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Screen Tests: 5 Early Roles of Leonardo DiCaprio Before He Was Jack Dawson

A closer look at 5 important films that helped the actor earn his way to stardom.

Welcome to Screen Tests, where we look at the career of an actor’s, actress’s or director’s early work leading up to their big break, recognizing the many smaller roles and hard work it took to get there. Today we celebrate …

Leonardo DiCaprio is an international superstar whose latest films have earned him the highest praise and awards, his performances celebrated as some of the best of his generation, if not all time. His raw intensity and commitment to these roles have allowed him to grow beyond the heartthrob years of the 90s and into one of the most accomplished actors working today. Still, he is best known for his career-making turn as Jack Dawson, the scrappy young artist and lover in James Cameron‘s epic historical drama Titanic. But it was no overnight success. We’ve chosen 5 early films to showcase that trace the popular actor’s rise to stardom, ones that earned him his place in the Titanic cast. Let’s look at Leonardo DiCaprio.

Critters 3 (1991)

Leonardo DiCaprio
Critters 3, 1991 © New Line Cinema

Low budget horror films seem to be the first stepping stone for many actors looking to break into the limelight and it was no exception for DiCaprio. After a couple of years with some small parts on television, the sixteen-year-old actor landed his first film role in Kristine Peterson‘s Critters 3, the second sequel to the little monsters franchise. A surprisingly meaty role, he plays the stepson of a not so nice landlord who gets caught up in the next wave of Critter attacks. Cheesy and appropriately goofy, the movie doesn’t really offer any good moments for DiCaprio to shine but there is a 90s cool dude vibe about him that is easy to recognize as fodder for Teen Beat-style magazines and it got him a recurring role on the popular family show Growing Pains, but a year later, he would make a huge leap forward, starring alongside one of cinema’s biggest names.

This Boy’s Life (1993)

Leonardo DiCaprio
This Boy’s Life, 1993 © Knickerbocker Films

This Boy’s Life is the autobiographical story of American author Tobias Wolff, played as a young man by DiCaprio. Starring opposite Robert De Niro no less, the story centers on a single mother (Ellen Barkin) and her son Tobias moving to Seattle, Washington where she meets and starts a relationship with the seemingly very kind Dwight Hansen (De Niro). But that all changes when Tobias learns that Dwight is actually an abusive and angry man, having to tolerate the very worst as his mother sticks by the man’s side. The film is often hard to watch as Dwight gets pretty rough with Tobias and both De Niro and DiCaprio are truly impressive with DiCaprio especially revealing a side we hadn’t seen yet. Considered the first breakout performance of his young career, he was only just getting started because what came next shocked critics and had everyone asking, “Who is that kid?”

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1994)

Leonardo DiCaprio
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, 1994 © Paramount Pictures

This Boy’s Life was not a big Box Office draw, and the film was not widely seen so DiCaprio was still a face few were familiar with, despite some attention in teen rags and ‘stars to watch’ lists. But then came the spring of 1994 and the North American release of the Johnny Depp drama What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? The story centers on Gilbert (Depp) a young man trapped by his family, whom he loves but longs for a life with something new. His mother (Darlene Cates) is morbidly obese, confined to the house and his little brother Arnie (DiCaprio) is developmentally disabled. When a girl named Becky (Juliette Lewis) and her grandmother end up traveling through town, things begin to change and Gilbert has some choices to make. While all that really makes for a great story, it is DiCaprio’s Arnie that makes this movie something profound. Many were convinced the boy playing Arnie was in fact a truly developmentally disabled actor, and it’s easy to see why when you watch this astounding bit of masterclass acting. Everything about the character is a wonder and DiCaprio does things that are simply awe-inspiring. He earned his first Academy Award nomination, one that many critics felt he should have won, and made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? a film everyone remembers for Arnie. But more importantly, they were remembering the actor.

The Basketball Diaries (1995)

Leonardo DiCaprio
The Basketball Diaries, 1995 © New Line Cinema

The following year, after a supporting role in a western with Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone, the young actor got his first real leading role, starring in another autobiography, this time about musician and artist Jim Carroll. The story follows Carroll (DiCaprio) as a young man on the high school basketball team and his harrowing spiral into drug abuse, which puts him on the streets of New York committing crimes and prostitution to get money for cocaine and heroin. The film was not a critical favorite and it’s dark tone and a controversial dream sequence led to a series of actual lawsuits where some claimed it led to acts of real life violence, including the Columbine shootings. That all aside, DiCaprio’s commitment to the role is undeniable and the twisted and jarring path the character ends up on makes for a truly memorable performance. To see the evolution of DiCaprio, to notice the darkness he is unafraid to live in with bringing even an unlikable character to life, you must see this performance, as we witness a truly devastating transformation. Dicaprio is famous for his angst and often bombastic moments, many of which get their first embers lit right here. It’s a heavy movie, but invaluable in seeing where the actor plants his roots. Next up, a lot of screaming makes for one helluva show.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Leonardo DiCaprio
Romeo + Juliet, 1996 © Bazmark Films

Baz Luhrmann‘s adaptation of the classic Shakespeare tragedy is a divisive work to be sure, with purist aghast at the modern updating and hyper-stylized format while many were wholly taken by the fiery energy and electric performances. No matter where you stand, and despite several good turns by some very good actors, Romeo + Juliet is a Leonardo DiCaprio tour de force. There’s not much point in telling the story, one that surely anyone knows, but worth noting that while the dialogue is retained from the famous play, the setting is now in Verona Beach with warring mafia families at the heart of a romance between two people who should have never met. With DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet, Luhrmann coaxes his star to emote with great enthusiasm as he takes to the Bard’s words with fiery abandon, delivering famous lines with tremendous gusto … and a handgun. The most important takeaway though was DiCaprio’s transition to leading man, his boyish good looks at last made to steal hearts and what better way to do that than put him in the greatest love story ever told. He won praise for his work but more so for the legions of fans he made as a heartthrob. He was making waves, but it would be a year later on the waves when he would finally become famous the world over as he sailed into cinema legend.

What Followed

Leonardo DiCaprio
Titanic, 1997 © Paramount Pictures

Titanic would changed everything for DiCaprio. While the film is considered one of the greatest ever made, it crushed Box Office records for one reason only – audiences wanted to see Jack Dawson so they came back over and over. Not surprisingly, DiCaprio is quite good in the role, even if it’s not nearly as accomplished as Arnie or a few others on this list, but nonetheless, does make Dawson a compelling character. Leonardo DiCaprio was an overnight success and a household name across the globe and it only took … seven years.

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