Leonardo DiCaprio's nomination is for smart portrayal in 'Grape'

What's surprising about Leonardo DiCaprio is that in person, he isn't all that different from Arnie, whom he plays in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape."

That is surprising because Arnie is mentally retarded -- and Mr. DiCaprio most certainly is not.


He's a smart, successful 19-year-old with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Mr. DiCaprio is also restless and fidgety. His eyes roam, his fingers pester his face, his arms and upper body go all gangly. He seems to be somewhere else -- or to want to be.


But on this evening several weeks before the Oscar nominations, he is trapped in an office on the Paramount lot.

Inside the nearby Paramount theater are insiders -- friends of the producers, friends of friends of the producers, Paramount queen Sherry Lansing -- all attending a celebration screening of "Gilbert Grape." In the lobby, wine and tiny hors d'oeuvres are set out for the afterglow.

Mr. DiCaprio has already done many tiny TV interviews this night, the kind where he sits in one chair and pancaked pod people rotate through every few minutes.

Each wants to know: How hard was it to play a retarded person? How would he feel about an Oscar? And who the heck is he anyhow?

Mr. DiCaprio didn't exactly come from nowhere. At 14, he starred in an educational film, "How to Deal with a Parent Who Takes Drugs."

He was in episodes of "Santa Barbara" and "Roseanne." He was Gary in "Parenthood," and he played Luke, the homeless kid, in "Growing Pains."

That made him a magnet for teen-age girls. It got him into teen magazines. He was not pleased.

"They bring kids in and portray 'em as the next cute guy," he says. "But then what happens to that guy when the next face comes in? What happens to his career? It's more important to be a long-lasting actor than any kind of idol, I think."


Mr. DiCaprio obviously has what it takes. He beat out hundreds of other boys for the leading role of Toby in "This Boy's Life," his first big movie.

He held his own as the kid caught between Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin in "This Boy's Life."

This time, he steals "Gilbert Grape" right out from under Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis and 500-pound Darlene Cates, who plays his mother in the movie. No easy feat.

Mr. DiCaprio's portrayal of a retarded teen-ager is eerily convincing and yet seemingly effortless.

Before he auditioned for the role, he was given a videotape of "what they sort of wanted the character to be like, and I basically sort of mimicked that."

But, he says, "It was an intense audition. I had to do the scene, 'I'm not going anywhere, I'm not going anywhere, Gilbert' and the whole sequence where Juliette is in the car with me and Gilbert and I'm talking about my party."


Director Lasse Hallstrom made him feel comfortable at the audition: "If he was a really overbearing kind of guy, I wouldn't have been relaxed like I was. I felt really relaxed."

Mr. Hallstrom says: "In the first audition, I noticed that his gaze became different when he did the reading and was amazed that he seemed to be able to enter the mind of the mentally challenged kid intuitively."

Mr. DiCaprio did spend some time visiting a school for developmentally retarded and autistic teen-agers. He adopted the characteristics of voice, manner and behavior from several different boys, creating his own character.

Mr. DiCaprio diagnoses Arnie as "pretty severely mentally retarded.

"I could have made him autistic. I could have made him anything. He was officially . . . 'mentally retarded' but I like to call him Arnie."

Earlier, a TV interviewer had asked whether playing Arnie was painful. In fact, "It was great fun!"


Mr. DiCaprio explains: "The character of Arnie had no limitation. He did what he wanted to do at the time he wanted to do it."

The film he's making now is "The Quick and the Dead," directed by Sam Raimi. This time, Gene Hackman plays his father.

About playing against the likes of Mr. Hackman and Mr. De Niro, the young actor says, "I wasn't really intimidated. I just think of them as good actors but normal men, you know? Mere mortals. Yet having a good talent."

One role Mr. DiCaprio wanted but didn't get was River Phoenix's part in "Interview with the Vampire." After Phoenix's sudden death last fall, the role went to Christian Slater, even though it was rumored Mr. DiCaprio was cast. "I was too young-looking, I believe," he explains.

In the meantime, he says, between movies he just hangs out with his friends, hangs out with his dog, at the Los Angeles home he shares with his parents. "Just bein' a kid," he explains. "Kid -- I shouldn't say that anymore. I should say 'guy.' I always say 'kid.' But I am a kid."