The complex story that is the heart of Gangs Of New York actually took Martin Scorsese more than 20 years to bring to the screen. The film also marks the return of Leonardo DiCaprio after five years away in the doldrums of cinema, writes Robin Walker.
THE rapid rise to stardom of Leonardo DiCaprio was nearly swamped by the whole Titanic phenomenon five years ago. It unleashed a whirlwind of media interest in the good looking young Californian, who became better known for his off-screen social antics than his work in front of the camera.
But the still boyish-looking 28-year-old has emerged from the whole thing older and wiser. His apparent screen exile has been broken with two high-profile new movies, Martin Scorsese's epic historical drama Gangs Of New York and the smaller con man biopic Catch Me If You Can.
DiCaprio admits that starring in the biggest box-office hit of all time turned his life on its head, after his critically-acclaimed roles in This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape.
'The fallout from that movie was something that was otherworldly, it heavily changed my life,' he concedes. 'Certainly after Titanic I was focusing on things that had nothing to do with the art.'
The attention he attracted intruded into all aspects of his world. 'I found myself in my house thinking I can't even go to the local store without being mobbed.'
While the gossip columns became obsessed with his celebrated 'Leo's Posse' (which included Tobey Maguire) and his relationship with supermodel Brazilian Gisele Bundchen, his screen work seemed to take a backseat. DiCaprio did The Beach and The Man In The Iron Mask but they quickly faded at the box office.
He doesn't regret his immediate post-Titanic choices, but now Di-Caprio is concentrating on getting his screen career back on track.
'I always felt compelled to play certain characters and that has pretty much been consistent,' he maintains. 'With my movies that didn't do well, like The Beach, I still feel secure in the fact that they were unique stories I wanted to tell.'
Back on the publicity treadmill for his two new roles, DiCaprio is most excited about Scorsese's controversy-dogged Gangs Of New York.
Based on Herbert Asbury's landmark non fiction book, DiCaprio plays a poor immigrant in mid-19th Century New York who must face up to the notorious killer Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis). Cameron Diaz plays a prostitute love interest between the two rivals.
'I had to make this young immigrant who never had any respect or money seem real. This is about someone who has to unite poor people and avenge the death of his father,' explains DiCaprio.
Filmed more than two years ago at Rome's famed Cinecitta studios, it's a $100m-plus epic that was troubled by cost overruns, release delays and conflicts between the legendary highly-strung Scorsese (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) and powerhouse producer Harvey Weinstein of Miramax.
It is a powerful mix of a Western meets a period gangster movie set in a turbulent time in New York's early history when it was plagued by ethnic immigrant conflicts. 'It's a story about the time that transformed New York into the metropolitan city it is today,' says DiCaprio. 'I was truly blown away by this bit of American history that was edited out of my history books when I was a student.'
The slim young actor also had to pump up for the role as a street fighting man. It's certainly a much more physically robust DiCaprio than we've seen before on screen.
'I really threw myself into Irish-style boxing and weight training and because of delays I had more than a year to really bulk up.'
In Catch Me If You Can, DiCaprio plays a very different character - real-life con man Frank Abagnale who scammed millions of dollars posing as a young doctor and an airline pilot.
A relatively modest film (costing $65m) it was very different to the drawn-out Gangs of New York says DiCaprio. 'Catch Me If You Can was almost like making a fast-paced independent film. It was definitely much different in tone on the set.'
The fact that the two films have come out close to each other is more a coincidence than any plan says Di-Caprio.
'People will see two very different characters that represent me as an actor and I was working with two of the greats, Scorsese and Spielberg. I just consider myself lucky to get to play these two roles.'
Both films have a common thread running through them - a coming-of-age conf lict in which a young man comes to terms with his background. Di-Caprio says his own father, George DiCaprio, plays an important role in his life - despite the fact his parents split when he was a baby.
'We're very close and my dad has always tried to give me a different perspective and outlook on things. Even now he still heavily inf luences my career,' says the $20m a role actor.
Now he definitely wants to focus on choosing good roles rather than getting lost in the demands of Hollywood stardom.
'Doing Titanic taught me to be specific about my goals and not squander the opportunities,' he says. 'It makes you realise how much you don't want to waste your time as an actor.'
Historical characters are now very much to the fore in Di-Caprio's screen choices. He has agreed to re-team with Scorsese again to depict the eccentric Howard Hughes in The Aviator. He has also committed to Baz Luhrmann's epic Alexander The Great to be shot in Morocco. He's also due to play a CIA agent in Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, set to shoot next autumn.
'I'll do The Aviator first and then Alexander, and both those should take up at least eight months so I'm essentially booked for the next two years.'
DiCaprio hopes attention will now focus on his screen work rather than his private life.
'I'd rather be one of those actors like Robert De Niro where you really know nothing about the actor in real life. That way you're a blank slate on the big screen.'
* Gangs Of New York is currently on general release. Catch Me If You Can will be released on January 31 .