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De Niro Defined

Just as the famously reserved actor turns 70, Robert De Niro finally lets the outside world in. For once, he’s talking to you

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Robert De Niro wants to know where I live.

Or, more precisely, where I used to live. We are talking about the New York City neighborhood where De Niro was born and raised, Greenwich Village, and, specifically, the public pool that runs nearly a block from St. Luke’s Place to Clarkson Street, just west of Seventh Avenue South. Apart from its legitimate use during the day, the pool provided a welcome respite from the summer heat when kids like De Niro climbed the black wrought-iron fence that enclosed it and swam until the cops came to chase them away.

1960s demolition in Greenwich Village. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

Growing up in the same neighborhood less than a decade after De Niro, I took those night swims in Carmine Pool and, more disturbingly, experienced the same complicated contrast between the tough Italian-American street environment and the alternative bohemian culture that suffused the Village in the 1960s and 1970s. Crime, reform school and prison loomed menacingly in the shadows of the artistic life that made the neighborhood known to the larger world around us. The child of painters who divorced when he was three, De Niro straddled the two realms precariously. Running with the toughs, he became known on the street as “Bobby Milk” because of his pale complexion.

As we explore those dynamics, De Niro has a question. “You grew up on 10th and Bleecker?” he asks. “Which corner?”

It’s his trademark obsession with detail, the attention to authenticity that has informed his acting for 40 years, since he played the small-time thug Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (1973), the first of eight films he has made with Martin Scorsese. “I was in the street thing, and then I just realized that I’m not going to get anywhere if I do this,” De Niro says. “I remember telling my friends I wanted to be an actor. Some of them were responsive. Some of them were nonplussed. They didn’t know what to think about it. Actually we shot Mean Streets right on the block I used to hang out on. We used some of the guys I used to know in the film, and Marty used some of the guys he knew too.”

For anyone who grew up in that world, Mean Streets was a revelation, not because of what it told you about yourself but because of what it told everyone else in America about you. As Bruce Springsteen did for the rudderless working-class kids on the Jersey Shore, De Niro and his friend Scorsese found meaning and beauty in lives that had never before been deemed worthy of artistic treatment. In film after film—in The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Casino—De Niro embodied characters for whom violence roiled within their inner lives. Each was a tinderbox that a wrong word, a thoughtless gesture, an unconsidered act would inevitably ignite. As a viewer you carried that awareness as you watched him in every scene. He never signaled it, and he never needed to. It was with him every step that he took.

Robert De Niro in Mean Streets (1973). Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty Images

In De Niro’s new film, The Family, his relationship with violence takes on another compelling dimension. He plays Giovanni Manzon, a mobster who flees America with his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, and two children to France as part of the witness protection program. In one scene, the renamed “Fred Blake” is grilling meat at a cookout organized in their village. Fred does his best to behave himself, but as his guests begin to display the casually condescending rudeness at which the French excel, director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, Taken) allows us glimpses into Fred’s fantasy life. As Fred grins and mumbles cordial responses, he imagines grabbing one of his interlocutors by the scruff of his neck, slamming his face against the burning-hot grill and holding it there.

That contrast between an explosive past in which such assaults would have routinely taken place and, at least theoretically, a more sedate present encapsulates the struggle Fred contends with—and in some metaphoric sense it’s De Niro’s struggle as well. Everything he does at this stage of his career is inevitably compared with his groundbreaking performances of the past. But what sense do roles like those make for a man who has just turned 70?

On a summer afternoon I arrive at De Niro’s Tribeca production office to interview him about The Family. Meeting him is a thrilling prospect but a bit scary, as if I were meeting someone whom I’d somehow known my whole life. He’s earned a reputation as a notoriously difficult interview, so I had no certainty that my personal identification with him would help at all. I remember seeing De Niro at a press conference with Scorsese in New York in 1990 to discuss Goodfellas with a group of reporters. Seated on a dais, he writhed in agony even when asked the most innocuous questions. He stammered and gestured helplessly, his eyes pleading for the ever-voluble Scorsese to bail him out. As recently as 2010, a television appearance with Dustin Hoffman on Late Show with David Letterman to promote Little Fockers once again found De Niro so taciturn—and Letterman so thoroughly unsettled—that Hoffman described himself as “the De Niro whisperer” and offered to answer any of the questions Letterman intended for his fellow guest.

