By 'Today' anchor
NBC News
updated 12/6/2004 5:45:58 PM ET 2004-12-06T22:45:58

He's an Academy Award nominated actor, a heartthrob and a gazillionaire. But for all he has, he's traded away one very important thing -- his privacy. His face is arguably one of most recognizable in the world. And he's a top target of the tabloids. Has it all been worth it? Or does he consider the price of fame too high?

Hughes' film "Hell's Angels" was the "Titanic" of it's time -- the most expensive movie ever made, and a bona fide blockbuster. No wonder Leonardo DiCaprio found it so easy to walk a mile in another man's shoes. 

Couric: ”That was, in a way, your life, wasn't it, when ‘Titanic’ came out for awhile? And probably still is in many ways.”

DiCaprio: “Well, not every day's like that, thank God. But yes, it did remind me of the ‘Titanic’ experience in a lot of ways.”

DiCaprio: “And I just remember seeing the thousands of people in the streets and the mobs of people that came to see the premiere of that film. And it was one of the more surreal experiences I've ever had in my life.  I knew that things were going to change.”

One thing that didn't have to change was his address. Leo was born and raised in Hollywood. But in the late 70s, the heat from those sweeping searchlights wasn't keeping one family warm.

Couric: “You grew up pretty dirt poor, didn't you?”

DiCaprio: “Mm-hm.”

Couric: “And you must have felt as if you were light years away from the Walk of Fame.”

DiCaprio: “The Hollywood dream?”

Couric: “Yeah.”

Though his dad, a comic book creator, and his mom, a legal secretary, separated when he was just a baby, they both took active roles in his education -- and eventually, his acting.

DiCaprio: “My mother drove me two hours a day to go to the best possible school in L.A. as far as elementary school is concerned. And they gave me the best possible life they could. But it was rough, you know. It was rough.”

Couric: “I know when you were 11, you went for a casting call, I guess, for a commercial. And you said it felt like a cattle call.”

DiCaprio: “Yeah.”

Couric: “With the casting director sort of saying, ‘Yes, no, yes, yes, no, no, no.’ And you were a no?"

DiCaprio: “Mm-hm.”

Couric: “Didn't that give you just a terrible taste in your mouth for the business? I mean, how were you able to keep going?”

DiCaprio: “It was demoralizing. Because they didn't even try to get to know you as a human being. You looked at you as a product like a packaged piece of meat. And they said, ‘Okay. Your hair's wrong. Get out of here, basically. You know? And—“

Couric: “And you're just 11.”

DiCaprio: “Yeah, I was just 11 years old. And to have that experience was -- I remember my father sitting down with me saying, ‘You know what? It's not all like this. You're going to have your day one day.’”

Banking on his baby face, the DiCaprios took a gamble. They let Leo quit school at age 14 and got him a tutor and an agent!

DiCaprio: “I knew at a very, very young age that this was what I wanted to do, for whatever reason. I don't know why.”

katie: “Yeah, why?”
DiCaprio: “I don't know.”

Couric: “What was it?”

DiCaprio: “I don't know why.”

Couric: “I mean, did you see a movie and think, ‘Oh, I want to be that person?’ Or—“

DiCaprio: “And I wasn't even a big movie buff. I just liked to imitate people. And I liked to-- I liked drama class. I liked doing little plays in school. And I was just taken by it. I hated every other subject in school, could not stand math. I said, ‘Why are they teaching me things that I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever? I will never have anything to do with math for the rest of my life. Why must I take calculus and these gut-wrenching—‘”

Couric: “Shhh.”

DiCaprio: “Oh, sorry, yeah.

Couric: “Kids are watching.

DiCaprio: “You know what? Go out and get a get a great education. I take that back. Take that back wholeheartedly. That's wrong of me.”

But Leo honed his street smarts when he landed a recurring role as a homeless teenager on the hit series "Growing Pains," in 1991.   

With television firmly in the bag, Leo set his sights on the big screen -- and a defining moment came at 19 when he found himself up for a role in "This Boy's Life," opposite his childhood idol, Robert DeNiro.

