A Man of Many Masks.

By Julie Starke

It’s hard to know whether Leonardo DiCaprio is swanky or simple. Maybe that’s just testament to his over-the-top ability to embody the characters he plays in the movies.

From the conflicted to the tortured to the deeply driven romantic, DiCaprio possesses an intensely emotional acting style. No wonder he is hard to peg. The man, quite simply, refuses to conform. He is exactly who we need him to be. Which is exactly why we don’t know him at all.

Fact is, DiCaprio is an anomaly of sorts. He demonstrates a diversity of roles that has led him to be dubbed “one of the most daring, respected and challenging actors working today.” This Oscar nominated, Golden Globe winning, actor- turned-film director lays claim to 31 wins and 77 nominations within his industry yet he remains behind the iron curtain of Hollywood ‘royalty.’ We simply don’t see a lot of Leo, so it requires a bit of imagination to piece together the man behind the mask.

An Energy of Imagination.

We know his humble beginnings and his status as an only child to a blend of German/Russian-German/Italian parents. We know he was presumably named for Leonardo DaVinci, his grandparents were Russian immigrants, and that he grew up in Los Angeles, not far, yet eons away from the Hollywood he knows today.

We know he started his career in television and found recognition when landing a stint as ‘Cousin Oliver’ on Growing Pains; won critical acclaim for his role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; and, at 21, he wowed audiences with his portrayal as Romeo in Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. We also know that he exploded on the scene as Jack Dawson in James Cameron’s Titanic and began a run of movies that repeatedly thrust him in the spotlight during the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

SIDE BAR: DiCaprio, along with Winslet and Cameron publicly pledged to support the financial future of the last living Titanic survivor, Milvina Dean, after she had been forced to sell her momentos to pay her nursing home bills.

It’s obvious he was once a teen heartthrob, a bit of a party-goer, and that he dates supermodels. We even know that his favorite director is Scorsese, his favorite actress Meryl Streep, and that Kate Winslet considers him the best actor of his generation. The basics are there- hard to hide and open to public scrutiny.

Yet when we begin to piece together the man behind the actor’s mask we see a sensitivity that belies the public version. We see deepness in his eyes yet a childlike quality in his gait, seriousness behind his youthful good looks and a classic yet guy-next store style in everyday life.

He may be a bit neurotic about the little things and seriously focused when it comes to the big things. Yet he is decidedly private. Preferring afternoon outings with friends to the glare of the spotlight. When he is off-camera, he is off and he has no problem telling the world why.

A Voice for the Voiceless.

One thing Leonardo DiCaprio has is a voice. A voice he uses to endlessly entertain us, and one that can be heard clearly, even beyond the silver screen.

This is an actor who cares. Really cares. Put away the ‘pretty-boy, once-teenage-heart throb stuff (which he actually dislikes) and you will not only find a talented actor but one, according to Carter Roberts, CEO of World Wildlife Federation, calls “ a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.”

A committed environmentalist, DiCaprio is well known in the world of ecological activism. He serves on the board of the World Wildlife Fund, The Natural Resources Defense Council, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Global Green USA as well as having created his own foundation to raise money and awareness for the fate of the planet.

“You can either be a vain movie star, or you can try to shed some light on different aspects of the human condition,” says DiCaprio. “I like to help the whales, the otters, and the dolphins. When I am acting and I take a break, the first thing on my list is spending time by the sea.”

His reach is vast and he speaks loudly, and often, to support those things that mean the most to him. If you look through the years, you find that DiCaprio didn’t just jump on the ‘save the planet’ bandwagon that it is now en vogue – quite the contrary. This solid supporter of all things green – and blue- has been using his voice for humanity long before anyone wanted to hear it.

Ushering in The Environmental Age

Most probably his biggest environmental work to date, The 11th Hour, is the 2007 documentary that he wrote, narrated and debuted. It is here that DiCaprio introduced audiences to the “staggering destruction of our eco-systems.” Following on the heels of “An Inconvenient Truth,” this film furthered the environmental conversation and, quite frankly, helped to usher in what DiCaprio has called “The Environmental Age.”

