before that film, DiCaprio had balanced being a Tiger Beat cover boy and a critical darling thanks to his early work in This Boy's Life (with De Niro), Marvin's Room (with Meryl Streep), and Romeo + Juliet (with Shakespeare). But when the boat sank, the balance between actor and phenomenon went under with it. On a trip to Brazil, DiCaprio was recognized by rain-forest Indians, and in Camarillo, Calif., word that he attended a Sunday Mass caused a 30% spike in worshippers.

    He was, of course, photographed far more frequently emerging from nightclubs than from churches. (DiCaprio vehemently denies ever being in a self-proclaimed "p___y posse" with friends Tobey Maguire and the magician David Blaine, though his rumored conquests at the time read like a Maxim version of Who's Who.) It did not help matters that his few public comments about fame--"I hate being selected as 'Babe of the Month' and being called 'hunk,'" he said in 1998--suggested that he thought of himself as a virtuoso being celebrated for a nursery rhyme. (A self-satirical cameo in Woody Allen's Celebrity might have helped matters, had anyone actually seen the movie.) Now DiCaprio understands that even the tiniest complaint about fame reads as petulance. He has stopped speaking about his personal life and learned "not to give the paparazzi guys anything" by hiding his face when they approach. That makes him a very boring celebrity, a very cautious person and an almost maniacally focused movie star.

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