How Leonardo DiCaprio Turned Early Childhood Struggles Into Oscar Success

·Senior Reporter

At this point in Leonardo DiCaprio's increasingly successful career, it's hard to remember a time when the 39-year-old actor wasn't a Hollywood fixture. Yet before he was the Oscar-nominated "Wolf of Wall Street" actor or a "Titanic" heartthrob, or even a standout young guest star on TV's "Growing Pains," he led a very unglamorous life exposed to crime, drug use, prostitution and violence while living in a rough neighborhood near Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue in Los Angeles.

DiCpario recently reflected upon those formative years in an interview with the L.A. Times' Envelope and revealed that it motivated him to become an actor.

"I grew up very poor and I got to see the other side of the spectrum," DiCaprio said when asked about what knowledge a Hollywood actor has about the great divide between the wealthy and poor in America -- the former of which is on full display in the most excessive way possible in "Wolf of Wall Street." DiCaprio has described his old neighborhood like a scene out of "Taxi Driver": "I try to tell my godson, who lives close to that area, what it was like, how there used to be a major prostitution ring on my street corner, crime and violence everywhere," he said. "And I'm not sure he believes me."

The actor's rough upbringing led directly to his career of choice, in fact: "I got beat up the day I arrived [back in public school after going to a private elementary school] because I had the attitude of everyone living harmoniously with one another," he recalled. "That was the motivational thing that happened to me in my life. I was 15, and I said to my mom, 'I want to be an actor. Please take me to auditions.' Because I had to get out of that public school system."

[Related: Should We Feel Guilty For Enjoying The Excess In 'Wolf Of Wall Street?']

That motivation on DiCaprio's part has gone on to fuel a decorated and Oscar-nominated career. For all of the heartthrob-type fanfare associated with his roles in movies like "Romeo + Juliet" and the billion-dollar blockbuster "Titanic," DiCaprio did his best to avoid being typecast and carved out his own niche with a variety of more layered, dramatic roles in films like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "The Basketball Diaries," "Catch Me If You Can," "Blood Diamond," and the five movies he's made in collaboration with director Martin Scorsese.

"You want to be remembered for your work rather than being sort of the hunk of the month," DiCaprio told People magazine in reference to the teenage girl-fueled frenzy that surrounded his early fame. "There's always a new pretty face."

"The Wolf of Wall Street" earned DiCaprio his fourth Oscar nomination for acting and his first Best Picture nomination as a producer. DiCaprio's previous nominations were for Best Actor in "The Aviator" (2004) and "Blood Diamond (2006)," and Best Supporting Actor for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993).

[Related: 8 Things Leonardo DiCaprio Wants You To Know About 'The Wolf Of Wall Street']

"I've gotten to this great place where I'm able to steer the course of my career," DiCaprio told People when he was promoting "The Departed" in 2006. "This is my opportunity to try to emulate the heroes that I had as a young actor -- Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, people like that. That's why I'm in hardcore work mode now."

Naturally, "Wolf" is one of the many results of DiCaprio's "hardcore work mode," partially because of the film's success and awards recognition, but mainly because it has been a passion project for eight years; DiCaprio and go-to collaborator Martin Scorsese first started discussing the project when they were making "The Departed."