The superstar has made a career of making canny filmmaker choices, having worked with Cameron, Spielberg and Scorsese. He teams up now with Quentin Tarantino in 'Django Unchained.'
Leonardo DiCaprio's stardom launched aboard Titanic, but it steams forward thanks to the actor's choice in captains.
Since he graduated from Growing Pains in 1992, DiCaprio has served as muse for, among others, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, helping the last win his first directing 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 ruthless plantation 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."
DiCaprio says that while he was in the mood to play a reprobate, "you have to be careful who you trust that power with. I've seen good material go to the wrong filmmaker, and it never captures what you believed the story was supposed to be."
DiCaprio has a reputation as one of the most selective actors in the industry, and he doesn't so much audition for a role as grill a director like a recruit at a job interview.
"I guess you could say I target most of the directors I want to work with," says DiCaprio, a film buff known for sending scripts unsolicited to directors 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.
"I was thinking, possibly, of an older actor" to play Candie, Tarantino says. "And then Leo read the script and liked it and we got together and started talking."
That's usually all it takes to seal the deal. In addition to earning three best-picture Oscar nominations, DiCaprio's films 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.
"My whole theory is that filmmaking is a director's medium. They're the quintessential part of making a film memorable. It's like any job — you want to find someone who has a clear sense of direction but isn't afraid to collaborate."
On the eve of the release of what promises to be a memorable pairing with Tarantino, DiCaprio reflects on some of his career highlights with other partnerships:
Result: This juggernaut would make DiCaprio the planet's biggest star and set nearly every box-office record of its day. The film remains the second-biggest earner of all time, collecting $659 million. It won 11 Oscars, 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.
"I remember talking with (co-star) Kate (Winslet), and we were these indie actors wondering what gigantic world we were going to walk into. You can't describe the shock value of what he built. I've never met someone with 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.
DiCaprio remember his nervousness about meeting Spielberg. "He's one of the great directors — 1,000 years from now you'll be talking about his movies." But he says Spielberg immediately disarmed him with a smile and ownership of the Abagnale role. "He said, 'Experiment with him. Shape this character.' Steven Spielberg is saying this to me. He's a legend, and still one of the most kind, generous, good-hearted human beings on the 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, but DiCaprio has lifted the director among the greats. In addition to box-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 name as the winning director, DiCaprio recalls, he could finally relax at the show. "I just kept thinking how I had worked with this man who changed cinema — he brought grit we'd never seen to celluloid — and it was 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 of Tarantino in that he knew exactly what he wanted from actors, including how lines were to be spoken. But, like Tarantino, Nolan loves actor input. "We spent 1½ months just talking about the script and character," he says. of the mind-bending story. "As much spectacle as he puts into his movies, I've never seen him in a moment when he wasn't concentrating on the drama of the characters."
Film: J. Edgar(2011)
Result: While the story of the former FBI chief was meant to be an Oscar contender, it stalled at the box office and at middle-tier awards, collecting $37 million and a best-actor nomination from the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
Still, DiCaprio walked away from the project in awe of Eastwood, one of the fastest directors in Hollywood. "There's no BS on set, it's a very small crew, and he really is fast," DiCaprio says. "But he never stopped me from doing as many takes as I needed. He's straight to the point, but that brings out the best in you."
Despite the Hall of Fame references on his résumé, DiCaprio credits the longevity of his career to a little-known director, Michael Caton-Jones, who led DiCaprio in his first big-studio picture in the 1993 drama This Boy's Life, with Robert De Niro.
DiCaprio remembers a scene when De Niro, playing the young actor's abusive father, was called upon to rough up the then-16-year-old.
"There I am, getting the (expletive) beaten out of me by Bob De Niro, and Michael comes up and says: 'Pain is temporary. Film is forever.' I've never forgotten that. It's gotten me a through lot of movies."