By Sondra Barr
It’s hard to believe Leonardo DiCaprio is 44 years old. The Hollywood native, who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles bullied and belittled only to become one of its brightest denizens, is equal parts fabled Dorian Gray and Jay Gatsby. Ironically, the latter character being a role the dashing actor seamlessly slipped into for the much anticipated 2013 film The Great Gatsby.
Ageless, yet conveying a wisdom beyond his years, the perennial bachelor who was named Leonardo because his German mother, Irmelin, first felt him kick while gazing upon a Da Vinci painting in Florence, has done his namesake proud.
“He’s like a silent-film actor,” says director Martin Scorsese. “He can flash half a dozen emotions in a matter of seconds, simply by using his eyes.”
DiCaprio first worked with the notable director on Gangs of New York and they’ve since partnered on four further films, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Next up, the duo is partnering with Hulu to adapt Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City for their sixth collaboration.
“Marty is the great director of our time, who has taught me two crucial things. One, it takes a long time and a lot of patience to make a good movie; and two, film is as valid an art form as painting or sculpture. Ultimately, like any artist, I want to make lasting pieces of art; movies that people will look at and appreciate in 50 years’ time,” DiCaprio told Chloe Fox of The Telegraph.
Acting is a craft that DiCaprio was drawn to in his formative years. “Very early on, I was always impersonating different characters, imitating people who came by. I loved doing that and getting the amazing experience of seeing people’s reactions. You see your parents laughing. It’s a communal family experience, and you share that love, you know?” he said an interview with Parade.
Acting provided a ready escape to young DiCaprio while growing up in an area rife with prostitutes, addicts, and drug dealers. “Acting always represented a way out for me. I saw many things in the neighborhoods where I grew up that were pretty terrifying. Acting takes you away from reality. Being able to escape was important. Movies do that for me. Two hours inside of a theater can transport you into a completely other universe. To me, that’s the beauty of movies.”
In front of an audience is where DiCaprio flourishes, something that didn’t go unnoticed by his parents. Although his mother and father amicably divorced soon after Leo was born, they supported their son unconditionally. “They listened to their kid saying, ‘This is what I want to do,” described DiCaprio to The Telegraph. “They made me feel that all my dreams were within reach.”
“Leo is an enigma,” said his Revenant co-star Tom Hardy during press for the film that would earn DiCaprio his first Academy Award after four previous unsuccessful nominations. “There’s something kind of magic about him.”
That special something was readily apparent in 1994 when DiCaprio portrayed Arnie Grape, a child with learning difficulties in the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which earned him his first Oscar nomination (best supporting actor).
He’s since gone on to give groundbreaking performances that have one thing in common, they’re all unequivocally different: charming Jack Dawson (Titanic), prevaricator Frank Abagnale Jr. (Catch Me If You Can), eccentric Howard Hughes (The Aviator), fraudster Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street)––just to name a few.
His riveting role as Hugh Glass, a man dominating nature, in Revenant may have scored DiCaprio his first Oscar, but it also provided him an opportunity to talk about his other passion: environmentalism. It’s an issue dear to DiCaprio’s heart. Not only has he given his time and resources to environmental causes, he also devoted his Oscar winning speech to the topic.
He founded the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF) in 1998 to bring attention to the plight of our planet. According to the foundation’s website, “LDF has been on a mission to protect the Earth’s last wild places, implementing solutions that restore balance to threatened ecosystems, and ensure the long-term health and wellbeing of all its inhabitants.” Since its inception, the foundation has donated more than $15 million to the protection of species including tigers in Asia, elephants in Africa, and sharks in California.
“Historically, we always look back at cultures that have been self-destructive and we talk about the ignorant way they treated the natural world, and we pass judgment on them,” explained DiCaprio to writer Dotson Rader. “But the truth is that what we’re now doing to the natural world is thousand times more destructive than it’s ever been before. We’re literally going through an extinction right now. We’re changing our climates irreparably, and climate change lasts tens of thousands, if not millions, of years. We don’t seem to be learning lessons from the past.”
DiCaprio is so passionate about the subject that he also produced a documentary, Before the Flood, presented by National Geographic, where he served as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, traveling to five continents and the Arctic to witness climate change firsthand.
“You realize how lucky we are, and how destructive we’ve been, and what little regard we have for the natural world,” DiCaprio said to Parade.
“I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems. I believe mankind has looked at climate change in the same way, as if it were a fiction. But I think we know better than that.”
While DiCaprio enjoys being immersed in nature and wild places, he’s faced the danger that comes with outdoor adventures. In an interview with Wired, DiCaprio detailed the time he was nearly killed in a shark incident. “A great white jumped into my cage when I was diving in South Africa. Half its body was in the cage, and it was snapping at me,” detailed DiCaprio. “I sort of fell down to the bottom and tried to lie flat. The great white took about five or six snaps an arm’s length away from my head. The guys there said that has never happened in the 30 years they’d been doing it.”
Then there was the time when he was tandem skydiving and both the primary and secondary chutes knotted up. As they were plummeting toward the earth, the instructor DiCaprio was tethered to was finally able to unravel the secondary shoot in midair, ensuring the survival of Hollywood’s most bankable star.
Living on the edge is apparently not unusual for the Oscar winner. “My friends have named me the person they least want to do extreme adventures with, because I always seem to be very close to being part of a disaster.”
One thing that is guaranteed not to be a disaster is DiCaprio’s upcoming movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, slated for a July release. In director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film, DiCaprio plays TV actor Rick Dalton and neighbor to Sharon Tate. Brad Pitt plays his friend and stunt double Cliff Booth and centers on the duo as they navigate Hollywood. No doubt, DiCaprio will be drawing from firsthand experience.