Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oma

Interview: “Leonardo’s Other Name is Wilhelm”

NOTE: The original German version of this 1998 interview (“Leonardo heißt auch Wilhelm”) was first published in the Hellweger Anzeiger. (The article is no longer online.) This English excerpt is published here with permission from that German newspaper. – DiCaprio’s maternal grandmother, Helene Indenbirken (nee Yelena Smirnova, 1915-2008), died at the age of 93 in August 2008.

“He’s only got clowning around on his mind”
By Marcel Wessollek and Sven Kuschel (1998)

At the moment, as far as media coverage is concerned, she is almost the equal of her grandson on the other side of the Atlantic. Helene Indenbirken, the 83-year-old grandmother of Titanic victim Leonardo DiCaprio, is in demand.


Helene Indenbirken was Leonardo DiCaprio’s German grandmother. PHOTO: www.tagesspiegel.de

But the staged baking of potato pancakes (Reibekuchen or Kartoffelpuffer) on TV for the RTL network and the Titanic premieres have taken their toll on the vigorous lady.

Graffiti was able to get her to do one of her last interviews for the time being, in which she blasts pushy, impudent media people and rumors about Leonardo. The retired grandmother is currently far more interested in the fact that Tanja Szewzcenko is on her way to silver in the European Championships. Hanging on the walls of her small apartment in the German town of Oer-Erkenschwick, next to numerous photos of her favorite grandson, there is also an invitation to last year’s Golden Globe Awards, where she kept her fingers crossed for her Leonardo. Below that is blues legend B.B. King with a dedication to Helene. On the table there are stacks of newspaper clippings.

“So, what do you want to know? I’ve already told everything. After all, I’m just the Omi (granny).” The media have made things tough for her with “stolen” private photos and false reports. Keeping her distance has become important to the old lady, who gradually becomes more open and warm after a short ice-breaking period. Every now and then an American word sneaks into her German vocabulary. With a gleam in her eye she displays photo albums that show her grandson with personalities such as Prince Charles and various Hollywood people. She knows more about them than the reporters at Entertainment Tonight.

Graffiti: We read everywhere that Leonardo is here [in Germany] all the time. How often do you actually see your grandson?
Helene Indenbirken: During the shooting of Titanic I was there. Otherwise we usually see each other when he has something to do in Europe.

Is it a strain to have such a famous grandson?
For me it’s normal to have Leonardo as a grandson. You know, I lived in America for 30 years, where you even meet famous people on the street.

How did it happen that you moved to America, or more precisely New York?
That happened at the beginning of the ’50s. My daughter was born in an air raid shelter in 1943 during a bombing raid. Those were hard times. We emigrated to America in 1955 — not in 1943, as some newspapers have reported. After all, that was totally impossible then. In New York we lived in a section with lots of Germans. In 1985 my husband and I left the “American lifestyle” behind and came back to Germany.

How did you choose the name Leonardo Wilhelm?
My daughter Irmelin’s husband is Italian. Leonardo goes well with the last name DiCaprio. But so he would also have something German about him, we added the name of my husband Wilhelm. His roots, by the way, lie far to the east where our ancestors come from. [Ed., DiCaprio’s grandmother, Helene Indenbirken, was born Yelena Smirnova in Russia in 1915.]

How do you deal with all the fans and the press?
I make an effort to answer all the calls and letters I get. But lately it has gotten to be too much. The big newspapers are terrible. They always land with a horde of people, take me by surprise, and then write whatever they want to anyway. At the moment I no longer have any desire for TV appearances and these eternal telephone calls. I’m often amazed at girls who write that they couldn’t live without Leonardo. That’s really not normal, is it?

Did you admire groups like the Comedian Harmonists [in your youth]?
Yes, somewhat, but not to such extremes.

How was your grandson discovered?
He was approached and asked if he would like a part in the TV series “Parenthood” [called “Unser lautes Heim” in Germany]. Before that he had done some commercials. He was enthusiastic right away and said yes. Later Robert de Niro hired him for the film This Boy’s Life. He was so convincing in that. It was the first time he made me cry.

Can you tell us something about his next project?
The next feature film he’ll appear in is called The Man in the Iron Mask [“Der Mann mit der eisernen Maske”].

Has Leonardo remained natural in spite of his success?
Yes, he’s the same dear boy he’s always been. But for photographs he’s always making faces. It’s terrible. In order not to be recognized, he often dresses shabbily and goes out with his friends. He even still lives at home, but he also has his own apartment in L.A. Many of his friends are actors like he is.

Is it true that he has a girlfriend at this time?
I don’t know. Why don’t you look in the Bildzeitung. They tried, very unsuccessfully, to slap together a picture with him and Kate Winslet. The ideas they come up with! My daughter calls me every week, but we don’t talk much about such things. Right now he’s in New York.

How often does Leo come to Germany?
Not very often. The last time he was at my place with a few friends in 1995. That’s why I don’t understand at all why girls call every day and ask in a shrill voice if he’s here. Earlier as a child he was here fairly often. He went bicycling with his grandpa or played with other kids. If all the fuss keeps up, I’ll travel to America again this summer. Here it’s all getting to be too much.

Can you tell us something about Leo’s hobbies and his schooling?
My Leonardo loves to do inline skating. I don’t know that much about his schooling. He attended high school but not college.

Is it true that he likes sauerkraut?
Our Leo has never eaten sauerkraut at my place. When he’s here he gets homemade potato pancakes now and then. At home he eats American food and watches his weight.

Do you worry about your grandson in wild America, when you hear about stars like River Phoenix who die of drugs?
No, no. But in L.A. you always have to watch out.

How do you talk with him?
Mostly in English. Only when we act a little silly, we speak a few broken German sentences.

Has all the fuss concerning you personally always been so intense?
No. That really didn’t get going until Romeo and Juliet, and it didn’t get so scary until now with Titanic.

NOTE: The original German version of this 1998 interview — “Leonardo heißt auch Wilhelm” — appeared in the Graffiti magazine supplement of the Hellweger Anzeiger. English translation by Hyde Flippo; published here with the permission of the Hellweger Anzeiger. (Unfortunately, the original German version is no longer online.)

Read more about Leonardo DiCaprio and Germans in Hollywood.

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