Sandy: You really didn't turn professional until you were a teenager though. What kind of direction did you have in mind for your career? *Leonardo*: At the time I really didn't have a clear image of what I wanted to become. I knew that acting was fun, that it could get me out of school for a couple of days, and that I'd also get paid for doing it. So that was the ultimate dream for a 13-or 14-year-old. Plus, my friends got to see me on TV! But then, when I did the series "GROWING PAINS", I started to learn more about what I wanted to do, and realized that this fictionalized version of live on television was not what I was suited for. My favorite was to recreate real life on the screen, and that was the direction I then wanted to take.
Sandy:That's very much what you did with your role in TITANIC. *Leonardo*: Very much so. I mean, growing up I had always heard about TITANIC, and there was always an air of mystery about what really happened. Then when I read about it and researched it, I found that it had a lot of important themes for humanity. It had much to do with a man's arrogance and putting our blind faith in technology, and where we are and what we've gone through in this century in terms of respecting "Mother Nature" instead of being so sure of only ourselves.
Sandy:THE BASKETBALL DIARIES also gave you an oppurtunity to re-create real life on the screen, being that it was based on the true story of " Jim Carrol". *Leonardo*:Yeah, and the movie was emotionally draining, to say the least. But I think an actor gets the most rewards out of doing something like that,'cause the main thing that kept going through my head was, "If I really give it my all now-and it turns out great-it'llplay on the screen forever. And that's sort of been my philosophy when I do films. Pain is temporary, but films are forever.
Sandy: I remeber reading a quote when you where about 15 and playing the emotionally scarred "Gary Buckman on TV's PARENTHOOD. You said,"I haven't played a cheerful boy yet." And then a few years later you played a mentally disabled teen in GILBERT GRAPE. Is there a challenge in portraying those kid's of characters? *Leonardo*: Mainly in the audition process, when I have to prove what I am capable of doing. I believe in research when it comes to preparing for a role, so when I was offered that part, I went to interview about ten guys my age with disabilities, and realized they were completely in their own dimension, just happy with what was there and dealing with whatever was directly infront of them. So I just took a lot of those attributes and incorporated them into the character of "Arnie".
Sandy: Was it hard to stay in character for the three months that the movie was in production? *Leonardo*:It was strange. I had pudding on my face; I was dirty; I had a chili-bowl haircut and a weird plastic thing on my lip to make my face look a litlle disorted. Plus, my character had to constantly burb and gag and laugh loud and scream- all the things my mother always told me not to do! So it was different, but kind of fun.
Sandy: That role earned you an Oscar nomination. Was it disappointing when you didn't win? *Leonardo*: You know, I really didn't want to win, because then I felt there would be too many expectations of me. people would then want me to be perfect all the time and if I didn't live up to it, their attitude would be :"Well , he was so lucky once and now we're done with him." So I just want to keep doing what I'm doing, and hopefully people will continue to watch my movies without any preconceptions.
Sandy:One assumes a lot of young actors today are looking up to you as someone to emulate. Did you have any role models along the way? *Leonardo*:I don't think of them so much as role models, but I thought "River phoenix" was really great, as well as "John Malkovich","Al Pcino","Christopher Walken" and "Robert de Niro". I just saw a lot of different people in the way these actors were able to interpret theit characters, and I thought,"Ya know, I can do that too".
Sandy: You actually had a chance to work with "Robert de niro" early on in your career. Did he give you any advice? *Leonardo*: He didn't sit me down and say anything like:"Okay, kid, this is how you act." It was more of an experience where I just learned things by watching him. "De Niro" is a selfcontained kind of actor. He really want to get his part down, and then he takes it from there. Much like me, he prepares a lot for his characters. He's an extreme professional and knows what he's doing.
Sandy:You seem to come by your own acting instincts so naturally. Where either of your parents in showbusiness? *Leonardo*: Neither one. My dad's a distributor and my mom's a photographer: But the've both had a big impact on my life. My dad's one of the kindest guys in the world, and he's taught me how to be a truly loving person; And my mother is just plain cool! She genuinely cares about what I do as a person, but she doesn't pretend that my acting career is anything more than just my job. She'd have the same enthusiasm for me if I was working at 7-Eleven. Sometimes my mom's even too honest with me. I'll ask her about a part I played and she'll go, "Yeah, it was good, but I liked your other movie better. Just try harder next time!" But it's refreshing to hear that kind of critique, especially in this business.
