Leonardo DiCaprio's movie career really began when he was 17, in 1991, the year he landed his first leading role in a film. He was cast as Robert De Niro's stepson in This Boy's Life, which was released two years later. Until that moment DiCaprio's acting career largely rested on a small role in a forgettable film, Critters III, that he played at 16 and a single season on the TV series Growing Pains. Here DiCaprio talks about the how his experience in making This Boy's Life taught him what he most needed to know about movie acting.
"I didn't know where to begin in creating a character until I learned it on the set of This Boy's Life. Michael Keaton Jones, the director, was such a big brother to me, a mentor. He guided me into the code of ethics one has to have on a movie set. He taught me about the sanctity of the set, the commitment you need to have, the thought you have to give to everything - lines, gestures, movements."
"As I grew up in the movie business, I thought every director was going to be like him, a big brother, someone whose word is the be-all and end-all and who'll tell me what to do. Now I realize, after working on so many films since then, that the great directors I've worked with don't really want to do that. There has to be a kind of equality between director and you. They want you to bring something to the table on your own. Directors have certain ideas about what they want the tone of a scene to be, what they want to do cinematically. But, ultimately, they look to you for those answers."
"It's been a great learning experience. Ever since I started out at 16, and now being 33 years old, I've learned how much responsibility an actor must have in his relationship with the director. From the get-go I thought, well, the director is going to tell me if I'm doing something wrong. I'd wait for them to tell me instead of my being aggressive and saying, 'This is what I think. This is how I feel this scene should turn out.' As I've progressed, I've realized how much responsibility you have to take as an actor simultaneously with the director."
Why don't you direct your own movies so you're in absolute command of your own performance and the film and do not have to worry about what a director wants?
"You know what's interesting is that I have done films where I didn't have much input at all from the director, films where I lacked that filter of a director saying to me, 'Wait! Wait! That's way too much!' So I get caught up in things and go toward my old tricks. If I were directing a film myself and acting in it, I wouldn't have a director's filtering my acting anymore."
"I have never known how to go onto a movie set and control the environment, which I think is positive. I still have the same attitude that I had in making This Boy's Life, although I now know I should bring to the table what I believe the movie and my character should be. I know that sounds like I'm patting myself on the back. But in discussing those areas with a director, I think there should be a certain kind of equality. At the end of the day, I respect what a director says, even if I've become more opinionated about how things should be as I've gotten older. The director is still the boss."
In 1993, DiCaprio was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor for his performance as Johnny Depp's retarded little brother in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? He followed that success by playing risking leading roles in two films that most young movie stars wouldn't go near.
In 1995's Basketball Diaries he played a teenage athlete who descends into drug addiction and male prostitution in order to get narcotics. Then, that same year, in Total Eclipse he portrayed an even more dissolute teenager, the great 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Total Eclipse was about Rimbaud's real life, his sexual affair with the French poet Paul Verlaine, an older, married bisexual man. Their drug-fueled sexual escapades and violence, which scandalized Europe, are vividly depicted in the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio's playing Arthur Rimbaud -- his open homosexuality, drug use, nudity - seemed a career-threatening choice of roles for a young movie star to make.
"When I choose to do any movie, I certainly take into account the values it expresses. I like to think that I choose a film on more than just the opportunity to work with a certain director or group of actors. When I read a script, I look for a certain amount of truth about humanity in the storyline. That's what I respond to. That's why I've done the movies I've done, and that's why I've steered away from other types of projects. What I respond to are fundamentally truthful characters, and to a script that says something pertinent and honest about the world we live in. And I can't help responding that way."
"The sole reason I did Arthur Rimbaud was because I had started to read his poetry. He was such a young man when he wrote it, and his writing is unbelievably beautiful. Rimbaud was only a boy then. He was a real boy, who ran away from home and created himself. He had the genius and the balls to make a name for himself among the elite poets of the age in Paris. He was like Bob Dylan or something. But I don't think Rimbaud realized how incredibly relevant he was to that time and place. Like all great artists, at the moment he didn't realize how relevant your art was. He was a radical and a rebel, and during that early period in his life his genius just flashed. Then one day, in his early 20s, he just stopped writing poems. He just said, 'This is not what I wanted to be.' And then he went off to Africa to do something else."
"To be completely honest, when I considered playing Rimbaud any career danger that that choice might have meant for me never entered my thought process, never, not once."