a rare conversation with leonardo dicaprio at the peak of his 90s crush powers
As 'Once Upon a Time In Hollywood' hits cinemas, we take a nostalgic trip back to 1997 with this interview from i-D's Desirable Issue.
Photography Kurt Krieger
This article originally appeared in The Desirable Issue, no. 164, 1997.
With Romeo and Juliet Leonardo DiCaprio has become the film industry’s biggest teen scream. But can he ever be more than a Hollywood wet dream?
Since his Oscar-nominated appearance opposite Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio has been routinely hailed as either ‘the best’ or ‘the most exciting’ actor of his generation. It’s a line that should be familiar to any movie-magazine reader since the 50s -- when James Dean’s and Montgomery Clift’s stars were in the ascendant -- and indeed DiCaprio is just one in a long line of young actors to have risen fast on a combination of impossibly good looks and seemingly instinctive acting talent.
Whether the Hollywood born-and-bred DiCaprio can avoid the fast-fade that curtails similar upward career trajectories is anybody’s guess, but he’s already survived artistic and commercial mis-steps such as The Basketball Diaries, The Quick And The Dead and Total Eclipse (shot in 1995 but only recently released) without tarnishing his reputation. Most recently, his young street-punk persona has been employed to good effect in Baz Luhrmann’s radical reinvention of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet even though it’s the first film to have highlighted his deficiencies as a dramatic lead. A small role opposite Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton in the film adaptation of the stage play Marvin’s Room certainly won’t do any harm, but he’ll have to paddle hard to avoid sinking James Cameron’s extravagant, mega-budget spectacular The Titanic.
Rumours have circulated wildly about his personal life but DiCaprio seems to take it all in his stride, displaying a sense of humour and a lack of arrogance about the enviable position in which he finds himself. His sole problem may be growing up on-screen, especially since his boyish good looks account for a great deal of his appeal. Still, DiCaprio has already come a long way from TV shows such as Growing Pains and films like his debut Critters 3; evidence suggests that if he continues to pick his roles wisely, he could survive the kiss-of-death comparisons to Dean et al and be around for longer than most.
So how did Romeo and Juliet come about?
The film's director, Baz Luhrmann, initially gave me a script and, at the time, I didn’t really think I really wanted to do a traditional version of Romeo and Juliet. Then I went out to Australia to do a workshop with him and he told me about the new ideas he wanted to bring to the movie; a lot of the religious themes, the cars, the guns instead of the swords and a lot of the elaborate costumes. I wasn’t sure then how it would all work out. I have to say, the first time I knew it was working was the first day of work. It actually seemed more natural, more "meant to be" than a traditional version.
Didn’t you find it at all daunting?
Well, Romeo and Juliet is like, the most famous play of all time and the most widely successful, so you definitely have a lot of pressure going in there knowing that. But I think that the way we’ve done it, it almost relaxed me a lot more. I think I would have been a lot more nervous if I knew I had to do it traditionally. The manner in which we speak, not having to have some affected English accent, made everything a lot more close to home. Even though it’s a fantasy world, it has a lot of modern references in it, especially with the violence and gang warfare, so it made me feel a lot closer to home. I think Shakespeare probably would have wanted his work to live on through the years, become a timeless piece that could adapt to the future.
You’ve said in the past that you are drawn to darker characters. But Romeo is truly a romantic. Was that going to a different place for you?
It was interesting once I really started to research him, because you have this pre-planned idea of what Romeo’s supposed to be, just some fluffy romantic type of guy, but then you sort of realise that he was a hopeless romantic and then he meets Juliet. And Juliet says, ‘Alright look, if you’ve got any real balls you should marry me now and risk everything’. So he risks everything -- his whole life, his whole family, everything -- and he marries this girl, which is such an honourable thing to do if you really believe in somebody, if you believe in love like that, especially at that age, especially to risk your life. It’s the ultimate tragedy and the ultimate love story.
So how did you get ready to be Romeo?
