A young Leonardo DiCaprio is hunched over in an alley, blood dripping down his face. He’s just taken a sharp kick to the head from a neighborhood punk who stole his camouflage Velcro wallet for the two measly $2 bills inside. Or maybe just for the thrill of it. That’s the kind of neighborhood DiCaprio grew up in, a sketchy area at the corner of Hollywood and Western in Echo Park, Calif., overrun with prostitutes and drug addicts, that he once referred to as the ghettos of Hollywood.
His parents, who divorced when he was a baby, were what you might call free spirits. His father, a noted fixture in the underground comic-book scene, even took DiCaprio to so-called hippie Doo-Dah parades—the two of them in their underwear, their bodies covered in mud, dancing around with sticks.
So, how did this kid from such an unlikely upbringing, who was often scared to go outside and regularly suffered playground beatings, grow up to be one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities, who rakes in $20 million a picture and who’s not only nabbed Golden Globe and Oscar nods but also humanitarian awards for his environmental and charitable causes?
The story is an only-in-the-movies-type tale that could be told on the silver screen, starring the actor himself in the role he’s been rehearsing for the last 36 years.
DiCaprio knew he wanted to be an actor from an early age. “Probably the only thing I knew with complete clarity was that I wanted to be an actor,” he recalled in 2010. He took summer classes in performance art at Seeds University Elementary School at UCLA and made early appearances in everything from Romper Room to Matchbox and milk commercials to educational films like How toDeal with a Parent Who Takes Drugs. He progressed to parts in TV shows like Roseanne, Santa Barbara and The New Lassie and then landed a recurring role as a homeless kid in the final year of the series Growing Pains.
In 1992, he beat out 400 other hopefuls to win the role of Tobias Wolff in This Boy’s Life, the autobiographical story of an abused teen in which he starred opposite Ellen Barkin and the one and only Robert De Niro. After he was cast, DiCaprio reportedly spent the next several months renting movies and familiarizing himself with classics like East of Eden, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. He decided then and there that those were the types of movies he wanted to make, and that, of anyone, the director he wanted to work with the most was Martin Scorsese. He even changed agents a few years later because he thought it would get him closer to a part in the Scorsese project Gangsof New York. He was not only picked for a major role in that film, but filmed his fourth Scorsese movie, Shutter Island, in 2008, and is often said to have replaced De Niro as Scorsese’s go-to guy.
Look at pictures of DiCaprio—on the red carpet, in interviews or even in paparazzi shots snapped at a Lakers game—and you’ll notice how he often stands with his hands in his pockets or sits with his arms across his chest. Unlike a lot of actors, he’s not into making big, grandiose gestures or crazy, outrageous statements that might draw too much attention; you almost wonder if he’d blink if he didn’t have to. Rather, he can often appear reserved, cautious, like he’s afraid to give away too much. Given the Leomania that haunted him after Titanic, that may well be true, but the more realistic scenario is that he’s just sitting back and taking it all in. He’s a renowned people-watcher, inciting Esquire magazine to write in 2010, “He keeps getting better because he watches the other movie stars (and directors and cameramen and costume designers) he works with—watches them with intensity—and he learns.”
Of filming This Boy’s Life, for instance, DiCaprio has said, “I got to watch Robert De Niro—his focus, his improvisational ability, all the intricate detail that went into it.” Of his mentor Scorsese, he’s conceded, “I’m blessed, honestly, to be in his presence when making these movies, because you cannot stop learning.”
The Consummate Professional
During his career, DiCaprio has played everything from a gunfighter to a junkie to a bisexual poet to a boy who’s mentally challenged. He doesn’t just take a paycheck, instead searching for roles he can really sink his teeth into. “Choosing movies is the one thing in my life where there’s no compromising,” he has said. “I would be too miserable on a set doing something that I don’t believe in.” He’s also acutely aware that film is forever and that his work will be burned into celluloid for years to come. For that reason, and perhaps a bit of good old-fashioned ego, he takes his craft very seriously. He once turned down the part of James Dean because he felt he wasn’t experienced enough for the role. He’s meticulous about doing his homework, like visiting psychiatric hospitals for Shutter Island, interviewing South African mercenaries for Blood Diamond (some of their dialogue even ended up as lines in the movie) and spending a good two months poring over the script with writer/director Christopher Nolan for Inception. And he’s more than willing to do the 45 takes as Howard Hughes ranting “the way of the future” over and over that his director required for the dramatic final scene of The Aviator. His drive, he says, comes from the fact he has something to prove—not to others but to himself. “There was a lot of rejection early on, and so it never felt like, Hey, I’ve got something here,” he has said. “I’m never satisfied.”
