Leonardo DiCaprio Recalls His Years as a Hollywood Outsider, at First Awards Stop of the Season

November 6, 2015

Vanityfair.com | By Julie Miller

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 05: Honoree Leonardo DiCaprio accepts the Patron of the Artists Award onstage during the Screen Actors Guild Foundation 30th Anniversary Celebration at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on November 5, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for Screen Actors Guild Foundation)

SAG-AFTRA Foundation

About five years ago, I found myself cut off from the world on an island with Leonardo DiCaprio,” Mark Ruffalo told the audience of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation 30th Anniversary Celebration on Thursday night in Beverly Hills. “It wasn’t as sexy as it sounds though, because we had Martin Scorsese watching and criticizing everything we did. That movie is called Shutter Island, and when you are shuttered on an island with Leonardo DiCaprio, you get to learn a lot of interesting things: about all of the endangered species that are left on the planet . . . ways in which we could transition to 100 percent renewable energy . . . models.”

DiCaprio’s epic drama The Revenant—the film that Hollywood insiders speculate could finally clinch the actor an Oscar—has not even reached theaters yet, but DiCaprio was already being presented his first statuette of the nascent awards season—the Actors Inspiration Award at an event also honoring Lee Daniels, Megan Ellison, and Rob Marshall, sponsored by Ralph Lauren and Vanity Fair.

When DiCaprio took the podium, he recalled his scrappy beginnings—far from the yachts, model girlfriends, and other movie-star trappings now associated with him.

“As a young kid living on the east side of Los Angeles, I grew up very much like Nick Carraway, more so than Jay Gatsby,” the actor and activist said, in a nod to his starring role in the 2013 adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic. “My childhood was always within and without—living so close to the entertainment industry yet feeling so far from it at the same time. I always saw Hollywood as a place for the elite, the chosen, this Masonic club for which the higher nobles of the acting world might one day reach out and accept me. As if out of the blue, I might be scouted out on the school yard by Mr. Slugworth from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“I do realize how lucky I’ve been,” he continued. “When I was 14 years old, after doing many television commercials, including Matchbox cars and Bubble Yum, I was watching a Robert De Niro movie with my father, when he pointed to the screen and said to me, ‘Son, watch closely because this is what great acting looks like.’ A few years later I found myself on a sound stage playing opposite Robert De Niro [in This Boy’s Life], watching him and learning from him.”

Because the ceremony was not being nationally televised, DiCaprio took a moment to “embarrass” his parents Irmelin and George, who were sitting in the front row, for “listen[ing] to the harassment of their overly assertive son and [driving] him to auditions after school even though they had very little time for it.”

Whether it was because of the relatively intimate feeling of the event, or the fact that audience members graciously resisted using camera phones throughout, other recipients also spoke from the heart, so much so that Ruffalo commented later that he wished all awards ceremonies were “this sweet.”

Daniels threw out the speech he prepared to earnestly discuss the obstacles he overcame to make it as an Oscar-nominated director and co-creator of the hit TV series Empire: “I was homeless for a little bit. I didn’t pay my rent when I got here in Hollywood and I lived in a church and I started directing theater. . . . I am very blessed that I wasn’t shot growing up . . . that I didn’t die of H.I.V. as many of my friends did. I then went on to do drugs, because I thought I should die, and I survived two heart attacks. All that stuff is in my work . . . I knew that all the life experiences I had lived, I had wanted to tell.”

David O. Russell appeared onstage to present Megan Ellison with a Patron of the Artists Award and, in doing so, he showed the audience a clip from his latest collaboration with Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence, that he thought applied to Ellison. (In it, Lawrence’s entrepreneur shuns the polished clothing given to her before going on air at QVC because she wants to be authentic and true to herself.) Ellison spoke sincerely, sharing her vulnerabilities, and cheekily acknowledging the resources which allowed her to fund critically lauded projects that would have gone unmade otherwise, like The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Hustle.

“To all of the incredible artists I’ve had the opportunity to work with, thank you for taking a chance on a 24-year-old trust-fund kid with no résumé,” Ellison said. “The Hollywood machine has worked at times to make me despise what I love, and I don’t think this is a truth I share alone in this room. As a kid, stories are what saved me. . . . For me, art is an intense form of humanity and empathy and often the only cure or escape from the immense pain and tragedy of our world.”

And yet, with all of the earnestness onstage, James Corden found a way to infuse a little comic relief by making a public-service announcement before presenting his In the Woods director Rob Marshall with an award.

“If people could stop coming up me and saying, ‘I am really looking forward to seeing The Revenant. I loved you in Titanic,’” the Late Late Show host mock-pleaded. “[DiCaprio and] I look alike but we are very different people.” Pointing to the Oscar-nominated actor in the first row, he added, “And you, stop getting laid off the success of my show.”