My conversation with Gabriel Leone begins with him recalling one of the saddest days of his life. Fifteen years ago, his favorite soccer club, Fluminense, lost the Copa Libertadores (the South American Champions League) in penalty kicks. “It was in our stadium in Rio, and we lost with all of our fans there,” laments the actor and musician, who hails from the club’s home of Rio de Janeiro.
One of Leone’s first pieces of clothing was a Fluminense uniform; Leone inherited his love for the tri-color team from his father, along with an affinity for Technicolor epics and musicals.
“The first movie I’ve ever cried watching in my life was Hair,” Leone says of the 1979 adaptation, which he says is still his favorite. The emotionally overwhelming button of Milos Forman’s film, in which the cast performs Let the Sunshine In at Arlington Cemetery, struck a nerve with the young man. His mother was a fan of Disney’s animated films. When Leone talks about his family collecting the Disney VHS tapes, I’m immediately transported to the row of white plastic clamshell cases from my youth.
Those influences would eventually shape his blossoming but accomplished acting career; Leone seems determined to identify the limits of his abilities and push further and further outside his comfort zone. “I’m always looking,” he says, “for a character and for a project that’s going to challenge me.”
Fifteen years later, Fluminense won that very championship for the first time in its history, and Leone has racked up triumphs of his own, playing a pivotal role in a Michael Mann film, starring in the most-watched non-English series in Amazon’s history, and portraying Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna in a Netflix series that debuts later this year.
His first performance had a much more intimate audience. Tasked with producing their own play for a history project, his eighth grade class chose the musician Cazuza as their subject. “It was a one night only presentation for the parents of our class,” said Leone, who was unaware his performance would act as a de facto audition.
Thanks to his turn as the 80s rocker, Leone was invited to sit in on a local theater company’s rehearsals. Months later, he made his proper stage debut in a production of Taming of the Shrew. He would perform more of Shakespeare’s works, along with those of important Brazilian authors, but he found there were obstacles to branching out.
“For theater, the only thing you could find was musical auditions,” said Leone. Though he played in a band and had some training in school, he decided to bolster his talents with dance and singing classes. He moved from stage to screen, soon finding prominence in the Brazilian telenovela Hidden Truths.
Leone scored his first major role as the title character in Dom. The series charts the rise of Pedro Dom, the son of a narcotics detective who transitions into a favela gang lord. Though both Leone and his character are from Rio, they come from different backgrounds with a decade between them. While Leone hails from the north, Pedro Dom represented the experiences of many from the south who had opportunities but lost themselves in drug addiction. “Cocaine was a massive thing in Brazil,” Leone says, “but specifically in Rio.”