Titanic may have made him a superstar, but commitment, integrity and a refreshing approach to career priorities have earned Leonardo DiCaprio a place among the real Hollywood heavyweights. Chrissie Iley meets him.
The first time I was in a room with Leonardo DiCaprio was in 2001. It was his kitchen and I was interviewing his then girlfriend, the Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen. Her Yorkshire terrier was yapping and she was talking non-stop in a dizzying way - all demanding eyes and lavish hair. She was warm, volatile, with a sense of entitlement, and Leo was withdrawn, quiet, perhaps a little lost. He was preparing food to take over to a friend's house and kept saying, "Baby, we're late." But Baby carried on talking and demanding empanadas. 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 and we both sang along. Gisele told me Leo didn't do karaoke, but apart from that, life was great with him. And yet they seemed to have nothing in common. It didn't surprise me at all when they split up. 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 (for now they are famously "on-off") being the 23-year-old Israeli, Bar Rafaeli.
Seven years later, I was in another room with him, a slightly smoky room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and he was doing interviews to promote Body Of Lies, Ridley Scott's hard-hitting terrorists-versus-CIA film which came out last autumn and which reunited DiCaprio with Russell Crowe (they worked together in The Quick And The Dead when DiCaprio was only 18). He was wearing a scruffy, battered grey T-shirt and jeans. He is tall - 6ft 1in - but looks taller, perhaps because he's long-limbed, perhaps because one expects movie stars to be Tom-Cruise-sized. He wasn't as chunky as he was for Gangs Of New York, where he put on 30lb, 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 looked both older and younger than his 34 years.
His eyes are light, penetrating. He seemed to be trying to place me. But 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 DiCaprio, a lightweight DiCaprio, the Leonardo DiCaprio who hadn't transformed himself into one of the most committed actors of his generation. When I asked him whether that was a fair description, he rocked back in his chair and laughed: "Well, you know, people don't usually say that sort of thing about themselves." He was giggling, but part of him knew it was the truth. At the beginning of his career, he was known for his sensitive, artsy portrayals - as a mentally disabled boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, or as the punching bag for a cruel stepfather (played by Robert de Niro) in This Boy's Life.
Then came Titanic alongside Kate Winslet and his whole life changed. DiCaprio would later 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 him. He became written off as a cherubic, ruby-lipped star who was chased and hounded by teenage girls. That he has graduated into a heavyweight is down to his own hard work and a conscious decision not to take the easy blockbuster route (he famously turned down the role of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones). 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, earned him gravitas and awards.
His third Oscar nomination was for Blood Diamond, which he considers to be a film that changed things. The diamond mining company DeBeers certainly had to do some rethinking when it came out. You get the impression that while many Hollywood stars might make a great show of selling a photo of their baby to give the proceeds to an eco charity, they might at the same time expect a film studio's Lear jet to be at their personal disposal. But 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 11th 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 versus the impassioned commitment of the 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 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 hole in the ozone layer. But you can't have tuna either, because the nets capture innocent little dolphins.
He was horsing around, but being serious at the same time. He doesn't mean to preach. He meant to be gentle in his earnestness, but there are echoes of the Hollywood bad boy who liked to throw horse manure at Italian paparazzi and hang out in after-hours bars with gaggles of models. The contradictions all work to make him human. That's why he relished the idea of playing, in Body Of Lies, a character who was neither hero nor 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." DiCaprio was, of course, in the past thoughtful, hypersensitive 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 Blood Diamond, and making his own eco statement in The 11th Hour, he gets to earn the moniker "very committed" too. Certainly for Body Of Lies there was no possibility of being a lightweight. It was a long, tough shoot mostly in the desert in Morocco.
I would have liked to think, as Leo believed it would, that Body Of Lies would shed a different light upon the war on terror. It came out in the US in October, in a very bad week that involved the Wall Street crash and had to settle for third place in the movie charts when 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. 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 then."
Ridley Scott, for all his nuanced multilayered brilliance, is not in vogue at the moment. But Revolutionary Road, which DiCaprio was equally enthusiastic about, seems to tick all the boxes. It is directed by Sam (American Beauty) Mendes and reunites DiCaprio with Mendes's wife, Kate Winslet. It is a haunting, gnawing movie derived from the novel by Richard Yates, set in the mid-1950s. DiCaprio and Winslet 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 is a trapped housewife, homemaker, who wants to go to Paris and be bohemian, but finds herself pregnant with a third baby. Their relationship is sour, thwarted, spiralling.
