Leonardo DiCaprio's stardom launched aboard Titanic, but it steams forward thanks to the actor's choice in captains.
Since he graduated from Growing Painsin 1992, DiCaprio has served as muse for, among others, James Cameron,Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, helping the last win his firstdirecting Oscar in 2006'sThe Departed.
On Christmas Day, DiCaprio teams with another filmmaking icon, Quentin Tarantino, in Django Unchained,the director's spaghetti Western about a former slave (Jamie Foxx)determined to free his wife (Kerry Washington) from a ruthlessplantation owner (DiCaprio).
The film, set two years before the Civil War, marks new territory for the 38-year-old DiCaprio: villainy.
"The guy is a self-indulgent, racist bastard," he says of the character by phone while on a break from shooting The Wolf of Wall Street, his fifth collaboration with Scorsese.
DiCaprio played a brutal cop in Scorsese's The Departed and an avenging street hood in the director's Gangs of New York in 2002. But DiCaprio says he wanted to go "all-out corrupt" with a role.
He found it in Django's slave-owning Calvin Candie, a character DiCaprio says "represents the moral decay of a corrupt South then."
DiCapriosays that while he was in the mood to play a reprobate, "you have to becareful who you trust that power with. I've seen good material go tothe wrong filmmaker, and it never captures what you believed the storywas supposed to be."
DiCaprio has a reputation as one of the mostselective actors in the industry, and he doesn't so much audition for arole as grill a director like a recruit at a job interview.
"Iguess you could say I target most of the directors I want to work with,"says DiCaprio, a film buff known for sending scripts unsolicited todirectors who he believes could handle the story.
Tarantino says he was surprised to hear of DiCaprio's interest ? and concedes he was swayed by the pitch.
"Iwas thinking, possibly, of an older actor" to play Candie, Tarantinosays. "And then Leo read the script and liked it and we got together andstarted talking."
That's usually all it takes to seal the deal.In addition to earning three best-picture Oscar nominations, DiCaprio'sfilms have earned $1.9 billion at the box office in North America alone,or about $91 million a movie, according to Box Office Mojo.
But like the critical success, DiCaprio says, commercial fortune lies in picking the right employer.
"Mywhole theory is that filmmaking is a director's medium. They're thequintessential part of making a film memorable. It's like any job ? youwant to find someone who has a clear sense of direction but isn't afraidto collaborate."
On the eve of the release of what promises to bea memorable pairing with Tarantino, DiCaprio reflects on some of hiscareer highlights with other partnerships:
Film: Titanic (1997)
Result:This juggernaut would make DiCaprio the planet's biggest star and setnearly every box-office record of its day. The film remains thesecond-biggest earner of all time, collecting $659 million. It won 11Oscars, including best picture and best director.
DiCaprio says the success of Titanic, shot largely underwater with huge sets, allowed him to choose his directors ever since.
"Iremember talking with (co-star) Kate (Winslet), and we were these indieactors wondering what gigantic world we were going to walk into. Youcan't describe the shock value of what he built. I've never met someonewith a grander vision than James."
Film: Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Result: The true story of con man Frank Abagnale Jr. was a relatively quiet hit among fans and critics. Catch earned $165 million and Oscar nominations for co-star Christopher Walken and composer John Williams.
DiCaprioremember his nervousness about meeting Spielberg. "He's one of thegreat directors ? 1,000 years from now you'll be talking about hismovies." But he says Spielberg immediately disarmed him with a smile andownership of the Abagnale role. "He said, 'Experiment with him. Shapethis character.' Steven Spielberg is saying this to me. He's a legend,and still one of the most kind, generous, good-hearted human beings onthe planet. You just never want to be on his bad side."
Films:Gangs of New York (2002),The Aviator (2004),The Departed (2006),Shutter Island (2010)
Result:Scorsese made a name working with De Niro and Harvey Keitel, butDiCaprio has lifted the director among the greats. In addition tobox-office triumphs (only Gangs, at $78 million, did not make at least $100 million), the pairing brought Scorsese the long-awaited best-director Oscar with The Departed. They'll re-team for next year's drama The Wolf of Wall Street.
Though DiCaprio had his own Academy Award nomination that year (for best actor for Blood Diamond),he recalls concentrating on another race. When he heard Scorsese's nameas the winning director, DiCaprio recalls, he could finally relax atthe show. "I just kept thinking how I had worked with this man whochanged cinema ? he brought grit we'd never seen to celluloid ? and itwas his time. (When he won), I just thought, 'That's so overdue.' "
Film: Inception (2010)
Result: A box-office and critical smash, Inception would collect $293 million and eight Oscar nominations, winning for cinematography, visual effects and two for sound.
DiCaprio says Nolan, director of the Batman trilogy, reminded him ofTarantino in that he knew exactly what he wanted from actors, includinghow lines were to be spoken. But, like Tarantino, Nolan loves actorinput. "We spent 1½ months just talking about the script and character,"he says. of the mind-bending story. "As much spectacle as he puts intohis movies, I've never seen him in a moment when he wasn't concentratingon the drama of the characters."
Film: J. Edgar (2011)
Result:While the story of the former FBI chief was meant to be an Oscarcontender, it stalled at the box office and at middle-tier awards,collecting $37 million and a best-actor nomination from the BroadcastFilm Critics Association.
Still, DiCaprio walked away fromthe project in awe of Eastwood, one of the fastest directors inHollywood. "There's no BS on set, it's a very small crew, and he reallyis fast," DiCaprio says. "But he never stopped me from doing as manytakes as I needed. He's straight to the point, but that brings out thebest in you."
Despite the Hall of Fame references on hisrésumé, DiCaprio credits the longevity of his career to a little-knowndirector, Michael Caton-Jones, who led DiCaprio in his first big-studiopicture in the 1993 drama This Boy's Life, with Robert De Niro.
DiCaprio remembers a scene when De Niro, playing the young actor'sabusive father, was called upon to rough up the then-16-year-old.
"There I am, getting the (expletive) beaten out of me by Bob DeNiro, and Michael comes up and says: 'Pain is temporary. Film isforever.' I've never forgotten that. It's gotten me a through lot ofmovies."