Though he’s best known for his iconic gangster performances, Robert De Niro has always enjoyed taking on humorous roles. Films like ‘Midnight Run’, ‘Analyze That’, and ‘Meet the Fockers’ showed that his formidable screen persona could also revel in a comic setting.
We laughed simply because we were relieved that his characters had a lighter side, even though that sense of menace was always present. And yet, now he’s back to the dark side, with the release of ‘The Irishman’, starring alongside Joe Pesci and Al Pacino.
De Niro takes on the role of Frank Sheeran, a mafia hitman rumoured to have been involved in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The result is a high-expense, driven, dynamic thriller, delivering with the lead man, with Martin Scorsese and everything else you would expect of a dramatic return to form that has the 75-year-old New York legend back in the big seat, even as Netflix and the theatres wrangle over the release date, and a potentially wider than normal cinema release.
De Niro reveals to RSNG why you should definitely catch ‘The Irishman’ on the biggest screen you can, and why back in the late Seventies, the careers of so many Hollywood heavyweights were constructed on the simplicity of a bowl of pasta… tomato sauce, meatballs, parmesan all strictly optional...
RSNG Tell us about how this film came together? ROBERT DE NIRO, ACTOR ‘Well, I read the book (called I Heard You Paint Houses) by Charles Brandt, and that was terrific, and I said to Martin Scorsese: “Have a look at this and see what you think.” So, he agreed with me and although we were all set to do another project, instead we began on The Irishman and it was a whole other thing and something which we felt would be right.’
RSNG You play the character Frank Sheeran, who is a labour union leader, over many decades. Was that a challenge to play a younger person and did it also involve some physical transformation? RDN ‘It did involve some transformation, yes. We had someone on the set at all times who was keeping an eye on posture, continuity and stuff, making sure it was as realistic and believable as possible.’
‘It does slip your mind as you get old, that some things are not the same as you did twenty, thirty years before.’
‘They can make you look younger with CGI and all that type of technological stuff. However, you cannot rely solely upon computers, you still have to have the physical movements, which are closer to the age.’
RSNG There is the use of VDX in The Irishman – say that technology was available to use about 40 years ago and were able to make Marlon Brando younger to play the role of Don Corleone, you wouldn’t have been needed for that! RDN ‘Haha, yeah, there you go! I have had some luck along the way!’
RSNG It seems that there is a lot of angst in Hollywood about films not being seen on the big screen. What do you think about the idea that even though The Irishman is given a limited cinematic release, more people who still prefer to watch it at home? RDN ‘I think that a movie like this one, with Marty and myself being involved, does require a cinematic venue. It’s the only way, really. If you’re asking me if people will be watching it on their mobile phones, who knows?’
‘Is that the very best way for them to see it or even by watching it on the computer? I would say that, no, isn’t. However, nowadays, so many people choose to view things in so many different ways.’
‘But everyone does understand that the theatre is the format that movies should be shown in, at least from the first release.’
RSNG But it does seem more and more well-known and respected filmmakers have had their work shown first on Netflix, such as The Coen Brothers with their The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón? RDN ‘Did Roma not open in the movie theatres initially? I think that it did, and it was absolutely terrific.’
RSNG But I would argue that the larger majority of people who will see it or have seen will have done so on their televisions or computers… RDN ‘I can only say that I think that our movie should be viewed on the big screen. Alfonso Cuarón’s movie is another that should, as well. I think that it is very important to see it that way.’
‘However, these days they are quite big screens in people’s homes, as well. They’re not like they were years ago. They are far bigger than when I was growing up, I can tell you that! I know it’s not a movie screen, but, you know, it’s whatever it is.’
RSNG Is it true that Martin Scorsese’s father came up with the term Goodfellas for the 1993 film? RDN ‘Yes, it is true. I actually verified that with Martin not too long ago and that was such a great word, as opposed to ‘Wiseguy’ which is a legitimate word. But Goodfellas is much more specific way of saying it.’
When I was a kid I was pretty quiet and I kind of stuck to myself – that’s one of the reasons I went to acting school
RSNG You work with a lot of great young actors – do you often feel the urge to be a mentor or advisor while you're on the set with them? RDN ‘I'll give advice but only when they ask me. I don't like pushing myself on anyone. I find these young actors are all very professional and my concern sometimes is that they pay me too much respect or treat me with deference.’
‘The best advice I can usually offer is about what to expect or be wary of in the business and how to handle that stuff.’
