Edition 7GVSUN 28 JAN 2007, Page Culture 4
'You better believe it'; Interview;Robert De Niro;Cover story
In an exclusive interview, the famously reticent Robert De Niro opens up to Jeff Dawson on his silence, the CIA and his new cold war project
If there's one thing you can say about Robert De Niro, it's that he doesn't do things by half measures. To play the young Vito Corleone, he became fluent in Sicilian dialect. There was the filing down of his teeth to perfect the appropriate maniacal snarl in Cape Fear; the proficient jazz sax mastered for New York, New York; the custom-made silk undies insisted upon, but never seen, in The Untouchables, allowing him to swish exactly like Al Capone. Almost no need to mention his fabled 4-stone porkathon for Raging Bull.
In researching The Deer Hunter, it is whispered, he played real Russian roulette. On Awakenings, so authentic were the results of his brain scan, it was feared he had acted himself into a genuine coma. For Angel Heart, he may indeed have taken tea with the devil...
In his new film, The Good Shepherd, in a small but terrific cameo, De Niro plays a double leg amputee. It comes as a great relief, on meeting him, that the dear chap is doddering about on his own two pins -though it could be further evidence critics might present to prove that the old growler isn't taking his craft quite as seriously as he used to.
Is it his purported ability to "become" other people that petrifies everyone so - with those around him unsure as to how much of Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle or mad Max Cady might yet be coursing through his thespian arteries? Perhaps it's just that he always looks so monumentally cheesed off: the awkward mien, that downturned mouth, the fearsome mole and, no kidding, the blackest eyes you've ever seen.
De Niro's discomfort has been central to his media dealings. If, famously, he spoke a mere eight words of English in The Godfather: Part II, then the odd press conference has yielded little more. With no role to hide behind, the actor is notorious for staring at the carpet, fumbling painfully for some monosyllabic answer while onlookers grin inanely. In one of his few significant magazine interviews of the past decade (in American Esquire), so unforthcoming
was he that the journalist tiptoed away early, leaving a morose De Niro alone with his thoughts.
There are signs he might be loosening up. At 63, two years short of a bus pass and with a successful battle against prostate cancer behind him, De Niro, it is said, is slipping into his dotage like it's a nice warm bath. In 2004, the old softie even renewed his marriage vows to his second wife, Grace Hightower, putting to bed a rather turbulent love life. And there are the films. Not for your 21st-century multiplex-goer the burning presence of his 1970s heyday, but the pantomime baddie of Analyze This/That, Meet the Parents/Fockers, a voice in Shark Tale, the bloke from Extras.
"He prefers it if you call him Bob," whispers a PR woman as I am ushered in for a rare one-on-one. Whether this is a fostering of informality or an instruction is not exactly clear. Outside the Manhattan hotel window, way below, the sirens wail, the yellow cabs honk, steam billows from around the manholes. All that's needed is Bernard Herrmann's discordant brass. But it is otherwise unremarkable. You simply go in, shake hands and, soon, the Greatest
Actor of his Generation (it should come with a TM sign) is ushering you to a sofa.
Dressed in a brown suit, his grey hair tousled, he appears in good health, if a little deflated -quite literally, for, slumping uncomfortably in an armchair, shoulders hunched, he looks as if he could do with a bit of air pumping into him. It's easy to forget that he is 27 years on from the hard-bodied middleweight of the early Jake La Motta, 16 from the sinewy jailbird Cady.
I wonder, in the first instance, whether it gets tiresome, all those awestruck people with the fixed, silly expressions? "I don't know especially, er, I... I don't know," he goes. Uh-oh. The eyes dart. They look down. They look up. The voice is gruff, pure Gotham. "Yeah (a shrug), I guess so, yeah." One gets the impression interviews aren't his favourite thing? "Well, it's... sometimes it's okay -whatever," he says, shrugging again, a little more conspiratorially.
"I think sometimes I'd rather just let the movie explain itself."
