Leonardo DiCaprio says he sees no distinction between working as an actor and working as a con man. He should know.
This Christmas, the actor goes from playing a Civil War-era hooligan in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" to portraying real-life master scammer Frank Abagnale in the Steven Spielberg adventure, "Catch Me If You Can."
"I absolutely see a direct correlation (between being an actor and being a con artist) and I think the real Frank Abagnale is one of our great actors. His stage, though, is the real world," DiCaprio told United Press International. "He was able to embody these different personas effortlessly."
Passing himself off as a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a sociology professor, Abagnale cashed more than $2.5 million in forged checks before he was 21. He now works as a security consultant to Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. government.
Playing Abagnale was a great exercise for an actor, DiCaprio noted.
"It was basically an actor playing another actor," he said.
When it comes to filmmaking, there aren't two more different projects than "Catch Me" and "Gangs." So, how does the star of both compare them?
"You have to take into account that ('Gangs') was an epic, and ('Catch Me') was almost like a road movie. One was like a fast-paced independent film," DiCaprio explained.
"I don't know how Steven Spielberg works on an epic film. I haven't had that experience, and vice versa. I think that what Spielberg has on set is this unique ability to get everyone, every department and everyone working around him, bring the best out of people. I think the energy of 'Catch Me if You Can,' he wanted to have sort of an extreme pace. That's very much what my character was going through, he lived in a very fast world. As opposed to something like, 'Gangs of New York' felt more like an old-style epic, a 'Ben-Hur,' something like that."
DiCaprio insisted that one role wasn't easier to play than the other, noting both men were different, fascinating characters -- in "Gangs," he plays a 19th century Irish-American fighting for freedom on the streets of New York, while in "Catch Me," he portrays a charismatic con man.
"('Gangs,') more than any (film) I've been involved with, I honestly felt like I was being transported back into time, and we were recreating history," DiCaprio recalled. "We'd walk around these recreated streets of the Five Points. Extras would be around in their period costume, and you felt like you were in an entirely different universe.
"My character and many of the characters involved took many twists and turns during the film, and it was not something that was concretely laid out before the initial start date. Things took on a life of their own. We weaved in much more detail and the character became much more complex as we went along. Truly, that's really the way I would love to make every movie. It's like recreating life, almost."
So, what are the pros and cons of having two big-budget films released within a week? The 28-year-old Los Angeles native said he doesn't think there are any drawbacks.
"The pros and cons?" he mused. "People will see two different, two completely different characters, and that's representational of me as an actor, that's a good thing. I don't know what the cons are. I don't think there are any cons. I think that a lot of actors in the past, way back in the day in old Hollywood, would have four films come out in the same year, sometimes two come out in the same weekend. We'll see. I don't know, I've never experienced it."
Often reticent when talking to reporters about his personal life, DiCaprio offered a surprisingly candid reply when asked how he was coping with his super-celebrity status.
"Certainly after 'Titanic' came out, I was focusing on things that had nothing to do with the art," he confessed. "It was all the business around the art form. It was all about this story or that story coming out about me, or this photograph. ... All the business with agents and publicists and managers, that really can be extremely frustrating and distracting, and ultimately is a waste of time. There's no real control over how the media or the public perceives you. You can only speak for yourself as an artist through the work that you do."
He continued: "It was a reflective time for me, but I think I've remained consistent in the fact that I've just always wanted to have great filmmaking experiences."
With a handful of critically acclaimed performances in small films like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "This Boy's Life" to his credit, DiCaprio admitted he was ready to board a big-budget studio production like "Titanic" just to enjoy an experience he had never had before.
Aside from opening doors for him in Hollywood, DiCaprio said "Titanic" also taught him to be "even more specific about my goals as an actor and focus on the work more so than ever."
"And really wait for the right project," he added, explaining why audiences haven't seen him in the multiplexes in the past three years. "I didn't want to squander the opportunities that I had and make films that I felt like were recycled versions of ones we've seen 100 times before. I wanted to make films that were time capsules for the future, films that were important and people remembered. Have experiences like that. It makes you realize how much you don't want to waste your time as an actor."
"Gangs of New York" muscles its way into theaters Friday, while "Catch Me If You Can" opens Christmas Day.
DiCaprio's upcoming projects include reunions with Scorsese for "The Aviator," the Howard Hughes story, and Baz Luhrmann, director of "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" for "Alexander the Great."