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Leo DiCaprio at 21

Leo DiCaprio at 21

"At first, I didn't see any reason why we should do it again." By: EC Gladstone September ...

Leo DiCaprio at 21

Romeo + Juliet 2

“At first, I didn’t see any reason why we should do it again.”

By: EC Gladstone
September 1996

Leonardo DiCaprio strolls into a hotel room wearing a deep blue dress shirt, unbuttoned at the cuffs and untucked at the waist. Perfectly chosen, the shirt accents the color of his eyes, which are fairly narcotic when you can get them to look at you and not the corner of the room. At 21, he is young, but not in Hollywood years. And it would be easy to disdain this golden boy if what came out of his mouth were not the words of a sincere actor.

“At first, I didn’t see any reason why we should do it again,” he says, apparently willing to turn down a role–Romeo in the new Romeo + Juliet–that young actors are supposed to crave. “If I had to do all that affected English accent and sword fights, I would’ve felt a little ridiculous.” But DiCaprio’s offer came from Strictly Ballroom filmmaker, and former opera director, Baz Luhrmann. He invited DiCaprio to Australia to explore what had not “been done a million times before” with the classic tragedy of love between the young of feuding families.

“I realized how a lot of the themes in the movie relate to life right now,” says Leonardo, “the opposing families were like opposing gangs, and everybody back then had to carry their sword around in case of danger, and now it’s the same thing with guns.”

This is Not Your Father’s Shakespeare. Romeo + Juliet should probably be called Baz Luhrmann’s Cotton Candy–Tuna Tartare Rave-a-delic R-n-J (Shakespeare). Full of garish color, lavish scenery and quick edits, with a soundtrack of pumping alternative rock, R&B and Techno and a choral version of Prince’s “When Dove’s Cry.” Luhrmann’s interpretation references Hong Kong action movies, reality-based TV, drag performance, and handfuls of other modern cues in updating the tale, set in a fantasy Miami-like Verona Beach. “That’s what I really loved,” DiCaprio raves, “because there were no limits at some points–and at other points, you have to stick to the text. No matter what is added to it, the purity of those two characters still comes through.”

As for other characters, the supporting cast includes actors of legitimately Bard-worthy stature: Pete Postlethwaite as a tattooed (and possibly pedophilic) Father Laurence, Miriam Margoyles as Juliet’s  perfectly comic Nurse, Paul Sorvino as a virtually operatic Juliet’s father, Brian Dennehy, predictably, as a more cop-drama version of Romeo’s dad. But the younger players command even more attention: John Leguizamo’s Tybalt is a gangsta firebrand; Paul Rudd’s Paris is a perfectly smarmy junior Kennedy type; Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio, most impressively, plays a variety of new subtexts.

Romeo + Juliet

And lest we forget, DiCaprio’s co-star Claire Danes is a Juliet so electrifying that between this and her film-saving turn in To Gillian, she damn well better get nominated for something.  DiCaprio doesn’t say a lot about Danes, though, shedding most of his praise on Luhrmann–”I think he’s a modern genius”–and describing the difficult, but appropriate shooting conditions in Mexico City. “There was so much violence and so much chaos going around and the economy was so messed up,” Leonardo bemoans, explaining the kidnapping and ransom of the film’s hair stylist, and other events. “It was a scary location,” he shudders, but “it adds to the vibe of the movie. I don’t think the movie would’ve been the same if we hadn’t shot in Mexico. It just got a little bit tedious after everybody got sick constantly.” Yes, Montezuma had his revenge.

If taking part in such a radical version seems a risky career move (especially considering recent commendable leads in the otherwise dicey Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse), it’s all in the mix for DiCaprio. “I don’t ever map out what type of movie I’m going to pick next,” the actor says, handling his celebrity with equal nonchalance. “What is ‘getting recognized’–It’s just somebody recognizing you, you know?” he says, unwitting contrasting his world with that of Romeo + Juliet. “It’s not like they’re holding a gun to your head all the time. Somebody coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, I like your work’ is not going to kill me.”

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