What's it like when, almost overnight, a handsome, charming 22-year-old is catapulted into worldwide fame in the biggest-grossing movie of all time?
"There's no handbook for fame," Leonardo DiCaprio told 20/20's Barbara Walters in his first in-depth television interview in 10 years. "There's no handbook for being splashed on the cover of People magazine when you didn't want to be there, or being on the cover of the Enquirer, you know, all these magazines, and being talked about here and there, speculated, you know, 'Who's he? What's he doing here? What's he doing with this person?' or whatever. I had nobody to talk to. I had nobody to guide me."
As part of his fame, DiCaprio, who just turned 28, has had to get used to having his personal life scrutinized by the media, and his movies judged against the phenomenal success of Titanic, which is the only film ever to surpass $1 billion at the box office.
But he is quick to point out that his fame has had benefits, too. "I'm not at all going to sit here and say that I'm not completely grateful," he told Walters. "I feel completely blessed for everything that has happened in my career."
Says New Movies Are Not a Comeback
DiCaprio is starring in two of the most anticipated holiday releases this season: Catch Me If You Can, the true story of 1960s con man Frank Abagnale, directed by Steven Spielberg and co-starring Tom Hanks; and director Martin Scorsese's long-awaited Gangs of New York.
It has been three years since his last film, The Beach, which was a box office disappointment. While many Hollywood observers are saying the success or failure of the two films will be a defining moment in his career, DiCaprio says he does not consider them in any way an attempt at a comeback.
"I sort of do films when I feel it is time to do them and I'm drawn to a certain role or a character or a film, or working with a great director like Steven," he said, gesturing at Spielberg, who was sitting in on the interview along with Hanks.
DiCaprio said he chooses scripts not for their box-office potential, but for their challenging roles. "What I live for is those ... moments where you really feel like it's real life, and you're in this character, and you're in this moment and you're recreating life as it goes along. That to me is like a drug. It's like the ultimate high."
DiCaprio was born in Los Angeles to parents he describes as "Bohemians in every sense of the word." His father, George DiCaprio, was a performance artist and comic book distributor. His mother, Irmalin DiCaprio, was working at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence when she was pregnant with him. According to family legend, Leonardo got his name because he started kicking like crazy one day when his parents were looking at a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci in the Uffizi. "My dad, being the man that picks up on cosmic messages, said that 'His name must be Leonardo,'" DiCaprio said.
His parents divorced soon after he was born, but both continued to play an active role in his life, and his mother and father both help manage his career today. "They're the people I trust the most in the world," he said.
Lenny Williams, King of the World?
DiCaprio says he decided to be an actor when he was just 6 years old. He auditioned for years without landing a part, and at one point an agent even suggested he change his name to Lenny Williams. By the time he was in his early teens, though, it was not his name that was turning off casting directors, but his personal style: he was a break dancer with "a punk-like Mohawk haircut," he says now.
But then, he says, he grew his hair out and began getting commercials. By the time he was 16, he had appeared in more than 30 commercials for products like Bubble Yum bubble gum, Kraft Free cheese singles and Matchbox cars.
In 1991, he landed a part on the sitcom Growing Pains, along with the adulation of thousands of teenybopper fans. His first movie role was in Critters III the same year, but his real break came with two movies in 1993: This Boy's Life, with Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, which earned him an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as Johnny Depp's mentally handicapped brother. He next played a high school athlete turned heroin addict in The Basketball Diaries, then the lead in Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann's hip, modern version of the Shakespeare play. Then, in 1997, came Titanic and the beginning of superstardom.