Sandy:You talked earlier about acting being an excuse to sometimes ditch school. What were you like as a kid in the classroom? *Leonardo*: Probably more of a class clown than the campus jock. Sometimes I'd get detention for goofing off, yelling things from the back of the room or imitating people. One time I went to school as "Charles Manson". I didn't know who he was or what he did-I just innocently impersonated him. So I did the swastika thing on my forehead and started talking about biting dogs' heads off, and I was sent home and didn't know why! That was the sick part of it. I didn't know I was doing anything wrong. I was just young and imitating people. I guess I was always an actor. I just had to get myself an agent!
Sandy: You seem so passionate about the direction you've taken with your life. What means the most to you personally when you're working on one of youre films? *Leonardo*: I'm passionate about working with really good directors. Of course, I love good material too, but I'm most impressed with being able to portray a character that allows me to do a lot of things that I don't do in my normal life. It gives me an excuse to go nuts with the character, and the more nuts I go, the deeper I get into that character's depression, anger or happiness, wich is always fun to do.
Sandy: Do you think you'd be as passionate about your work if you had a regular nine-to-five job? *Leonardo*: It's hard to say because, from a young age, I've been trying to juggle my acting career while leading a normal life. I suppose if I worked at a shoe store I wouldn't be talking about it all the time with friends and family because the acting is obviously more exciting. But I think it's important to remain a normal person and not take the movie business all that seriously. You have to be a regular guy at home, and I've alway's tried to maintain that. I have friends in show business , but my main real friends are the ones I've known for years. That's not to say I am friends with everyone I ever went to preschool with, but I don't need to have a lot of "new" friends constantly hanging around.
Sandy: Speaking of that, you certainly have lots of new friends in the form of your fans. What's it like to be recognized practacally everywhere you go? *Leonardo*: I'm dealing with it as best as I can. I know that a lot of people are recognizing me more now than before, and I'm trying to adapt to that. It's weird 'cause I will go to the mail or something and see more eyes trailing me, and then I start to wonder is it because they recognize me or because I have something sticking to my face? And then I realize it's because people recognize me. But you don't want to be cocky about it, so it's hard to know how to react. A few years ago girls would come up to meand bat their eyelashes and say things like:"you're fine! Uh-huh!"And I'd go:"Gee thanks," and run to my dressingroom trailer. But now I guess I'm handing things a litlle bit more professionally.
Sandy:Getting back to TITANIC, one imagines it must have taken a lot of dedication on everyone's part because the movie took so long to make. *Leonardo*: We shot it for seven months, yeah.
Sandy: You knew going into it that is was going to be a complex picture. But did you really anticipate all that it ultimately entailed? *Leonardo*: When you go in to do an epic picture like TITANIC, you know it's going to run over budget, run over time, and that is going to be a rough experience. But everyone who signed on for it was prepared for that, even though it turned out being a lot harder than we anticipated. Butafter seeing the outcome, the movie even defiedmy expectations of what i thought it would be. you see all the different camera angles that were reguired to make it mesh as it did, and seeing it allcome together on the screenalmost went beyond a film, in my opinion.
Sandy: How did this compare with some of your other characters? For a change,"Jack Dawson" was just a normal guy, one without your usual demons. *Leonardo*: That's an interesting question, because, for me, I didn' realize how hard it was going to be just playing someone with no internal angst or "demons" to fall back on, as you put it. It was a lot more involved than I ever imagined it would be. The endurance it took to stay focused and stay in character that long was really rough.
Sandy: With this movie destined to become one of the biggest films of all time, one would think that it's got to put pressure on you in terms of selecting your future projects. how does an actor manage to keep his sanity in a rarefied position like that? *Leonardo*: You just can't worry about those kinds of things. Just because you've done good work or picked a good project doesn't mean that it's going to happen again. That's why so many actors go a litlle nuts, wondering to themselves,"What's happened to me? people used to love me." It's an easy trap to fall into, and I can't say that I won't be in a loony bin someday myself, But, for now, I've just decided that it doesn't matter what people think or say, as long as I feel good about what I'm doing. With actors, it gets to a point where when you're hot, you're hot, and when you're not, you're not. And that's just the way it is!
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