Newsday 1994


Nothing's Eating This Hot Teen

Film Roles and Fame Fill This Boy's Life

by Roger D. Friedman


Leonardo DiCaprio wearing a royal blue sport shirt with a smudge, Brown corduroys and a rapidly deteriorating brown leather jacket, slides right into his seat in The Hotel Rihga dining room and, evincing none of the sophistication of a Golden Globe Award nominee, asks a key question:

"What's gravlax?" - and turns up his nose at the answer.

The slick setting is a stark contrast to the places the lanky 19-year-old has found himself in as an actor. So far he's played a homeless teenager on the TV series "Growing Pains," a beaten teenager in the movie "This Boy's Life," and the mentally retarded teenager Arnie Grape in the current film "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."

It's the young actor's canny portrayal as the blissfully unaware Arnie that has earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor, in the company of more seasoned actors Sean Penn, John Malkovich, Ralph Fiennes and Tommy Lee Jones. The Golden Globes will be given out this Saturday. He already won best supporting actor for the role from the National Board of Review, and the Los Angeles Film Critics gave DiCaprio their New Generation award. John Anderson's Newsday review called his performance "amazing . . . a marvel of ticks, twitches, hair-trigger hysteria and a mind and body working at cross-purposes."

Winning the part of Arnie, the younger brother of Gilbert (Johnny Depp), was not so simple. Director Lasse Hallstrom had to be convinced DiCaprio's good looks would not compromise Arnie's mental deficiencies.

"He said I was too good-looking to play Arnie, so he didn't want to cast me at first." He wound up wearing a mouthpiece, at Halstrom's request. "

There had to be a way to make me look less attractive." DiCaprio grew up in Las Feliz, a suburb of Los Angeles, where his mom was a secretary before getting involved with Leo's acting career. His dad distributes underground comics. His stepmother is a competitive body builder. "But my dad is pretty buff, too," he says. "My dad was the one who pushed me to perform for people. At fairs and festivals I used to dress up in my little costumes. I did impersonations. Sometimes I was shy, but he'd say, `Getting shy won't get you anywhere.' "

After a stint on the failed TV version of "Parenthood," DiCaprio, At age 16, landed on the hit show "Growing Pains." For one season he played a homeless teenager. "It was all so contrived doing series work," he says of the experience. "Thank God I'm doing movies now. I'd go nuts if I had to do another sitcom."

DiCaprio's also grateful he's not in college. "I never liked school. I always felt that I was forced to do something, and I don't perform well under those conditions. When I was younger," he laughs, "I not only missed school, but I got paid for it."

He even missed his high school graduation, because he was busy making last April's "This Boy's Life" with Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin. His electric performance as a sweetly ambitious teenager who must contend with an abusive stepfather won him unanimous raves - and the attention of Hollywood. The all-powerful Creative Artists Agency quickly snatched DiCaprio away from his original, much smaller agency.

"You know how they are," he says of CAA. "Like sharks, I tell you! They smell blood and run after it."

But all this sudden fame has its disadavantages, as well, a fact borne out recently when he tried to bring some of his other underage friends into "Gilbert Grape" co-star Depp's infamous Viper Room nightclub and was turned away at the door. "The bouncer said, `Everyone knows how old you are. There's no way I can let you in.' "

DiCaprio is currently shooting "The Quick and the Dead" with Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman in Tucson, Ariz. He plays a "loud cocky Billy The Kid character who challenges anyone to a quick draw." Of Stone he says, `Sharon wears tight, tight pants in the movie, but I don't look. She' s pretty down-to-earth actually."

Next DiCaprio will play Lower East Side poet-cum-former drug addict Jim Carroll in "The Basketball Diaries." How will he research the Part of a drug addict?

"I'm going to meet some addicts, go to a rehab center," he says, and then adds, with the perfect, self-censored glibness of a 19-year-old, "Maybe I'll take some extra cold medicine and see what that's like."


Thanks a lot to Treggy !