At 37, he looks and acts more like a star from the James Cagney era than of today. Gracious and almost formal in his politeness, DiCaprio is serious to the point of earnestness when it comes to representing his work.
Titanic made him ludicrously famous overnight in 1997, but he has skilfully managed to avoid falling into the usual traps most overnight teeny-bopper sensations encounter. Perhaps it has to do with being guided by old-school directors like Martin Scorsese. Or perhaps DiCaprio truly is an old soul who understands how to keep the dancer separate from the dance.
“If I hadn’t gone into acting, I would probably have been a biologist or worked with animals in some capacity,” he says over cocktails at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. “That was my interest when I was very young. I keep talking about life being all about being prepared for a certain moment in time and I got my first opportunity with that movie This Boy’s Life.
“If I hadn’t lived in LA and if my mother hadn’t been driving me to auditions, I would never have been there for that opportunity. If I lived in Oklahoma, we wouldn’t have had the money to move to Hollywood, because some snotty 12-year-old said, ‘I want to be an actor.’
“It all came down to being in the right place at the right time, but I probably would have been very happy as an environmentalist or a biologist, dealing in some way with animals. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I retire, eh?” he says, laughing.
The only son of a German-born mother and an American father who divorced shortly after he was born in LA, DiCaprio started working in ads at the age of six, gradually making his way on to TV sitcoms.
Robert de Niro picked him out from the crowd of 400 actors auditioning for This Boy’s Life in 1993 and DiCaprio went on to upstage de Niro in the same movie, where he received strong critical notices for a career that had only just begun.
“Acting is a great outlet for me, that’s for sure. I get to experience these different characters and a lot of people ask me, ‘are you mentally or emotionally exhausted when you finish?’ and my answer is always ‘no’. I feel energised because as a performer, I get to experience and live this person’s life and try to channel things from my own life into the character. I think it’s therapeutic in lots of ways.”
Speaking of performance and concealment leads the conversation seamlessly to J Edgar Hoover, the feared and loathed head of the FBI for nearly half a century. Deeply patriotic and paranoid, he placed a high value on secrets: keeping his own embarrassing ones and breaking into those of others.
DiCaprio once again delivers a mature and nuanced performance in the lead role, which gave him the chance to make a movie with Eastwood.
“It was interesting to hear Clint’s perspective on Hoover, because he lived through that era and said he always thought of Hoover as this underground, impending force that was always there investigating your life, behind closed doors.
“I had done a limited amount of research beforehand and you always come up with these stories of this cross-dressing guy who wore make-up to parties, but also had this bulldog image during the McCarthy era, you know, catching Commies and going after Martin Luther King.
“We’re all motivated by things at a very early age and he lived with his mother til he was 40 years old and sacrificed any kind of personal life, making the FBI his entire existence, his baby, his child. He led a pretty miserable existence as a result.”
The opportunity to work with a master craftsman like Eastwood was, understandably, an irresistible one.
“You could tell from his acting that Clint likes to plant his feet and speak the truth. He’s a very unique director in the sense that he limits the amount of rehearsal.
“You do your own research and you come to the set prepared. He gives you ownership of that character and then the pace is incredibly fast. It’s like an elite squad of Marines that he has on set and he throws you in to situations time and again, because he wants you to react instinctively. When he stares at you with those steely eyes, it feels like he’s the barometer of truth.
“More than most directors I’ve worked with, he trusts his instinct and he doesn’t have a lot of people around giving him a second opinion. He either believes what you have done or he doesn’t.”
J Edgar has divided critics in the US in a similar way to The Iron Lady — most people think DiCaprio’s performance was stellar, but the overall movie less than successful, while acknowledging that only someone like Eastwood could get such a movie made these days.
DiCaprio’s next role will be that of Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s 3D take on the great F Scott Fitzgerald masterpiece.
“With Titanic about to be released in 3D shortly, I wonder how he looks back on the past 15 years and what he looks forward it.
“That was a very interesting period in my life. Both Kate Winslet and I were these young, independent actors, thrown into this gigantic world that Titanic was — not only the making of the movie, but all that happened afterwards.
“The incredible amount of attention that was put on us, the way that movie reached so many people in so many different cultures. I’ve no idea what the 3D conversion process is going to look like.
“Baz Luhrmann is shooting The Great Gatsby in 3D and he’s trying to explore how do you create dramatic tension with 3D, rather than it being about explosions of things in your face. I think the novel is one of those strangely voyeuristic books, where you feel you’re in the room with those people. Baz is trying to create a similar atmosphere with 3D.
“When I’m choosing roles, I don’t say, ‘It’s time to do a comedy, or a science fiction part or whatever.’ I read the material and if I’m motivated and feel like I could be of service to the character, most of the time, I’ll take it if there are a lot more questions than answers. The Great Gatsby led to a million more questions that I wanted to be answered and it got me excited to research the character. I feel like it’s a mystery novel.
“I’m sure there must be some consistent themes in the types of characters I’ve been drawn to.
“I feel fortunate to be able to choose that type of work and I don’t want to squander the opportunities while I have them.
“J Edgar and Gatsby are very unique and different, but they possess the same obsessive, relentlessness to achieve what they want and I see that in myself too.
“I’m a very ambitious type of person as well, so I identify with it, no matter how corrupted these characters are.”