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What’s Eating Leonardo DiCaprio?

23 minute read
JOEL STEIN Los Angeles

A giant, hairy man is pushing Leonardo DiCaprio on a cart through a supermarket, and no one is looking. I’m expecting European paparazzi, women with Sharpies offering their decolletage, or at least furtive glances from other shoppers. Nothing. Not even when DiCaprio, wearing a cap and glasses, gets off the cart and awkwardly lifts it over a cereal-aisle blockade. “You see, dawg. I just lifted that cart, dude,” he says loudly, bragging about the effects of his new weight-lifting regimen. But nothing happens at the West Hollywood Ralphs branch besides deliberation in the brownie-mix aisle over Ghirardelli’s, Hershey’s and Duncan Hines’. And a good deal of time spent choosing steaks. And quite a few minutes debating the merits of ginger-ale brands. And waffle mixes. And protein bars. DiCaprio is the Hamlet of Ralphs.

DiCaprio is indecisive about almost everything, including his willingness to shop for food with a reporter. He vetoed taking me to the dentist, thinking it would be too embarrassing. Working out with his personal trainer would display too much complaining. His house in the Hollywood Hills is out. And he’s certainly not going to a bar, considering he wants to lose the party-boy image. “Hey, we can go to the movies because, you know, I do movies,” he jokes, trying to deconstruct the whole process.

Spying a Ralphs Club discount card peeking from his wallet, I express deep skepticism that he actually uses it. DiCaprio insists he’s saved more than $40 with the card but shies away from my challenge to go shopping. “It seems a little forced, like I’m saying, ‘Hey, I’m everyguy. I go to Ralphs too.'” He pictures himself in print trying to explain it: “I go to Ralphs often. Do I get recognized? Once in a while. But the groceries still need to be in my home, so I persevere.” I offer to pay for all his groceries in a once-off, anything-goes, no-time-limit Supermarket Sweep run. Even though he made $20 million for his new movie, The Beach, DiCaprio finds this impossible to refuse. Still, he is hyper-aware of how this will play out in print: “That should be the title of the piece: ‘Leonardo DiCaprio: What’s His Beef?’ And you’ll base the whole article on the type of beef I choose. Skirt steak: the thinnest, unmanliest, most wussy, soft meat you could buy,” he says.

Only smart guys think this much–it’s the dumb ones who speak openly to reporters–and for a guy who left school at 16 to be in movies, DiCaprio is pretty bright. He’s also so self-aware, it’s paralyzing.

It took him an awfully long time to choose The Beach, the first movie he decided to do since Titanic was released. After starring in the biggest movie in history, DiCaprio had his pick of scripts. He read more than 100 and optioned six, but couldn’t decide which one to do. “I could tell after reading the script with him that he’d do it, but it took more than a month for a definite yes,” says Beach director Danny Boyle. “He does kind of hem and haw.” Once he started making the film, DiCaprio spent hours reshooting scenes and redubbing voice-overs. “I would do a movie for a year if I could, and do as many takes as I can,” he says. “I’m indecisive. It isn’t my strongest character trait.” Even the decision to star in Titanic took a long time. Baz Luhrmann, the director of Romeo + Juliet, finally convinced him that a big-budget film offered its own kind of acting risk. “The thing he hates most in life is making a decision,” says Luhrmann. “It’s a great pain to get Leo to commit to anything in life, particularly a role.”

Or an interview. After a year of back-and-forth, DiCaprio finally agreed to meet at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 30, during what people tell me was the best fourth quarter of any Super Bowl in history. “I don’t even know who was playing today,” he admits. “St. Louis and some weird other team that beat somebody else that was supposed to get in the Super Bowl.” DiCaprio isn’t as in touch with American culture as American culture is with him. The son of a legal secretary and a hippie underground-comic-book artist, both retired, DiCaprio still thinks of himself as an edgy indie actor, not the Tiger Beat cover boy. “I have no connection with me during that whole Titanic phenomenon and what my face became around the world.” Which is good. Otherwise, he might beat himself up.