Couric: ”You met him and you decided you had to do something that would make him sort of stand up and take notice. So what did you do?”

DiCaprio: “My whole idea or theory was that I had to do something to stand out… One of my favorite sequences in the movie is where he's pestering me over and over again. And I have to say ‘no.’ So I got all my courage up. Stood up to him and screamed ‘No!’ And just stood there with my veins pumping thinking, you know, ‘I really knocked this guy out.’ And I just saw this smirk come over his face. And pretty soon the whole room was in hysterics. And he was laughing. And it was a complete nightmare.”

More like a dream come true. He got the job and suddenly DiCaprio was in demand. He would make eight movies in four years -- even earning an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."

But once "Titanic" went down in history as the highest grossing movie of all time, Leo DiCaprio quickly rose to the top of the tabloids' most wanted list. 

Couric: “I also read that you're sorry, in some ways, that you did that movie.”

DiCaprio: “Not at all. Because for me, as an actor, it's given me so many more opportunities as an actor that I could possibly imagine, number one. But number two, I'm a part of, you know, a piece of art that's going to live on for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, you know. And I go anywhere, literally anywhere in the world and people know that movie. You know, it's a little invasion on my privacy. I hate talking about it because there are much bigger problems.”

Couric: “Having said that, you're quoted as saying the paparazzi makes your life miserable. You've called them "stalkerazzi" photographers saying, ‘I hate a lot of them to death, but I have to find a way to deal with it until there's a law.’ Are they just a nuisance, or do you feel that they're dangerous?“

DiCaprio: “Once again, I feel always so shallow when I talk about it. Because I feel like I live a blessed life and--

Couric: “And other people are listening to you going, "Wah-wah."

DiCaprio: “And I don't want-- yeah, exactly.”

Couric: ”You know, deal with it, buddy.”

DiCaprio: ”Exactly.

Couric: “You get paid millions of dollars.”

DiCaprio: “And I agree with them. I agree with them. But when I'm asked specifically about the paparazzi, that's my answer. They are out of control. They're not journalists, they're not photographers. They're just…”

Couric: ”Bloodsuckers!”

DiCaprio: ”They are. They are!”

In the seven years since "Titanic," DiCaprio's movie roles have met with mixed reactions.  And his reputation as a notorious night-crawler has had Hollywood insiders wondering if Leo preferred bars to  backlots. 

Couric: “For a while, you were being portrayed in the press as sort of a bad boy, Mr. bar hopping crazy party animal.”

DiCaprio: “Uh-huh.”

Couric: “Thinking you're all that and a bag of chips.”

DiCaprio: “Uh-huh.”

Couric: “First of all, who knows if that was true, by the way.”

DiCaprio: “Uh-huh.”

Couric: “But do you feel like that you're a little older and wiser now at the ripe, old age of 30?”

DiCaprio: “No.”

Couric: “No.”

DiCaprio: No. Because I mean, I feel old-- I feel like I've had a lot more experiences, and I've learned a lot of things through my experiences. But I don't feel now that I've turned 30, you know, a legitimate man, per se. I have all-- I'm the same kind of guy. But you know, I've lived a little more, and I've seen a lot more, and experienced a lot more. And the media, as soon as you're up on a pedestal for whatever reason, they try to label you immediately as something, and it goes with everyone, not just actors, but everyone. That's what it was unfortunately for a while there, but who cares?”

But at least one director isn't worried about DiCaprio's dedication: Martin Scorsese, who says their relationship is much like the one he has with another famous collaborator, Robert DeNiro. 

Scorsese: “You know I'm 30 years older. But I do find that, interestingly enough, we seem to be attracted to the same subject matter. He even knows music that I know from the 1940s. In terms of sensibility, it just seems to be very similar.”

Couric: “You've had tremendous success, and some movies that were disappointments.”

DiCaprio: “Uh-huh.”

Couric: “Has that helped you gain perspective in this crazy world of Hollywood, and celebrity, and movie making?”

DiCaprio: “It just drives you to want to make better art. It really does, you know? None of us have a guarantee, even if you work with some of the greatest people, you still don't have a guarantee, so you just try your best, that's all.”

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