The film, which opens here next week, already looks set to be one of the best films of the year, after Kate Winslet won a Best Actress Golden Globe for her role as April. For DiCaprio, it is the film itself that is important. "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 clichés. What gravitated me towards it was that while it reflects the moral position of the United States in the Fifties, that is where we still hinge ourselves morally today - how we view our family, our fundamentals."
And, he adds, perhaps unnecessarily but in the approved manner of actors, "Also I am a huge fan of Kate and Sam." He seems already uneasy that working with Kate again conjures up Titanic, the film after which his life changed. He couldn't go out without a million girls chasing him screaming. He hated that. As well as saying no to Anakin Skywalker, he turned down American Psycho, Heath Ledger's part in The Patriot and SpiderMan which turned his friend Tobey Maguire into a star. He feared the Titanic effect.
"It was never my intention to have my image shown around the world." Or to have barbers in Afghanistan arrested after they enraged the Taliban by offering a Leo DiCaprio-style haircut labelled "The Titanic". When he was travelling through Europe, a teenager grabbed his leg at the airport in Paris and pressed her head into it, clutching desperately as if she were about to sink her teeth into it. He said, "What are you doing sweetheart?" And tried to grab her face wanting to tell her if she would get off his leg he would talk to her, but she wouldn't let go and the incident horrified him. 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 movies 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 chance to make films you want when you're starting off. I took time off after Titanic because I needed to let the dust settle. I thought, 'OK, you'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 I wanted to squander. I wanted to wait until I felt I could find something that had the kind of edge I'd always been looking for."
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. His character in Revolutionary Road might be his best bet for an Oscar win yet. And, after the Golden Globes success, he will no doubt be looking at next week's nominations with renewed interest. He seems to light up when he talks about the darkness within the film. "It's 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 them apart. I'm more attracted to doing that sort of thing these days because things in this world aren't easy - they're very complicated."
Having heard the stories - they're on, they're off, they're getting married, they've split up - you wonder if his relationship with Bar Rafaeli is "complicated". For those who care about such things, he is a Scorpio with Libra rising. "That means I'm trying to balance the passionate, dark parts of Scorpio as best I can, and I think I'm doing a pretty good job." He admits he started off strangely shy around women. "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 from reportedly romancing Kate Moss, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova and Amber Valletta as well as Gisele Bündchen.
He says he would love to have a wife he feels comfortable with and that he wants a kid "some day". We have to skirt borders very carefully when talking about intimate things. There's never a froideur, but you know he doesn't want to be defined by his relationships with supermodels. For a long time he would take his mum or his grandmother, Helene, 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
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 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 friend you hang out with, but the friend who recommended him to Martin Scorsese.
"I was humbled by that," he remarks. "De Niro/Scorsese is my generation's choice of greatest actor-director dynamic, as Brando/Kazan was to a previous generation." He has completed three films with Scorsese - Gangs Of New York, The Aviator and The 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 film. They get it because the Academy felt guilty about giving it to the wrong person the year before. '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 environmental projects. Stimulate myself. I couldn't be more miserable when I don't have anything to engage in." It's been written that he likes to be on his own a lot. "No, I'm more of a people person." Is it true that he has the same set of about 10 really good friends that he grew up with because he doesn't need new friends and never loses old ones?
"Mm, I suppose, yes. I do have about 10 really good friends. But to say I don't have new ones is not true." He was born on November 11, 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 who was part of the underground comic scene and hippie movement, has had a distinctive influence on his mind and career, always to think out of the box. His grandmother, whom he called Oma, taught him how to weigh people up. She died in August, aged 93, and DiCaprio was bereft.
He once told Vanity Fair, "She is literally gangsta, and I mean that with an 'a.' She will tell people exactly what she thinks to their face and look them in the eye." 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. But 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 about 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-known you meet more people in an average week'. Because you are constantly meeting new people, it makes you hold on to the ones 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 contradicting Leonardo DiCaprios: shy, untrusting, circumspect Leo and gregarious, up-for-anything Leo. He's been careful to display both. 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. Revolutionary Road opens on January 22