Leo's risingThe boyishness that made Leonardo DiCaprio a star is gone, replaced in two new films by the complexity of a lasting leading man.
Source: Los Angeles Times
Leonardo DiCaprio is taller in person than he appears on-screen, which is rare in a movie star. Also broader, though not to say heavier or gym-rat pumped. But gone is the weedy boyishness that turned "Titanic" into a tweener smash, that followed him through "Catch Me if You Can" and made Howard Hughes' final mental and physical dwindling believable in "The Aviator." In his A-list requisite baseball cap and shades, DiCaprio could still pass for a hipster agent, but there is something unexpectedly substantial about him.
And that, unlike his height, is very much evident on-screen. In his two upcoming movies — Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," due out Oct. 6, and Ed Zwick's "The Blood Diamond," following on Dec. 15 — DiCaprio at long last leaves the "coming of age" sphere and enters the world of real men, taking on roles that are emotionally complicated, roles that establish him as the once and future leading man.
"The Departed," which burrows into the Boston underworld, is vintage Scorsese, rife with grit and gore and more expletives than "Snakes on a Plane." As a cop who infiltrates a mob run by Jack Nicholson, DiCaprio stands fully baptized into the Scorsese canon, smashing gangsters in the head with beer mugs, holding fellow officers at gunpoint and going mano a mano with Nicholson in all his maniacal glory while trying to decipher the code of true loyalty.
For "The Blood Diamond," he spent six months in Africa, trading a Boston accent for Afrikaans to play a South African gun runner-mercenary who navigates war-torn Sierra Leone, vicious diamond cartels and moral vexations in the person of a comely journalist (Jennifer Connelly) to "help" a tribal fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) recover a diamond of unparalleled value.COMING INTO HIS OWN
DiCaprio has long been considered one of the finest actors of his generation, but with these two films he seems ready to accept the Big Star mantle that "Titanic" tried to thrust on him almost 10 years ago.
"There is always a moment in an actor's life, in a man's life, when he begins to own his size," says Zwick. "When you begin taking responsibility for your opportunities, admitting the depth of your ambition, coming into a stage of mastery. And that is what is happening here."
It couldn't happen at a better time. With actors such as Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise seemingly falling off the power lists every other week, Hollywood has found itself wondering if the male superstar isn't going the way of its female counterpart — dwindling to extinction.
"There really aren't a lot of actors who can open a movie, are there?" says Graham King, who as a producer of "The Departed" and "The Blood Diamond" admits a fair amount of bias. "I mean, there's Brad, there's Johnny and there's Leo. People are going to be amazed," he adds, speaking of DiCaprio's performances.
Talking to the man himself, however, there is no indication of some supernova about to burst. DiCaprio, 31, is still gun-shy over the explosion of fame that followed "Titanic" and does little press. "I really feel the most important part of being an actor is to keep his personal life to himself," he says. "The less I know about an actor's daily activities, the less baggage I bring to his performance."
Although he does arrive for an interview and photo shoot at the Hotel Bel-Air with a stylist and Armani in tow, when he finally sits down to talk, he seems much more like the low-key local guy he professes to be than a star with $20-million-per status and a long-standing personal relationship with Scorsese.
"The Departed" is the third film the two have done together — after "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator" — and the first contemporary story. Based on the highly regarded Hong Kong film "Infernal Affairs," William Monahan's script hit both their desks around the same time two years ago. "We both read it and said, 'We've got to do this film. Immediately,' " says DiCaprio. "Usually, you have to tinker with the story or the script — like 'The Aviator' took 10 years. But this was like, 'Let's do this, yes.' We got other people involved, and there it is."
Of course, those "other people" include Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin and, last but certainly not least, Nicholson. "OK," DiCaprio admits with a laugh, "scheduling was a bit of an issue. And this is why I am not ready to be a director — this actor, that actor, the set, the lighting guy, the craft services. Trying to keep track of all that and keep the vision of the movie in your mind." He shakes his head. "Maybe someday. Not yet."
He had his hands full enough coping with the general anxiety that making a film generates and keeping up with Nicholson. "We all sort of rolled with it," he says. "With Nicholson you just have to play it the way he's playing it. More than any other acting experience I've had, Nicholson throws curveballs."
Not that he's complaining; the strain he and Damon felt walking into a scene with Nicholson helped them build their characters.
"His character is losing his mind, basically, seeing his power diminish, taking chances he normally wouldn't take," says DiCaprio of Nicholson's aging mob boss. "It helped us keep up the fear factor because Matt and I had to maintain that this is a very scary, dangerous man and you never know what you're going to get."