The Guy Next Door
He pulls in $20 million a picture. He’s been nominated for an Oscar three times. He was in the highest grossing film of all time, Titanic, when it came out. He’s had songs written about him. He’s been mobbed by thousands of screaming fans. Yet DiCaprio yearns to be a regular guy. He doesn’t have bodyguards and doesn’t fly private jets and doesn’t spend as lavishly or frivolously as a lot of his megastar counterparts. He says his family keeps him grounded and that one of his favorite things is simply hanging out with his friends and acting “like a complete idiot.” And while he has dated a string of supermodels, owns real estate across the globe and is recognized wherever he goes, you can’t help but feel like he’s somebody you could still relate to and sit down and talk to about your day over a beer at the bar. You don’t begrudge him his successes because you know he’s worked hard for them. “I feel very fortunate,” he’s admitted. “A lot of people would love to be in my position.”
Just because DiCaprio longs to be a regular guy doesn’t quell his thirst for adventure. “I like to do things that scare me,” he remarked after a 1996 skydiving incident in which his parachute didn’t open and his instructor had to pull the emergency cord. He’s been bungee jumping and shark diving, and sometimes even when he’s not trying he has a brush with danger, like last November when his commercial flight to an environmental forum in Russia had to make an emergency landing after an engine blew and the wing caught fire. A few months earlier, while scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands, his tank malfunctioned and he was running out of air and had to swim over to the rest of the group and share oxygen with them until they could return to the surface. “It makes you feel excited all over again to be alive,” he chimed afterward.
“Leonardo DiCaprio sets a benchmark for people in the public eye,” says David Orr, an environmental studies professor at Oberlin College who appeared in a documentary DiCaprio wrote, produced and narrated in 2007 titled The 11th Hour. “He’s a thoughtful celebrity, and the two don’t always go together.” Orr is referring to the countless hours and dollars DiCaprio has devoted to charitable and, in particular, environmental, causes.
“I think I was a little biologist when I was younger,” DiCaprio once commented. “I watched documentaries on green resource depletion and the loss of species and habitats for animals around the world, and it affected me in a very hardcore, emotional way when I was younger. So later in life I wanted to continue that path more and investigate and learn more about ecological issues.”
One of Hollywood’s most intensely private celebs, DiCaprio often makes an exception when it comes to being green. He has chaired Earth Day events, interviewed then President Bill Clinton for an ABC News special on the depletion of the ozone level, is a patron of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and is on the boards of both the Natural Resources Defense Council and Global Green USA. In fact, he’s responsible for a high-tech e-Activism Computer Zone at the NRDC’s new headquarters in Santa Monica, which is said to be one of the greenest buildings in America, and in 2010, he donated $1 million to World Wildlife Fund’s Save Tigers Now campaign.
“I’m really impressed with the time and energy he puts into promoting conservation of the planet’s dwindling wild places and species,” says Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth blog for The New York Times and whose articles DiCaprio often retweets on his Twitter page. In fact, DiCaprio’s personal website, while featuring movie trailers and photos, appears little more than a place to get people to link to his other website, the homepage of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
Founded by the actor back in 1998, the foundation, whose mission is to ensure “a sustainable future for our planet and all of its inhabitants,” is overseen by his mother, Irmelin, and has been the recipient of the prestigious Martin Litton Environmental Warrior Award.
Production on his 2010 film Inception was in large part solar-powered, thanks to DiCaprio’s efforts after he approached Warner Bros. exec Alan Horn with the idea.
DiCaprio has partnered with Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer on a limited-edition Aquaracer 500M timepiece, with sales benefitting two of his favorite causes. His visit to the factory “turned into an inspiring and creative environmental audit,” said TAG Heuer president and CEO Jean-Christophe Babin, an event that inspired the company to take measures to reduce its energy consumption.
When asked once what he wants to be remembered for, DiCaprio answered, “What I want is to be known as someone who stood for something.”
And so far, he’s walking the walk to make that legacy a reality. “He has had the courage to take a stand on environmental issues when it may have hurt his career,” Orr says. “He is cut out of a different cloth.” It can be surmised that his courage and commitment to global causes was a major impetus behind DiCaprio’s recently being named one of the 11 new members of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, an honor bestowed on “dedicated community leaders who demonstrate initiative and commitment to excellence illustrated by extraordinary achievements.” At the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., in April, DiCaprio told the crowd, which included a group of high school seniors being honored as national scholars, “Be grateful, work hard. Of great importance is to use the opportunities you are given to help others find their own. Give back as much as you can and as often as you can, and remember there is no elite group out there that you cannot belong to.”
Check out Inception: The Cobol Job, the comic prologue to DiCaprio's 2010 blockbuster Inception, written by Jordan Goldberg, @ leonardodicaprio.com.