Leonardo DiCaprio's "Passion Project": Inside the Actor's Nearly 20-Year Quest to Play a Man With Multiple Personality Disorder

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Billy Milligan

The actor has chased the story of Billy Milligan, the first person to use the psychiatric diagnosis as a legal defense, since 1997 and is now set to play him in 'Crowded Room.'

This story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It took nearly 20 years, but Leonardo DiCaprio finally might play his dream role.

Since 1997, the actor has chased the story of Billy Milligan, the first person to use multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder) as a legal defense. Milligan, who died in December at 59, had 24 personalities, including a Yugoslavian communist named Ragen, who admitted to armed robbery, and a lesbian named Adalana, who doctors say committed three rapes at Ohio State University. In a groundbreaking verdict during the late 1970s, Milligan was acquitted and committed to a string of mental institutions. But turning an antihero into a big-screen hero has proved far more complicated.

Hollywood long has been obsessed with multiple personalities: The Three Faces of Eve won Joanne Woodward an Oscar in 1958 and Sybil an Emmy for Sally Field in 1977. The Crowded Room, based on Daniel Keyes' nonfiction book The Minds of Billy Milligan, has been in development for years. After lying dormant for a decade, the project is getting renewed life. New Regency and Appian Way, DiCaprio's production company, have hired writers Jason Smilovic and Todd Katzberg after their pitch wowed DiCaprio, 40, who is producing the film alongside Alexandra Milchan and Jennifer Davisson. "They came in with a fresh take that solved some of the problems. It's challenging to understand Billy's story and make him sympathetic. I think we have a structure that allows us to understand him as best you can if you aren't suffering from the same disorder," says New Regency president and CEO Brad Weston. "This is a passion project for us and for Leo."

Appian and New Regency will not approach directors until Smilovic and Katzberg complete the script (it's their sole focus at the moment). Smilovic, whose credits include Lucky Number Slevin, had tackled complicated characters before and co-wrote Todd Phillips' upcoming black comedy Arms and the Dudes at Warner Bros.

Considering Crowded Room's tortured past, it's no surprise the producers are loath to say whether it could be DiCaprio's next film after The Revenant, which Birdman Oscar winner Alejandro G. Inarritu is shooting for New Regency and Fox. During the early 1990s, James Cameron came close to directing Crowded Room, casting John Cusack in the lead, but he dropped out after the book's rightsholder, Sandy Arcara, filed a lawsuit seeking more money. In 1997, a pre-Titanic DiCaprio told New Regency he'd like to star, but the project still didn't go anywhere. Other directors and actors expressing interest along the way have included David Fincher, Gus Van Sant, Joel Schumacher, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. Now it finally could be happening.

"I'm OK with a movie being made," says Kathy Preston, Milligan's sister. "I want people to understand the ramifications of unresolved trauma, child abuse and violence."

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