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Leo DiCaprio: A Boy No More


Leonardo DiCaprio looks older than you'd think.


Standing 6-feet-1 and sporting a goatee and slicked-back hair, DiCaprio carries himself deliberately. He doesn't walk; he saunters. He speaks intensely, mulling his words while locking his eyes on you. He looks all of his 30 years, if not more. There's only a trace of the boy who starred seven years ago in the biggest box- office hit of all time.

 while locking his eyes on you. He looks all of his 30 years, if not more. There's only a trace of the boy who starred seven years ago in the biggest box- office hit of all time.

DiCaprio concedes that he still gets the "aren't you that kid from 'Titanic'?" comment on the streets. But make no mistake: He is a boy no more.

"Yes, I can play younger than my age," he says with a grin over chocolate-dipped strawberries and biscotti at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "But I can play characters older than I am, too. I'm not an actor who can just play the kid."

DiCaprio gets his chance to prove that when "The Aviator" opens nationwide on Christmas Day. Martin Scorsese's sprawling epic about legendary airman and playboy Howard Hughes puts DiCaprio in foreign territory: playing a character who is older, richer and more famous than himself.



Leo's bio

Born: Nov. 11, 1974, in Hollywood

Education: Center for the Enriched Studies, Los Angeles; John Marshall High School, Los Angeles

Cause: Founder, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, established in 1998 to raise awareness of environmental problems

Dating: Since 2000, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen

Did you know? He played Luke Brower in TV's "Growing Pains," 1991-92

Movie debut: "Critters III," 1991

First movie lead: "This Boy's Life," with Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin, 1993\

 Few movies enter the fall with heavier expectations. Miramax Films is banking on the $100 million movie to put the studio back into the Oscar hunt after being shut out last year. 

And after the collapse of "Alexander," the critically panned, commercially disastrous Oliver Stone opus, "The Aviator" is the last epic standing this awards season. Part biopic, part homage to Hollywood's heyday of the 1920s and '30s, the classic elements of "The Aviator" have helped make it the early front-runner among big-studio entries.

For Scorsese and DiCaprio, the movie marks something more personal: a shot at a first Oscar for both men.

Despite earning $20-million-a-movie paychecks and global stardom since 1997's "Titanic," DiCaprio hasn't been nominated for an Academy Award since 1994's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Scorsese is Oscar's latest bridesmaid, having been nominated for best director four times but never taking home the prize.

Both may find redemption this year. Industry analysts are calling the film Scorsese's best work since 1990's "Goodfellas," thanks in part to the director and actor having an unusual aging effect on each other.

"Marty has helped bring out the man in Leo," says film critic Emanuel Levy, author of "All About Oscar." "No one believed Leo could play Howard Hughes, who has always been seen as a man's man. But that's changed now. Leo is a lock for a best-actor nomination."

DiCaprio, in turn, "seems to have brought out the kid in Scorsese," Levy says. "The Aviator" is "more reminiscent of his brilliant early work like "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," just more commercial and enjoyable."

Scorsese, 62, acknowledges that the young actor — who starred in his "Gangs of New York" in 2002 — has given him new energy.

"Directing is a real headache. But working with Leo, who forces you to talk and talk and talk about your movies, gets you excited about what you do." 


Martin Scorsese, left, "helped bring out the man" in Leonardo DiCaprio, right, says film critic Emanuel Levy, and DiCaprio "seems to have brought out the kid in Scorsese."

A life 'too big for one movie'

There has been talk about making a film biography of the legendary airman and filmmaker for decades.

But where to start — or stop — such a film? Hughes was as much a force in Hollywood as he was in aviation. He broke speed records while financing some of the industry's most expensive films, including the $4 million "Hell's Angels" in 1930. He was commandeering TWA while courting the film industry's biggest stars, including Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow and Katharine Hepburn.

"And that was before he succumbed to his illness," DiCaprio says of the obsessive-compulsive disorder that left the germ-phobic millionaire the poster child for seclusion and paranoia. "His life was just too big for one movie."

Then it hit DiCaprio: Just take a portion of Hughes' life, the less-examined slice before the final phase of dementia, of uncut fingernails and tissue boxes turned into shoes.

When he was 22, the actor had stumbled across a book, "Howard Hughes: The Untold Story" by Peter H. Brown, and had been trying for years to coax directors to tackle the story.

After several fits and starts, he landed director Michael Mann and screenwriter John Logan, who wrote "Gladiator" and "The Last Samurai."

Mann, citing biopic burnout from "Ali," later decided to produce the film and not direct it. But Scorsese didn't hesitate at the chance to tackle the project.

