Leonardo DiCaprio - New beginning for the master of reinvention

As Leonardo DiCaprio makes his sci-fi debut in British director Christopher Nolan's Inception, the one-time heart-throb tells Lesley O'Toole why he's happy in darker, more cerebral roles
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The new Matrix? Hell no! I would never label anything like that. That's a terrible thing to do to a new movie even if it is my first sci-fi one." Leonardo DiCaprio is laughing through slightly gritted teeth in mock-defending his new film, Inception. It's the first pairing of DiCaprio, who has never shied away from challenging material, and renowned visionary Brit in Hollywood Christopher Nolan, currently slated to direct the next Batman and Superman films for the same studio which is releasing Inception, Warner Brothers.

DiCaprio is no stranger to illustrious directors either. He and Martin Scorsese are famously a mutual admiration society that has produced four films, most recently the bleak, mind-bending Shutter Island. That film in tandem with Inception, set in the subconscious dream world, seem to denote something of a dark period for DiCaprio who is anything but gloomy in demeanour in Beverly Hills today. He looks to have lost weight in his face, is wearing a clearly made-to-measure designer grey suit, and sports the requisite made-perfectly white teeth and a perpetual grin.

Does he see those two films book-ending the blacker chapter of his resumé? "Bookends? I don't know. But I find these types of films that are psychologically sort of dark at times extremely exciting to do because there's always something to think about. There's nothing more boring than showing up on set, saying a line and knowing that your character means exactly what they say."

Unsurprisingly, he has long wanted to work with Nolan and is clearly in awe of the man who steered The Dark Knight to a $500 million-plus haul in the US two summers ago. "Chris has created a highly complex narrative fused with a giant Hollywood action film which had points of being externally surreal. It's very difficult to make a film like this nowadays. He's a visionary and it's not often you get a film this detailed and complex from the Hollywood studio system that doesn't take its audience for granted. Not a lot of people can say they can pull off a plot structure like this or do a film that works on four different layers simultaneously while still being engaging to an audience and making you think afterwards."

Inception is certainly an atypical summer Hollywood movie, one uncommonly cerebral. DiCaprio, like Nolan, believes audiences are underestimated. "And I don't even believe you even have to understand it. I didn't understand the script at first. Films should make you extract your own meaning or have different interpretations of an ending. Sometimes you have to surrender your desire to understand everything. Some things will always be uncertain. And isn't all this part of the experience of going to see a film? When it's done properly and you don't lose the audience, I think they are completely engaged and happy to unlock some of the answers. If I go to a film and there's no discussion after, that makes me think it's pretty shitty."

DiCaprio is 35 now and almost unrecognisable as the baby-faced actor shot to the sort of life-altering global fame by 1997's Titanic as Robert Pattinson was by the first Twilight film. Yet he seems to have written the book on how to convert that isolating, unwelcome brand of fame (teen heartthrob status so rarely translates to anything admirably permanent career-wise in adulthood) into a career which has him grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat. It certainly helped that pre-Titanic he'd already garnered a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination (for his searing performance of a mentally challenged boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?") and that immediately post-Titanic, he took roles in films as diverse as Woody Allen's Celebrity, Danny Boyle's The Beach and then, in his first collaboration with Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York.

Would he say he has adeptly created his own destiny? "I think we are all in charge of creating our own destiny depending on circumstances and the cards we're dealt. But we're not necessarily all products of our environment. You hear stories of people defying those odds all the time. People living their dreams and going above and beyond what they set out to do. I believe we're in control of it. Some of us get better cards to play with in the beginning but we're all in charge."

DiCaprio is clearly blessed with a headful of brains not common in those who started as child actors (he was a pre-tween idol on TV's Growing Pains sitcom in the US) and has used them well. "Hollywood was my college and I've been so lucky to have been lucky enough to work with very talented people who have taught me a lot. I've watched their careers and their decision-making. I'm a very lucky human being, very lucky to be in the position I'm in and don't take it for granted."

DiCaprio is famed for his environmental and humanitarian work. He also owns and runs a production company called Appian Way that has more than 10 projects in pre-production. DiCaprio is a hands-on boss with eclectic taste and a slate that will not permit much by way of holidays any time soon. Next month, his production of Little Red Riding Hood, starring Amanda Seyfried begins filming in Canada and next for DiCaprio's actor-for-hire incarnation might be Clint Eastwood's long-discussed biopic of J Edgar Hoover, first head of the FBI and a colourful character almost more famous now for whisperings of his cross-dressing than his investigation into John F Kennedy's assassination. "Will I wear a dress in the film? Not as of yet. We haven't done fittings for that."

DiCaprio speaks often with an invisible arched brow though he has learnt too to temper his sarcasm, or at least note it for the record. On playing a father struggling with being separated from his children in both Shutter Island and Inception, he jokes, "It helped in preparation that I went and had a lot of illegitimate children around the world. Look, it's just our job to immerse ourselves in situations and characters we're not necessarily familiar with. I love these sorts of challenges."

He might relish other life challenges such as marriage and actual children somewhat less though he is loath to discuss anything terribly personal. He insists he's not even much of a dreamer – "Never have been" – as if the contents of his own subconscious might be even too revealing. By all accounts, his on-off relationship with Israeli model Bar Rafaeli, 10 years his junior, is very much on. The couple are rarely photographed together in public but that is mostly a result of their avoiding the spots paparazzi stalk. When they were spotted exiting a famed Los Angeles camera shop this month, they walked more than 10 feet apart in an effort to ensure no sellable pictures.

'Inception' is released on 16 July

Dream On: Why Inception will be the summer blockbuster

It's more than a decade since Christopher Nolan's tiny budget feature 'Following' (1998) premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Nolan made the film at weekends, over the period of a year, when his actors and technicians could get time off work. Shot in eerie, dreamlike black and white, 'Following' was about a solitary London-based writer, suffering from acute loneliness, who picks out random strangers and shadows them.

Now, Nolan has written and directed another film about a voyeur: an "extractor" who doesn't just follow passers-by but steals his way into their subconscious minds instead. The difference is that 'Inception' (above) has been made with a budget of $200 million rather than one of $20,000.

This time, the loner is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The new film marks Nolan's follow-up to 'The Dark Knight' (among the top-grossing films of all time.) 'Following' was shot with borrowed equipment in street locations or in friends' houses. 'Inception' was made all around the world in locations ranging from Tangiers to Paris, from Tokyo to Calgary, and is full of virtuoso visual effects. It has also attracted a top-notch international cast. Alongside DiCaprio, there are young US indie favourites (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page), up-and-coming Brits (Tom Hardy, of 'Bronson' fame), European stars (Marion Cotillard) and even the venerable Michael Caine.

The question that will be taxing Warner Bros just now as it launches a huge marketing drive is how 'Inception' will perform against 'Toy Story 3' and 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse'. This is a film that features dreams within dreams within dreams. The protagonists themselves frequently risk losing track of what is real and what is projected by their own subconscious minds. "Whose subconscious are we going into exactly?" a character asks at one point, a question that sums up the bafflement that some audience members are likely to be feeling too.

What makes 'Inception' so bold is its mix of the avant garde with the action movie. Nolan throws in shoot-'em-up sequences and juddering chases that could easily be borrowed from Jason Bourne movies with musings on the existential meaningless of existence and on the nature of love and grief. You can see why actors seem to relish working with him. GEOFFREY MACNAB