Leonardo DiCaprio: Actor and Activist
“I haven’t gone crazy yet. I think it has to do with me not investing everything in my job. All these actors think that the blood running through their veins is fueled by acting. I’m happier when I’m not working, hanging out with my friends.” — Leonardo DiCaprio, quoted in Premiere magazine
The name DiCaprio may not sound very German, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s middle name is Wilhelm, he speaks a little German, his mom is German, and his Oma (grandma) was living in Germany until her death in August 2008 at the age of 93.
Director James Cameron has converted Titanic into 3D for its April 2012 re-release.
Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio, whose fame first hit tsunami heights with Titanic, got his middle name from his maternal grandfather, who was a mineworker in Germany’s coal-and-steel Ruhr region. Over the years Leonardo remained close to his Oma Helene, spending many summers in the small German town of Oer-Erkenschwick where she lived, and inviting her to share special occasions—such as an on-location visit to Mexico during the filming for Titantic, and the London premiere of that huge hit film. Leo and Oma (along with his Brazilian then girlfriend Gisele Bündchen) were seen in Cologne, Germany in November 2004 visiting the local chocolate museum. (According to granny, Leo is a big fan of museums.) Only a few years later, grandma Helene died in a German hospital near her home on August 4, 2008, just days after a visit by her grandson Leonardo.
Leonardo in Berlin
Leonardo DiCaprio has often traveled to the German capital for various events over the years. Most recently he was in Berlin on February 15, 2010, when environmental activist DiCaprio and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mikhail Gorbachev were re-united for the 9th Cinema for Peace Gala at Berlin’s historic Konzerthaus. (See photos on this page.)
In 2009, when The Cinema for Peace International Green Film Award presented by BMW went to DiCaprio, the Hollywood actor received it from Gorbachev. In 2010 the two men jointly presented the 2010 International Green Film Award to director Joe Berlinger for his film Crude, about the lawsuit by tens of thousands of Ecuadorans against Chevron over contamination of the Amazon.
DiCaprio grew up in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood on the wrong side of the Hollywood tracks. He was an only child except for stepbrother Adam. His mom and dad separated before little Leo was talking (in either German or English). But the split-up was amicable, and Leonardo’s parents were there to support the budding actor, who started his acting career when he was still in junior high school, appearing in commercials and doing the occasional bit part.
After roles in various television productions, DiCaprio appeared in Critters 3 (1991). His career survived that forgettable first movie, and he was able to make a better impression as Toby in the 1993 film This Boy’s Life with Robert DeNiro. But it was his role as the retarded Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) that led to an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor before he was 20. Although DiCaprio didn’t win the award, the nomination did help him win increased recognition and respect. But Titanic was the blockbuster that DiCaprio had been looking for since his Gilbert Grape success, despite being left out of the 14 Academy Award nominations the picture received.
There has been much speculation on the source of DiCaprio’s talent. At least part of it is hereditary. His dad, George DiCaprio, half German and half Italian, is an underground comic book artist. He has helped his son screen the steady stream of film scripts that come Leonardo’s way. And who knows what else the young DiCaprio inherited from the rest of his German and Italian ancestors.
DiCaprio’s mother, Irmelin Indenbirken (sometimes spelled In Den Birken), was born in a German air raid shelter in the midst of a World War II air raid. After the war, in the 1950s, she emigrated to the US with her parents as a young child. She lived with her family in New York City until she met George DiCaprio in college, married him, and moved to California. DiCaprio’s maternal grandparents, Wilhelm and Helene Indenbirken, continued to live in the US for many years before returning to Germany to enjoy their retirement.
It was not that many years ago, long after he had already become a star and certified teenage heartthrob, that he stopped living at home with mom and got a place of his own. (But not before buying a new place for mom.) He can also easily afford his own $3.5-million Hollywood mansion. But with all his film work these days, he rarely gets to enjoy his fancy digs.
DiCaprio traveled to Berlin for the German premiere of The Beach in February 2000 as part of the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale). The young actor is extremely popular in Germany, and his fans (mostly female) were on hand in great numbers at the 50th Berlinale to make Leonardo “willkommen” in Berlin. Some indications of the stir he caused: A news conference held for the film was broadcast live on local television; a Berlin tabloid offered 1,000 marks to any girl who could manage to steal a kiss from the American heartthrob. (No winners. Security was very tight.) During that same week, DiCaprio’s face was on the cover of Stern magazine, Germany’s biggest circulation illustrated weekly. At the Berlin news conference, DiCaprio commented on the Leomania he has to endure so often: The love I have for acting far outweighs all that. What remains is the work you do as an actor. In 20 years I hope people will see my work.
Reaction to DiCaprio in The Beach (2000) was mixed. Many critics described the film itself as confused or even boring. Most agreed, however, that Dicaprio’s acting abilities were strong, and the film represented a return to his previous darker work in Gilbert Grape or A Boy's Life. The Beach is about as anti-Titanic as you can get, and DiCaprio wanted it that way. Newsweek’s analysis: “Dark and visceral, 'The Beach' was Leo’s postadolescent rebellion against his preadolescent fans—a titanic kiss-off to Leomaniacs.” And DiCaprio took an almost two-year hiatus following Titanic before deciding to do The Beach, a film he felt wouldn’t bore him after his Hollywood-pap experience.
His role in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002) was slightly more conventional — if you can call the true story of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. conventional. Although it was a little darker than I expected, and it started out slowly, I enjoyed this film in which Tom Hanks plays FBI agent Carl Hanratty, playing a cat-and-mouse game with DiCaprio’s character. In Johnny Depp-like fashion, very reminiscent of Depp’s character in Blow (complete with Boston accent), DiCaprio does an excellent job with this dysfunctional-family, con-man role.
DiCaprio has been linked to several women in recent years. He and Titanic/
Revolutionary Road co-star Kate Winslet have long been good friends. Romantically, he has been seen of late with the Israeli fashion model Bar Refaeli. She was with him and his German mother when DiCaprio attended the Cinema for Peace Gala in Berlin in 2010.
NEXT > DiCaprio Filmography (coming soon)
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Related German Way Pages
- Famous German Movies - Films from Germany have made their mark on world cinema—and influenced Hollywood
- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood - About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
- Berlin City Guide - Sights, history
- German Cinema - From the German Way book
- Famous Germans, Austrians and Swiss
DiCaprio On the Web
- The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation works to support ecological projects and a sustainable future.
- Leonardo DiCaprio (official site)
- Simply Leonardo DiCaprio is a fan and news site
MORE > German-Hollywood Connections
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