De Niro’s office is spacious and airy but at the same time lived-in. It’s obvious that a real human being actually works here, and the books, DVDs, magazines and movie posters all reflect his interests. The shyness that everyone who knows him immediately mentions is evident but so is an easy graciousness. Dressed in khaki pants and a white shirt, he’s very much a gentleman in the old-world sense.

I offer him a book I worked on with Clive Davis, and he thanks me, saying, “I was interested in this book,” and then, “Did you inscribe it?”

“I didn’t, but I certainly would be happy to.”

“Do that,” De Niro says. “And date it.”

I do so, but not before silently working out if there were some way I could wrangle a week or so to figure out what I might actually want to say to Robert De Niro in such a context. I settle on “For Robert De Niro, an inspiration.” He reads it and, once again, thanks me. Until I determine where I would be most comfortable in his office, De Niro does not sit down. Then we start talking. It’s a sacred tenet of media training that interview subjects should politely listen to questions but then say whatever they want to say in response with no regard for what was asked. De Niro is nothing like that. He refuses clichés, and there is nothing glib about him. He won’t just rattle answers off the top of his head.

De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976). Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When asked about how he dealt with the violence in making Taxi Driver—perhaps his most iconic film but also his most graphic—De Niro says, “When we were shooting the last scene, the shootout in the hallway and all that, we would always make jokes between takes because it’s such a gruesome thing. You hear about surgeons who are doing these sort of gruesome triages on soldiers and they’re joking as they do it, because what else can you do? It’s not going to change the situation. It makes it easier for you, and at the same time, you’re getting the job done.”

Another striking aspect of De Niro is his support of other actors and directors. He says of both of his co-stars in The Family, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones, that he was “lucky” they agreed to appear in the film and praised Pfeiffer’s depiction of a mob wife as “terrific.” Such generosity is extended to James Gandolfini, who had died at age 51 a few days before our interview. Gandolfini’s role as a mob boss in The Sopranos has been compared to De Niro’s work, but De Niro shows no hint of competitiveness. Instead, he praised the late actor’s performance in the Broadway play God of Carnage and says, “It’s terrible. He was too young. I wish that he had been more maybe proactive about his health. I don’t know what he did about that, but I wish he had been. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Working as an actor his entire life means that De Niro sees everything through that lens. In describing his steadfast support for Barack Obama, he compares the president’s challenges to a filmmaker’s. “He’s a good person, period,” he says. “He’s trying his best. He’s going to do things that people feel are not right or violating one right or another. But at the end of the day, he represents, I think, the best of the type of people that I would like to see running the government. He has to play that game, the political game. They all do. They make statements they can’t honor because they’re impossible to honor. Once you get into that Washington machinery, you’ve just got to figure it out and swim against the current and grab onto this rock and that, and just try to maintain your course.

“You know, it’s one thing to be a critic,” he continues. “It’s another thing to be directly involved. It’s like directing a movie and you edit the film and then someone will give you a suggestion: ‘You could do this, you could do that.’ You look and you say, ‘Yeah, but the reason I can’t do that is because I don’t have that shot, and if I use this shot that’s better here, it impacts on this one and it’s a story point.’ In other words, it can’t be done. You have to make these choices with the government, and you’re going to be criticized. If you took the time to explain it all to the public, they’d say, ‘OK, I get it.’ Can you explain to everybody? No. You just have to say, ‘I made this choice because I felt it was the right choice.’ ”

 

Mean Streets was not De Niro’s first acting gig. At the age of 10 he played the Cowardly Lion in a Saturday stage production of The Wizard of Oz in New York City: “I was a kid and they gave me that part to do.”

His knowledge of the city’s cultural life is encyclopedic, beginning with the stage and movie theaters he haunted as a teenager. “In those days, you had the Loews Sheridan and you’d see the double bill,” De Niro says. “You had Suddenly, Last Summer. Then On the Waterfront… A Place in the Sun and all the movies that really affected me, if you will.”

Reminiscing, he says, “Did you ever know the Elgin Theater on Eighth Avenue? There was another theater up the street that also had old films, not like the Loews with the first run, but on the east side, like in the low 20s—off 23rd Street. Then there was the Waverly, which used to have great art films. The audiences would laugh at things that a typical audience wouldn’t laugh at. It’s interesting.”

