The Examiner - Special - April 18, 1995


Interview for The Basketball Diaries

by Ron Dicker


NEW YORK - Leonardo DiCaprio is lying on the couch, face pressed against a pillow. Interview-weary, he still manages to prop himself up for another chat.

The 20-year-old actor isn't about to take media perceptions lying down.

DiCaprio, star of "The Basketball Diaries" (opening Friday), generates a lot of buzz for a guy whose films haven't exactly killed at the box office.

For one, he's good. "A one-in-a-million talent," chirps director Scott Kalvert. He's lucky, the actor himself admits. And he's choosy.

He can afford to be. When Brat Packers ruled the Earth, DiCaprio points out, they weren't offered the gutsy parts that he has had in his short career: the abused son opposite Robert De Niro in "This Boy's Life" ; the town slowpoke in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" for which he earned a best-supporting Oscar nomination; a cocky gunslinger in the Sharon Stone western "The Quick and the Dead" ; and now the hoops-and-heroin-shooting teenager in "The Basketball Diaries."

As if that weren't enough, he'll tackle the poet Rimbaud in the homoerotic "Total Eclipse," to be released in the fall.

"I think young actors are being taken more seriously these days," DiCaprio says.

Maybe it's just DiCaprio who's being taken more seriously. (Imagine Judd Nelson in his Brat Pack days as Rimbaud. Did you feel the hairs on your neck stand up?)

The intensity packed into DiCaprio's gangly 6-foot frame squirts out of his almond-shaped blue eyes. Their glassiness can make him look stoned, scared or Satanic. All three come in handy in "Diaries," adapted from Jim Carroll's book about his youth on New York City's mean streets.

DiCaprio captured the jittery essence of Carroll but lacked the experience to accurately portray his addictive lifestyle. No problem. He had the author himself to, um, inject his expertise.

"Jim has an encyclopedic knowledge of drugs," DiCaprio says.

"Diaries" bounced around Hollywood for years. Carroll despaired that it would never be made. Then "Entertainment Tonight" happened. The idea that John Tesh could bring good tidings to a street poet like Carroll boggles the mind.

"I was hiding out in California and watching "E.T.' with my girlfriend when suddenly they said Leo had been cast as me and the project was a go," Carroll recalled. "My girlfriend said, "He's perfect.' I didn't know who he was but when she told me he was the kid in "This Boy's Life,' I said, "Oh yeah, I know him. Yeah, he would be perfect.' "

The cadaver-thin Carroll, a player in the early '80s punk scene with the Jim Carroll Band, still shows the wear-and-tear of drugs. He shakes. He sucks on cigarettes like he's trying to suck the smoke out of the smoke. And his synapses occasionally misfire, prompting him to forget questions or lose his train of thought.

While the director and co-stars tout the movie as a cautionary tale for teens, DiCaprio need look no further than Carroll to remain scared straight.

"You do get used to him," DiCaprio says. "He's not a loon job by any means. The thing I like about Jim is that I can talk to him about anything. He's one of the coolest people I've ever met."

DiCaprio says he is chemical-free. Reminded that young actors have made that claim before and fallen hard, he replies: "Yeah, you guys will probably write that about me in the future, but it won't be true. . . . The whole scene is scummy to me."

Television fans will remember DiCaprio as the runaway on "Growing Pains." But unlike Kirk Cameron, the show's teen heartthrob, DiCaprio was able to leave the medium.

"TV is a trap in some ways. It molds you and it's hard to break that mold. I got out just in time," the Los Angeles resident says.

DiCaprio auditioned for "This Boy's Life" in an open casting call. The experience brings a smile to his face. The scene he did was right before De Niro's character was going to shove a mustard jar in DiCaprio's eye. De Niro asks, "Is the mustard jar empty?" DiCaprio is supposed to respond with a flat "yes."

"I felt I had to do something," DiCaprio giggles, so I screamed "Yes!"

A startled De Niro laughed out loud. DiCaprio landed the part.

Now he gets so many scripts he has his dad filter through them. "He gets the worthless ones out of the way and anything with an inkling of good writing he gives to me."

DiCaprio's name was thrown about for the role of Dean Moriarty in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of "On the Road," but there has been no movement on that front. He and "Exotica" star Mia Kirshner met the weekend of this conversation to discuss the possibility of a "Romeo and Juliet." He's also been considered to play James Dean.

The career lull allows DiCaprio time to digest his growing celebrity. He welcomes a "Hey, love your work" from fans, "but as soon as I know they have expectations of me, I try to be boring or say something like, "Where's the drinks?' "

Expectations within the industry are more difficult to ignore. Ticket-selling cachet isn't a must but it doesn't hurt, DiCaprio admits. "This is a business, but I don't want to be the type where if I have a bomb, it'll hurt my career."

A rigorous publicity junket and a recent breakup leave DiCaprio exhausted. As the late-afternoon sun streams through his suite at a Manhattan hotel, he rubs his eyes and glides his fingers through his dishwater blond hair. He's wearing a "Gilbert Grape" T-shirt, baggy tan cords and blue suede adidas. He looks like a video-store refugee.

But he's a lot wiser. DiCaprio says his brief Hollywood education has taught him to take movie pitches with a grain of salt. "The people attached to a project are trying to make it sound as appetizing as possible. I listen to people I believe in, but it's going to be me who says yes or no."

As for furthering his education in the classroom, DiCaprio shakes his head. "Life is my college for now."


Thanks a lot to Treggy !