"When I saw the title, I thought it was about flying," he says with a laugh. "And I hate flying. But the more something scares me, the more I want to explore it."



DiCaprio's accolades


• Supporting-actor Academy Award nomination for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," 1993

• Best actor/drama Golden Globe nomination for "Catch Me if You Can," 2002


• Best supporting actor, National Board of Review for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," 1993

• Los Angeles Film Critics Association New Generation Award for "This Boy's Life" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," 1993

• Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear Award for best actor, "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," 1997

And DiCaprio sealed the deal, Scorsese says. "He doesn't so much play the roles as he becomes consumed by them. It's fascinating to watch." 

Indeed, DiCaprio became obsessed with the part in a manner that might have made Hughes proud. He spent days with a man who had obsessive-compulsive disorder so he could observe the facial tics and mannerisms. He read a half-dozen biographies and watched hours of archival footage of the brash Hughes. He even insisted that Scorsese include a song by Django Reinhardt, a jazz guitarist from the 1930s, in the movie.

He wasn't the only one immersed in research. Cate Blanchett tackles the challenging role of the legendary Hepburn.

"It was great fun trawling through her films," Blanchett says. "It's one thing to play on screen someone who people have an image of and regard as an icon. But it's another thing to play her in the very medium in which she has become so revered. The truth is that I don't think I would have attempted it for anyone other than Martin Scorsese."

DiCaprio echoes his co-star. "Marty's got such an encyclopedic knowledge of film, especially old movies. You have to know your character inside out, or he'll let you have it."

That included Hughes' mental breakdown. DiCaprio rehearsed scenes for weeks that called for him to repeat a single line, over and over.

"Howard would get a line in his head and couldn't stop saying it," DiCaprio says. "One half of your brain is stuck in the record groove, while the other knows you sound like a fool. I was trying to figure out how you do that, how to say the same line again and again but express everything else that's going on inside your head."

DiCaprio's head, the actor insists, is far less cluttered than his character's, though he concedes that, like Hughes, he is partial to old films and the occasional obsession, particularly vintage movie posters.

Over the years he has collected a French Buster Keaton poster, a German "Apocalypse Now," a Polish "Midnight Cowboy" and an authentic "King Kong" "that cost me a bundle."

And like Hughes, DiCaprio has dated his share of famous women, having been stalked by paparazzi snapping him with Kate Moss, Demi Moore and, most recently, model Gisele Bundchen.

But that's where the similarity ends, he insists. He demurs from talking about his love life but says there is an emotional bond behind every relationship that Hughes' liaisons lacked.

"I think Howard thought of women the same way he thought of planes," DiCaprio says. "He wanted the fastest thing, the newest model. That is not how I approach dating."

He also is careful to approach fame differently from how Hughes did.

He doesn't hide buck-naked in hotel rooms as Hughes did in his withering years. But DiCaprio is selective about his films and his public appearances. He has starred in only five movies since "Titanic," in part so that a single film would not define him as that one did.



Howard Hughes pursued many of the top actresses of his day, including Ava Gardner, played by Kate Beckinsale in "The Aviator."

He has acknowledged that it was a mistake turning down "Boogie Nights" in favor of the James Cameron film, which made him Hollywood's pinup boy for a generation of teenyboppers. 

But he has since come to terms with that fame and says he takes no film in the hopes of getting an "anti-'Titanic' reaction."

"I think people read the tabloids because they want to see you eating a burger, or out of your makeup or doing something stupid because they just want to see that you're like everyone else," he says.

"And that's OK. I don't want to catch myself anymore saying that my life is hard, because the good far outweighs the bad in my life. And it's easier to focus on those things, on the things that are important."

Like an Oscar? DiCaprio was snubbed when "Titanic" managed 14 Academy Award nominations (and 11 wins) in just about every category, including an acting nomination for co-star Kate Winslet. But DiCaprio's name was noticeably absent.

"Anyone who tells you that they don't want their work recognized by their peers is lying," he says.

"I'd love this film to be the one, especially for Marty. That he didn't win an Oscar years ago is still a mystery to me.

"But he's the reason you make movies," DiCaprio says, moving to the edge of his couch cushion as he speaks. "You learn after you've been in the business for a while that it's not getting your face recognized that's the payoff. It's having your film remembered."

He grins slightly at the notion of calling himself a Hollywood veteran. "And I guess I have been in the business for a while now."

So has Scorsese. But lately, he says, he isn't feeling his years.


"After I finish a movie, I think, 'Wow, that was really hard work. What the hell am I doing this for?' " he says. "But then you meet an actor like Leo and start talking about movies and storytelling, and suddenly you're interested again. Just talking now, I'm ready to go start another one."