He’s lived lavishly in The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street, yet journeyed through the freezing wilderness in The Revenant. Leonardo DiCaprio has mastered the art of transformation. He’s traveled to Mozambique, spent time with mercenaries, and even slept in animal carcasses. He’s learnt what it means to fully immerse himself into a role, where delivering the rawest and most authentic performance humanly conceivable is the only way he sees fit.
“Acting is like living multiple lives,” he says. “When you make a movie, you go off to different places, live different cultures, investigate somebody else’s reality, and you try to manifest that to the best of your ability. It is incredibly eye-opening.”
And for those who wonder how DiCaprio continuously achieves such remarkable transformations, he says, “I try to meet real people so I can pinpoint and ask them specific questions. When you’re sitting in a bar with someone, it’s a whole different dynamic than just sifting through a book finding little bits of information that rarely gives you what you need to know about a character.”
DiCaprio’s quest to stardom started small as he grew up in a tough area of Los Angeles. “Acting always represented a way out for me,” he says. “I saw many things in the neighborhoods where I grew up that were pretty terrifying. Acting takes you away from reality. Being able to escape was important. Movies do that for me. Two hours inside of a theater can transport you into a completely other universe.”
As a youngster with a dream, he appeared in several commercials and educational films. He landed an ad deal for Matchbox cars at 14, was cast in a short-lived series based on the movie Parenthood, and appeared in the soap opera Santa Barbara, which led DiCaprio to be nominated for his first award, Best Young Actor sponsored by the Young Artist Association. The award marked the first of many for DiCaprio, jumpstarting his career to become the megastar he’s known to be today.
“I grew up when I was 15 when I had my first opportunity in movies,” he says. “I watched every great movie for a year and a half, and since then I’ve asked myself how I can emulate such artistry. That’s really my motivation. I want to do something as good as my heroes have done.”
The screen adaptation of This Boy’s Life is considered to be DiCaprio’s breakthrough feature film role labeled him as an up-and-comer. That same year, he co-starred in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and played a mentally handicapped young man, which earned him his first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
”I didn’t know what types of movies I wanted to do,” DiCaprio says. “I want to do things that are different. I want to take my time with each role.” In 1995, DiCaprio had starring roles in three contrasting films. He acted in The Quick and the Dead; played a drug addict in The Basketball Diaries; and portrayed a disturbed pansexual in Total Eclipse. A year later, DiCaprio starred in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, winning him the Best Actor Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
“The best thing about acting is that I get to lose myself in another character and actually get paid for it,” he says. “It’s a great outlet. I’m not really sure who I am – it seems I change every day.” Looking at DiCaprio’s most distinguished performances throughout his career, he’s stayed true to choosing roles that are considered off the beaten path, something he says is completely intentional. “The good thing about acting is that it always keeps you on your toes,” he says. “It’s not like any other job where you can go in and do the same thing as yesterday.
DiCaprio earned an Oscar nomination in 2007 for his performance in Blood Diamond, in which he also received Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations. That same year, he garnered another slew of nominations for his role in The Departed. After starring in The Aviator, he earned an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Drama.
Off screen, DiCaprio launched his own production company, Appian Way, where he wrote, produced, and narrated the acclaimed environmentally themed documentary The 11th Hour. Other productions include Shutter Island, The Aviator, as well as Out of the Furnace and Runner, Runner. He also established the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, vowing to protect the world’s last wild places. The foundation creates and implements solutions to help threatened ecosystems, ensuring the long-term health and well being of all Earth’s inhabitants.
“As a young boy, I was obsessed with endangered species and the extinct species that men killed off,” he says. “Biology was the subject in school that I was incredibly passionate about. As a kid, I was going to be a marine biologist or an actor. When I became successful as an actor, I said, “Well, maybe I can lend a voice to this with an equal passion.”
More recently, DiCaprio starred in The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as in The Great Gatsby. Prior to that, he acted in Django Unchained, J. Edgar, and Inception. DiCaprio’s latest role was in The Revenant, where he plays a 19th-century frontiersman who, after suffering a violent bear attack, embarks on a journey seeking revenge on the trapper who abandoned him for dead. DiCaprio says it was one of his most challenging roles to date.
“Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly,” he says. “[Those scenes]—amongst many other sequences—were some of the more difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my entire career. But the end result is going to be one of the most immersive experiences audiences will ever have.”
DiCaprio, now 41 years old and arguably one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors, has starred in 26 films since he began as a young, wide-eyed teen. He’s been nominated for five Oscar’s, the most recent one for his role in The Revenant. “I don’t think I ever expected anything like an Oscar ever,” he says. “That is not my motivation when I do these roles. I really am motivated by being able to work with great people and create a body of work that I can look back and be proud of.”
Though DiCaprio’s future plans are uncertain, he lives by a mantra his dad always said to him: “Go out there, son, and whatever you do, I don’t care if you’re successful or not, just have an interesting life. Just be happy to put your pants on in the morning.”