From Scorsese's perspective, DiCaprio more than held his own. "There is one scene he and Jack have where Leo has to prove he isn't a rat, only, of course, he is," the director says. "We shot it with double cameras, one on Leo, one on Jack and basically it is one long take. Watching the two of them together, playing off each other was one of the best things I have seen, ever."A MATTER OF TRUST
Much has been made of Scorsese's attachment to DiCaprio, whom many critics see taking on the role Robert De Niro once had — a combination collaborator and male muse. DiCaprio will admit nothing of the kind, not even that he has become one of the director's go-to guys.
"I don't know that that's the case," he says. "There is a certain familiarity of working with people you've worked with before, and I trust Scorsese, which makes my job easier. Because I don't have to worry about everything all the time, I know that he is watching. One of the reasons I am such a Scorsese fan," he says, warming to what is clearly a favorite subject, "is that he has such respect for the people he puts up on-screen. He wants the characters to be as important as the construct of the film."
Scorsese, in turn, is just as complimentary. That people were surprised when he tapped an actor who seemed terminally youthful was something that never occurred to him.
"It's true that our relationship is different because there's a 30-year age difference," he says. "So our cultural references are different. Me, I don't even know what the modern world is anymore — they lock me on the set, then they take me to the editing room and lock me in there and sometimes I get to go to my house. But I always just looked at Leo as a terrific actor. I was not encumbered by anything else."
What may have begun as a teacher-student relationship evolved into something else. "I don't try to teach anything," says the director. "Leo is just incredibly receptive. I put something out there, and he takes it as far as he can go." As an example, he describes a scene in which DiCaprio's character must react to the violent death of another character. "It was a terrible day. We had weather problems, we had scheduling problems, and so the first take, the camera pans his face, OK, and then the second take, something clicks and what he found touched me. It was a very emotional moment. The second take. I'm ready to go four, six, eight takes, he gets it on the second take."
"Sometimes," Scorsese says, "you do pictures all these years, you get tired. You think, 'Why am I still doing this?' Then you get a moment like that."
For DiCaprio, who is in a very different career stage, moments like those are more promises than reaffirmation. He is seeing a wider range of roles than he did five years ago, he says, but asked if he is still having fun, he grimaces.
"Fun? No, that wouldn't be the word I'd use," he says. "There is a satisfaction when you see what you've done and it's good."
And if it's not?
"Well, what can I say? That is a bummer. Because while I don't want anyone to cry me a river or anything, making a movie is very hard work. But," he adds, "I'm not at a point in my life where fun is my priority.... My No. 1 priority is to do this thing that I've been wanting to do for as long as I can remember, to take advantage of the opportunities that I have right now."
In "The Blood Diamond," he found an intersection between passions — acting and activism. A longtime environmentalist, DiCaprio was drawn to the political backdrop of the story as much as he was to the character and the suspense. He was deeply affected by the months he spent in Mozambique and South Africa, where the exuberance of the human spirit provides a stark contrast with the coldness of the corporate soul. "Every problem in the world comes down to economics," he says. "In Africa you see what happens to a country when a corporation has an interest in a natural resource, like diamonds, how there has to be a social conscience at work as well."
While following the lines of a classic treasure adventure film, "The Blood Diamond" examines not only the impact of a bloody civil war but, more disturbingly, the use of child soldiers in such a war. Hounsou's character's son has been kidnapped by the Royal Air Force and forced to learn the bloody lessons of combat; his father's search for him gives the film a poignancy and a horror that puts it as much in the category of "Hotel Rwanda" as in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
DiCaprio spent nearly a month in Africa just preparing for the role, learning the various dialects, the accents, how to handle the weapons. Then the shoot began and went on for five more months.
"It was difficult circumstances," says Zwick. "We were in challenging places — Mozambique is not Toronto. It isn't even Romania."
DiCaprio shrugs off the physical difficulty of the location work. "This is where being a movie star really does help," he says with a grin. "I mean, you've got your stylist with her Evian spritz and hand fan. You all get to go to the tent and have a nice lunch ..."
For him, the stress was what the stress always is — finding the character and taking it as far as it can go. "It's like all your senses are heightened and you're thinking about everything all the time: Is the accent right, is my body doing the right thing, am I saying the lines the way I want them to sound?"
He pauses and shrugs as if he thinks he has let himself get a bit carried away with the whole actor thing.
"See, again, that is why I can't imagine being a director. They have all that times 10. And it's true when you meet them in the real world, they are completely different than when they are on the set.
"But then," he adds, with a sidelong glance at the ground, "I guess, so am I."