The favored places of his youth made appearances in his movies, such as the Carmine pool he broke into at night. Locals of De Niro’s vintage invariably refer to it as Leroy Street Pool, though, in typical downtown New York City fashion it is located neither on Carmine nor Leroy street. No matter what it’s called, the pool was in a crucial scene in Raging Bull. De Niro’s character, boxer Jake LaMotta, meets his soon-to-be-wife, Vickie, played by the beautiful Cathy Moriarty, as she sits on the edge of the crowded public pool, cooling her feet in the water. It’s a rare lyrical moment in an otherwise brutally violent film. “That’s why we shot it there,” he says, of his personal connection to the Greenwich Village pool.

Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Photo: John Orris/New York Times Co./Getty Images

High-end boutiques and cupcakeries have replaced the grocery stores, junk shops, butchers and vegetable stands that lined the neighborhood’s streets. “That whole world has changed, you know, over by Little Italy—totally changed,” he says. “And Bleecker, I pass it every day taking my kids over to school. Mulberry Street—totally different world.”

But De Niro always adapts. The Tribeca Film Festival, which he launched as a means of reviving downtown Manhattan after September 11, is thriving, as is his TriBeCa production company. He was living in the neighborhood at the time of the attacks and has a vivid recollection of them. “I had two huge windows, so I saw everything right out my window,” he says. “I saw first the north tower go down, then the south. I couldn’t believe it. I was looking at it, and I had to look at the television to confirm what I was seeing with my own eyes.”

Greenwich Hotel. Photo: Paul Ober

His efforts on behalf of the city have gone well beyond the world of film. His investments include the Greenwich Hotel and the restaurants Tribeca Grill, Locanda Verde and Nobu. The restaurants and the hotel showcase the paintings of De Niro’s father, Robert De Niro Sr., whose estate he oversees. De Niro and his wife, Grace Hightower, have two children, and he has four children from a previous marriage and another relationship.

A great deal is happening with his film career. Just last year he received an Oscar nomination (his seventh) for his deeply affecting performance as an overbearing father obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles in Silver Linings Playbook. As for The Family, viewers looking for the easy Mafia yuks of Analyze This will be stunned by the film’s unflinching, unapologetic violence. And anyone hoping for Goodfellas II—the English title of the Tonino Benacquista novel on which the film is based is Badfellas—will be surprised by the sweetness of De Niro and Pfeiffer’s relationship and the humor, domestic and otherwise, that earns the film its punning title and its billing as a comedy.

That tonal complexity is part of what De Niro likes best about The Family. “The movie is, what would you call it? Is it a comedy?” he asks as he leans back on a black couch in his office. “I’m not sure. It kind of reminds me of the Italian comedies. There’s definitely a European feel to it, which is not a surprise from someone like Luc.”

Lightness of touch is a central theme in De Niro’s conversation. As for so many artistic masters, his decades of experience haven’t led him to bravura performances but to a quiet internal understanding of how to determine exactly what needs to be done and then doing just that and no more. That approach was evident on the set of The Family, Pfeiffer says. “What is amazing about watching him work when you’re there with him on the set is that it seems like he’s doing so little,” she recalls. “And then you see it on the screen and he just has all of these dimensions that you didn’t pick up on. You’re like, ‘Damn, how does he do that?’ He never forces it. It’s a lesson that all actors can take.”

That restraint is essential, De Niro believes, particularly in a film like The Family, where both the violence and the comedy could easily topple into parody. “You can’t do any more than is asked of you to do,” he explains. “There’s a delicate balance of how far to push it and how far to pull back. Not to try to show the feeling and the texture of the scene but to let it happen and unfold and trust that the texture will be there. What the scene is about will come out more easily than you think.”

The prospect of directing De Niro was especially enticing for Besson. “I saw Mean Streets and Taxi Driver when I was 15,” the director says, “so to be able to work with Robert was a big privilege for me. At the same time, after a couple of minutes you just have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. What’s the point of having Robert De Niro aboard if you do nothing special with him? He’s a hard worker. He’d be calling me on the phone, asking me questions all the time.”