Well, it took a while to get accustomed to. With each character I do, I like to get everything done from the start and then know what I’m doing throughout the whole thing and learn as I go along. I’m never really like the ultimate method man who has to compile everything and be that character all the time. I sort of see how it goes as it goes along. I just had to be prepared for the emotional points that Romeo goes through because he's not a light-hearted guy, he has to go through some heavy stuff.
How difficult was getting a grip on the language?
With Shakespeare you read one of his verses and it has up to 20 different meanings, and you realise that something he says in the beginning of the story reflects to something later and has an undertone for this and is symbolic for this, and you can get all jumbled up in that sort of thing. But you just have to choose what you’re going for, what type of character you’re doing,. It took a lot of adjustment, we did a lot of exercises. For each word we said, all of us would sort of act out the emotion while we were saying the word, so we would really understand what the heck he was really trying to say and what the heck the character was really going through, because even something that was a joke could have relevance to the story.
Did you get on with Clare Danes, your Juliet?
I saw her television show, My So-Called Life, and I knew from that point on that she was just an extremely intense and emotional girl and possessed a lot of what we wanted to Juliet to be. We didn’t want a flowery, over-dramatic version of Juliet but somebody that was really forceful, because she actually laid down the law to Romeo and told him, "If you’re so into me, you have to marry me and defy everything" and that was an important thing we wanted to bring up. As soon as I met with Claire and did auditions, everyone else was doing it the traditional way and she like grabbed the back of my neck and kissed me. I was like, "What’s going on here!" I was a little taken aback by the whole thing but I realised she knew what she was doing.
You talked about a fresh approach to the same story that’s been performed for several centuries, Why do you think it still holds up?
Part of it is the fact that you have this character who believes that throughout all the violence and hatred that is going on between these two families, he believes in something higher, which is love. There’s an important section of the movie where I talk about how people want to be loved so much that they’re killing each other off, and I think it relates to how the world is right now. It’s easy to see that something like that lives on through the times.
One of the many surprises in the film is you and Juliet essentially falling in love in a swimming pool. What was it like to film those scenes?
Well, I know that Baz wanted to have a sort of opposite take on how classic "But soft when yonder window breaks" scene. So in the movie we intentionally made Romeo the one on top of the balcony with Juliet coming down through the elevator so she's below me. It’s sort of this neat little twist then, all of a sudden, the next thing you know we’re splashed and into the pool. We worked a lot on that, it almost took a week and a half to get everything right, because we didn’t want to do it the conventional way, we really wanted to try something different and I think it worked.
What was your favourite scene?
Ah, what was my favourite scene, gosh… hard question, because they were all really hard. I have to say there was one scene where we got to joke around and bag on each other. Mercutio and I got to insult each other, that was a pretty fun scene. Favourite is a hard word because when you see something that‘s your favourite, but when you’re actually doing something and you’re having fun then I guess that’s it.
It sounds like you and Baz had a pretty collaborative relationship in this movie. Was there anything he asked you to do that you didn’t want to do?
Well, yeah. At the beginning when we were just starting out, he wanted to make a lot of the characters go around on roller blades and I quickly said no. He wanted guns for a while but then he wasn’t sure. I thought it needed a bit of a darker tone to it and he agreed, so he sort of went in that direction. So thank God I got to be a part of it and get my two cents in at the beginning of everything.
Was it fairly stressful filming in Mexico City?
I’d say so, yeah. I mean, the interesting thing was that although there was a lot of violence and a lot of shootings and a lot of people getting sick all the time, it really added to what we were doing out there. There were a couple murders, one of our people got kidnapped. It was hard and everyone got really sick, but at the same time it really gave us something to work off of. We were used to being around guns.
So you’re down in Mexico shooting again?
I know. I wish I would choose movies for the location more than the content sometimes, but I have no choice.
If you believe everything you read on the Internet…
You shouldn’t believe everything, that’s for sure.
There seem to be a lot of articles claiming that the Romeo and Juliet love scene was going to be more explicit.
Yeah, see stuff like that. There was a lot of controversy about seeing Claire’s breasts I think or something like that, and the fact that she was underage, but there was no intention ever to do anything like that. It’s weird how a lot of stuff gets twisted around in the media sometimes, and stuff is misunderstood, but I guess it’s all part of everything. Over time, you’ll just look at the movie for what it is and not all the stuff that’s going on around it at the moment.
