LEO'S GANGBUSTER YEARThis is quite the year for Hollywood superstar and heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. Audiences will get to see both his cute, youthful side as a teen conman in Steven Spielberg's 'Catch Me If You Can', and the darker, grungier side to him in Martin Scorsese's far more serious 'Gangs of New York'. While some actors may worry about being overexposed, not so DiCaprio, as he tells PAUL FISCHER.
Modestly dressed, sporting a goatee, with the slight smell of a recently lit cigarette emitting from his mouth, DiCaprio simply sees his two very distinctive roles as "just characters", when asked if each one represents a different side to him. In DiCaprio's post-Titanic world of superstardom, the actor has been able to choose projects with an intense public scrutiny usually unheard of in Tinseltown. While he stumbled somewhat with 'The Beach', the actor will be more than visible when two of the most high profiled directors premiere their latest films.
After 'Titanic' elevated the actor to superstar realms, he knew his centred world was about to change, and as far as he is concerned, not necessarily for the better.
"Certainly after 'Titanic' came out, I was focusing on things that had nothing to do with the art, but all the business around the art form," DiCaprio explains, angrily. "It was all about THIS story or THAT story coming out about me, or THIS photograph, and all the business with agents, publicists and managers that really can be extremely frustrating and distracting, as well as ultimately a waste of time. There's no real control over how the media or the public perceives you. You can only speak for yourself as an artist through the work that you do."
For DiCaprio, that whole period following the release of 'Titanic', he says, "was a reflective time for me, but I think I've remained consistent in the fact that I've just always wanted to have great filmmaking experiences. That's what brought me into 'Titanic' in the first place, in that I wanted to have an experience that I never had before." The actor adds that he "learned to just be even more specific about my goals as an actor and focus on the work more so than ever, and really wait for the right project. I didn't want to squander the opportunities that I had, make films that I felt like were recycled versions of ones we've seen 100 times before. I wanted to make films that were time capsules for the future, that were important and people remembered."
In order to consciously separate his work as an actor from his unwilling immersion into fame and celebrity, DiCaprio laughingly says that he achieves that "by avoiding doing too much publicity. But the purpose of being in the public eye for an actor is to promote a film and other than doing something for charitable reasons, there's no other reason for that. Otherwise it becomes harder over time for people to believe you in certain roles and as an actor, because they are so accustomed to who you are and don't buy you in different situations." Ironic, given the fact that the actor finds himself splashed across every conceivable magazine and gossip column "but not to my liking." He deals with the unwanted publicity, he says, "by NOT dealing with it and I think who I am is spoken for up on screen, and I can't get on a podium and sit there declaring who I am to the rest of the world. It's an utter waste of time to do that and a no-win battle, so I want my work to speak for who I am."
Work as diverse as Spielberg's 'Catch Me If You Can' in which DiCaprio stars in the true story of 16-year old Frank Abagnale Jr., a successful con artist who managed to pass himself off as several identities while being chased by an FBI agent [Tom Hanks] who is hot on his trail. The challenge for the actor in this film, was playing a character 11 years his junior. "The way I looked at it, was that this guy was simply mature beyond his years. When I started to learn about Frank Abagnale, he had this air of authority to him ever since he was 16 years old, looked older beyond his years and actually had grey streaks in his hair when he was that age," he explains. "But more so than that, meeting the real Frank, sitting down with him and not hearing stories that I'd read in the book, what was more important to me, was how he engaged people, how he was able to make you feel calm around him, instantly. Also, I was struck by how you felt immersed in whatever he was talking about. Like you talk about a great actor, he has that gift, and he IS a great actor, but his stage was the real world."
At 16, the real DiCaprio was playing make-believe professionally. Comparing his own world at that age, to that of Frank, the actor recalls, "the Bohemian world that my father was immersed in and all the different casts of characters that he knew." His father produced underground comic books and comic arts out of his garage while his mother was a legal secretary before she began managing the actor's affairs. They have often been described as liberal, pot-smoking hippies. "Whatever I did would be something they'd already done. I mean, my dad would welcome it if I got a nose ring."