RSNG When you were starting out in the business, did you ask older actors for advice? RDN ‘I would ask actors who were a generation ahead of me questions about the business that you only get to know about if you've been around for a while. I got a lot of advice from older actors and I try to do the same with younger actors. I don't know if my advice is any good, though, but I try. I hope so.’
‘Sometimes there are technical things you can make younger actors more aware of, like if the lighting doesn't appear to be right or whether the camera placement seems strange. It takes experience to know about those things and if I'm asked I'm happy to share whatever knowledge I have.’
RSNG Are you influenced at all by getting to hang out with younger actors? Do you text a lot or use Facebook? RDN ‘I use Facebook, I use a computer. I also have a smartphone, although I tried to hold out against that but when you have children they always want to send you text messages. My children and grandchildren are texting all the time and I usually send them emails rather than text messages. I'm still old school at heart, I'd rather use a phone and talk to people.’
‘Of course, I appreciate the advantages of these kinds of devices. It's much faster and more efficient. But communication is something I like to do face-to-face. I'd rather sit down and read a physical newspaper than go online to get my news. I also like to buy stuff in shops where I can see things rather than order on a computer.’
RSNG Do your children ever try to teach you things you can do with your phone? RDN When I have problems with my computer, I'll ask my son to look at it and - click-click-click - he has the thing running smoothly again. I have no idea how he does it.
RSNG You're often described in the media as being fairly shy and reserved. RDN ‘When I was a kid I was pretty quiet, yeah. I didn't talk much to people and I kind of stuck to myself. That's one of the reasons I went to acting school because it helped me open up and become less reserved. But as I like to tell people, I probably worked too hard on my acting instead of trying to become more extroverted. (Smiles)’
RSNG You and Martin Scorsese were friends and worked very closely together on some of the greatest pictures in history. Was he the driving force in your career? RDN ‘I've been very lucky to have known Marty and been able to work with him over the years. He's a very close friend and in all the years we've known each other nothing has changed between us. We've done eight movies together and we've always had this great chemistry between us.’
I know I served a lot of plates along the way – it’s like a rite of passage, it makes you. You have to get your hands dirty
RSNG How do you account for the kind of bond that exists between you and Scorsese? RDN ‘I can't explain why we get along so well. Even though we only got to know each other as adults, we share the same roots in Little Italy in New York. We both grew up in the area around Mulberry Street, Elizabeth Street and Mott Street. We had a lot of similar experiences and that kind of shapes the way you look at the world.’
RSNG Apparently you and Scorsese discovered Joe Pesci together over a bowl of pasta? RDN ‘Joe had been an actor and a musician, and he had been having a tough time. Marty and I were regular customers at the restaurant where he worked (in New York) and each time we ate there we told each other that Joe would be perfect for the role of Jake La Motta's brother, Joey [in Raging Bull].’
‘But we had to negotiate with the restaurant's owner before Joe would leave his job to do the film. I think we made a pretty good deal as things turned out!’
RSNG What do you recall of your own days waiting tables at restaurants in New York? RDN ‘Like every other actor, I couldn't wait to start making money as an actor so I could quit working as a waiter. My goal at the beginning was to find regular work and not have to worry about paying my bills. Everything else has been a bonus.’
‘I know I served a lot of plates along the way, and a lot of people in that era and this industry did and do still now. It’s like a rite of passage – it makes you. You have to get your hands dirty. Work anywhere, serve meals, wash dishes, clean streets. Just keep yourself ticking over and make yourself available for anything.’
RSNG What was your first paying acting job? RDN ‘My recollection is that it was Brian De Palma's The Wedding. I was only 19 years old and my mother had to come to sign the check to cash it. I think I got paid $50 for the entire movie.’
RSNG Did you ever imagine or dream about having the kind of success and stardom you would go to attain? RDN ‘I was confident that I had the ability and I worked very hard at my job. I was lucky that I was able to keep working and never go through periods where you're worried about where your next job is coming from.’
‘You need a bit of luck. I was at the right place at the right opportunity to show what I could do and that was what did it for me.’
RSNG Did you ever go through periods where you were unhappy about the kind of roles or kind of movies you were making? RDN ‘Sometimes there are periods where you feel you can be doing more. There's always some anxiety to this kind of job. But as long as you're alive you're going to have anxiety about something.’
RSNG When you reflect upon your career, is there anything that you're most proud of? RDN ‘I don't know - maybe that I'm still around, haha! I've never been able to predict what was going to happen next or how things were going to turn out for. I'm just happy that I'm still here and that I'm healthy and I can keep on working. That's it!’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trainer for Robert De Niro’s new movie, The Irishman, will be released on Netflix in the autumn.