Although it’s got to hurt deep inside, DiCaprio says he’s at peace with being usurped by the Backstreet Boys. “I’ll never reach that state of popularity again, and I don’t expect to,” he says. “It’s not something I’m going to try to achieve either.” Instead, he has spent his post-Titanic life avoiding interviews. “I feel so uncomfortable doing publicity,” he says, and then proves it by spending the rest of the evening chewing on mint Stim-u-dent toothpicks, biting his nails, cracking his knuckles and loudly sucking in wallops of air through his teeth and generally becoming a human beat box. “A long-term career has a lot to do with people not understanding who you are. There are always going to be new facets of you as a human being, and I want to be able to release them bit by bit. I’m acting like I’m some sort of complex riddle,” he says, fearing he’s sounding too pompous. “But the truth is, I don’t want to let everyone know who I am and what I’m thinking.”

Especially me. He won’t talk about his dating life. In fact, in figuring out what he wants to talk about, DiCaprio says, “I want to be as dry and drab and as boring as possible.” And although always nice, he does a remarkable job at this, listing, at one point, nearly 20 endangered species. The only other thing besides his dating that I can muster any interest in is what it’s like to be crazy famous. “Is winning the lottery paradise for you? Is fame your paradise? Is that going to cleanse you of all your demons?” he asks. “Paradise to me is a false concept. You learn that happiness is something that comes in fleeting moments, in little moments when you least expect it.”

He’s very interested in the notion of paradise, particularly in how it relates to The Beach. He says he chose the project because Alex Garland’s 1997 novel speaks to his generation. “We’ve never had anything to fight for, so we’re constantly looking for things to believe in. Richard [DiCaprio’s character] is so influenced by the media and television and especially films that he’s constantly searching for an emotional event in real time,” he says. “In a world where everything conforms to our comfort, the only valuable things are those that go beyond anticipation. I think that this is what Richard is looking for, a world beyond anticipation.”

He has thought an awful lot about The Beach. “Three times in the movie, women give Richard keys. It’s this recurrent theme of women changing Richard’s character, his course. And there’s the whole symbolism of water being changed into blood,” he says, before going over each of these incidents in depth. “When the group photo happens, it steals the soul of the community. After the group picture, everything starts to unravel in the community,” he adds. I suggest he contact ucla about teaching an extension course on the film.

He assures me he did not apply this kind of rigorous analysis to Titanic, then launches into a parody of a close reading of the film. “As Jack is screaming ‘I’m the king of the world!’ you’ll notice that the crown of the ship actually has a crack that symbolizes the destruction of the coming industrial revolution.”

But DiCaprio is desperate to find something important to discuss. “This is T-I-M-E, dawg. This article has got to be about something bigger. It’s got to be talking about the movie and its comment on society. Not to be too serious. God, that is serious,” he says, his Clintonian need to be liked getting the better of him. Then he starts to worry again. “I know it’s going to wind up being about the construction of what to make the article about. That’s what it’s going to be about: Why the hell is he on the cover of Time magazine?” It’s disorienting to interview someone who is this self-conscious.

Even the clothes Leo’s wearing, the Puma cap, baggy drawstring pants, a chain with his grandmother’s cross and a T shirt with a devil on it, can’t have been chosen randomly. The devil is a logo for an old Coney Island carnival. “I optioned this book called Dreamland about the biggest theme park in Coney Island,” he says. “My dad went to Coney Island a lot. I’m fascinated by freaks.” He also optioned a book about Howard Hughes that he’s talking to Michael Mann about directing. “That’s the best part about the position I’m in now. I have all the materials to create my own future. That’s the coolest thing.” Sure, though I’d like to hear about how cool the dating part is.

His next movie is Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York, about the conscription riots in Manhattan in the 1860s, and DiCaprio has been forcing himself to bulk up for the part. At 180 cm and 80 kg, he claims he can bench-press 95 kg. “This is the biggest I’ve ever been,” he says. I ask if he’s been eating a lot of sushi and yogurt, and he mocks me for my unmanly choices. Then we order room service, and he gets a burger, and I almost order the sea bass. “That was pretty wussy, dude. ‘I’ll go with the sea bass.'” I figure having your masculinity questioned by Leonardo DiCaprio may require years of therapy, so I quickly switch to the rack of lamb. “How could people eat lamb? I get the image of the poor little lamb,” he says. We have already had a pot of soothing oolong tea and thick, creamy milk shakes. The Super Bowl would have been ashamed to have been on our television.