Has it gotten easier to deal with all the stuff that gets twisted around in the media?
I’ve just said this but it’s the truth - no matter what happens, your work speaks for itself in the end. I haven’t had anything horrible written about me; some things that I think aren’t fair, but by no means out and out slanderous lies. So I'm not offended by any means. But once you realise that nothing really matters, even some of the lies may make your life sound more interesting in the end. They're doing a biography on you someday and they have all these false things made up? Hey, it just adds to you being an interesting person.
Do you ever think about the fact that someday, somebody is going to be doing a biography of you?
I’ve been jolting through films and doing movie after movie and just trying to learn more and do a better film here and try something new there. You never really get a chance to look back and I realise like, I'm 21 and I’ve done quite a few films and some of them are pretty good and you start to get a little bit proud of yourself. I’m happy where I am right now. I’ve realised that some people my age are looking at some of my stuff and it’s not that I go unnoticed so it's a cool thing. I can’t tell you how it’s gonna be in the future because I have no idea. As long as I remain sane, i’m gonna keep doing this kind of stuff.
But by the same token people have an expectation of you on the screen to deliver a performance, and the better you get and the more publicity you get, is there more pressure on you?
I think maybe, yeah. But you really can’t think about that when you’re shooting, because if you do then it’s gonna make you a hundred times worse. I can see how it could be easily affected because I think about stuff like that all the time. It’s a hard position to be in. Just because you may have done a good performance once doesn’t mean you’re always gonna be good. That's why you have some of the greatest actors in the world going a little bit nuts: "What happened, do you still love me?" It’s that type of situation and it’s really understandable and it's an easy trap to fall into. I can’t say I have the answer for all of that; you could find me in a loony bin in a couple of years, you never know, but right now I realise that I don’t care. I don’t care what people say about me because it gets to a point of when you’re hot, you’re hot and when you’re not, you’re not and it’s so true, it’s so true.
Your next film is about the Titanic, right?
It’s my first sort of commercial attempt but it made sense for me just because I'm not that kind of guy and I'm not going to continue to do that type of movie. It was the only one that really had a good story to it and had some real, emotionally charged characters and wasn't me playing some sort of cyborg. It was something that I probably would have done if it was commercial or not and that’s the way I choose movies. Not to say that this is going to be an epic thing with tons of 'slam, bam and thank you ma’am’ type of stuff, though. I don’t know where I got that term from but…
So what can we expect from it then?
It's a love story, two people on a ship. This sort of lower class artist meets this upper class girl and they fall in love, again defying what’s going on in their society and their world, then all of a sudden it goes down.
And getting the chance to paint Kate Winslet nude isn’t such a bad thing.
Not bad at all! Kate’s a good one, she’s cool.
Because of the intensity of this role, was it hard for the two of you to come down at the end of a day of filming?
I can’t speak for Kate, but as far as I’m concerned I’ve never really been someone who can’t wind down. I always know I’m acting and I go as far as joking around in-between takes. I’m just like that naturally and I think it’s healthy for me, ‘cause when you’re doing a scene like that you’re actually really feeling it. It’s a stressful thing to do to your body, just to be screaming or crying or whatever, and you can’t really fake it. Well, you can, but not if you want it to look good. So I’ve been fine with all that. I don’t agree that you have to immerse yourself completely into a character to do a good job.
The buzz is now that an Oscar nomination is a sure thing next year. Do you ever think about that?
Yeah, I think about that; I wouldn't be human if I didn't. I don’t want to expect anything at all because then it doesn't happen. I have a funny feeling about Oscars, because I was nominated for ‘ What's Eating Gilbert Grape’ and it’s a funny situation. I really didn’t want to win because just the fact you have such an expectation on you at that time, people almost want you to be perfect in everything you do and if you’re not then it’s almost like "OK get him out of here, he was lucky once and now we’re done with him." I don’t want to think about that much either, just because it’s all tricky stuff, man. Who knows how to deal with it? I just want to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully people will watch my movies.