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ON LOCATION : Sex, Drugs, Pick and Roll : Jim Carroll's cult favorite 'The Basketball Diaries' is finally making it to the screen. It seems everyone wanted to star. Leonardo DiCaprio made the cut.

July 24, 1994|RICK MARIN

"You can't always think of public perception, because if you get caught up in, 'Oh, he's a depressing actor. He just does dark films,' you get locked into one thing," he says. "You should just do everything, all types of different things."

DiCaprio has been enjoying New York to the fullest since he got here in early spring. Tabloid gossip columns have reported numerous club sightings of him with Wahlberg and Kalvert. Asked if his research of the Jim Carroll experience has extended to experimentation with drugs (a persistent rumor), he says no, and his voice rises in astonishment at the question.

"Compared to this guy, I'm so clean, man, it's ridiculous," he says. "I swear--and I wouldn't just say this for an interview--but I don't do any of those drugs. It's just acting for me. People said, 'Why don't you try it for the movie?' and that's just so lame, you know? You do drugs like that and it gives you an excuse to do them again."

Despite the title, "The Basketball Diaries" isn't really about basketball. It's three years, age 13 to 16, in the life of an all-city athlete who at 6-feet-1 can dunk the ball backward and score 40 points in a game while doing almost every drug known to man. But with each successive diary entry, ball playing is replaced by drug playing. By the end of the book, all that's left for Carroll's keen intelligence and writer's eye to observe is his own life going down the toilet.

"It's a coming-of-age tale," says Kalvert. "Like 'Catcher in the Rye.' "

More like "The Catcher in the Rye" through the rheumy eyes of William Burroughs.

This is Kalvert's first feature. His resume so far consists of music videos for Will Smith, Cyndi Lauper and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. It's also the first produced screenplay for the writer, Bryan Goluboff. Kalvert is 30, Goluboff 27. Both are total Carroll groupies.

"I used to follow Jim around in the Village when I was 14 years old," says Goluboff. Kalvert read the book at 18 and says he "lent it to everyone I knew."

Sex and drugs are all over the "Diaries." Carroll turns to prostitution to pay for his habit. Karen Akers, a New York cabaret singer, turned down a cameo in the film when told what the scene entailed: whips, razor blades, cruelty to cats. The worst has been toned down, say the producer and director. The last thing they want in a film starring teen idols is an NC-17 rating. So while moviegoers may not actually see DiCaprio stick the needle in his vein, they'll see its evil effects.

"Toward the end of the movie, when you see some of the stuff that goes down--the prostitution, stealing from his mother (played by Lorraine Bracco)--it's not pretty. People aren't gonna say, 'Wow, I want to do drugs.' It's sickening."

The producers hired an ex-addict as a "drug consultant" to ensure authenticity. A genius at mimicry, DiCaprio can slip effortlessly into junkie mode.

"The voice: you go down an octave. Even when you raise your voice it's like you got this frog in your throat," he says, as if teaching an acting lesson. "It's not necessarily being tired and it's not necessarily like being drunk. It's sort of like your body becomes jelly and all your bones and everything become completely relaxed. You just feel at peace. Supposedly. I don't know. I've never done it. Right?" He laughs nervously.

A week later: another day of shooting, this time at St. Agnes Cathedral on East 12th Street in the Village. It's a funeral for Jim's friend Bobby.

The real Jim Carroll is sitting in the balcony, high above and removed from the action below. He looks like someone you'd see in a bus station. Long straight red hair, thinning at the temples, pulled back in a ponytail that hangs halfway down his back. Old jeans (he's still lean). Old red-and-white leather Converse high tops-basketball shoes. Plaid shirt over a T-shirt, grunge-style. A baseball cap that says "NBA Jam Session."

"When they first told me it was gonna be Leo, I didn't know who he was," Carroll says in his amused way. "If they'd said the kid from 'Growing Pains,' I would have known, because when I first saw that kid, I said, 'This kid has a lot of presence.' I said, 'That kid is very pretty. He's gonna do well."

Who knew Jim Carroll watched "Growing Pains"?

When Carroll talks, he rarely looks you in the eye. He fixates on middle-distance objects and launches into long rambling bits of autobiography. His digressions seem like tangents, but they always come back to the point. His voice is nasal, New York-accented, with a slight lisp. He's been clean since 1975, but he still talks like Dennis Hopper in "Apocalypse Now"--a hipster junkie rap with lots of exclamatory "wows" and "mans." He also uses words like eschew and baroque --correctly--and has a memory like flypaper.

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