I make a phone call, and DiCaprio uses the opportunity to sneak environmental propaganda into the tape recorder. “I shouldn’t be eating hamburgers, because the methane gas cows release is the No. 1 contributor to the destruction of the ozone layer; and the No. 1 reason they destroy the rain forest is to make grazing ground for cattle. So it’s very ironic that I eat beef, being the environmentalist that I am. But then again, if I ordered the tuna sandwich, I would be promoting the fact that they have large tuna nets that capture innocent little dolphins …” This goes on for quite some time.

DiCaprio, who was just named the Earth Day 2000 chairperson, is an Al Gore supporter and says that if not for this interview, he would have been in New Hampshire stumping for Gore. “I was going to just stand onstage and look hard core.” Effective, if 14-year-old girls were allowed to vote. He’s particularly concerned with global warming and extinct species. He’s commissioned Eric White to paint a large abstract piece depicting extinct animals. “I’m sure this is not going to be in the article, but the Tasmanian tiger was the largest carnivorous marsupial in Australia …” He senses that he is losing steam. “All right, let’s go to Ralphs, dawg.”

Waiting for his friend Ethan to come by, DiCaprio flips through the channels and passes a vh1 special on the Bee Gees, which causes him to belt out a falsetto version of Staying Alive, followed by, for some reason, Funky Town. Then he flicks by What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the movie for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. “That was the funnest character to play ever, dude. It was so fun, I was playing it off-camera a lot too. Every scene I just did whatever the hell I wanted. They didn’t have much of a script for my character at all, just a few lines here and there,” he says.

Then, as always, he starts to worry. “O.K., it’s pretentious that I’m watching this.” And again he predicts how it will come out in the article. “Leo looks strangely uncomfortable as he sees himself,” he says, mimicking what he fears I will write about him. “There’s a certain detachment in him. He’s squirmish when his scenes come on.” It is kind of him to do my work for me.

But when he flips around the channels again, he hits upon the movie and delivers a perfect imitation of his developmentally delayed character’s laugh. Only it isn’t an imitation. “That’s actually my laugh. It’s really me. I swear to God, I had no thought of that character just now.” This is the scariest thing I have learned thus far.

DiCaprio’s friend, Ethan Suplee, the big guy in American History X, shows up and tells me about a recent run-in they’ve had with the paparazzi at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. DiCaprio acts it out. “O.K., pretend you’re me. I’m a creepy German photographer,” DiCaprio instructs. He does a great creepy German photographer. “So I said to him, ‘Oh, so you’re one of those scumbags.’ And the guy has the audacity to say, ‘O.K., we’ll leave you guys alone. We’ll just take a couple of pictures.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be joking. What you have to do is turn around right now and walk away.'” For a moment, DiCaprio looks kind of tough.

“We actually started to follow them after a while. It’s an actual science. If you follow them, they get paranoid. You flip the script on them,” DiCaprio explains, refusing to release any more antipaparazzi intelligence.

So I’m pretty pumped for some paparazzo action at Ralphs, even though DiCaprio says the Germans were the first in almost a year. The three of us pile into his car, and he riffles through A Tribe Called Quest, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, the Doobie Brothers and, as we pull up to the Ralphs parking lot, Bill Withers. He blasts Who Is He (What Is He to You)? and turns around to face me and recite the lyrics. For the first time he looks like a movie star. Then the song ends, he pops on the hat and glasses, and his face relaxes back into what is, to be honest, just average good-looking. Sorry, dawg.

I charge $155.36 in groceries ($6.86 verified total savings), help load the bags into his trunk and say goodbye. Two days after the interview, I get the call I had been expecting. DiCaprio intends to send me a two-page fax, restating some of the themes he wanted to state in the article. Paragraph six includes excerpts from the Lonely Planet’s guide to Thailand, saying how The Beach didn’t cause environmental damage to the Thai island they filmed on. Paragraph five includes the sentence “The carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is having disastrous and irreparable effects on our climate.”

DiCaprio can rest now, because he won’t have to do another interview until The Gangs of New York comes out. Hopefully he’s in whatever place it is that he can find moments free from self-analysis. And while we may not know exactly what he’s like when he’s in that place, we do have a pretty good idea of what he’s eating there.


