Leonardo DiCaprio earned near-instant fame with the release of Titanic, that shipwreck epic romance that launched a thousand knock-offs. (We’re looking at you, Twilight.) Those of us just under the PG-13 cutoff eagerly awaited the VHS and used Leo headshots from Tiger Beat as wallpaper, anticipating his rise to stardom with a string of critically lauded performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Romeo and Juliet, and Growing Pains. And so, what better time to relive our prepubescent longing and revisit Prince Leo, before his bear attack and series of model girlfriends, than Valentine’s Day?
Then the Editor-in-Chief of Interview, Ingrid Sischy caught up with DiCaprio in 1994, prophetically declaring his imminent sex-symbol status to a 20-year-old actor reluctant to accept the praise. Here, he talks growing up in Hollywood, learning about the birds and the bees with Pauly Shore, and, of course, falling in love. —AMANDA DUBERMAN
INGRID SISCHY: I’ve been noticing how many young actors are coming along who grew up in Hollywood but whose parents weren’t in the business. That’s the case with you, right? So start the story of your road to becoming an actor.
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I always wanted to become an actor. My parents know I was outgoing as a child, and whenever people came over I’d automatically do impressions of them as soon as they left; it was my mom’s favorite thing. Yes, I grew up in Hollywood but not in any rich neighborhood. But my parents, who were split up, were so good at keeping my environment strong and keeping everything around me not focused on the fact that we were poor. They got me culture. They took me to museums. They showed art to me. They read to me. And my mother drove two hours a day to take me to University Elementary School. My father picked me up. He’d been an underground comic artist in New York in the ’60s, and he’s been distributing comics and records and books in L.A. for a while now. I’d go on trips with him to all the comic-book stores around town when I was little.
School, I never truly got the knack of. I could never focus on things I didn’t want to learn. Math is just the worst. To this day, I can’t concentrate on it. People always say, “You should have tried harder.” But actually, I cheated a lot because I could not sit and do homework. Most of the other stuff that I got from school was from hanging out with friends and meeting kids. I used to, like, take half of the school and do break-dancing skits with my friend in front of them at lunchtime. I had this one science class where the teacher would give me ten minutes after the class ended and I would get up and do improv!
My love of performing goes way back. My mom got me on Romper Room when I was five — it was my favorite show. But they couldn’t control me. I would run up and smack the camera, and I’d jump around and do my little flips and routines. I wish I could get that tape now. But I have other memories too. There was this one casting call when I was about 10. They brought five kids in just to see their look and if they’d be right for acting. I had this sort of punk haircut because I was into break-dancing at the time. I swear to God, it felt like we were a row of meat. The lady looked at me and at the other kids, saying, “Not him, not him not him. You stay.” I was one of the “not hims.” On the way home in the car, I cried and I said, “Dad, I really want to become an actor, but if this is what it’s about, I don’t want to do it.” He put his arm around me and said, “Someday, Leonardo, it will happen or you. Remember these words. Just relax.” And then I stopped crying and I said, “Okay.”
SISCHY: When did your parents get divorced?
DICAPRIO: Before I was born. I sort of preferred it because I had two different worlds that I could connect with.
SISCHY: You didn’t stay in high school, right?
DICAPRIO: I did about 30, 40 commercials, and then I got Growing Pains during 11th grade and for 12th grade I had some home study. I did 24 episodes and towards the end of that I auditioned for This Boy’s Life. My first TV show had been Parenthood, which got canceled after 13 episodes. I played Gary Buckman, the kid who masturbated and was really disturbed that his father left. During that time I remember talking to Pauly Shore about sex a lot.
DICAPRIO: One day we sat down on a mattress and talked about it for an hour, because I was curious, and he told me about girls and everything.
SISCHY: How old were you?
DICAPRIO: 14, 15, something like that.
SISCHY: Talk to me about whether or not you think you have a sense of yourself in physical and sexual terms.
DICAPRIO: I’m still exploring in a lot of ways. I don’t know myself completely.
