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A Powerfully Complex ‘Boy’s Life’ : This Boy Is Taking His Acting Life Very Seriously

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“This Boy’s Life” is bringing 18-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio flattering reviews and job offers. So, he’d just as soon like to forget his more humble beginnings as an actor.

“Why does everyone know about this? Yeah, it was my first movie and uh . . . is this in like the press package thing? Does it say ‘Critters III’ in bold red letters?”

Well, not red.

And then there’s always . . .

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“The public service announcements? That’s not exactly a career booster there.”

DiCaprio is squirming at this point, though he can probably relax. Besides “This Boy’s Life,” he has got “Gilbert Grape” coming out this fall, directed by Lasse Hallstrom (“My Life as a Dog”). He gets to flex his acting muscles there, playing a mentally handicapped character. He is also at the enviable point where he can choose his next role rather than audition for it.

“Mickey’s Safety Club” probably can be dropped from his resume.

In “This Boy’s Life,” DiCaprio stars with two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin. He knew he was working with two dramatic heavyweights.

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“I could think of it as being intimidating,” he says during an interview in a Beverly Hills hotel.

“I just tried to not concentrate on it because then I would be too involved with them and not my performance in the movie. And I wouldn’t be thinking about having to fill the potential I have for making this a good movie, because basically it was on my shoulders.”

DiCaprio is, indeed, the center of the “This Boy’s Life,” adapted from Tobias Wolff’s autobiographical novel of the same name. He plays Toby, whose mother (Barkin) marries the mentally and physically abusive Dwight (De Niro).

“This doesn’t necessarily happen to every kid, but that’s not what the story is all about--the abusive things. It’s about a lot more than that. It’s a real depiction of how a boy grows up in the ‘50s, the struggle. It’s very honest, which is the main thing I liked about the book and the script and the movie--that it’s honest to ‘This Boy’s Life,’ Tobias Wolff’s life,” he says.

DiCaprio isn’t steering his career toward comedy or drama, but projects that are “real.” It’s rare, he says, to find a good story that hasn’t been done before--something he thinks he succeeded in doing with “This Boy’s Life.”

“The fight scenes were pretty rough--not physically hurting--but mental anguish. You feel drained emotionally. Being an actor, I know it’s not real. But if you’re in the moment and what you’re doing is real to yourself, you just can’t help but feel emotionally disrupted,” he says.

DiCaprio calls the role of Toby “the best part . . . for a young man in decades.” Fortunately, he wasn’t drawing on too much of his own experience.

“Well, I could say I stemmed it from the abuse of my dog, or something. No, it was basically acting,” he says. “I don’t have a father like that. He’s not like Dwight in any way. I couldn’t really stem it from anything because I had a great childhood. I guess being frustrated as a teen-ager is probably the only thing.”

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So maybe there are no Method acting classes in his background. Actually, there are no acting classes, period.

“I wasn’t really serious about (acting) until I started getting roles and realizing that I actually liked to act. Then I understood more about being an actor and what it was all about. Now I realize this is something I want to do for a long time, if not forever.”

This decision process started when he was about 14 and got some guest parts on TV series. In 1991, he landed the role of Luke, a homeless boy who moves in with the family on “Growing Pains.” But now he has to make that critical transition from teen actor to actor.

“I’ll have to make that transition very soon, like now. You know . . . as soon as my body starts maturing,” he says, deliberately deepening his voice. “I’ll have to start changing the course of my career to adapt to better situations with adult roles . . . you know what I mean, right? You can say that for me.”

Is there anyone whose made this transition successfully? “River Phoenix. . . . it’s not necessarily the transition that I respect most, but (his) staying there with good parts and good films and just hacking away at it slowly and getting the respect as an adult actor now.”

Suddenly DiCaprio darts across the room and grabs a highlighted copy of a fax--his favorite article ever written about him--and starts reading.

“I’ll just say this to you, OK?” he says, reading what he said in the earlier article: “ ‘You know, when I was doing ‘Growing Pains’ I had quite a teen following. For a while, I was third in fan mail or something like that. To tell you the truth, I don’t like that. Being the hunk-of-the month annoys me. They bring you in like a piece of meat, saying, ‘Here’s the next cute kid.’ And it could ruin your career, you get washed up really fast. I’m looking for longevity.

“ ‘I insist on keeping a level head. I don’t care about being a star. Anybody can be a star with a little makeup and a music video. I’m concerned about being an actor. ‘ “

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He reads his own lines very well. Of course, this is a character he can really identify with.


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