07.14.10

How Leo Went From Bratty to Brilliant

In recent years, Leonardo DiCaprio has ditched his diva past to become a respected actor, leading the brainy thriller Inception. Gina Piccalo—and a GALLERY—trace his evolution.

There was a time when Leonardo DiCaprio was just another brilliant child actor gone rogue, pelting cars on the BQE with garbage, setting off stink bombs at the Sky Bar, catting around Manhattan with his “Pussy Posse,” and skipping the Oscars the year Titanic swept the awards, telling James Cameron, “It’s just ain’t me, bro’.”

Click the Image to See the Leonardo DiCaprio Timeline, From a Bubble Yum Ad to ‘Titanic’ to ‘Inception’

For years, it seemed DiCaprio was stuck in some unflattering version of himself, even on-screen. There was the tyrannical brat ( The Man in the Iron Mask) the vicious club kid ( Don’s Plum), the diva movie star ( Celebrity), and the bacchanal-seeking tourist ( The Beach). Then Martin Scorsese got a hold of him, casting him for the first time in Gangs of New York, then again few years later in The Departed and DiCaprio started getting serious again, digging in until he found something meaty the audience could hold on to. Soon, he’d reconfigured his own celebrity narrative and became worthy of Scorsese’s highest praise. "His face,” the director said, “is a battlefield of moral conflicts.”

Never has that seemed so evident as it has this year, first with his performance in Scorsese’s noir Shutter Island and now in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending thriller Inception, opening Friday. Here, DiCaprio is two versions of the same troubled man, a debonair agent on the run, haunted by his tragic past and the woman who inspired it.

This latest incarnation of the actor—DiCaprio, the Tortured Soul—is really the vintage model, the one he naturally inhabited in those early heartbreaking performances in This Boy’s Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Basketball Diaries. Now, though, DiCaprio can more easily conjure something that only comes with age: regret.

Of course, he’s not exactly living the ascetic’s life now. DiCaprio’s a creature of luxury, a younger, more dangerous version of George Clooney. He’s a Scotch drinker, a cigar smoker, a regular in Ibiza and Cabo San Lucas, always accompanied by some tanned lovely when his 24-year-old girlfriend, swimsuit model Bar Rafaeli, isn’t available. He’s lost so much of that intoxicating youthful androgyny of the 1990s that critics can now get away with calling him “ potato-faced.”

As he spoke to a crowd of reporters in Beverly Hills recently, DiCaprio was low-key. He answered each question with a head-of-state sort of deliberateness. With his hair slicked back and his hands in his lap, the actor looked as if he might be testifying before Congress. Memories of more convivial press encounters were never more incongruent.

“I guess a lot of my films have been more serious in tone but that’s something I don’t try to deny,” he said. “These were characters and filmmakers and plot structures that I was compelled to do. I find it extremely exciting to do them because there’s always something to think about. There’s nothing more boring than to show up on set and say a line and know your character means exactly what he says. It’s interesting to have an unreliable narrator.”

DiCaprio himself has at times had a slippery grasp on his own identity, a sense of disequilibrium that peaked after Titanic made him a teen idol and a cultural phenomenon so ubiquitous that even indigenous people in the Brazilian rain forests recognized him.

“My name wasn't me anymore,” he told Esquire in March. “I was sort of this thing. So I set up everything in my personal life to rebel against that image in order to strip it down. I had a lot of fun stripping it down. But ultimately, that knocked me a few rungs down the ladder.”

DiCaprio actually started life pretty far down, in the Echo Park and Los Feliz neighborhoods near downtown Los Angeles, when one could still trip over junkies and streetwalkers on the way to school. He was the only child of arty hippies—underground comic artist George and legal secretary Irmelin—who split up when he was still a toddler.

His mother worked several jobs to support them and DiCaprio ended up spending a lot of time alone, parked in front of the TV, watching VHS copies of early 1970s classics Watership Down, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory until the tapes broke apart. Acting consequently became something worth aspiring to and soon little Leo was begging his parents to drag him to auditions. At 5, he landed a spot on Romper Room. By middle school, he was famous among his peers as the Bubble Yum kid.

Still DiCaprio remained a sensitive boy. He said he cried for three days after he saw the original King Kong. “My dad took me to the Natural History Museum in downtown L.A.,” he said. “And didn’t prepare me for Kong dying. … I was heartbroken for Kong.”

Today, the actor is a near master of tragedy and grief. In Inception—as in The Departed and Shutter Island—that grief is inspired by the enchanting, but crippling nature of illusion. But don’t ask DiCaprio to draw any straight lines from character to real-life.

“I’m not a big dreamer,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Never have been.”

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.