SISCHY: What I’m getting at is there’s something about you that makes me think you’re going to have a lot, lot, lot to deal with in terms of being a really sexy star. To have that…
DICAPRIO: My charm? [sighs]
SISCHY: Maybe it’s even dangerous to talk about it because of the self-consciousness that it could arouse.
DICAPRIO: Okay, I think sexiness in most people — and this is going to sound superficial — is definitely something you don’t plan. I don’t necessarily think I’m…whatever. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what people think of me. The main thing I don’t want to do right now is create an image for myself. I notice that when I’m being consciously cool and I talk slower and wink or give a little smirk, people seem to like me more, and I think that’s how you get phony attitudes about things. Whenever I notice myself doing something just to please somebody else, I try to stop it.
SISCHY: Do you think you’ve changed as a person since you became successful?
DICAPRIO: I know I’ve changed. No matter what, becoming well-known makes your mind start thinking in a different way. For example, people are watching you a lot more than they ever were. When people ask me, “How do you deal with fame?” I don’t have an answer. When a person comes to me and says, “I really enjoyed your performance,” I try to give a sincere thank you, but I have no way to show you that I’m a decent guy and that I respect what you’re saying. When I did What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? I had no particular pressure on me. Now I feel there is more pressure on me to keep to that same text that I’ve kept to in my past two movies, of just maintaining my natural ability. I didn’t even know what I did in Gilbert Grape. I just went off with whatever I felt instinctually without a second thought.
SISCHY: Are you scared you can’t do it again?
DICAPRIO: No, I know I can do it. It’s something that’s there. But at the same time you fight off these other things that you’ve started to hear about yourself and that you’re a lot more conscious of than before. Since we’re talking about fame, I think it’s much more interesting when people say, “I love being famous. I love the attention and getting laid and having people I respect admire me,” than when they pretend it hasn’t had an effect on them.
SISCHY: How about taking the opposite point of view, which is also possible? Do you think fame has made you personally wilder?
DICAPRIO: I’ve always been wild. Now I have a lot more material to work with. I can’t say it any more simply than that. But acting is the only time when I truly maintain the spontaneity that I want to be present at all times.
SISCHY: Right now you’re doing the film of Jim Carroll’s book The Basketball Diaries. What’s it like playing Jim Carroll?
DICAPRIO: Uncharted territory.
SISCHY: The thing that’s so odd about the movie roles you’ve chosen so far is that you’ve seemed perfect for each of them. Weird, huh?
DICAPRIO: I think actors make the mistake of finding their little niche in the business and once they try to do something a little darker, boom, they get slapped across the face for it, so they go back to what they did before. That’s why the business can be cruel, because it doesn’t encourage you to learn. Like on this movie, there’s some whacked-out stuff that I do that I’ve never done before, never in my entire life, not even at home alone.
SISCHY: I hear you bought your dad a car. That must have been an incredible feeling.
DICAPRIO: I knew he wanted a new car because he’s had beat-up station wagons all his life. I planned a big 50th birthday party for him with all his friends. I had a ska band there and polka music and he was blowing out candles on the cake in front of his whole family when I pulled up and beeped, and he turned around and it was me with the brand-new car. I couldn’t picture anything more beautiful, basically, though I wouldn’t tell him that. His face just lit up. I don’t want to say that the car symbolized all my feelings, but I hope it showed that no matter what changes I go through, I’ll always be there. I get poignant about all this because I want to be the perfect child. I owe so much to my parents and the way I was brought up, but I have sometimes overlooked it — it’s something that I don’t want to overlook. The things that you did with them, whether it was spending every Sunday morning with your dad and eating French toast and watching Popeye, or decorating the Christmas tree with our mother — these are memories that help you be happy.
SISCHY: Do you want to write?
DICAPRIO: I think acting is enough for now. More than anything, I want to travel. And I know I want to really fall in love eventually.
SISCHY: Have you?
DICAPRIO: No. And I don’t want to yet. I never thought I could travel unless I had a wife or someone to share it with. You don’t necessarily need that, but I am the type of person that wants to share a lot. That’s why I’m going on a trip with my mother after I’ve done The Basketball Diaries, because I want to spend some time with her. It’s not about falling in love yet. It’s about making memories.