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Harperīs Baazar - 1995

 

Leonardo DiCaprio

This is how to be a young actor

 

 

Itīs several hundred degrees, humid as something rotting, and Leonardo DiCaprio, the 20-year-old many people consider the finest actor of his generation, is having problems with the Bronx Zoo.

"Where are all the animals?" he yells.

Heīs mincing and skipping down the path next to me like a girly teenage Simon LeBon, intermittently singing to himself. He looks just the cool side of strange with his sexy, floppy, boy-toy hair pushed back in a Goody hairband (headbands are his thing) and his eyes and face so pale in the sun that theyīre almost the same color. Heīs six feet tall, shaped like a chopstick, and dressed like a skateboard kid in a big white T-shirt, knee-length blue shorts, and Adidas sneakers.

Itīs his day off from shooting the movie adaption of Scott McPhersonīs play Marvinīs Room, with Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and Robert De Niro, and the zoo is just not doing it for him.

Weīre here because heīs really into animals, especially giraffes, but there are apparently no animals here. Plus itīs free-admission Wednesday, so the place is crawling with millions of people, most of them under five years old and coated with some kind of food.

DiCaprio takes off on a riff. "This zoo is whacked. Itīs all overgrown, you canīt see any damn animals, thereīs trams leading to nothing, thereīs no refreshment stand, all I see is ducks, and itīs hot as hell. Hey, thereīs an American bison!" he shouts, then immediately loses interest. "Gimme a girl with an ear on her forehead, an eye on her butt, her head up her ass," he sings.

This fall, DiCaprio shows up in theaters playing tortured 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse. Directed by Europe creator Agnieszka Holland, the movie details Rimbaudīs twisted love affair with older poet Paul Verlaine (played by Naked-star David Thewlis). DiCaprioīs project for today is to convince me heīs nothing like his character. Heīs a normal guy who likes to hang out with his normal friends and do normal stuff. "I donīt want to be thought of as a party animal," he complains. "You know, the stereotypical young actor. Iīm not like that."

DiCaprioīs still annoyed with the wild-boy press he got while shooting The Basketball Diaries in New York last year. But he still plays late-night pinball at after-hours fashion show Cafe Tabac. He shows up practically every evening in his booth at Bowery Bar and stays till two or three in the morning, getting cute models to sit at his table.

Nonetheless, he badly wants me to register that heīs not another bummed-off, fucked-up, druggie young movie star who only dates models.

"I donīt enjoy what drugs do," he insists. "I donīt do anything except drink once in a while." And models? Didnīt he see Bridget Hall for a year? "Youīve got to be joking," he cries, coming to an abrupt halt in front of the (empty) snow leopard habitat. "Bridget Hall I hung out with for a week. It was blown way out of proportion. I went out with another girl for a year who was not a celebrity and I broke up with her a few months ago.

We find a refreshment stand, and DiCaprio orders a gigantic soda.

"Did you hear that NutraSweet destroys your short term memory?" he quizzes. "Iīm a NutraSweet addict, and I think thatīs why I donīt remember people from one day to the next sometimes. Interesting fact, huh?"

After an hour at the zoo, Iīm already convinced that DiCaprio is 100 percent telephone-survey normal, except for what seems to be a bizarre lack of anxiety. Perhaps this is what new movie stars are like in the affectless ī90s. Or perhaps this is just how you turn out when youīre the only child of doting yet cool parents, live in California, and become a star before youīre out of high school.

DiCaprio grew up in the crack-and-protitute part of Hollywood.

His parents are hippie/Beat types - his dad, an underground-comics guy who still has long hair, roomed with Lou Reed in New York in the ī60s. Although they seperated shortly after he was born, his parents remain on friendly terms, and DiCaprio has all the Wordsworthian nostalgia of a boy emerging from a happy childhood. Of course, some of the nostalgia is of the before-I-was-famous variety. "I have to be nice to people now," he mourns. "Before, if I didnīt want to talk to someone Iīd just say, fuck off."

He was "the nuttiest little kid" in school, he says, always doing somersaults and improv, tap-dancing, and lip-synching, acting retarded, and pretended to be an alien. But oddly, he hates large audiences. "I hate having to entertain," he explains when I ask him about appearing on Letterman. "I hate talk shows. And you know what? Iīm never going to do one again."

Itīs startling to remember how recently DiCaprio became interesting to talk shows at all. It was only 1993 that he got his first real movie part, after a spate of TV work, playing writer Tobias Wolff as a teenager in This Boyīs Life opposite to Robert De Niro. Later the same year, he played the mentally retarded Arnie in Whatīs Eating Gilbert Grape, for which he was nominated for (and should have received) an Academy Award. This year he showed up as neo-Beat poet Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries and as the cute side of macho in The Quick and the Dead. This last was his first foray into big-budget cinema, and heīs not eager to do it again. "I donīt need money," he chirps, "so thereīs no reason other than fame, and people who get famous quick drop like flies. But if thereīs something commercial thatīs also good, Iīm there."

Itīs odd that DiCaprio has played so many writers, because heīs not very interested in books. Director Agnieszka Holland says that the only books he seems to enjoy are The Guinness Book of Records and books about animals. He never liked school, and when I ask him if he thinks about college, he says, "Hell, no. No way. Shit, Iīm happy the way I am. I donīt want to complicate stuff. Iīm not a superboy."

Itīs hard to imagine this guy playing Rimbaud. Even Holland had her doubts at first, and now, having seen him do it, sheīs at a loss to explain how it happened. "My only explanation," she hazards, "is that heīs like a medium: He opens his body and his mind to receive message coming from another personīs life."

There does seem to be something unfixed and porous about DiCaprio - some emotional or mental drawer not fully pushed in. Heīs easily bored, easily distracted, and heīs constantly jittering and fidgeting with a scattered, aimless kind of energy, like heīs overdue for a Ritalin. He complains that he has a terrible memory, and he does - he doesnīt remember wearing a big hairy mask at a photo shoot a couple of weeks ago; he doesnīt remenber half the things he said when we had dinner the week before; he doesnīt remember wether he met Anna Nicole Smith, of all impossible-to-forget people, at an Oscar party.

"Iīm not a normal human being," DiCaprio remarks suddenly. Weīre lying on the grass; heīs taken off his sneakers and carefully sniffed each of his socks. Now heīs pitting out the ice cubes from his soda, one by one, down the hill. "I donīt have emotions about a lot of things. I rarely get angry, I rarely cry. I guess I do get excited a lot, but I donīt get sad and I donīt get enormously happy. I think a lot of people who talk all that kind of crap are lying. Right now Iīm just trying to maintain happiness - thatīs all I really care about. Anyway, when youīre my age and your hormones are kicking in, thereīs not much besides sex thatīs on your mind."

He shuts up for a minute, probably trying to figure out how what heīs just said will play on paper. "I feel like I should be sitting here going, īThis is how I feel about lifeī, you know?" he says eventually.

"But I donīt have that kind of crap." He twists around on his elbows toward me and puts on a faux pompous expression he makes that means Sarcasm Coming. "My motto," he declares, "is, Just keep on truckinī, babe."

*****

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