Leonardo DiCaprio for “Gangs of New York”

It’s quite the year for Leonardo Di Caprio. Within five days, movie audiences in the US will get to see two very different sides of this Hollywood superstar, and as the actor tells Paul Fischer, he is up to the challenge.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s modestly casual dress sense is not indicative of the actor’s star power. Sporting a slight goatee, he is clearly worn out with all the press he is required to undertake. After all, he has not one but two films coming out, both with A-list directors and both equally significant in their own right. But for the unassuming 28-year old, “they’re just characters”, he says, when asked if each character represents a different side to him.

In DiCaprio’s post-Titanic world of superstardom, the actor has been able to choose projects with an intense public scrutiny usually unheard of in Tinseltown. While he stumbled somewhat with The Beach, the actor will be more than visible when two of the most high profiler directors premiere their latest films. Yet after Titanic elevated the actor to superstar realms, he knew his centred world was about to change, and as far as he is concerned, not necessarily for the better.

“Certainly after Titanic came out, I was focusing on things that had nothing to do with the art, but all the business around the art form,” DiCaprio explains, angrily. “It was all about THIS story or THAT story coming out about me, or THIS photograph, and all the business with agents, publicists and managers that really can be extremely frustrating and distracting, as well as ultimately a waste of time. There’s no real control over how the media or the public perceives you. You can only speak for yourself as an artist through the work that you do.” For Di Caprio, that whole period following the release of Titanic, he says, “Was a reflective time for me, but I think I’ve remained consistent in the fact that I’ve just always wanted to have great filmmaking experiences. That’s what brought me into ‘titanic’ in the first place, in that I wanted to have an experience that I never had before.” The actor adds that he “learned to just be even more specific about my goals as an actor and focus on the work more so than ever, and really wait for the right project. I didn’t want to squander the opportunities that I had, make films that I felt like were recycled versions of ones we’ve seen 100 times before. I wanted to make films that were time capsules for the future, that were important and people remembered.”

Films such as Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, the director’s 19th century-set tale of the ferocious battles between Irish immigrants and so-called Native New Yorkers. DiCaprio is the latter, whose proud Irish father is viciously killed in a street battle. Di Caprio, who recently saw the finished film, believes that Gangs “is a great film. I truly think that this is going to have resonance for years to come. I just feel so proud that so many of the things that we initially talked about, such as our characters, what we wanted the audience to be left with, the dramatic sweep of history that washes over these people, came to pass. I ultimately felt at the end of the movie I knew that all of our efforts weren’t put in vain,” DiCaprio says with genuine passion.”

The actor disagrees that because of its parochial setting, it may have trouble finding an audience outside America. Di Caprio sees the film as “a small microcosm of something that represents something much larger than it is. It’s about the integration of people, and I think that has relevance worldwide and I believe understanding more about our history and our past, we can understand more about our future,” Di Caprio maintains. “It’s very much a contained story, very much specific about New York history, but what’s happening around the world nowadays, is that we’re immersing with the rest of the world, and as a result, there is going to be conflict. People have asked me, what relevance does this have to today? I don’t think there should be specific statements about that. But I think when you understand a small story, and it’s very specific, it’s about human struggle, it definitely represents something larger if you read and look into it.”

DiCaprio hopes audiences will see the largest picture. “This is a coming of age story about a young man trying to stake a claim for himself in this new world, find that American dream and that opportunity, and ultimately fight for his people. This is really the story of an immigrant coming into America, the formation of a democracy, and the test that America is; it’s the beginnings of a pluralistic society.”

DiCaprio, who also stars in the true story of a 1960s teen con artist in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, won’t be drawn on making comparisons between the two directors. In comparing a Spielberg with a Scorsese set, the actor remains elusive. “You have to take into account that one was an epic, and one was almost like a road movie and one was like a fast-paced independent film. I don’t know how Spielberg works on an epic film, I haven’t had that experience, and vice versa. I think that what Spielberg has on set is this unique ability to get everyone, every department and everyone working around him, bring the best out of people. I think he wanted to have an extreme, energetic pace on Catch Me, which is very much what my character was going through, because he lived in a very fast world. That’s the opposite of ‘Gangs of New York’ which felt more like an old-style epic.” The actor has no qualms about having both films come ou virtually at the same time. “People will see two completely different characters, and that’s representational of me as an actor, which is a good thing.”

The actor’s professional future is looking bright and rosy. He has confirmed that “it looks like” he will star in Baz Luhrmann’ s Alexander the Great biopic, director Robert De Niro’s CIA drama The Good Shepherd. But prior to those, DiCaprio will be reunited with Scorsese on the Howard Hughes bio, The Aviator. “Howard Hughes is certainly an n extremely complex character to play and very multi-dimensional. I read his biography when I was 18 years old, initially sent the project to Michael Mann and developed it with him. There was a three-year writing process. Michael had finished ‘Ali’ and wanted to try something different, so we sent it to Marty, and it was a subject matter that he was fascinated with and so wanted to be a part of it, which was pretty amazing.” DiCaprio agrees that he is living a charmed life. “I can’t say enough, that I am the product of good fortune. My main thing is, that I just don’t want to squander these opportunities that I have.”