It’s that attention to detail again. He builds his characters from the outside as well as from the inside. Nothing is superfluous; everything is telling, even crucial. He took outward transformation to extremes with Raging Bull, when he gained 60 pounds to play Jake LaMotta in his decline. He could have worn a fat suit, but that was not the way he did things.

In fact, it was LaMotta’s weight that first intrigued De Niro and made him want to tell his story. “I ran into Jake LaMotta when I was in my late teens,” he says. “I was going down Broadway and I saw him working as a bouncer in a kind of gentleman’s club. He was heavy.” De Niro holds his hands in front of him to convey LaMotta’s girth. “It was like, ‘Jesus, he was a fighter and now he’s here and he’s so heavy.’ It was just interesting to me, the whole thing.”

Jump forward to the mid-1970s, and De Niro was in Italy, shooting 1900 with Bernardo Bertolucci, when he read the memoir co-written by the middleweight champion boxer, called Raging Bull: My Story. “I called Marty and said, ‘You should read this. It’s not a great book, but there’s something about it. It’s got a lot of heart’…I thought maybe I could do it as a play, like a one-man, stand-up play.”

Instead, De Niro and Scorsese took a screenplay that Paul Schrader had written and shaped it to their own ends. Scorsese has described making Raging Bull as “kamikaze filmmaking.” “I threw everything into it,” he said, “and if it meant the end of my career, then it would have to be the end of my career.” The film today is considered one of the most powerful ever made and won De Niro the Academy Award for best actor.

Ten years later, De Niro played a real-life person from another book, the Irish-American mobster Jimmy Burke depicted in Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy. Burke is believed to have engineered the Lufthansa heist, an infamous robbery at John F. Kennedy Airport. The book and the movie Goodfellas center on Henry Hill, who worked for Burke before turning informant. Hill recalls De Niro relentlessly grilling him about every aspect of Burke’s life. The actor would be “on the fuckin’ phone constantly,” Hill states in a 2006 documentary about his life. “I mean, like fuckin’ seven, eight times a day. He wouldn’t leave his fuckin’ trailer without talking to me twice. ‘How did Jimmy hold his cigarette?’ I thought he was a fuckin’ nut job.”

In his 90-plus films, Robert De Niro has portrayed a Jesuit missionary, an architect, a soldier in Vietnam, an oncologist, a retired CIA officer and many, many other characters. But he is perhaps most closely associated with organized-crime figures. Asked what people find so compelling about their gory tales, De Niro says, “Well, for me as an actor, they’re all fascinating characters. I did feel with something like The Godfather that the reason it was so popular is that that was a time the country was in a lot of discord. So the family actually had more of a code of ethics than the outside world, which was going crazy with demonstrations and the Vietnam War and all that. It had a finality to it, a code of ‘You did wrong, you paid for it.’ You didn’t, you were rewarded. It was a romantic idea, but there were many truths in essence about what people feel and want to aspire to.” In a way, The Family adheres to a similar code in a thoroughly complicated time. Ultimately, the film is about a marriage and a family that has stuck together through impossibly difficult circumstances, sometimes of their own making. They’re scarred and they’re hardly perfect, but they have survived.

In addition to The Family, De Niro has the comedy Last Vegas, in which he stars with Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, coming out soon. He’s also working on a stage musical version of A Bronx Tale, the first film he directed. “I probably shouldn’t say that,” he says about the project, “because something always comes up and then it doesn’t happen. But we’ve been working on it, and it’s been going well. It’s coming along.”

So De Niro is working as hard as he ever has. No one takes filmmaking more seriously. Who, other than Robert De Niro, could publicly confront Jay-Z at a party for not returning his calls? It seems that Jay had agreed to give De Niro a song for a project and then went missing, despite De Niro’s attempts to contact him. At a birthday party for Leonardo DiCaprio last November, De Niro let the rapper know in no uncertain terms that he was not happy about getting blown off. It was a matter of respect between two Kings of New York, and not something De Niro was going to let pass without speaking his mind.

“When I was 17, the head of the dramatic workshop I was in asked me, ‘Why do you want to be an actor?’ ” De Niro recalls. “I said, ‘I just want to be an actor.’ I really didn’t know what acting was. And he said, ‘To express yourself.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ And that was it.”

 

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