NEW YORK -- Why not begin where most other interviewers want to, Leonardo DiCaprio suggests.
''They want to know about where I went last night,'' he jokes.
Much of what's been written about the ''Titanic'' heartthrob since he crowed ''I'm king of the world!'' in the top-grossing film of all time has focused on his personal life. He's finally able to shrug off the gossip-column reports, he says (veering away from specifics of where he went last night).
''I don't know how many people notice, but I never go on a podium and try to clear up stories,'' he says, suggesting that tales of his off-screen life have the accuracy of a game of telephone.
''The only thing you can really do as an actor to retain your position is to just keep working and do what you do and have that reflect on who you are. If you want to know what I've been doing or what I've been up to, there it is up on screen.''
And right now that's Martin Scorsese's ''Gangs of New York'' and Steven Spielberg's ''Catch Me If You Can.''
Both are hitting cineplexes about the same time, mainly because ''Gangs'' was delayed at least a year. DiCaprio began working on ''Gangs'' almost three years ago, so it only seems ''like some big resurgence of me out there.''
As he leans forward with his arms crossed over his lap, DiCaprio displays a seriousness and sincerity about his craft. Still baby-faced at 28, he appears far removed from the tabloids' alpha male who leads a hard-partying posse trolling nightclubs for women.
About that image, he says: ''The only thing that bothered me initially was how immediately categorized I felt like I was. I felt immediately trapped, like all of a sudden I was defined. And I didn't like that. And it took a period of time for me to reflect and realize that the only thing you can do is to stay on course.''
DiCaprio said he endures the downside of fame because ''for all the upside and all the benefits it's given me, it's so worth it.''
As he points out, he just got to work with two of the great directors of the last 30 years.
That opportunity, he knows, he owes to ''Titanic,'' which grossed more than $600 million in the United States and another $1.2 billion-plus internationally, making him a teen idol and also stirring some backlash.
''It propelled me out into millions of different covers of magazines and T-shirts around the world, and made me almost like,'' he gropes to finish the thought: ''I can't ... (I) felt more like a product than I ever felt in my entire life.''
It was disillusioning and unexpected, he says, adding:
''On the upside of it, I got to work on a film that isn't easily going to be forgotten throughout time.''
It's also ''a great feeling to know that I can steer my career ... It gives me more control and more latitude and as an actor that's a pretty amazing thing. I think that's what every actor dreams of.''
As he lights a second Parliament Light, DiCaprio talks about being ''a little older, a little wiser in the business.'' He dismisses use of the word ''comeback,'' or the notion that these two new films mark a turning point in his career.
''I've always had the same intent as an actor, and that is simply that I want to have a unique experience and I want to work on something of quality,'' he says, acknowledging a couple of missteps along the way.
His last film, ''The Beach'' in 2000, was considered one of them. Reviews were as cold as an iceberg straight ahead, and the movie barely grossed $40 million.
For the most part, however, the actor's career has been rather sure-footed. He first gained notice in 1993's ''This Boy's Life,'' standing up to Robert De Niro's abusive stepfather, then received an Academy Award nomination playing Johnny Depp's retarded brother in ''What's Eating Gilbert Grape?''
Admirable performances followed in ''The Basketball Diaries,'' ''Total Eclipse'' and ''Romeo + Juliet.''
Then came that oceanic celebrity.
If it's true that you can't con a con man, then DiCaprio managed to ride out that wave of fame in one piece -- for that's the view of Frank W. Abagnale Jr., the consummate con man whom DiCaprio plays in ''Catch Me If You Can.'' Abagnale lived with DiCaprio for two days to help him prepare for the role.
''One of the first things that impressed me was that when I went into his home, a huge home, there wasn't one picture of Leo, except with his father. There were no movie posters. I kept thinking to myself he must have a room somewhere where he has all this stuff displayed,'' Abagnale says.
''I said, 'I hope you don't mind me asking, but I notice there's not one movie poster, not one picture' ... He said: 'Oh no, I'm not into any of that. I don't have any of that.' ... He really is somebody who has no ego whatsoever.''
Scorsese says he cast DiCaprio in ''Gangs'' because ''he had a range and depth as an actor, and fearlessness as an actor with box-office clout.''
In Scorsese's gory allegory about assimilation and ethnic strife in 1860s New York, DiCaprio plays a bulked-up (by 30 pounds), street-savvy young man. He's more familiarly boyish and slender in Spielberg's kitschy, cool ''Catch Me,'' but evinces the underlying pain motivating his character's cons. (The actor received a Golden Globe nomination for that performance.)
DiCaprio plans next to star in biopics about Alexander the Great and Howard Hughes.
He's also producing a program on the environment to air on PBS in 2003, saying it's an opportunity ''to give back somehow.''
The Los Angeles native drives an electric car and devotes half of his Web site to environmental concerns. It's a passion, he explains, that dates back to ''being an avid fan of biology in school -- it was the only subject I really cared about besides drama class.''
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