APRIL 28, 2013.
Almost exactly twenty years ago, I wrote a feature story about the film version of This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolfe. One of the great coming-of-age stories, This Boy’s Life details Wolfe’s not entirely noble childhood, his close relationship with his resourceful mother, and how he survives when she makes the mistake of moving to the small industrial town of Concrete, WA, to marry a buffoon named Dwight.
The film was being made with Wolfe’s participation and filmed in part in Concrete itself, on the very streets described in the book, which I thought was an intriguing collision of art and life. The film starred Robert De Niro as Dwight, and Ellen Barkin as Wolfe’s mother, and a teenage kid in the film with whom I was completely unfamiliar – the titular “Boy” – a seventeen-year-old weightily named “Leonardo DiCaprio”. He had previously played a secondary part on a canceled ABC sitcom that I didn’t watch. But Barkin told me, “It really is Leonardo’s film; the truth is, Bob and I have support roles … Leonardo holds the film together beautifully,” and the director, Michael Caton-Jones, confidently insisted that DiCaprio was the real deal, a genuine find and fated to be a star.
De Niro, interrupting all-nighters editing A Bronx Tale to speak with me, was tired and grumpy (and who could blame him?); Barkin was cheerful and friendly; and the unknown DiCaprio, in what seems to have been his first interview, was inarticulate, wet-behind-the-ears and frequently apologetic. I liked him.
When Sunday came, I was startled to discover that De Niro, Barkin and DiCaprio had been cut from the article without my knowledge.
Since then, of course, DiCaprio has had an illustrious career, which has included (among other things) his role in Sam Raimi’s “weird western”, The Quick and the Dead.
With his latest film, The Great Gatsby, hitting 3D theaters on May 10, and with DiCaprio recently having announced a retirement from film acting that may prove temporary, I think it’s a good time to dust off that two-decades-old interview for a fresh look at the way he approached his first film and the career that beckoned.
Below is a version of our conversation from 1993, published here for the first time. It’s been edited significantly, and some of the questions have been rearranged.
SSD: When did you start acting?
LDC: Three and a half years ago. … I always wanted to, but I got turned off to it when I was ten, because I went to an agency and they said I had the wrong haircut. Had us all in line like cattle, and said, “No, you’re out, you have the wrong haircut,” and I said, well, shit, is this what it’s all about? This sucks.
SSD: How old are you?
LDC: Me? I’m eighteen. Almost – no, just turning 18, just in like 10 days.
SSD: What have you done before?
LDC: I did Growing Pains, the series. For a year. Right now, I’m up here doing a movie called Gilbert Grape.
SSD: How did you get involved in This Boy’s Life?
LDC: Ahh. I auditioned. [laughs] Well, I auditioned like many times, like five or six times I believe it was, and I remember coming in for a reading for another part just to read with another kid for another part… Then that day I got the part. I wasn’t aware that like they were looking at me. So I guess it was sort of good.
SSD: Did you meet Tobias Wolfe?
LDC: He came [to the set] with his mother and I talked with him for a while. He looked at [my] hair and said, “Wow, that’s exactly like it was when I was a kid. That’s great, cool.” … It was interesting seeing his reaction to how I was, if I looked anything like him, if the period pieces around the neighborhood were right, if I was, you know, if I was going to be worthy. [laughs]
SSD: The way Robert De Niro prepared for the role is that he flew down and met with Tobias Wolfe’s mother and found all these little details about what the real Dwight would have done. Did you have any inclination to do that with the real Tobias Wolfe?
LDC: I mean, he’s a grown man now. If I met with him as a kid that would be completely different ….
SSD: Some of Tobias Wolfe’s step-brothers and step-sisters still live in Concrete, and were extras in the film. Did you talk to them at all?
LDC: I talked to them for five minutes. Saw some pictures they had of what Tobias Wolfe looked like. And he did look similar to me. Not when he was grown up. But, you know, as a young kid, I saw a lot of goofiness that I have. A lot of, you know, just kid, just kid kid kid kid-ness.
SSD: You’re not a kid! You’re almost a legal adult.
LDC: Well, I’m not [a kid] by age. But I still [laughs] – I’m still a kid …. You’re an adult sometimes, but you love to be a kid sometimes. The way it is now, I like being a kid, still.
SSD: What was it like acting with De Niro? Did any of the hostility between the characters carry over to your relationship when the camera was off?
LDC: It’s amazing to watch him be Robert De Niro for a second and then pop right into Dwight. I want to use a fancy word here, but I can’t. … Doing a scene with him, he always made sure that I wasn’t being too affected by it in real life, he was always are you ok, are you ok after some of the scenes were done, but when we got into it, we got into it, and you know, I didn’t have any fear in me while off the set, but when we did it, he scared me, and it comes off good in the movie.
SSD: Is the movie different from your expectations at all?
LDC: [S]eeing the movie was just fantastic, watching all this work and time that everyone spent and that I spent doing it on screen and little things that you’re worried about, things where like Oh shit, I don’t think I nailed it in that scene, and then watching it onscreen and seeing that it’s all ok. All these nervous little things you have about certain scenes or certain ways you did things, that it’s all ok onscreen. It may not always be like that, but in this movie it was, because I was just blown away by how great it was.
SSD: What was it like filming in the real Concrete? What was the mood of the town?
LDC: It was sort of eerie noticing that, you know, this is where he was so depressed and going crazy in this little town, and then you look at the town and you say, you know, I could see how he would have been feeling that way.
SSD: You know you’re going to be doing a lot more interviews, before the movie comes out, right?
LDC: Yeah. I suppose so.
SSD: Are you looking forward to that?
LDC: I’ll take ‘em how it comes; I’m not gonna plan on it or plan my approach or anything, but you know, it’ll turn out ok, because I’ll just tell the truth.
SSD: It must be very exciting. Good luck with it.
LDC: Thanks a lot, man. Sorry, I’m sort of out of it today.
SSD: That’s all right. I know you put in long grueling hours on a movie set.
LDC: Yeah, I do. Almost every day. But pain is temporary, film is forever, as [director] Michael [Caton-Jones] always says, which are words to live by.
SSD: Good luck becoming a big star.
LDC: Who knows? It could or could not happen. It’s one of those things. But hopefully I’ll be an actor, which is what I’m most concerned about. Not a star.