As an actor, public figure and climate activist, there’s little that the great Leonardo DiCaprio can’t do, with the icon quickly climbing to industry success in the early 1990s with thanks to roles in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Romeo + Juliet and Titanic. As an early poster-boy of Hollywood thanks to his dashing good looks, if it wasn’t for his first major film role in Michael Caton-Jones’s This Boys Life alongside Robert De Niro, he may have never made it to the heights of the industry at all.
Released in 1993, the biographical film This Boy’s Life would prove to be one of the actor’s most important films, with DiCaprio later describing his experience on the film as life-changing. Speaking to Time Out about his time in the role, he recalls: “I was 15 years old, and I remember every single detail…Everything was so new to me”. Appearing with the great Robert De Niro, DiCaprio would also note the extraordinary influence the Taxi Driver actor would have on him, stating: “Watching Robert De Niro on set, seeing his dedication, was one of the most influential experiences of my life”.
This relationship between Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio would prove to be pivotal to the later success of the Titanic actor, with De Niro acting as a mentor driving his creative craft forward. Speaking in an interview with Deadline, remembered the “culture shock” he had experienced on set, playing in the “big leagues” of cinema with some of the industries biggest names.
As the actor recalls, the director Michael Caton-Jones, apologised to DiCaprio, saying he was “so mean to you when you were little,” before the actor replied: “Are you crazy, you were the greatest big brother I could ever have during my first giant cinematic process. You talked me through everything. You told me all the fundamental basics”. Clarifying, the actor added that he had no idea how to act and operate on a film set, having only previously worked on commercials and small-scale projects in the past.
Discussing just how pivotal Robert De Niro was to the progress of his own maturity, Leonardo DiCaprio remembers his fiery audition with the actor which involved a heated argument with both actors and a mustard jar. “[De Niro]’s like, ‘Is it empty, is it empty?’ and I just stood up and threw my chair down, or something, and screamed at him, ‘No, it’s not empty,’” the actor recalls, before adding: “And then Bob had this smirk on his face, and just started slowly busting up, laughing in my face. And then he looked at everybody else, and the whole room started laughing”.
Thinking that he had blown his big chance in the industry, Robert De Niro demonstrated to him how to contain his emotions and deliver a quality performance. Speaking fondly of the actor, DiCaprio continues, “I remember how seriously he took everything, how focused he was, how he would play with…he’d just sit there, and you’d have to sometimes realise you were in the scene because you’re just watching him do an improv riff”.
Stunned at his power as an actor, DiCaprio concludes by taking himself back to his audition and remembering, “You’re like, ‘Holy shit I’m on camera, that’s right.’ You had to remember to be in the moment”.