The Director's Muse
Most movie stars you interview recline languidly in their hotel suites and are waited on respectfully -- nay fearfully -- by water and coffee-bearing minions.
Some of them don't even get up when you come in, leaving you with the uncomfortable sensation that you have entered the presence of a pope or a doge. Not Leonardo DiCaprio: tall, broad, tanned and fit-looking, he leaps to his feet and proffers a hearty handshake and fusses around asking your correspondent if he'd like a cup of anything. It's as though you've dropped into his condo for a chat and he's doing his level best to make you feel at home.
All of this is most refreshing, as is Mr DiCaprio's bluff good humour and easy charm.
He is, it has to be said, astonishingly handsome: nattily dressed in an expensive Italian suit, his once boyish features have transformed into those of a confident, determined-looking man, and when his ice-blue eyes meet yours they seem to burn right through you. If I were a girl, I'd probably be having hot flushes right now in the hope that old Leo (no one, not even his mother, calls him Leonardo) would be on hand to administer the smelling salts.
However, I'm not a girl, and there's just no getting around that, so we settle down to discuss the business at hand, namely Shutter Island, Leo's fourth film with close collaborator Martin Scorsese.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, the film is a baroque psychological thriller with more twists than a swizzle stick and a plot so dense it almost requires a second viewing. Featuring a sort of plot within a plot, DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a US marshall from 50s Boston who gets out of his depth when he travels to a notorious island mental hospital to investigate the alleged disappearance of a patient.
"I don't know how to say this without ruining the entire movie," exclaims DiCaprio. "I mean, there was this very depressed, sombre tone on set and that I felt making this movie, because when you read the script first you say to yourself, wow this is a genre piece, a reference to all these gothic horror thrillers -- this is Martin Scorsese attempting a Hitchcockian-style thriller, fuck, you know, this is gonna be amazing!
"And then you start to dissect Teddy's character and realise that there are traumatic events behind all this, you know, and that his dreams are just as traumatic as his real life. They all mesh together and they're all emotionally anguishing to go through, and so it was like this domino effect, and it just kept getting more and more emotionally extreme as we went on throughout the course of the movie. It was exhausting, mentally ... for both of us," he adds, referring to himself and Scorsese.
Like the director's other great muse, Robert De Niro, DiCaprio has the knack of bringing an almost electric level of intensity to his performances, and he admits that this is "the deepest" he has ever gone with a character emotionally.
"Methody!" he laughs, when I use the word to describe his à la carte approach to the teachings of Stanislavsky. "Actually that's a good way to describe it, because for me when I'm preparing for a role it's a question of degrees. Sometimes you have to carry a character with you more than you would other times, and go the whole way. But sometimes I have to be able to shut off when I go home. I can't be that guy in my hotel room, because otherwise I can't memorise my lines and think about the way to play the scene. So I have to be me and deflate at the end of the day."
Leo's research for the part of Teddy Daniels involved trawling through some dark terrain.
"I got to learn a lot about dissociative personality disorder, multiple personalities," he tells me, "and, believe it or not, YouTube is great for that kind of stuff. Usually, you have to send off a handwritten letter to Harvard to get video footage of someone that's fragmenting like that, but now you go on YouTube and it's there.
"Then there was this great documentary from the 60s called Titicut Follies. Everyone in the movie used that as their bible, because it was from the same time period where they were really abusive in the way they treated mental patients. And the doctor who helped reform the hospital in that documentary was our consultant on the movie, so he would tell us the cruel ways in which people would be treated, whether it was lobotomies or sedation or beatings or solitary confinement."
Shutter Island is DiCaprio's fourth collaboration with Martin Scorsese (see panel, left), and he says that "there is a kind of shorthand between us at this stage -- it's really just a trust, and a shared taste. We really do share the same feeling about what type of movies we want to make.
"I'm a lucky guy," he continues. "Not only have I got to work with a man who I think is a legend and a genius, but he's given me, he gives people around him, this weird, giddy excitement about doing movies. It's amazing, it's like cinema's in his DNA, I mean, he spent his childhood locked in a movie theatre, you know. For me, he's the consummate film-maker of our time."
Thanks in part to Scorsese, DiCaprio has come a long way in the past decade or so, ditching the pretty-boy tag to become a heavyweight actor of note. Success wasn't handed to him on a plate either. His parents split up when he was a year old, and he was raised by his German-born mother in a series of dingy downtown Los Angeles neighbourhoods.
He began appearing in television commercials in his early teens, and a series of roles in TV dramas followed. His first film performance (in Critters 3) may not have set the world alight, but in 1992 Robert De Niro spotted something in the boyish-looking 16-year-old and chose him from hundreds of hopefuls to star opposite him in This Boy's Life. Bigger roles followed, in films such as The Basketball Diaries and Baz Luhrman's acclaimed version of Romeo + Juliet. Then came Titanic, 'Leo-mania', and instant international stardom.
"It was a bizarre experience," he says. "I mean, anyone who has a microscope put on them at a young age like that, whose every move is put in a newspaper and who has no private life, it is completely disconcerting and surreal and you just don't know how to react to it. If you want to be 23 years old and have fun with your friends, you're judged for that.
"But there's a tremendous amount of real human suffering going on in the world that makes me feel so incredibly narcissistic and shallow even talking about that. I just don't like to focus on it because if I didn't ultimately want to be an actor and have these sorts of issues I should quit, it's that simple ...
"Moaning about a lack of privacy is just not appropriate," he continues, "because we can quit and we can lead a different life if it's that horrible and traumatic, but there are great advantages to it, there are great things that come along with it, you know?
"Do I like to be recognised everywhere I go? No, it's not the most fun thing," he admits with a smile. "But ultimately, I am getting to do what I love ... "
Shutter Island opens nationwide today