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South China Morning Post
Cover: Monday Focus
January 24, 2000

LOOKING FOR THE REAL LEO
The Titanic star shrugs off his idol status in a gritty role and, as David Cohen reports, fans may be shocked by the darker DiCaprio
Related Story "Paradise found... and Lost"
There is an old definition of a movie star: women want to sleep with him, men want to be him. By that definition, the ultimate movie star for the under-30 generation is Leonardo DiCaprio.

Certainly he qualifies on the first score. As Jack Dawson, DiCaprio became a walking dream for millions of women and girls around the world. He could hardly show his face in public without being mobbed.

That, in turn, helped him become an icon to men as well. Leonardo DiCaprio, actor, became Leo, no last name required. His every move was tabloid fodder. He seemed to be at every club or party, with a model on his arm and his "posse" of friends and bodyguards at his back.

Stories swirled of discarded lovers and bar fights and at least one lawsuit, but that only added to the Leo mystique. For twenty-somethings with dreams of showbiz glory, being Leo looked like the ultimate high.

"I chose to sort of face it head-on, which could have been a smart or a stupid decision, but I didn't want to run away from it." says DiCaprio of the Leo craze. "I didn't want to become a hermit from the success of Titanic and the exposure that I had. I wanted to just lead my life."

In fact, Leo's life may be calming down. He is in Maui to promote The Beach, his first film since Titanic, and is able to move around in public. He is even spotted eating sushi with some of his posse, apparently undisturbed by fans, with no disguise but a baseball cap and a budding Hollywood-hipster goatee.

The irony of all this is that before Titanic, DiCaprio was far from a heartthrob. He had carved out a niche as a gifted young actor, but he had done so with dark, complex roles. Nothing in his past would have predicted that he would become a sex symbol, the obsession of millions.

As a result, he has found himself caught between wanting to dive into the experience and the need to pull back.

"After Titanic came out, I couldn't go to a bookstore and find a book on how to deal with life in a situation like that. But at the same time I realize I'm a lucky person. You know what I mean? It's given me the opportunities more so than ever before to do what I love, and that's act."

That kind of ambivalence colors everything about The Beach.

The thriller follows Richard, a bored American backpacker (DiCaprio) to a Bangkok flophouse, where a madman named Daffy (Robert Carlyle) gives him a map to a "perfect" beach utopia on a mysterious island — then kills himself. Richard, smitten with a young French woman (Virginie Ledoyen) invites her and her boyfriend with him to follow the map to The Beach.

Eventually, they find, a dazzling lagoon hidden from the outside world. They also find the a commune of pleasure seekers who have abandoned the outside world for endless days of sun and games.

But while The Beach is perfect, the people are not. Outside are jittery, heavily armed Thai dope farmers. Inside are seduction and betrayal. Everywhere is nature, beautiful but dangerous. It is only a matter of time before Richard — and The Beach — slide into madness and brutality.

Adapted from the novel by Alex Garland by the filmmakers of Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and producer Andrew McDonald, much of The Beach explores ambivalence and disconnection. Perhaps that is why every aspect of the film seems to have a 'but' attached.

The Beach will succeed or fail at the box office as a 'the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie,' but creatively, it is very much 'the new Danny Boyle movie.' DiCaprio returns to a dark, complex role, but he does so as the film's headliner and main drawing card. He is in almost every scene, but Richard is a flawed and often unlikable character.

It is a far cry from the romantic simplicity of Titanic and Leo fans may be shocked by what they see. As the impossibly perfect Jack Dawson, he was androgynous and unthreatening. In The Beach, he seems more dangerous; at 25, he has put on muscle and he shows an angry edge.

"(Richard) is very up to date," says DiCaprio. "He contains multitudes, which was fascinating for me. He's neither a hero nor a villain but he's searching for something."

"He's selfish in a lot of ways and he likes to torture himself. He's very human in that way, and also in the respect that he gets what he wants and he dismisses it and he tries to get something better each and every time. I think that's very closely connected to who we all are."

The Beach marks a DiCaprio's deliberate decision to return to his acting roots. He was used to real collaboration before Titanic, and wanted that experience again.

"(Danny) really wanted to bring me on as a partner, more so on this than on a film like Titanic. Not to say that that film didn't concentrate on the characters, but there's thousands of other elements to concentrate on at the same time."

He is being diplomatic, and does not repeat what is widely rumored in Hollywood, that Titanic's director, James Cameron, is an autocrat with a quick and abusive temper. It is probably no coincidence that both DiCaprio and Kate Winslet followed up Titanic with smaller, character-oriented films. They seem to have fled from the Titanic experience as far and as fast as possible.

But The Beach was filmed during the height of the Leo craze, and there was no escaping it, even in Thailand. The set was mobbed by fans. Girls hid in his hotel room. And of course there was the "Leo posse."

"You know, people ask me a lot about why I have a big group of people when I go on location," he explains. "I think it has to do with who I am as an actor. Once they say 'cut' I'm not still engrossed with my character. I can go off and do whatever and be me again."

"And also the simple fact that if they're going to give me plane tickets in my contract, I'm going to invite my friends over to visit me. Why not? It'd be a waste of plane tickets.

The "Leo posse" has become part of his mystique, though. Even in Maui, they are in evidence; his actor pal Tobey Maguire was spotted at the same hotel while DiCaprio was sitting through television interviews.

"I'm sure a lot of my friends would resent being called my posse because, believe it or not, they actually are individuals," says DiCaprio evenly. "But, you know, my family and my friends have kept me grounded. They have helped me laugh about all of this. We joke around constantly about this sort of image which is me which I'm completely detached from. It has taken on its own life and in a lot of ways I have separated myself from it."

His future plans are clearly about being Leonardo DiCaprio, actor, again. He will next make Gangs of New York for director Martin Scorcese, and he has acquired the rights to a biography of Howard Hughes, which he hopes to do with director Michael Mann.

Most of all, he hopes to make peace with that larger-than-life icon.

"You get to a point where you say, 'Look, the only thing that I can be, that can represent who I am, is the work that I do, what I put into it, performances that I give and my art form," Not that other stuff that is out of your control, because you really have no control and no say in who people want to label you as."