Films deliver double dose of DiCaprio

Between starring roles in `Blood Diamond' and `The Departed,' the actor could pile up statuettes

December 24, 2006|By John Horn | John Horn,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- Leonardo DiCaprio is so prominent in the season's top films that his fingerprints are even on The Good Shepherd, in which he doesn't appear.

Toward the end of the Matt Damon drama, a CIA agent discovers that a woman he helped dispatch is pregnant. It's a small turn, but it makes the scene - and the agent's actions - more emotionally resonant.

Yet the Good Shepherd pregnancy line wasn't in Eric Roth's screenplay, nor was it dreamed up by Damon or director Robert De Niro.

Instead, the plot twist was suggested by DiCaprio when he was considering starring in the film.

De Niro liked DiCaprio's idea so much he kept it in the finished film, even though DiCaprio ended up passing on the project.

Dramatic weight appears to come very naturally to the 32-year-old DiCaprio. He doesn't make very many movies: While Damon, for instance, has appeared in 10 films (including cameos) over the past three years, DiCaprio has acted in just three.

But those three - this year's Blood Diamond and The Departed and 2004's The Aviator - are all substantial works with serious ambitions.

Critical reaction to the actor's two new films has been so strong that DiCaprio finds himself in the enviable - if not awkward - position of competing against himself for awards recognition.

This month, DiCaprio was nominated for Golden Globe awards in the best dramatic film actor category for his roles in The Departed and Blood Diamond.

The membership of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has determined that DiCaprio's performances in both The Departed and Blood Diamond will be considered lead roles.

Oscar voters may reach a similar conclusion.

"We're in the process right now of figuring it out," DiCaprio says. "But you leave it to the public to decide what kind of performance you gave. I'm really proud of both of these movies," DiCaprio says.

Quiet moments

Even though the two films are filled with over-the-top action scenes, it's their quietest moments that make DiCaprio the most proud. In The Departed, he mentions a favorite scene in which his agitated undercover police officer, Billy Costigan, reveals his vulnerabilities to a therapist named Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). He wants Valium; she wants him to talk. So he threatens to take his medication into his own hands.

"I mean, a guy comes in here against every, every instinct of privacy and self-reliance he has, and what do you do?" Costigan asks Madolyn. "What do you do, huh? You send him off on the street to score smack."

"It's hard for me to be objective about my performances," DiCaprio says. "It's so hard for me to say what scenes were the most authentic. I need six years to process that." But in the therapist sequences, he says, "I felt like I did convey the emotional conflict - the angst of feeling lost."

It's a similarly reflective moment in Blood Diamond that DiCaprio feels represents his best work in that film. He singles out a conversation his diamond smuggler, Danny Archer, has with American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly). "Sometimes I wonder," Danny says, "will God ever forgive us the things we've done to each other? Then I look around and realize, God left this place a long time ago."

DiCaprio shrugs as he thinks about the scene. "That's one of the hardest things to do," he says. "To talk about yourself as a character. So that's what I try to concentrate and focus on. Because if you don't buy that, you don't buy the rest of the movie."

To make sure the audience buys the rest of the movie, DiCaprio also prepares exhaustively. For Blood Diamond, he spent weeks in military training, and an equal time researching local accents and idioms.

"He's got a curious mind, and he always wanted to know more," says Blood Diamond director Ed Zwick. The director says you can even tell by the way DiCaprio shoulders a gun that he was fully prepared. "Great actors, by osmosis, assimilate the behavior of the people they are playing - the bush craft, the weapons. It's intangible, but it's not," Zwick says.

Needs time off

DiCaprio says he can't do it any other way. "If I didn't have pages of slang, then it would be a pretty uncomfortable experience - it's like the nightmare of arriving at school without any clothes on," he says. "And that's why it's hard for me to go from a movie to a movie" without time off between projects.

That said, DiCaprio appears to have little trouble moving from one director to another. "Their processes are obviously very different," he says of Zwick and Departed director Martin Scorsese. "But it's hard to talk about their differences."

After a few seconds reflecting, DiCaprio says, "Marty's not afraid to sit there for days on end, just to get a scene right."

Zwick, he says, is equally focused - on the end product. "He didn't want to pull any punches with this movie," DiCaprio says. "He wanted to hit people over the head with the message."

And just as De Niro was willing to hear DiCaprio's script ideas, Zwick listened to what the actor had to say. "I said, `Look, I don't want this movie to have a sugar-coated, happy ending,' " DiCaprio says. "And Ed was very secure in saying he was not going to make me sympathetic."

It takes courage to ask a filmmaker to make you unlikable. But that, perhaps, is what separates DiCaprio from his peers. To be good, he's willing to be bad.

John Horn writes for The Los Angeles Times.

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