Leonardo DiCaprio apologizes as he reaches for an e-cigarette; he's spent a long day taking photos and doing interviews, and has been longing for a break. As he relaxes in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, he stops to admire the setting Los Angeles sun and offers a simple tribute: "Wow, that's gorgeous."

There is something cinematic about the handsome actor against the backdrop of the sunset, and something egalitarian about one of the biggest stars in the world being moved by a simple act of nature. Though he has specialized in larger-than-life characters in recent films like "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "The Great Gatsby," DiCaprio comes off as remarkably down to earth.

"When I started acting, I didn't think of it as a career," DiCaprio, 39, says of his early start as a pre-teen appearing in commercials. "I always thought Hollywood was this magical world where a fairy came down and said, 'Come live with the Munchkins; you are now one of us.' " He laughs. "I didn't understand the concept of it as a career. I thought I would save up enough money to go to college."

DiCaprio's parents divorced when he was a year old, and he lived primarily with his mother, Irmelin, in a hardscrabble neighborhood he affectionately refers to as "Prostitution Alley," near Western Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. "I saw all the moral decay you could, beginning at 2 years old," he notes. "But I also got to see how the other half lived." That was thanks to a to scholarship to University Elementary School, a magnet program of UCLA, in the tony Westwood section of Los Angeles. His mother would drive him 45 minutes to school and back every day. "I could see that this other world was out there. And if I could only get my shot, I would never waste the opportunity. That mentality and that gratitude are still in me."

Because DiCaprio is a star, it can be easy to forget he's also an accomplished actor. It's been 20 years since he landed his first Oscar nomination, at the age of 19, for his stirring performance as an autistic teenager in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Though he became an international superstar with "Titanic" in 1997, he has mostly eschewed heartthrob roles in favor of character parts and the opportunity to work with great directors.

At the top of that list is Martin Scorsese, who calls DiCaprio one of the hardest working actors he's ever directed. They've made five films together, beginning with 2002's "Gangs of New York," and the partnership has paid off for both men. DiCaprio brought his long-gestating Howard Hughes biopic, "The Aviator," to life with Scorsese at the helm; Scorsese finally landed an Academy Award for directing the 2006 crime drama "The Departed." Their latest collaboration, "The Wolf of Wall Street," has earned each of them dual Oscar nominations: Both received bids as producers, plus Scorsese scored a director nom, DiCaprio his fourth acting nom.

Though DiCaprio faces stiff competition for best actor, the perf might just be the one that finally wins the elusive statue for the thesp, who's being critically lauded for capturing the pure raging id of real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort. There is nothing his character won't snort, and no one he won't sleep with, and the actor strikes a remarkable balance between high-stakes drama and raucous comedy. It's a challenging role he spent years attempting to bring to the bigscreen, and then fearlessly threw himself into -- quite literally. One infamous scene that finds Belfort in a Quaalude-induced haze sent the actor to a chiropractor after he spent days writhing around on the floor during shooting.

While many actors half as famous would have hesitated to play a figure as inherently unlikable as Belfort -- surely most would have winced at the prospect of the scene in which he sports a lit candle in his rectum -- DiCaprio didn't flinch. The movie has proved controversial, with some arguing it glorifies abhorrent behavior. "We knew we were doing a movie about incredibly distasteful people, and their likability would be questioned," DiCaprio acknowledges. "But Marty said, 'I've done a lot of movies like this, and I find that if you're authentic in your portrayal of their nature and don't try to give them a false sense of motivation, audiences will go along with you on the journey.' "

The hard part for the actor has been promoting the film. Notoriously private, DiCaprio has been opening up lately, relentlessly stumping for "Wolf," and even going so far as to appear on "Saturday Night Live." "I really wanted this movie to succeed, because to me, you don't see R-rated films like this getting made that aren't on an epic scale," he says. "So I'm glad this film is now in the green. Studios ultimately look at what works and what doesn't, and greenlight the things that do."

In fact, "The Wolf of Wall Street," like the majority of Oscar-nominated films this year, was not bankrolled by a studio but rather independent financiers (Red Granite), with Paramount responsible for its distribution and marketing in the U.S. and Japan.

DiCaprio, who shot "Wolf" after finishing Baz Luhrmann's "Gatsby" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," hasn't yet made another film. He's been focusing on his environmental work, including an auction for the 11th Hour, a wildlife charity tied to the 2007 documentary film he narrated. The event raised more than $38 million. It was just announced he will reteam with "Wolf" co-star Jonah Hill to star in an adaptation of Marie Brenner's 1997 Vanity Fair article "The Ballad of Richard Jewell." But for now he's enjoying something he's rarely experienced in the past 20 years as an actor: unemployment.

When DiCaprio began auditioning around the age of 12, the environment was cutthroat, he recalls. "Kids would try to intimidate each other, stare each other down -- say, 'Man, don't even go in, I already got the job,' " he recalls with a laugh. "But through the process, I also met some of my best friends in the world."

That includes actor Tobey Maguire, with whom he recently starred in "Gatsby." Maguire says even at a young age, DiCaprio's talent was obvious. "I went on one movie audition and I said, 'I know who you guys are going to end up hiring. This kid named Leonardo DiCaprio,' " Maguire recalls. "He hadn't even read yet, but sure enough, he ended up getting that role."

The film, the 1991 sci-fi horror comedy "Critters 3," marked DiCaprio's first movie gig. That same year, he landed a part on the TV series "Growing Pains," which he says was a crash course in being on a set. But it was his next film, 1993's "This Boy's Life," based on Tobias Wolff's memoir of growing up with an abusive stepfather, that would truly set his career on its course.

"It was the coveted role for every boy in his teens," DiCaprio recalls. "You would be starring opposite Robert De Niro." Even at the age of 14, he knew who De Niro was -- his father George had taken him to see "Midnight Run" when Leo was 9. "He said, 'You want to be an actor; you want to know what a great actor is?' " recalls DiCaprio. "He took me to the movie and said, 'This is a great actor.' "