The great King Leo
Hailed as the finest actor of his generation and a philanthropist to boot, Leonardo DiCaprio remains a restless and mysterious soul, as TIFFANY BAKKER discovers
HE may be the biggest movie star on the planet, but Leonardo DiCaprio has achieved the near impossible in this world of instant gratification – he has remained something of an enigma.
We know tidbits, of course: that he’s often considered “the finest actor of his generation” ( this time around via his most recent costar Carey Mulligan); that he is a passionate advocate for environmental causes and animal rights ( he’s “sick” of the human race “treating the Earth like a gas station”); and he has a penchant for models ( his former paramours have reportedly included Gisele Bundchen, Kate Moss, Bar Refaeli and Erin Heatherton).
But this is not all of him, despite the fact he’s spent much of his life in the public eye ( he first came to our attention as the cheeky neighbour in the saccharine ’ 80s sitcom Growing Pains).
Now 38 (“I have two years until I hit 40,” he smiles, “and I’m holding on to them”), he has lost some of that delicate beauty that seemed to plague him, although the translucent blue eyes that made many a teenage girl swoon are as potent as ever.
When we meet at New York’s opulent Plaza hotel, DiCaprio puffs incessantly on an electric cigarette. He started smoking as a teenager and he wants to quit – “I don’t know if it’s working yet,” he says.
What is working is his career. If you take a
glance at his impressive filmography, you are reminded just how good he’s been over such a sustained period ( think Django Unchained, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs Of New York and Inception, among many others), while somehow avoiding the franchises, the pirates and the superheroes.
Now, he’s taken on perhaps the most famous character in American literary history, starring as Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s lavish The Great Gatsby.
DiCaprio first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic when he was 15, but he didn’t really connect to the story until he re- visited the novel as an adult after Luhrmann sent him a first- edition print.
“I had a completely different outlook as an adult,” he says. “It became less of a love story and more about this obsessed man who had to erase the past. He’s a delusional character in a lot of ways.”
DiCaprio says he had many reservations about taking on such an iconic American role.
“The truth is, it is a very risky undertaking. Everyone’s got their version of The Great
Gatsby. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said that this is their favourite book of all time. There are not many projects that you’re a part of where people have an expectation going into the cinema. I had a great deal of scepticism going in.”
Eventually, he was swayed by two factors. One was becoming re- fascinated by Gatsby as a character and the second was the involvement of Luhrmann and long- time buddy, Tobey Maguire ( who he met when they both started acting at 13), who plays Nick Carraway.
“They’re both people who I’ve known for over 20 years and who are trusted collaborators. We could always be honest with each other,” DiCaprio says.
He adds that the trio made a pact that “no matter what we do cinematically, we’re going to try to remain as true as we can to the novel and capture the essence of what made this book so great”.
Despite his heartthrob status DiCaprio has spent much of his career railing against this public image.
Post- Titanic, he shied away from romantic leading- man roles, moving instead into being Martin Scorsese’s post- Robert DeNiro muse.
“People have asked me whether I’ve avoided romance or love stories, and I have to say, no, not at all,” he says. “The only pre- requisite or criteria that I have for doing anything is: Is there enough there to do?
“Otherwise, I become bored as an actor. I just can’t imagine being on a set where you hate what you’re doing. That’s a nightmare to me.”
Now showing at the Village and State cinemas