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The Great Gatsby lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio is an enigma

s Leonardo DiCaprio as much the partying playboy as his character in The Great Gatsby? He gives all the right answers about his role, but manages to evade all questions on his personal life
The Straits Times - May 16, 2013
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The Great Gatsby lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio is an enigma

If Jay Gatsby were a real person and alive today, the playboy protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby would probably be a fixture in the tabloid press, photographed with a succession of supermodels on his arm or on yachts partying with celebrities and billionaires.

In other words, his life might look a little like Leonardo DiCaprio's, which is pretty handy considering that the 38-year-old actor plays him in the latest film adaptation by Australian director Baz Luhrmann of the book. The movie opens in Singapore tomorrow.

The Hollywood star is a household name because of movies such as Titanic (1997) and Inception (2010), but he is just as well-known for his partying lifestyle and long resume of dalliances featuring an endlessly revolving door of stunning models and actresses including Gisele Bundchen (2001-2005), Blake Lively (2011), Bar Refaeli (2011) and Erin Heatherton (2012).

But apart from tantalising glimpses reported by the media, the actor is famously guarded about his private life, and journalists who have interviewed him over the years know that he rarely deviates from script or gives anything away.

DiCaprio was in fine form when he spoke to a group of reporters about the new film at New York's Plaza Hotel last month, doling out precisely worded answers that he has spouted countless times before, and flashing a confident but fixed smile as he puffed on his electronic cigarette.

When Life! asks if he sees any similarities between his own life and Gatsby's, he focuses on the character's ambition for success.

"I think we all get excited about the idea of being a young person and imagining who you're going to become as an adult and, by sheer will, determination and ambition, becoming that.

"I think I identify with that... I had dreams of becoming an actor and, it was, you know, very ambitious at a young age to try and achieve that. But we all have a fascination with Gatsby because he represents that type of character in the sort of heyday of America becoming this industrial superpower.

"It's a place where all that is possible. He is the new American. He is the guy in Times Square with the cool, beautiful shirt who is able to achieve all that."

Other reporters have tried their luck drawing parallels between Gatsby's hedonism and the actor's, but DiCaprio either refuses to bite or pours cold water on the notion, telling Access Hollywood that his life "is not like that all the time, nope. Not even close".

One imagines, however, that it could be, if he were so inclined.

After early films such as This Boy's Life (1993) and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), in which he held his own against respected dramatic actors such as Robert De Niro and Johnny Depp, DiCaprio became an international superstar and teenage heart-throb as the romantic lead in hit movies Titanic (1997) and Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Offers of similar roles followed by the truckload, and it would have been easy for the actor to trade on this and his boyish good looks to play a string of romantic leads or sign up to a lucrative comic-book or action-hero franchise, as attractive male actors often do.

Instead, he elected to take on gritty historical or character-driven dramas such as Gangs Of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006), by acclaimed director and frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, and the biopics The Aviator (2004) and J.Edgar (2011), which buried that famous face under layers of prosthetic make-up.

"I've gravitated towards trying to work with the best directors I possibly can," explains DiCaprio, who adds that as an actor, he always puts himself in the director's hands.

He has also scored critical and commercial successes with directors such as Christopher Nolan in Inception and Quentin Tarantino with last year's Django Unchained.

"Ultimately, what's great about watching movies is transporting yourself to somewhere completely different.

"I've had some of my greatest connections with art in a theatre. I think it's the great modern art form: to be immersed in the theatre for two to three hours and be transported somewhere completely different, is something I feel only film can do, and there are those directors out there who allow you to feel like reality has dissolved away, and you become theirs."

The fact that Gatsby is one of the most iconic and beloved characters in American literature "isn't always a plus", he says.

"Because I remember reading this book, everyone I know has read this book, and they have their own interpretation stuck in their minds of who these people are, and they want to see certain scenes played out according to the way they see it.

"So in a way, you're setting yourself up for a tremendous amount of criticism," he says, adding that it was "incredibly risky and ballsy" for a director to try and adapt Gatsby for today's audiences.

Like Luhrmann, the actor was drawn to the project by the fact that it held up a mirror to the ethical shortcomings of modern society, just like the book did in 1920s America.

DiCaprio says: "What Fitzgerald touched upon during this time was the moral corruption - the idea that in a lot of ways, this new America, this new democracy, was repeating this idea of having royalty, they were emulating kings and queens.

"And there was a great flippancy and lack of understanding about the consequences of the growth in our country... This is something that keeps repeating itself. We, as a world community, keep expanding and growing endlessly, with a lack of respect for the world's resources, and that's eventually going to hit a brick wall.

"I could go into a whole environmental segue here, but I'll spare you," he says, smiling.

It is a bit of a shame that he stops himself, because environmentalism is one of the few non-work related topics that DiCaprio speaks willingly and engagingly about.

His dating history may make him a walking cliche, but his passion for the environment

and conservation sets him apart from other cookie-cutter Hollywood stars. Of course, nowadays, being vegetarian and driving a Prius are typical Hollywood things to do, but DiCaprio was something of a trailblazer when he began beating that drum in his 20s, converting many fans and fellow actors.

On Monday, Reuters reported that he and Christie's auction house raised nearly US$32 million (S$39.6million) for environmental causes at a charity art auction. The actor organised the so-called The 11th Hour Auction along with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Christie's to protect the last wild places on Earth and their endangered species.

"Bid as if the fate of the planet depended on us," he said at the beginning of the auction.

In an earlier interview with Life! and other press in Los Angeles, his Gatsby co-star Tobey Maguire suggests there is yet another different side to DiCaprio.

Maguire, 37, says his two children with jewellery designer Jennifer Meyer - daughter Ruby, six, and son Otis, three - call DiCaprio "Uncle Leo".

The two actors have been close friends for 25 years after meeting while auditioning for the television series Parenthood in the early 1990s.

Although Maguire politely declines to comment when asked if his kids' famously single "Uncle Leo" will eventually settle down and get married, he reveals that the actor has strong paternal instincts.

"He's a great uncle. And that was a real joy for me, to get to witness his relationship with my kids deepen and strengthen over time," says Maguire, who plays Nick Carraway, Gatsby's chronicler and only true friend, in the movie - a role that DiCaprio helped him to land.

DiCaprio, of course, refuses to be drawn on the subject of his love life. Does he believe in everlasting love, a journalist in New York asks hopefully.

"Do I believe in that? Sure. Absolutely. Yeah," he says. His face, however, says "next question".

stlife@sph.com.sg

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