Ever since he emerged with a stunning performance as an abused stepson in This Boy’s Life (1993), actor Leonardo DiCaprio was expected to achieve greatness by critics and the public alike. While he became a bona fide star, nothing prepared him for the life-changing celebrity he achieved with James Cameron’s smash Titanic (1997). We met with the Oscar-winning superstar in Los Angeles to ask him about how we all can live through climate change, stardom, and his last film Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.
Other than being a very successful actor, you are a well-known environmentalist and have investments in several fields. I would like to ask you how good you are with numbers.
Pretty terrible to be honest, that’s why I hire other people to do that, because if I consumed my life with that, I’d be completely overwhelmed. I mean there’s the environmental, charitable stuff that I do and investment stuff, I think those are two different categories. But I’ve always known that a certain amount of financial stability also equals artistic freedom too. And that’s why I am careful; I am careful and I try not to overconsume or overspend; I try to keep focused on very simple things in life and trying to do those things well, whether it be acting or philanthropy or my personal relationships -keep it simple. I don’t overcomplicate life too much.
Talking about the environment -climate change is happening. Are you still optimistic?
So much of my life is devoted to these issues and with my foundation work and being outspoken about this stuff, I’m inundated every single day with a new cataclysmic turning point in the history of civilization -these are unprecedented moments. And it’s hard to remain optimistic. We need to step up to the plate as a country and set an example; we have been saying this for decades and decades. And I don’t know what needs to be more clear scientifically to the world community, I mean 99% of the scientific community is in complete agreement that man’s contribution to carbon emissions is causing this. We can only hope, that’s all we can do, we can only hope and keep fighting.
On social media I saw you talk about environmental issues.
Because our governments and the private sector and the corporate world isn’t answering the call and, look, I use my social media as a platform but there need to be literal boots in the streets, there needs to be a revolution of sorts if we are going to change this sort of stranglehold that we’re in. Where corporate interests and government interests supersede all. And it needs to be a voice of the people. I could go on and on about this forever and ever, but it is up to the next generation, they are the ones that are going to be affected the most and they realize that. And it sort of defies logic that we can continue to be in a culture where we allow people to defy scientific fact, I don’t understand it.
You are one of the most loved and successful movie stars of our time. Let’s talk about fame and how fame can be fleeting.
A lot of my friends are actors and I know the percentile of like I said, hitting the lotto ball to be able, to be a working actor and also be in control of your own destiny artistically, it’s literally like hitting the lottery. And I know and implicitly understand this because I have friends that are working in this industry and continue to struggle to try to pave their way. And I also know, as you mentioned, that a career is fleeting. I have always, for whatever reason, when I was very young I looked at it as a long-distance race, you have to pace yourself, you want to look at a career hopefully at the end of your life that’s expansive and you also know there’re times when you are going to be more or less popular and you have to wade through those times with an intent to keep doing good work.
We live in Los Angeles. There are probably people that get excited that you are living next door to them, but who is your most interesting neighbor?
Stan Lee lived in my neighborhood and I got to meet him. My father was an underground comix distributor in Los Angeles and we used to go around in his station wagon every weekend -that was my weekend, delivering comic books, from Hi De Ho to Golden Apple all over town and he was always this incredible icon to me as a child. I collected Marvel comic books, and finally getting to sit down with him and talk to him about all his amazing creations, he lived in my neighborhood and I had a few moments with him before he passed away, what an incredible person he was.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “Hollywood”? Do you have a favorite spot in Hollywood?
I mean, so many things, my whole existence. I grew up and was born in Hollywood. But interestingly enough, I always say this, the only reason that I am an actor is because I live in Hollywood. I had dreams of becoming an actor, but I never felt part of that club, it was always something that was weirdly intangible. And if it wasn’t for the sheer proximity of going to a school and having my mother drop me off to auditions, I would have never been able, I would have never uprooted myself from Iowa or Missouri, with these grand Gold Rush dreams, backpacks on, to come to Hollywood like so many others. It was literally the fact that my mother said okay, let’s do it, I want to go to auditions, and she took me from school straight to auditions after school.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is genius director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film. I was very impressed to see a different side of an actor. Your character, he’s very concerned about doing it right. Did you relate to that at all?
Immediately, although my career trajectory had taken a different course, I think that I immediately connected with my character Rick. It’s intrinsically somebody that I knew growing up in the industry, and in a lot of ways, he’s a man dealing with his own mortality. We’re in an industry where you become sort of immortalized by film and television, but he’s realizing that the culture and the industry have sort of passed him by. And it was interesting for me to go on that learning process with Quentin because he’s not only a great historian but also a cinephile and so we got to go on this sort of journey of discovery together to figure out who Rick Dalton is -because he is an actor that is slowly realizing that he may vanish. I wanted to sort of convey his realization that he needs to stop feeling sorry for himself and that there is always opportunity out there and there is an ability to come back, even though time and the industry is sort of passing him by.
You were born five years after the events described in this film. When you were growing up, what was your awareness of those days, of the music, of film, Vietnam, hippies, and all that?
It’s interesting because my parents are still hippies. And I have told this story with Brad a lot when all of Hollywood Boulevard for five blocks was completely redressed in 1969 in the set. They had head shops and hundreds of hippies walking up and down it and we were driving in the car. And I said to Brad that’s my dad there and he goes, “Yeah right.” And I go, “No, that’s really my dad” and he goes, “Oh that’s cool that they dressed him up to look like one of the extras.” I said, “No, no, he’s just visiting, that’s him with the sandals and the Hawaiian shirt and that’s his wife with the turban on and that’s how they are every day.” But talking about your question, I didn’t grow up in this time period but I felt connected to it. So, I have heard a lot about it, especially from my parents.
You’d worked with Quentin, you’d worked with Margot Robbie, but you hadn’t worked with Brad Pitt. Could you talk about your relationships, and particularly you and Brad? How well did you know each other before?
Only peripherally. I think that we kind of share the same tapestry of understanding of film and this city and this town and growing up in the ´90s, having our careers sort of spark at the same time. There was an immediate understanding and a familiarity with what the genre was about, but more importantly, what that relationship between a stuntman and an actor was like, that it evolves beyond just being professional, they become your family, it’s a very isolating industry and you depend on these relationships. So there was a lot of discussion about our back story. Quentin gave us this amazing catalog of the films we’d done together, the stories, and the encounters that we had had. So, as soon as we stepped on set the first day, we were those guys, it was a really strange experience. So working with Brad was terrific. Not only is he incredibly talented but he’s made some really out-of-the-box choices and he’s really tried to do genres of film and work with directors that are interesting and fascinating creatively.
You are Italian-American. What is your relationship with Italy?
I haven’t been back in a while. I was going to go on a Sergio Leone tangent, but you are asking about Italy, my relationship to Italy. I visit it, and I’m in love -it’s one of the greatest countries in the world. I go there and have historical weeks where I get to see some of the most fascinating things in the world every time I go, and I love to experience it. My father is an Italian-American and I am not in connection with a lot of relatives there, but it’s part of my DNA through my father.