It is rare for a male movie star, especially one in his prime, to take time off from making feature films. Ask Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds, who have barely had time to pause for breath in their five-decade-long careers.

One Hollywood superstar who is bucking the trend is three-time Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, who has stopped putting his youthful face on the screen temporarily in order to dedicate himself to the not insignificant matter of saving our planet.

“People used to take this world for granted, and it was easy to do,” said the 33-year-old by telephone recently. “You just did your thing. It was all me-centered. We cannot do that any more.”

DiCaprio has been bitten hard by the ecology bug. At the Academy Awards in February this year, he joked around on stage with Al Gore in front of a television audience of millions for the latter’s acceptance speech — the former vice president’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” a call to action against global warming, won the Oscar for Best Documentary. The actor is effusive in his praise.

“Mr. Gore is a man who’s much more than a politician,” says DiCaprio, who since his Oscar appearance has had to deny rumors that he’s interested in running for political office. “He’s concerned and involved with issues of the day — things that make a difference. Politicians mostly make promises, and nowadays there’s this habit of lying to the voters or potential voters. Al goes more for action than words.”

Even though DiCaprio has recently taken a break from acting, he has still kept his hand in the business of making movies. And with friends like Gore, it’s little surprise that DiCaprio’s latest movie has its own environmental theme, leading to widespread comparisons with “An Inconvenient Truth.”

With it’s tagline, “Turn mankind’s darkest hour into its finest,” DiCaprio co-wrote and narrates the documentary “The 11th Hour,” which opened in August and is being tipped for its own Oscar next year. With the beady eye of the world’s media watching his every move and waiting for a mistake, much of the actor’s off-screen time was spent researching the Earth’s plight.

“I wanted to know what I was talking about,” he says. Of course, as a celebrity, it helps that he has access to leading environmental activists and those in political and scientific fields.

Two famous names who appear in the documentary are physicist Stephen Hawking and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev; British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough is one of many experts also lending weight.

“. . . man, I really have a new respect for the form, for the format now,” says DiCaprio. “A lot of people think a documentary’s easier to make than a (feature) movie, that it’s quicker and you do it as you go along. (But) it takes as much time, and so much effort.”

Nor will he talk about the fact that he did some commercials in Japan for big bucks, and was criticized for doing so by James Cameron, who directed DiCaprio in the 1997 hit movie “Titanic.” That movie won 11 Oscars, but notably did not earn DiCaprio a best actor nomination. The two are allegedly still not talking since the actor declined to attend the Academy Award’s ceremony, disappointing Cameron, who said “he let down the team.”

DiCaprio is more forthcoming about another new project, the independent movie “The Gardener of Eden,” which he is producing. It’s a black comedy starring pal Lukas Haas and is directed by another close friend, Kevin Connolly, about a man who accidentally helps capture a serial rapist. He then becomes something of a vigilante, craving continued fame and adulation. Instead, he gets deeper into trouble with his acts of deception.

What drew DiCaprio to the project but kept him from taking the lead role himself and instead producing it?

“I don’t mind going behind the scenes, you know,” he sighs. “I don’t have to put myself front and center. I had been, working really hard, one (film) after the other. It was time for a break. And this was a really cool story. Clever and funny and it has a moral.”

Some critics have said “The Gardener of Eden,” due out in 2008, is a satire on the vigilante-type movies so many young people have grown up with. But DiCaprio sees it differently, as “partly about how once somebody gets a taste of being a celebrity, they want it to continue. You know, how that guy (Andy Warhol) said everybody was gonna have their 15 minutes of fame? Well, a lot of people, they don’t want to give that up after 15 minutes — or 15 months.

“And this guy, Adam Harris (played by Haas), he loves being in the spotlight, and he doesn’t want to give that up. So he does these desperate, ridiculous things — unethical things — to stay a hero.”

DiCaprio adds that first-time director Connolly has a big future and that Haas did “a terrific job.” When asked about his sponsorship of friends and relatives in his projects, DiCaprio notes matter-of-factly, “Well, it’s just about helping people you like, that’s natural. And you tend to give more help to people you know can do a good job, not just anyone you like. There’s other people I like, but maybe they’re not up to doing the job. So there.”

As for moving from producing to directing in the near future, DiCaprio only offers circumspectly that it’s “not on the schedule.” Several starring projects are in development, but he won’t talk about those either.

DiCaprio emphasizes that doing “The 11th hour” was something he knew would be difficult, daunting even, but says that he “had to prove to myself I could do it, and go all the way with it. And the writing aspect, I was kind of intimidated, but I had a great writing partner (Nadia Conners), and I got lots of good advice.

“For me, it was sort of, in a way, a coming-of-age thing. Acting’s always been fairly easy for me, and I started young. I’ve been doing this a long time — I kind of grew up in movies.”

“Like I said, you know, being in this business for so long, I’ve already gotten a lot of ego stroking. And I feel now I’m at a point where I can take it or leave it.” For the time being at least, anyway.

DiCaprio is hoping it won’t be necessary to make a followup documentary to “The 11th Hour.”

“If we did our job right on this one, I don’t think I need to go do another, not on the same theme.

“If people watch this, I think they don’t need to be hit over the head with it again. Not in the near future . . . (nor) if they care about what happens to our home, to our planet, Mother Earth. If you care about the future — your own future — and you see ‘The 11th Hour,’ I almost guarantee it’ll get to you and it’ll move you. I mean move your emotions and then hopefully move you to action.”

Though he admits he had to do some heavy research for the movie, the environment is not an entirely new concern for DiCaprio. In 1998, the actor established the Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation to help raise awareness of environmental issues, particularly global warming and alternative, renewable energy resources. Being away from the cameras has allowed him to concentrate more energy on the foundation, “getting it to reach young people, ’cause they’re more optimistic. A lot of older people think it’s all hopeless or too late, and that attitude doesn’t help anyone. Besides, younger people have a bigger stake in rescuing our planet. They’ve got more time to spend on it, to put it bluntly.”

“The 11th Hour” is scheduled for a Japan release in 2008.

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