Do you like to be called Leo or Leonardo?
Either one is fine. Leo is probably the only nickname I’ve had. Most people call me Leo.
Didn’t they try to make you change your name?
Yeah, there when I was 11 years old when I first wanted to be an actor professionally. We went to an agent and they wanted to change my name to Lenny Williams.
That’s not cool.
Not really. Not really. They felt my name was too ethnic and wouldn’t get as many jobs. So that thwarted me from being an actor for a number of years. I tried again, I think, two years later when I was 13 and got an agent to accept me with my name.
You were Oscar nominated five years later. How does that feel when you’re 18?
For Gilbert Grape, yeah. And I absolutely didn’t know how to react to any of it. I remember coming out of a screening and somebody telling me how great they thought my performance was and that there was a potential for me to be nominated. I’d never heard anything like that before. It was all completely confusing. I was excited but I didn’t understand how hard it is to accomplish something like that.
When was the last time you saw What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
Couple of years ago.
Do you recognise that boy?
That and This Boy’s Life, especially, both those films I get quite nostalgic about. It’s sometimes emotional watching them because I feel like I’m that kid again. Really just incredibly happy to have gotten a shot. So I remember a lot of those moments on set like they were yesterday, especially working with people like De Niro and Depp at that age. It was like winning the lottery.
Do you ever think the Oscar and ‘Leo mania’ was too much too soon?
I’ve thought about that question a lot. A lot of people may look at what I’ve done career-wise and say that there was a time period in which I tried to possibly become a movie star, per se, tried to go for much bigger pictures.
Any truth in that?
The truth of the matter is, there /was/ a period of time, very early on – when I started watching films and having heroes in the industry, actor-wise. But I feel I’ve been very consistent about my dreams in this industry and what I wanted to be as an actor.
Did that include playing Robin in Batman Forever? There’s a rumour you screen-tested for it.
I had a meeting. I never screen-tested. I had a meeting with Joel Schumacher. It was just one meeting and, no, I didn’t end up doing it.
Did you actually want the role?
Er, I don’t think I did, no. [laughs] As I recall I took the meeting, but didn’t want to play the role. Joel Schumacher is a very talent director but I don’t think I was ready for anything like that.
Do you feel like you dodged a bullet?
Were you in talks to play Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels?
I did have a meeting with George Lucas about that as well, yes.
Same scenario. [laughs]
He wanted you, but you didn’t fancy it?
Um, right. Exactly.
Again, just didn’t feel ready to take that dive. At that point.
What about Spider-Man? How close did you come to playing him before your friend Tobey Maguire took the part?
Er, that was another one of those situations, similar to Robin, where I didn’t feel ready to put on that suit yet. They got in touch with me.
Would you like to play a superhero?
You never know. You never know. They’re getting better and better as far as complex characters in these movies. I haven’t yet. But no, I don’t rule out anything.
Your new film Inception, by The Dark Knight director Chris Nolan, is pretty mindblowing. How highly do you rate Nolan?
I think only one or two other filmmakers in this industry would be able to accomplish this film. It’s certainly not something you come across very often. And it really is all Chris Nolan.
Being honest, did you understand the script when you read it?
Well, it wasn’t that the script was incomprehensible. Here you have a man who’s part of a black-market organisation of dream-infiltration and is also haunted by his own subconscious nightmares that keep infiltrating his network and sabotaging the ideas.
You visited mental asylums to prepare for Shutter Island. What’s the most extreme thing you’ve ever done to prepare for a role?
Well, the thing is, there were really no reference points for this film. You’re dreaming. I’ve read Freud’s analysis of dreams, but at the end of the day I realised that this is, for all intents and purposes, locked in the mind of Chris Nolan. That’s what my preparation was: my conversations with him where he tried to relay this concept that’s been swirling around in his mind for eight years.
Ever had dream that’s stuck in your memory?
I’m not a big dreamer. They come to me and I forget them immediately.
Have you ever tried lucid dreaming or hallucinogenic drugs that create a dream-world?
