Despite whatever you might have heard, Leonardo DiCaprio‘s self-imposed movie screen exile wasn’t due to his being fat, sullen or full of Hollywood attitude. In fact, when he met the press in New York City to discuss Catch Me If You Can, one of his two big holiday films this year, he was generous, forthcoming, gracious…and positively swoon-worthy.
His positive attitude reflects the breeziness of the Steven Spielberg-directed film he stars in. Then again, with a career that now includes two Oscar-ready films directed by two of the most influential directors of our time (the other being that little Martin Scorsese/Miramax flick, Gangs of New York), what could he possibly complain about?
“My whole education as an actor and my whole training has come from being able to work with the actors that I’ve worked with and watching their process. That’s been my college. The more I work with actors of this caliber, the more I learn, the more I pick up,” DiCaprio says.
Co-star Tom Hanks was no exception. DiCaprio explains, “That guy… the best, a consummate professional. Tom is very much a role model for me because he is able to just refine what he does. He has such a passion and exuberance for the work. I don’t want to get cynical about what I do; I don’t ever want to lose that spirit. So he was a great example about how to retain all that even when you’re at the upper echelons of this business.”
Hanks was equally rhapsodic about his co-star. “Leo is so far ahead of the game–he’s an incredibly talented guy who’s been through wringers that I can’t even begin to comprehend. So he’s got nothing to learn from me!” he says.
Even with DiCaprio‘s talent, filling the very charismatic shoes of the real-life confidence man Frank W. Abagnale Jr. was no easy task. After all, this is a guy who as a teenage con artist managed to cash millions in bad checks while passing himself off as a Pan Am pilot, a Harvard-educated lawyer and a young doctor before getting caught by the FBI.
Add to that the fact that DiCaprio, while still very boyish-looking, is a full-grown 28-year old man, not a 16-year-old. In essence, he had to do the opposite of what Abagnale did–convince moviegoers they were watching a man play a kid, rather than a kid playing a man.
“Well the truth of the matter is, it didn’t even come into my thoughts until a week or so before production. Then it actually dawned on me that I was 11 years this guy’s senior,” says DiCaprio. “It was pretty amazing what he pulled off at such a very early age. But because this guy was mature beyond his years, I had an ease in my mind,” he says. “When I started to learn about him, I found out he had an air of authority ever since he was 16 years old. [Plus], he looked older and actually had gray streaks in his hair when he was 16 or 17–which is why I think he was able to pull off what he did.
“More so than that,” adds the actor, “it was meeting the real Frank Abagnale and sitting down with him, not so much hearing about the stories I read in the book or heard in his seminars or anything like that. It was much more important to me to see how he engaged people and how he was able to make people feel calm and at ease around him. And how you just felt immersed in whatever he was talking about,” he says. “Talk about a great actor, he has that gift… but his stage was the real world.”
Yet DiCaprio doesn’t think any of his acting talent would help him be an effective con artist in the real world. In fact, to hear him tell it, it was not he but Spielberg who once had a bit of the teenage swindler in him. “I really wish I had an interesting, gallant tale
of how I embodied somebody else or pulled the wool over somebody’s eyes,” says DiCaprio, “but actually, Mr. Spielberg is the one that really was like a young con man! He told [us] a story of going to the Universal lot when he was very young and impersonating a director or producer or something like that,” he explains. “He put on the ‘proper clothing,’ and was going in and watching people edit or watching directors work on various television shows. That’s where he says he got a lot of his education.”
Of course, when asked about any teenage con behaviors, Spielberg begs to differ. “I wasn’t like Frank Abagnale. I was shy; I was mama’s boy. I made a lot of 8mm movies at home, I wasn’t popular at school, I had a little film club at home where we made movies every weekend…and I was like one of those jerks they stuck in the science department. I was always with all the other high school rejects,” he asserts. “I was nothing like Frank–I couldn’t have done any of the things Frank did.”
When pressed about the incident DiCaprio mentioned, Spielberg is quick to clarify. “The closest I came was the day I disguised myself as a junior executive at 16 and walked onto the Universal Studios lot carrying a briefcase. That was the only time I did an ‘Abagnale.’ But that was out of a desperate desire to be a moviemaker.”
Despite what he claims were his shortcomings as a high schooler, Spielberg is now at the top of everyone’s “A” List. But as it happened, his Hollywood power-player status was exactly the reason why he was initially overlooked as a director for Catch Me If You Can. DiCaprio had long been attached to play Abagnale, but it was some time before anybody brought it to Spielberg to direct. Before that happened, the producers, looking for assistance, asked DiCaprio for some suggestions on who to fill the director’s chair.
DiCaprio explains, “They asked me to compile a list, and I never even put Steven on that list. I never thought it would be a movie he would be interested in. But Dreamworks got it to him, he read it and called me up and said, ‘Hey, is there a director involved? I’m interested in this project.’ I never thought it was possible!”
Catch Me If You Can opens Dec. 25.