FILM CLOSE: Leonardo DiCaprio

Somehow, it feels like the passing of an era: The eternally boyish Leonardo DiCaprio recently turned 30 years old.

DiCaprio is happy to no longer live in the eye of a hoopla hurricane, the way he did a few years ago when ‘Titanic’ made him the hottest star on the planet. Always enormously convincing on screen, DiCaprio is just starting to realize the potential everyone saw back in his first major movie, 1993’s ‘This Boy’s Life.’

The superstar nurtured the production of his Howard Hughes biopic, ‘The Aviator,’ shepherding the script into the hands of an initially reluctant Martin Scorsese, who was also his director for ‘Gangs Of New York.’ It is fitting that DiCaprio should portray a fabulously wealthy public figure, although Hughes was also tormented by mental demons that drove him into paranoid seclusion.

On the personal front, DiCaprio continues to squire around his longtime girlfriend, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen. And, the California-born champion of environmental causes, also made a series of speeches during the recent presidential campaign. DiCaprio will next work with Scorsese on ‘The Departed,’ a crime drama set in Boston.

Q: What was it about Howard Hughes that most fascinated you?

A: As an actor, you’re constantly searching for that great character to play. Being a history buff and learning about people in our past and amazing things that they’ve done, I came across a book about Howard Hughes. He was set up in the book as basically the most multidimensional character I could ever come across. Often, people have tried to define him in biographies but, no one seems to be able to categorize him. He was one of the most complicated men of the last century.

Q: Could you relate strongly to anything about his personality or his life?

A: I think he certainly took things farther than I could ever imagine. He was such an obsessed human being. He was so obsessive about everything he had gotten involved with, whether it be planes, women or films he made. That is the direct result of his obsessive-compulsive disorder. I wouldn’t go to those extremes.

But, certainly his being a part of films that have gone on for many months and sitting there with the director trying to get things perfect and doing them over and over again, was something I think Scorsese and I immediately identified with.

Q: Are there any parallels between the fear of celebrity Howard Hughes had, and your own desire to keep your privacy?

A: My reasons for being a private person are different from Hughes. He had an intense fear of being around people and germs. My reason is that I’m an actor and I want people to believe me in different roles and not necessarily know too much about me. I want to be around, in the business, for a long time.

Q: Considering the generation gap between yourself and Martin Scorsese, what is your working relationship like?

A: What I’m going to say is going to sound like a cliche, but I cannot tell a lie: he is every actor’s dream to work with. He is not only one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, he’s like a film historian. He’s a professor of film.

The man has seen almost every film ever made, up until 1980. We actually found that we fundamentally share the same tastes in a lot of different things, not just films, but music and art. And, we have a great work ethic together. We get along. He loves to have actors come to the table with an array of different information and new ideas. He welcomes that more than anyone else I’ve ever worked with.

Q: Howard Hughes is such an intense personality, could you mentally shake that off at the end of each day?

A: I’ve always been pretty good at being able to go home and be me again. But, I’d say more than any other character I’ve played, this one stayed with me the most, especially with his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

We all have obsessive things we do to some degree, it’s a primal part of our brain mechanism. I remember, as a child, stepping on cracks on the way to school and having to walk back a block and step on that same crack or that gum stain. So, for the movie, I kind of let all that stuff happen and was constantly stepping on things and reorganizing things. Sometimes, it took me a while to get to the set, having to step on tons of things.

Q: You have a powerful scene in which Hughes has a mental breakdown in a movie screening room. While performing, did you ever feel like you were close to really loosing your mind?

A: Sometimes yeah, definitely. You sort of get into your own head space and don’t really want to talk to anyone. I spent a lot of time just sitting around in the screening room alone. But pain is temporary, film is forever. That’s the fun part, knowing that what you’re doing on that day will actually show up on screen. That’s the best feeling.

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Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes in ‘Aviator’.

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