He remembers such household guests as comic-book artist Robert Crumb, writer Charles Bukowski, and novelist Hubert Selby, Jr. visiting as a child. "We're not the hippie family who only eats organic and the children meditate and go to a school of the arts. But we're not apple-pie and Republican, either." So naturally, for the impressionable youngster, "it was a different time growing up in the eighties in Los Angeles, with lots of different artists and eclectic people," he says, adding that his father was a huge influence on him. "He always steered me towards a different direction when it comes to ALL walks of life, such as politics, art and culture, always introducing me to things that I wouldn't normally be familiar with if I wasn't just a normal kid in Los Angeles walking around my neighbourhood." DiCaprio draws some parallels between the relationship he enjoys with his father and the close bond between Frank and HIS father in 'Catch Me If You Can'. "I think we all have a certain attachment to our fathers; we idolise them, as Frank did and as I suppose I do," DiCaprio admits.
DiCaprio's diversity as an actor becomes further exemplified in Martin Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York', the director's 19th century-set tale of the ferocious battles between Irish immigrants and so-called Native New Yorkers.
DiCaprio is the latter, whose proud Irish father is viciously killed in a street battle. DiCaprio, who recently saw the finished film, believes that Gangs "is a great film. I truly think that this is going to have resonance for years to come. I just feel so proud that so many of the things that we initially talked about, such as our characters, what we wanted the audience to be left with, the dramatic sweep of history that washes over these people came to pass. I ultimately felt at the end of the movie I knew that all of our efforts weren't put in vain," DiCaprio says with genuine passion.
The actor disagrees that because of its parochial setting, it may have trouble finding an audience outside America. DiCaprio sees the film as "a small microcosm of something that represents something much larger than it is. It's about the integration of people, and I think that has relevance worldwide and I believe in understanding more about our history and our past, we can understand more about our future," DiCaprio maintains. "It's very much a contained story, very much specific about New York history, but what's happening around the world nowadays, is that we're immersing with the rest of the world, and as a result, there is going to be conflict. People have asked me, what relevance does this have to today? I don't think there should be specific statements about that. But I think when you understand a small story, and it's very specific, it's about human struggle, it definitely represents something larger if you read and look into it."
DiCaprio hopes audiences will see the larger picture. "This is a coming of age story about a young man trying to stake a claim for himself in this new world, find that American dream and that opportunity, and ultimately fight for his people. This is really the story of an immigrant coming into America the formation of a democracy, and the test that America is; it's the beginnings of a pluralistic society."
In comparing a Spielberg with a Scorsese set, the actor remains elusive. "You have to take into account that one was an epic, and one was almost like a road movie and one was like a fast-paced independent film. I don't know how Spielberg works on an epic film, I haven't had that experience, and vice versa. I think that what Spielberg has on set is this unique ability to get everyone, every department and everyone working around him, bring the best out of people. I think he wanted to have an extreme, energetic pace on 'Catch Me If You Can', which is very much what my character was going through, because he lived in a very fast world. That's the opposite of 'Gangs of New York,' which felt more like an old-style epic."
The actor has no qualms about having both films come out virtually at the same time. "People will see two completely different characters, and that's representational of me as an actor, which is a good thing."
The actor's professional future is looking bright and rosy. He has confirmed that "it looks like" he will star in Baz Luhrmann' s 'Alexander the Great' biopic and in director Robert De Niro's CIA drama 'The Good Shepherd'. But prior to those, DiCaprio will be reunited with Scorsese on the Howard Hughes bio, 'The Aviator'. "Howard Hughes is certainly an extremely complex character to play and very multi-dimensional. I read his biography when I was 18 years old, initially sent the project to Michael Mann and developed it with him. There was a three-year writing process. Michael had finished 'Ali' and wanted to try something different, so we sent it to Marty, and it was a subject matter that he was fascinated with and so wanted to be a part of it, which was pretty amazing." DiCaprio agrees that he is living a charmed life.
"I can't say enough, that I am the product of good fortune. My main thing is that I just don't want to squander these opportunities that I have."
Leonardo DiCaprio/Catch Me If You Can, Gangs of New York Interview by Paul Fischer in New York.