What’s Heating Gilbert Grape
At 6:16 p.m. on Tuesday, it was pandemonium on Beinecke Plaza. As a handsome man, six feet tall, dark hair impeccably slicked back, was ushered behind Woodbridge Hall to a black van waiting on Wall Street, students sprinted in front of Peter Salovey’s workplace, joining the mob, phones aloft. Leonardo DiCaprio had come to campus, and Yale, it seemed, would never be the same.
On Tuesday, as Hurricane Maria bore down on Puerto Rico, DiCaprio arrived at Yale for a panel, moderated by former Secretary of State John Kerry, on the topic of “Citizen Engagement & Activism.” The panel capped the Yale Climate Conference, a convention organized by the Kerry Initiative — an interdisciplinary program founded this year by Kerry and operating out of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs — featuring a medley of government officials and corporate executives. But even Tuesday morning’s talk, “State, City, and International Efforts,” featuring Jerry Brown, Governor of California; Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington; Jim Kim, President of the World Bank; and Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris couldn’t eclipse DiCaprio.
Woolsey Hall was abuzz as the talk drew near. While environmentalism was the topic, DiCaprio was undeniably the draw. “I think that the role of celebrity should extend to raising awareness,” said Casey Odesser JE ’20, who cited the 1993 drama “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” as her favorite DiCaprio performance. “Just pushing the idea to the seat of popular culture, that’s a really important role celebrities can play.”
Kerry and DiCaprio walked onstage to the roar of the capacity crowd, then sat side-by-side in tan armchairs, a white shag carpet under their feet and an unused coffee table before them. DiCaprio has played a young lover on a sinking ship (as Kerry said in his opening line, “Who better to talk about the dangers of climate change than a man who has witnessed firsthand the danger when an iceberg breaks off?”). He’s played a thief of the subconscious. He’s played a corrupt capitalist and a frontiersman fighting the elements.
In recent years, DiCaprio has played a new role: concerned citizen. He spent three years traveling the globe to film “Before the Flood,” a 2016 documentary featuring aerial panoramas of industrial landscapes and natural decay and 1080p footage of a bearded DiCaprio standing on ice sheets in aviators and gazing out of helicopters with a look of grim resolve. In 2014, he was appointed a United Nations representative on climate change. After capping his career with an Oscar for “The Revenant” in 2015, he has turned his attention to the climate.
DiCaprio is very famous and very wealthy. He has a net worth of $245 million. Without a doubt, he’s putting his stature to good use. His nonprofit, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, has been raising money to protect threatened ecosystems for the last 19 years, and has donated over $80 million to environmental organizations. He’s been barnstorming across the world to spur citizens and politicians alike to take action — he and Terry Tamminen, CEO of the Foundation and former head of California’s Environmental Protection Agency met with Donald Trump last December. But given his fame, DiCaprio seemed an odd choice to speak on the engagement of ordinary citizens.
For students in attendance, however, DiCaprio represented the people’s perspective. “I think someone like Leonardo DiCaprio you can maybe relate to easier because you know they’re talking about it mostly 100 percent genuinely,” said Christopher Bowman SY ’18, who had also attended the morning’s politician-filled panel. “Politicians may be doing it for some sort of ulterior motive.”
And in speaking with Kerry, DiCaprio displayed a surprising sense of vulnerability. Kerry projected confidence, citing the wave of environmental legislation passed under Richard Nixon in the 1970s — the Clean Air Act, the Water Pollution Control Act, the creation of the EPA — as an example of the change that happens when the environment becomes a voting issue. DiCaprio, on the other hand, spoke with fear of “the most existential crisis humanity has ever faced,” and expressed his dismay at Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris climate accord, the obstinacy of climate deniers, and even his fears of the potent methane that has begun to leak out of the ocean floor. “I’m someone who isn’t a college graduate, who isn’t a scientist,” DiCaprio said. “I’m just a citizen who wants to get involved on this issue.”
Jim Levinsohn, Director of the Jackson Institute, was pleased with DiCaprio’s performance. “It was a great complement to the many other speakers at the conference,” Levinsohn wrote in an email. “Mr. DiCaprio’s presence probably brought in some students who might otherwise have missed the conference and that’s a good thing.”
True to Levinsohn’s word, the talk engaged students with a wide range of involvement on climate issues. Claire Rossi de Leon ’19 PC, Co-President of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, said she felt Kerry and DiCaprio’s conversation was well-rounded and inspired her to focus on the intersection of the economy and the environment. “DiCaprio is the perfect ambassador for climate activism,” Rossi de Leon said. “He is clearly passionate and committed to the cause.”
Another student, who chose not to reveal her name, said she forged a ticket to get into the talk. Her aim was clear. “I wanted to see Leonardo DiCaprio,” she said. After a pause, she added: “Also, I’m very concerned about the climate change that’s going on in the world.”
Behind her, another concerned student sprinted by: DiCaprio’s van was about to leave.