Leonardo DiCaprio: Set to rise again

He plays the aviation tycoon Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's new biopic. Carlo Bizio meets Leonardo DiCaprio
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The Independent Culture

"Well, well, well, the press!" murmurs Leonardo DiCaprio as he sits down in a suite of the Bel Air Hotel, in Los Angeles, to discuss his new movie The Aviator, the latest film by Martin Scorsese, on the life of Howard Hughes. It's the day before the actor's 30th birthday.

"Well, well, well, the press!" murmurs Leonardo DiCaprio as he sits down in a suite of the Bel Air Hotel, in Los Angeles, to discuss his new movie The Aviator, the latest film by Martin Scorsese, on the life of Howard Hughes. It's the day before the actor's 30th birthday.

DiCaprio hasn't met the press much in the past couple of years, trying to avoid the frenzy of overexposure that followed the phenomenal success of Titanic in 1997. For years, he seemed to be everywhere, the superhero of wild nights with girls.

At last, even the gossip columnists seemed to have had enough of Leo and left him alone, and this is just fine for him and his on-off girlfriend, the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen. There appear to be two different DiCaprios: the man-child and the womaniser. And: "His eyes are different," says the Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, who directed him in 1992 in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. (Leo was 17 then, and he acted mentally disabled so convincingly that the audience thought that he was a real Down's syndrome boy.) "The left eye is delicate and compassionate. The right one is more analytical. One eye exudes warmth; the other is penetrating."

Dressed in an LA Lakers baseball cap, baggy jeans and long T-shirt, DiCaprio is closer to the jovial con artist Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can than the angry Amsterdam Vallon of Gangs of New York. And certainly very different from his role in The Aviator, the $100m epic by Scorsese on the movie mogul, lady-killer, pioneering aviator and infamous germophobe Howard Hughes. It's a film in which DiCaprio is front and centre, leading with suave, commanding presence; perhaps the film of his maturity.

"We worried whether I, in fact, looked too young because Howard Hughes is 42 at the end of the movie," DiCaprio says. "Certainly, the make-up and the wardrobe and working with Marty on becoming older helped. I do have a youthful exuberance about myself, I suppose."

Turning 30 doesn't necessarily mean DiCaprio feels like a grown-up. "I kind of feel like the same person except more time has gone by. I hate to say that I feel like an adult now. I have to admit I wish I was still 18. After all, even through the time while I was representing that wild kid, I really wasn't. I was just living my life. I was just not making movies at the time.

"There was a lot of media attention on me and I was labelled as something. But I don't think I ever really got out of hand or had a weird phase in my life. As long as you are good to other people and don't get a big head, and aren't somebody people can't tolerate working with, I think you are doing all right."

It was DiCaprio's passion for the character of Howard Hughes that helped to push the project after he read a biography of the man. "I read his biography when I was 24, and brought the book to [the director] Michael Mann," he says. "Mann was interested but after having done two biographies, The Insider and Ali, he was not keen on doing another one, so I brought it to Scorsese. Both Mann and Scorsese focused on a younger Hughes, which I think translates better to film than a man hooked up in a hotel room for 10 years of his life. It's more cinematic!"

The film focuses on the early years of Hughes's life in Hollywood, in the 1930s and 1940s. It covers the start of his film career with Hell's Angels (1930); his love affairs with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale); his obsessive construction of the biggest aircraft in the world and the launch of commercial aviation with TWA; the plane crash that almost cost him his life; and finally the beginning of his demise.

"When you hear stories of Howard Hughes you get that immediate image of a man with Kleenex boxes on his feet and long fingernails and long hair," DiCaprio says. "I didn't realise that he was like the quintessential American tycoon. He was a pioneer of aviation. He made the most expensive movie ever made, the most sexually explicit movie ever made, and the most violent movie ever made.

"He went into the world of aviation, got the speed record, went around the world faster than anyone else. He built the biggest plane that was ever built, slept with the most amazing women - all the while being a terrible germophobic! More than that, he was a man obsessed with perfection and getting things the way he wanted them to be and would stop at nothing short of what he wanted.

"I honestly think this is kind of a throwback to cinema of the Thirties and Forties. It's an epic in every sense of the word; it really has a big character that sort of takes a huge arc throughout the movie. They don't make this sort of movie any more."

The Aviator marks DiCaprio's second collaboration with Scorsese - but certainly not the last - and his full entrance into the highly regarded "Scorsese-De Niro Club". He's now shooting The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert De Niro, with whom he worked on one of his earliest movies, This Boy's Life (1993).

"These are the guys [De Niro and Scorsese] that I first started to watch and I started to study when I was 16 and I learnt that I could become an actor," DiCaprio says. "These are my idols. I am getting to work with people that I admire. Through the generational gap, Martin really sees my genuine affection for the movie-making process, my love of the art form; we honestly worked together really well. It's one of those magic things that happen sometimes.

"Martin has brought so much to the art form of film, and he is not the type of person who would be upset by not receiving an Oscar, although it is a practical joke that he has not won an Academy Award after all these years. Whatever opinions critics will have of The Aviator, I really think that this is a great piece of art: once again, he has made a great classic film."

DiCaprio appreciates the sometimes obsessive perfectionism of Howard Hughes. "I love that he came into Hollywood with his own money and sort of challenged the studio system and made the first multi-million-dollar epic, and then reshot it for sound and battled the censor board," he says. "He certainly had a lot of resources at his disposal to have that sort of artistic freedom, but I admire that he had an idea in his mind of what he wanted and he would stop at nothing until he got it."

Howard Hughes was a man with a notorious taste for extravagance. What about DiCaprio? "I don't really have many extravagances," he says. "I don't fly private jets and I don't have bodyguards and I don't buy crazy things. I have a couple of houses here and there. I bought a very expensive watch, and I am going to buy a really expensive movie poster, the original for The Thief of Baghdad. I love movie posters."

If DiCaprio doesn't like to talk about his private life, but he's not afraid to talk politics, nor to hide his deep disappointment at George Bush's re-election. "I put a lot of effort into politics," he says. "I was supporting John Kerry, because I honestly believed that he would have been a much better President.

"My main focus was environmental issues. I went around 11 states and gave 20 different speeches about the environment and how the Bush administration has single-handedly dismantled most of the old protection laws. He has given over tons of environmental protection laws to corporate interests. I didn't try to go out and become a politician, but I felt it was important to give my piece as far as what has been done to our planet."

DiCaprio is not sure yet whether he will get involved in the next elections. For the time being, he is happy doing what he loves best: acting, and working on his next role in The Good Shepherd, that of an officer of the OSS, the Second World War spy agency that became the CIA. "I play a teenager again," he says. "The great thing about turning 30 in this business is that you get to perpetuate being young or old as long as we want."

Howard Hughes, a multi-faceted public figure and yet an extremely private man, is someone DiCaprio can relate to. "My private life is something that a lot of people want to talk to me about: how, after Titanic, fame has changed my life, and how it has affected me as a person. I rebel against the notion that I can't go anywhere or do certain things because I'll be recognised. I literally go wherever I want, even though I know people will point at me and stop me."

Is there something about fame he dislikes? "You kidding? I feel very fortunate. A lot of people would love to be in my position. There are so many people out there who are suffering trillions of times more than I could ever suffer, and would love to be me. I am a lucky little bastard."

'The Aviator' is scheduled for UK release on 24 December