In his latest role, he plays a wealthy stockbroker living a life of decadent excess.
But Oscar-nominated star Leonardo DiCaprio has revealed that his own upbringing was poverty-stricken – and that he would never experiment with drugs.
The Wolf of Wall Street actor, who spent the first nine years of his life in a run-down Hollywood neighbourhood, explained that there was a "major prostitution ring on my street corner, crime and violence everywhere".
"It really was like 'Taxi Driver' in a lot of ways," he said.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the 39-year-old talked about being "very poor", as he defended his decision to play the amoral Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed The Wolf of Wall Street.
The film received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. But some critics have called out its amoral portrayal of a life fuelled by sex, drugs and, of course, money.
DiCaprio has publicly defended his role, but his wealth and success have served to weaken his arguments in the eyes of some.
But his latest comments set the record straight. "Who am I to talk about this? It goes back to that neighbourhood. It came from the fact that I grew up very poor and I got to see the other side of the spectrum," he said.
DiCaprio told the Los Angeles Times that acting served as a route out of a life where it was not unusual for him to witness "people smoking crack and shooting heroin".
He would beg his mother to take him to auditions because he hated attending public school.
And when success came, DiCaprio’s early experiences meant that avoiding the wilder excesses of Hollywood proved a "walk in the park" and that he has "never done [drugs]".
The 86 Academy Awards takes places on Sunday 2 March the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
Oscar predictions 2014: The main contenders
Oscar predictions 2014: The main contenders
1/16 American Hustle
Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper star in David O Russell's dark comedy - but will Hustle win over Best Picture favourite 12 Years a Slave?
2/16 12 Years a Slave
It won Best Drama at the Golden Globes but whether 12 Years a Slave can take the Oscar for Best Picture ahead of Hustle, Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street remains to be seen
Space adventure Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is another likely Oscar winner. Bullock is a favourite for Best Actress, Alfonso Cuaron may repeat his Golden Globes win for Best Director and the film as a whole could well take Best Picture
4/16 Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks' role in Captain Phillips - about a ship being hijacked by Somali pirates - is a strong contender for both Best Picture and Best Actor, despite no Golden Globe wins
5/16 Saving Mr Banks
It may have an outside chance for Best Picture at the Oscars, but Emma Thompson's role as PL Travers was nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes
Philomena is a British underdog for Best Picture, but it did earn a Best Drama nod at the Golden Globes
7/16 Chiwetel Ejiofor
Chiwetel Ejiofor is the bookies' favourite to win Best Actor for his role as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave
8/16 Matthew McConaughey
McConaughey is tipped as Ejiofor's biggest rival for the Best Actor Oscar, for his role as an AIDs sufferer and campaigner in Dallas Buyers Club. He won the Golden Globe for his performance
9/16 Leonardo Di Caprio
Could DiCaprio finally win an Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street, or will Chiwetel Ejiofor, Robert Redford or Matthew McConaughey pip him to the post?
10/16 Robert Redford
Redford's performance as a resourceful sailor in All Is Lost earned him praise, making him a possible Best Actor contender at the Oscars
11/16 Bruce Dern
Another underdog, but Bruce Dern's role in Nebraska was widely-acclaimed and may see him earn at least an Oscar nod if not a win
12/16 Cate Blanchett
Blanchett's performance as a rich but troubled Manhattan socialite in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress. She is currently the outright favourite to win the Oscar too at 1/8
13/16 Lupita Nyong'o
The Kenyan actress plays gutsy cotton picker Patsey in 12 Years a Slave but can she rival likely competition from more-established stars such as Jennifer Lawrence?
14/16 Amy Adams
Her leading role in American Hustle earned her a Best Actress Golden Globe, making Adams, pictured here with co-star Bradley Cooper, a top contender for Best Actress at the Oscars
15/16 Jennifer Lawrence
She famously tripped up the stairs en route to accept her Best Actress award at last year's Oscars, but can Jennifer Lawrence take an accolade again for her supporting role as Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle?
16/16 Steve McQueen
12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor talk on set - the British director is a strong contender for Best Director this year