He has heard tales of the beach: the sugar sand leading to a phosphorescent sea, the beautiful people living in an unruffled commune, the symbiosis of modern man and primal nature. And if these attractions don’t give you a high, then the free dope will–it sprouts like kudzu all over the place. Now Richard, the narrator of the book and film The Beach, has somehow reached this ideal island in Thailand, this littoral dream made literal. But Utopia isn’t good enough for Richard, because he’s questing, he’s weak, he’s ornery … he’s Leonardo DiCaprio.

When The Beach opened it was preceded by the odor of dead fish. Early word was disastrous, and the first reviews didn’t help. From this critic’s seat, the view is mixed. The film that director Danny Boyle and scripter John Hodge have fashioned from Alex Garland’s novel has plenty of beguilements and even more problems. It’s a big, mixed bag, ambitious and frustrating, with a lot on its mind and a daring, assured performance from the young star. In short, it’s a typical DiCaprio movie.

Always remember this: for DiCaprio, Titanic–the all-time blockbuster that made him king of the movie world–was an anomaly, a fluke. He built his career not by playing the blameless hero in big swoony technotrash but by finding weird corners and gray areas in troubled teens in small, off-Broadwayish movies. He was a critics’ darling before he was a heartthrob. The easy ingratiation he paraded in Titanic is one of his gifts, but not the most notable. We prefer his off-kilter choice of projects, his perfect pitch within so many of the characters he’s played.

He could have incarnated Top Guns and baby Terminators, or starred in any of a zillion teen comedies. But he chose a tougher route to filling out his resume. And as it grew, in his seven major roles before Titanic, a portrait of the young artist began to emerge. So often DiCaprio played the emotional orphan, in a forlorn quest not for a father but for his own budding maturity–for a chance to become the man who needs no father.

He burst on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere–the soap Santa Barbara, the sitcom Growing Pains (as a homeless kid), bits in Critters 3 and Poison Ivy–as Toby in This Boy’s Life. He is at the center of this movie about a boy who bad-lucks into a stint with an abusive stepfather. And he holds the center; he can commandeer the screen doing nothing, with an eloquent slouch and a gaze that says, beneath the winsomeness, I can take it.

He is just as willful and complex playing Arnie, the retarded boy living under a death sentence in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; as he is playing Meryl Streep’s pyromaniac son Hank in Marvin’s Room. Other young actors, to keep viewers on their side, would strike the sympathy key fortissimo. But DiCaprio, knowing that he had a cuddly-toy quality (a face just shy of puberty, a smile that, in his first TV spot, was used to sell milk), barely rouged the rougher aspects of his characters. Toby is a decent kid, but his stabs at ’50s punkdom rasp the nerves. Arnie is so aware of his doom that when he tells a new friend, “I could go at any time,” it sounds like a come-on; yet his rampages drive his saintly brother (Johnny Depp) to violence. And Hank could be just a bad kid trapped in a boy-angel’s body. But DiCaprio could be all of these very different kids, plausibly and attractively.

Every promising career needs a catastrophe, if only for a change of pace, and Total Eclipse was DiCaprio’s. This is the movie folks rent to snag a glimpse of the star’s naughty bits (for which a slow button, a magnifying glass and a vivid imagination are required). No more Mr. Nice Guy; as Arthur Rimbaud, Paris’ teen-poet sensation of 1870, DiCaprio has a talent to abuse. In an early sketch for the out-of-control movie star he so cagily plays in Celebrity, Rimbaud stands naked on an attic window ledge, pisses on someone he doesn’t care for, sodomizes his friend Paul Verlaine. Well, the older poet asked for it–begged for it. Rimbaud is Verlaine’s slut, coquette, dominatrix and muse. This rollicking atrocity of a film offers the most convulsive affair in the DiCaprio oeuvre, and the clearest image of the awful power the young, gorgeous and deranged have over those brave and stupid enough to fall in love with them.