You mean like peyote or… what’s the other drug people go to Brazil for? It’s, um… I forgot the name of it. I’ve had a couple of friends who’ve gone on those trips.
But have you tried them yourself?
I haven’t done them myself. But I’ve had friends who’ve gone to Brazilian rainforests and Peru and taken some of these drugs that make you vomit for three days and see your dreams in a waking state. The stories that they told me were pretty profound – they never saw reality in the same way again. It really changed their lives. It made them look at reality as completely different.
Tempted to try it?
Have I been tempted by it? Who knows, who knows. Some day, but I haven’t as of yet.
Nolan loves. Scorsese loves you. You’re getting a lot of great roles. Do you feel like you’re more respected now?
No, the truth of the matter is, I’ve spent very little time trying to figure that out – trying to figure out what the consensus is. The more you try to control it, the less you have a grasp on people’s perception. It’s a tremendous waste of time, I think. I don’t think an audience always wants you to do the same thing or try aggressively to prove anything.
Is it true that you broke Daniel Day-Lewis nose when you were filming a fight scene for Gangs Of New York?
No. That is not true. He did break his nose. There was a scene where I think that maybe the misconception is this. He was supposed to be head-butting my face after I tried to assassinate him in front of a Chinese pagoda.
He broke his nose on your face?
It was a head-butt, but it wasn’t me. It was a pillow or a sandbag or something like that. That’s when he broke his nose. He was smashing his face off–camera. I wasn’t anywhere near the camera.
Have you ever been in a real fight?
Yes, I have! [laughs] Yep.
So what happened?
Oh, you know, I mean, in junior high and high school, I grew up in kind of a rough neighbourhood and I was much smaller than I am now. I didn’t go through my growth spurt until I was 15 years old. So I always sort of had to fight my way to have credibility in school and ended up with other, tougher guys.
So lots of fights?
So I got in lots and lots of fights in school. And sometimes it’s carried on to after school as well, but I’m pretty level-headed for the most part, I don’t ever look for it, ever, and I don’t condone it. And it’s never something that feels good after it, that’s for sure.
You have a Twitter account. Is that you tweeting or do you get people to do it for you?
I am tweeting, about the environmental issue that I’ve been working on for the last eight months. I just went to Nepal and Bhutan and I’m going to some other places to work with the World Wildlife Fund on trying to try to save the last of the wild tigers, because there’s only 3,200 left. I’m going toa revamp my website and try to do an internet component with everything I’m doing philanthropically. So that’s what I’m focused on.
You donate a lot of money to charity. What do you spend on yourself?
I’m not really the type of guy who spends his money on a lot of luxurious stuff. I’m a collector. I collect art and vintage film posters and things of that nature.
Did you watch the USA in the World Cup?
You know, I pretty much only really love basketball, that’s what I’ve got a real passion for. I know soccer in the US is obviously not our main sport but for that win [against Algeria] in the tie that we had, people were going nuts here.
What do you do when you’re not shooting movies?
I travel. I’ve been travelling this whole year and going to a lot of cool places that I’ve always wanted to see and experience. That’s what I do in my off-time. That and trying to find the next good movie to do. Trying to develop stuff through my production company. Buy rights to films that I think might be interesting. See places in the world and be a part of ecological movements of people. That’s where I spend most of my time when I’m not working.
What’s the best place you’ve ever visited?
Wow… There’s quite a few. When I did The Beach in Thailand, that’s was one of the most amazing places that I’ve ever been. I’m a big scuba diver, too, so I just went to Galapagos and saw where Darwin formed his theory of evolution and that was pretty spectacular.
Where else do you recommend to dive?
You can’t beat the Great Barrier Reef for coral reefs. That, and Belize is pretty amazing. I did the Blue Hole, with the reef sharks and stalactites and everything. It’s definitely worth seeing, man. That’s one of the top places in the world, for sure.
You’re close with Kate Winslet. Now that her husband, Sam Mendes, is director the next Bond, would you be interest in a role?
A role? Or Bond himself? [laughs]
You tell us. You’d be interested in playing Bond?
Again, it always depends… on the director, on the script, on the role. Like I said, I don’t rule anything out.