Leonardo DiCaprio has risen from very humble beginnings to become one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. Having gone from “Critters 3” to working with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese is not something many people can lay claim to, and he has continued to challenge himself by taking on roles with an intense emotional style many others choose to shy away from.
Leonardo was born on November 11, 1974 and is the only child of Irmelin and George DiCaprio. His mother is a former legal secretary and his father is an underground comic boom artist who was depicted in several issues of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor.” They got divorced when Leonardo was only a year old, and he then lived with his mother in different Los Angeles neighborhoods including Los Feliz and Echo Park which he later referred to as the “ghettos of Hollywood.”
His professional job was on the children’s show “Romper Room,” but he ended up getting thrown off the set because he was said to have been “disruptive.” Following that he got into commercials and got cast in an ad for Matchbox cars when he was 14. His big break came when he was cast on the first television show based on the movie “Parenthood.” After that he appeared on other shows like “The New Lassie,” “Roseanne,” and the soap opera “Santa Barbara.” Many however still remember him as the homeless boy Luke Brower on the last season of “Growing Pains.”
Leonardo eventually made his film debut in the sci-fi horror comedy “Critters 3” in which he played the stepson of an evil landlord. The movie ended up going straight to video, and he has since described the role as “your average, no-depth, standard kid with blond hair.” But after acting opposite Robert DeNiro in “This Boy’s Life,” his charismatic performance got all of Hollywood excited and everyone began seeing him as the next big star.
His first Oscar nomination came from portraying the mentally handicapped brother of Johnny Depp in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” a role he later went on to describe as the most fun he’s ever had. He was later quoted by Film Review as saying:
“I had to really research and get into the mind of somebody with a disability like that. So I spent a few days at a home for mentally retarded teens. We just talked and I watched their mannerisms. People have these expectations that mentally retarded children are really crazy, but it’s not so. It’s refreshing to see them because everything’s so new to them.”
After that there was no denying DiCaprio’s presence onscreen, and he eventually found movie stardom with “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet” and even more so with James Cameron’s Oscar winning “Titanic.”
Among the roles he has been considered for but ended up not playing is Robin in “Batman Forever” which he was screen tested for, Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” which he withdrew from due to scheduling conflicts, and Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights” which he turned down to do “Titanic” instead. He campaigned very hard to play John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” but the role ended up going to Johnny Depp.
DiCaprio was also at one point given the opportunity to play James Dean, but he declined the offer saying he wasn’t experienced enough at that point to portray the famous actor.
Among his all-time favorite movies are “Taxi Driver,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “8 ½”, “The Third Man,” “The Shining,” and “East of Eden.” He has cited his favorite performances as being from Robert DeNiro’s in “Taxi Driver,” James Dean’s in “East of Eden,” and Gena Rowlands’ in “A Woman Under The Influence.”
Martin Scorsese, whom he has worked with in films like “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed,” is said to be his favorite director. He has described Scorsese as a perfectionist and obsessed with every detail which is why “Gangs of New York” went over budget and over schedule.
Here are some quotes by Leonardo DiCaprio:
“The best thing about acting is that I get to lose myself in another character and actually get paid for it. It’s a great outlet. As for myself, I’m not sure who I am. It seems that I change every day.”
“People want you to be a crazy, out-of-control teen brat. They want you miserable, just like them. They don’t want heroes; what they want is to see you fall.”
“You can either be a vain movie star, or you can try to shed some light on different aspects of the human condition.”
“It’s a really obvious thing to say, but the more people know too much about who you really are, and it’s a fundamental thing, the more the mystery is taken away from the artist, and the harder it is for people to believe that person in a particular role.”
“My mom and I lived at Hollywood and Western, a drug-dealer and prostitute corner. It was pretty terrifying. I got beat up a lot. I saw people have sex in the alleys. I remember I was 5 years old, and this guy with a trench coat, needles and crack cornered me. Early on, seeing the devastation on my block, seeing heroin addicts, made me think twice about ever getting involved in drugs.”
“I hate speaking in front of a large audience. I don’t know where it came from…but it’s just this gut-wrenching fear of slipping up and doing something horrible.”
“The last thing I want to turn into is a fat Hollywood jerk. I was brought up without much money and I was happy. I don’t think that I will strive for money or success and end up greedy or big-headed. That only leads to unhappiness. I can still be down-to-earth and do this job as long as I enjoy it.”
“Don’t think for a moment that I’m really like any of the characters I play. That’s why it’s called acting.”
“Probably the only thing I knew with complete clarity was that I wanted to be an actor. But there was a lot of rejection early on, and so it never felt like, Hey, I’ve got something here. There was always an element of me that needed to prove something to myself. It’s something I don’t want to get rid of, because it’s what drives me. I’m never settled and I’m never satisfied.”
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Aljean Harmetz, “UP AND COMING: Leonardo DiCaprio; The Actor Is Boyishly Handsome, and That’s a Liability,” The New York Times, December 12, 1993.