The film featured the active voices of oceanographer Sylvia Earle, award-winning scientist David Suzuki, and Cambridge Professor Stephen Hawking, among many others. In it, DiCaprio explored the idea that “as we destroy nature we will destroy ourselves” and cited the fact that  “none of our living systems are stable or improving and they provide the basis for all life.”

Unlike others however the film presented somewhat of a solution. It claimed that we needed a ‘cultural transformation’ in order to stop our eco-systems from unraveling. He believes the problem lies in the way we think and in the way knowledge is passed.

A slave to media as the primary instrument of information, DiCaprio says “we’ve lost the beauty of the world and the ability to even learn by our own experience.” He believes we are so dependent upon the information that is being sent to us by our various media that we no longer know life for ourselves. In short, we have lost the experience of connecting with our planet in a tangible way.

According to The 11th Hour, environmentalism is a human issue and our planet is a direct reflection of what is going on inside of each of us. The good news, according to DiCaprio, is that this generation gets to completely redesign the world.

Corporations can become the foundation of the future by creating new intentions for renewable sources of energy, water and fairness.  And, as DiCaprio truly believes, by doing so we can “save this unique blue planet for future generations.”

He’s on board with that too.

A Solid Foundation for Change

As Founder of The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF), he has established a non-profit that ‘supports efforts to secure a sustainable future for our planet and all of its inhabitants.’ 

The foundation plays a very active role in the environmental movement by providing grants, building partnerships, spearheading creative campaigns that shift the way issues are communicated, forming alliances with other influencers, and utilizing social media to affect change.

For instance, Twitter is littered with calls to action: “It’s time to end the illegal trade of ivory and save the wild elephants”-Last Call at the Oasis tells the story of our global water crisis” – “Big cats like tigers and lions belong in the wild, not in people’s backyards and basements” And Facebook is much the same.

Visit his website and you will find it equally devoted to his latest movie releases (which are plentiful) as well as his current environmental missions. There are stories that are relevant to issues haunting our planet in real time: ‘Thailand Announces End to Ivory Trade” and “Leo Launches Initiative with WWF to Stop Wildlife Crime.

Most recently, DiCaprio’s foundation committed $1 million to help fund a new campaign dubbed ‘Hand Off My Parts,’ a new initiative by WWF to stop wildlife crime. He is spearheading an Art Auction with Christie’s in NYC to raise funds to support causes that affect our planet and has aligned with several sustainable, good-for-you businesses.

Acclaimed coffee roaster, La Colombe, has joined forces with DiCaprio to create Lyon – a special blend of directly sourced and sustainably grown coffees from the mountains of Haiti, Peru, Ethiopia, and Brazil in which 100% of the net proceeds benefit the causes LDF supports.

He has gotten behind candy-maker, Unreal, (getunreal.com) in an attempt to ‘unjunk’ the candy world by using only real ingredients. The product has no artificial flavoring, hydrongenateds, corn syrup,  or GMO’s and is made with much less sugar. The company is responsibly sourcing key ingredients, supporting farming communities, and preventing destruction of rainforests.

“In my adult life, my environmental work and activism remain a priority,” says DiCaprio. “I created a foundation that focuses on raising public awareness of the very important issues concerning our planet, our environment, and the impact we as people have on the world we live in…it is not only an extremely fulfilling and gratifying learning experience, but also has taken me to some of the most interesting and beautiful places in the world.”

And traveling the world is something DiCaprio does well.  Much like his character in ‘Catch Me If You Can,” DiCaprio likes to keep moving. Whether it is working in three or four star-studded movies back-to-back or connecting with his planet by diving in the waves off South Florida, DiCaprio fluidly moves between worlds. 

When asked what he would do after the wrap of one of his many roles, DiCaprio commented, “I would like to improve the world a bit. I will fly around the world doing good for the environment.”

And that, as they say, is ‘a wrap!’