“I decided to be a genius,” Rimbaud says. “I decided to originate the future.” What DiCaprio was originating in his next phase was rambunctious guys with no future at all. Rimbaud: poisoned by infection. Kid, the gunpoke in The Quick and the Dead: shot dead by his dastardly dad. Jim, the Catholic schoolboy in The Basketball Diaries: nearly kills himself with heroin. At least these misfits courted disaster. The only sin of the noble DiCaprio hero in Romeo+ Juliet and Titanic is to be caught in the wrong place with the girl he loves. Has any teen idol played so many characters who end up dead? (DiCaprio’s double role in The Man in the Iron Mask doesn’t suit our thesis–he is pampered by four father figures and gives a soggy performance–so we’ll ignore it.)

After Titanic, DiCaprio could have done anything. The lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley: that sounded fitting. Instead, he crashed on The Beach. Whatever the new movie has going for it or against it, DiCaprio’s choice of this unusual proj-ect–a contemplative action movie, an interior thriller–is true to the contours of his career so far. He wants to try new stuff, stretch his range, see how far he can go and take his fans with him. If it flops, and the next one (Martin Scor-sese’s The Gangs of New York) too, what’s the worst that can happen? He won’t be a big star anymore? O.K., but he’ll always be an actor.

As Richard, the American abroad, DiCaprio is a young adult, but no less isolated than in his teen-angst films. Here, as in This Boy’s Life, he lies in bed listening to a couple next door banging away at their amours. A madman on the other side of the wall, named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), leaves Richard a map to the treasure island. When he and the couple, Franoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet), trek to the hidden beach, Richard is happy to fit in with the communers, even with the strict rules enunciated by Sal (Tilda Swinton), the camp’s queen bee. Still, he feels isolated. A fabulous resort is no fun if a fellow isn’t getting laid. As he says, “Desire is desire wherever you go. The sun will not bleach it, nor the tide wash it away.”

And a secret garden isn’t as special if it doesn’t remain secret. Before heading for the island, Richard had left a map with some other Americans. Now they are trying to enter, and it is his duty to keep them away and get the map. It is also time for a semi-idyllic Beach Party to morph into Apocalypse Now. Richard descends, or rather soars, into savagery. This handsomely made film–as attentive to Nature’s predatory beauty as any film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line–goes a bit nuts, along with him. It sheds plausibility like a snakeskin, even as it accrues a needless cinematheque of references: to The Lord of the Flies, The Sheltering Sky, The Deer Hunter. It renounces the audience’s complicities when it needs them most.

In the novel, Richard is a mirror of his author: a 20-something Brit drifting toward a bright sea with dark eddies. And there was a little rancor when Ewan McGregor, the Scot who’d starred in Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary for Boyle and Hodge, lost the role of Richard to a $20 million golden boy from Hollywood. But the book and the film, for all their differences, have the same point to make. This is a story about how young people with the best intentions can turn a jungle paradise (like Vietnam) into a nightmare war zone (like Vietnam). Thus it makes sense that the lead character–the game boy who tumbles into a foreign heart of darkness and, almost too late, realizes it is his–should be American. Vietnam was our mess, thanks awfully. We’ll take it.

So, yes, DiCaprio. It was smart of Boyle to court him for the part, brave of the actor to take it. Let’s have a new kind of action star, one who calls into question (as the character and the film do) the very need for violent action movies. That’s DiCaprio here: less Rambo than Rimbaud; a wild child back in the jungle. And, like Arnie and Hank and the Kid, a little boy lost. But the role doesn’t play to all his strengths. He’s most seductive when in repose; here he is on the move, reacting to trouble rather than causing it. He’s waiting for something to happen rather than someone to slap or save him. He can’t save the film when it goes haywire, because he is as stranded as Richard is.

Which leaves us with a suspicion that won’t please Leo, his agent or Hollywood: maybe DiCaprio is a superb supporting actor. He needs something besides the great awful world–he needs other imposing actors–to play against and within. He needs other eyes to gaze into besides the camera’s: a Depp or Claire Danes. On his own, even a talent like DiCaprio isn’t acting; he’s play-acting.

An actor who comes to the screen in youth is like an initial public offering; audiences invest themselves in his future. After Titanic, the DiCaprio stock was goofily inflated. In the wake of The Beach, it may dip. But we should not confuse the achievement of an actor–especially one as daring and resourceful as DiCaprio–with the popularity or even success of any one film. He and we are in it for the long run. It ought to be an adventure, following the Kid on a career-long journey in search of his best or most dangerous self.

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