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FEBRUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 7

What's Eating Leonardo DiCaprio?
Pummeled by his Titanic fame, the painfully self-aware teen heartthrob Leo DiCaprio works hardest at not giving away too much of himself off-screen
By JOEL STEIN Los Angeles


Peter Mountain/20th Century Fox
A giant, hairy man is pushing Leonardo DiCaprio on a cart through a supermarket, and no one is looking. I'm expecting European paparazzi, women with Sharpies offering their décolletage, or at least furtive glances from other shoppers. Nothing. Not even when DiCaprio, wearing a cap and glasses, gets off the cart and awkwardly lifts it over a cereal-aisle blockade. "You see, dawg. I just lifted that cart, dude," he says loudly, bragging about the effects of his new weight-lifting regimen. But nothing happens at the West Hollywood Ralphs branch besides deliberation in the brownie-mix aisle over Ghirardelli's, Hershey's and Duncan Hines'. And a good deal of time spent choosing steaks. And quite a few minutes debating the merits of ginger-ale brands. And waffle mixes. And protein bars. DiCaprio is the Hamlet of Ralphs.

DiCaprio is indecisive about almost everything, including his willingness to shop for food with a reporter. He vetoed taking me to the dentist, thinking it would be too embarrassing. Working out with his personal trainer would display too much complaining. His house in the Hollywood Hills is out. And he's certainly not going to a bar, considering he wants to lose the party-boy image. "Hey, we can go to the movies because, you know, I do movies," he jokes, trying to deconstruct the whole process.

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Spying a Ralphs Club discount card peeking from his wallet, I express deep skepticism that he actually uses it. DiCaprio insists he's saved more than $40 with the card but shies away from my challenge to go shopping. "It seems a little forced, like I'm saying, 'Hey, I'm everyguy. I go to Ralphs too.'" He pictures himself in print trying to explain it: "I go to Ralphs often. Do I get recognized? Once in a while. But the groceries still need to be in my home, so I persevere." I offer to pay for all his groceries in a once-off, anything-goes, no-time-limit Supermarket Sweep run. Even though he made $20 million for his new movie, The Beach, DiCaprio finds this impossible to refuse. Still, he is hyper-aware of how this will play out in print: "That should be the title of the piece: 'Leonardo DiCaprio: What's His Beef?' And you'll base the whole article on the type of beef I choose. Skirt steak: the thinnest, unmanliest, most wussy, soft meat you could buy," he says.

Only smart guys think this much--it's the John Rockers who speak openly to reporters--and for a guy who left school at 16 to be in movies, DiCaprio is pretty bright. He's also so self-aware, it's paralyzing.

It took him an awfully long time to choose The Beach, the first movie he decided to do since Titanic was released. After starring in the biggest movie in history, DiCaprio had his pick of scripts. He read more than 100 and optioned six, but couldn't decide which one to do. "I could tell after reading the script with him that he'd do it, but it took more than a month for a definite yes," says Beach director Danny Boyle. "He does kind of hem and haw." Once he started making the film, DiCaprio spent hours reshooting scenes and redubbing voice-overs. "I would do a movie for a year if I could, and do as many takes as I can," he says. "I'm indecisive. It isn't my strongest character trait." Even the decision to star in Titanic took a long time. Baz Luhrmann, the director of Romeo + Juliet, finally convinced him that a big-budget film offered its own kind of acting risk. "The thing he hates most in life is making a decision," says Luhrmann. "It's a great pain to get Leo to commit to anything in life, particularly a role."

Or an interview. After a year of back-and-forth, DiCaprio finally agreed to meet at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 30, during what people tell me was the best fourth quarter of any Super Bowl in history. "I don't even know who was playing today," he admits. "St. Louis and some weird other team that beat somebody else that was supposed to get in the Super Bowl." DiCaprio isn't as in touch with American culture as American culture is with him. The son of a legal secretary and a hippie underground-comic-book artist, both retired, DiCaprio still thinks of himself as an edgy indie actor, not the Tiger Beat cover boy. "I have no connection with me during that whole Titanic phenomenon and what my face became around the world." Which is good. Otherwise, he might beat himself up.


Peter Mountain/20th Century Fox
Director Danny Boyle on location in Thailand with the star of The Beach, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Although it's got to hurt deep inside, DiCaprio says he's at peace with being usurped by the Backstreet Boys. "I'll never reach that state of popularity again, and I don't expect to," he says. "It's not something I'm going to try to achieve either." Instead, he has spent his post-Titanic life avoiding interviews. "I feel so uncomfortable doing publicity," he says, and then proves it by spending the rest of the evening chewing on mint Stim-u-dent toothpicks, biting his nails, cracking his knuckles and loudly sucking in wallops of air through his teeth and generally becoming a human beat box. "A long-term career has a lot to do with people not understanding who you are. There are always going to be new facets of you as a human being, and I want to be able to release them bit by bit. I'm acting like I'm some sort of complex riddle," he says, fearing he's sounding too pompous. "But the truth is, I don't want to let everyone know who I am and what I'm thinking."

Especially me. He won't talk about his dating life. In fact, in figuring out what he wants to talk about, DiCaprio says, "I want to be as dry and drab and as boring as possible." And although always nice, he does a remarkable job at this, listing, at one point, nearly 20 endangered species. The only other thing besides his dating that I can muster any interest in is what it's like to be crazy famous. "Is winning the lottery paradise for you? Is fame your paradise? Is that going to cleanse you of all your demons?" he asks. "Paradise to me is a false concept. You learn that happiness is something that comes in fleeting moments, in little moments when you least expect it."

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