USA today - April 19, 1995
By Marshall Fine
New York - The day is sunny. Leonardo DiCaprio is cloudy.
There´s been a death in his family - his grandfather, the night before - and it´s weighing on the young actor´s mind. He´s still jet-lagged, after returning from Europe after finishing a film. And he´s trying to make arrangements to get back home to Los Angeles.
So it´s not surprising that he seems weary when confronted with questions about his own sudden fame and the constant "next big thing" buzz that seems glued to his name.
"To tell you the truth, it´s such a sad time that, in terms of my personal life, fame seems so miniscule," the lanky 20-year-old says, sprawling on a hotel suite couch. "I appreciate it but it´s hard to think about when you´ve got personal problems going on."
Stretched out on his sofa, DiCaprio doesn´t look like the most talked-about young actor in Hollywood. He could be any taciturn post-teen on spring break.
He comes to life, however, when asked to sign some posters for his new film, The Basketball Diaries, which opens Friday, while he talks. He srawls his name with a blend of abandon and precision, ending with a flourish and two energetic dots for the i´s.
"I wanted to get an agent, even as a little kid," he says. "I saw kids on TV and knew that´s what I could do."
If DiCaprio hadn´t proved it by going toe-to-toe with Robert DeNiro in This Boy´s Life or by inhabiting the world of a retarded teen in What´s Eating Gilbert Grape, he´ll make it obvious in Diaries.
Notes Lasse Hallström, who directed DiCaprio to an Oscar nomination in Grape, "You couldn´t do what he does without understanding it on a deeper level. It´s something you can´t do by imitation."
Based on poet-rocker Jim Carroll´s 1978 cult classic, Basketball Diaries offers DiCaprio his most conspicious starring role yet, as a high school athlete and would-be writer who experiments with drugs and winds up hooked on heroin.
"What Leo brings naturally to the role is a pure, angelic quality," says Diaries director Scott Kalvert, "He can do the horrible things this character does and people will still care about him."
Carroll´s book had come close to being filmed several times in the past. Says Carroll, "I´m just glad when it landed, it came up on Leo. He´s like paint thrown against a wall - it sticks. Others are like wet tissue paper - it sticks and then drops."
Diaries, shot for a mere $4 million, gives DiCaprio showy moments - including a searing withdrawal sequence.
Says Kalvert: "It´s scary - one minute he´s Leo, acting like any of the young guys, and then - boom! - he´s in this dark place. It´s like a light swith."
DiCaprio shrugs, smiles and says, "I´m good at clicking it off as soon as I walk away. Once I´m in the car, it´s ´See ya´ . That character is gone with the wind."
DiCaprio insists that Carroll´s try-anything methods doesn´t reflect his own approach to life. He´s not about to dabble in drugs or do anything else that will feed the cliche of the wild young star whose meteoric rise is a prelude to a crash and burn.
"I like to say that I´ll try anything in terms of the movies I choose," he says. But not in real life. That´s the sereotype, though. But the more I try to prove that I´m not like that, the more full of shit I sound."
DiCaprio, whose parents were part of New York´s counterculture in the 1960´s, grew up in Hollywood Hills. He started acting at 14, doing commercials, a big part in Critters III and a continuing role on TV´s Growing Pains before beating out hundreds of young actors for the title role in This Boy´s Life - opposite De Niro.
"Yeah, I was intimidaded - but I couldn´t get hung up on that. After all, it was this boy´s life. But watching him work was a unique experience - how focused he is. That rubs off on you."
Now, DiCaprio wants to think more about his personal life. He wants to take advantage of his youth - not get so caught up in the quest for stardom that he doesn´t stop to enjoy some of the advantages.
"Yeah, I´ll be 21 (in November), which means I´m going to have to grow up," he says. "How old do I feel? About 17. For the past three years, I´ve been doing movies, with no other responsibility. Now that my teens are gone, I want to go out and do the things I´ve always wanted to do. I mean, I have the money to do them and I´m only 20."
The sudden leap from a high school kid doing whatever work came his way to sought-after star picky about his choices has not been lost on Leonardo DiCaprio. He carefully weights his future.
That includes bypassing commercial projects for ventures such as The Basketball Diaries or Total Eclipse, in which he plays the poet Rimbaud to David Thewlis´ Verlaine.
"I´ll try anything as long as it´s well-written and has a character that´s interesting to get into," he says. I figure the more low-key you can stay, the longer people can tolerate you. If you don´t blow your load too quick, it creates more longevity."
Says Lasse Hallström: "With those eyes and his intellect, I see no real limit to his potential."
Hollywood´s most sought-after scripts - American Buffalo with Dustin Hoffman, On the Road with director Francis Coppola, the off-Broadway hit Marvin´s Room - gravitate to him.
On reports he´ll play James Dean in a biopic, he says, "They keep printing that... but as far as I know, there´s no contract - and I have some reservations as well."
On the other hand, he can´t help but be impressed: "Every day, I hear about some script and think, ´Wow - they want me for that?´ "
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