De Niro's latest is The Good Shepherd, a film he can't really duck ("No, I can't,," he concurs), for he not only appears in it, but directs it. A dense, lush epic about the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, it stars Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, a factionalised version of the CIA chief James Angleton -a Clark Kent-ish bureaucrat who transformed the agency from a cabal of pre-second world war dilettantes into a team of hard-nosed cold warriors, the shapers of American foreign policy. Significantly, it is De Niro's first time behind the camera since his directing debut,
A Bronx Tale, in 1993 -a film that seemed to promise a profitable alternative career. "Well, I was working on this for about seven, eight years, and I was also acting in movies," he purrs. No point in beating about the bush. "And I never had anything that interested me that much."
The great American/Soviet standoff was the era he grew up in, he explains. "I was interested in intelligence. I thought, well, it would be great if I could do a story about this world." The end result, a $100m epic, with Angelina Jolie on board and character-actor stalwarts populating every nook and cranny (Michael
Gambon, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, old mucker Joe Pesci, even our own dear John Sessions, a long, long way from Jackanory), marks a return to the sort of heavyweight project De Niro is most associated with, but has not worked on since, what: Heat (1995)? Ronin (1998)? (Don't mention The Score.)
Strange, now, how nobody would touch the project for so long. "I didn't know if the movie would ever get made," he says. "I was having to hold it together myself, putting my money in." The screenplay, by Eric Roth (Munich, The Insider), had been hailed for a decade as one of Hollywood's "best unproduced scripts". But along comes 9/11, and the CIA, beloved bad guys of Oliver Stone, shadowy architects of the new world order, are now the new boy scouts, heroic guarantors of US liberty. Even an old pinko such as De Niro defends some of the agency's more unsavoury tactics, shown in the film in all their glory. "It happened, and that's what it is," he says. "I'd call myself a patriot."
You still can't fault De Niro for detail. He tooled around Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking with field operatives; he hung out with former adversaries from behind the iron curtain. "We were in Moscow, in a KGB sporting-club sauna, with a bunch of KGB generals," says Milton Bearden, the film's veteran CIA adviser. "I looked at Bob and said, 'I think you know as much about this stuff as I do.'"
With its codes of honour, secrecy and enthusiastic wasting of stool
pigeons, the CIA comes over, curiously, like the mob ("Never rat on a friend; always keep your mouth shut," as De Niro's Jimmy Conway put it in GoodFellas). "You know, there's a load of similarities," De Niro agrees. The director of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, executive-produces.
As ever with De Niro, you just can't escape the whole Italian-American thing, something exploited mercilessly over the years, which he parodied, quite mischievously, in Analyze This/That. But it, too, is part of the mythology. Though he was indeed close to his paternal grandfather, who hailed from Ferrazzano, De Niro is largely of Irish descent, enough to prevent him from becoming a "made man" - as it did Jimmy Conway. Born to the artists Robert De Niro Sr and Virginia Admiral, Junior grew up in the bohemian confines of Greenwich Village.
Despite a brief foray into gang life, where the pale, thin youth was known as "Bobby Milk", his intentions were always artistic. "I wanted to act," he says. "I'd see people in movies and stuff... When I got into it more seriously, it was a different thing. Then I wanted to do something with it. Then it got more complex and more interesting."
He studied Stanislavsky and the method under Stella Adler, did some theatre work and low-budget movies, and got his first rave notices aged 30, as the dying baseball player in 1973's Bang the Drum Slowly. Meanwhile, his old buddy Martin Scorsese had been developing as a director. When he cast De Niro as the wayward hood Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, released that same year, it marked a union - Taxi Driver; New York, New York; Raging Bull; The King of Comedy; GoodFellas; Cape Fear; Casino - that would seal De Niro as a screen icon.
The pair might have added Gangs of New York, The Aviator and the recent The Departed had they got their diaries sorted out. The friendship still runs deep. De Niro screened rough cuts of his movie to get Scorsese's input. They even swapped actors, De Niro surrendering Leonardo DiCaprio, his first choice for The Good Shepherd, and Scorsese trading off by releasing Matt Damon (whom De Niro amusingly refers to, on occasion, as "Matt Dillon") early from The Departed. The films won't be going head to head in the awards sweepstakes. "But I hope Marty gets the Oscar, just because he deserves it for the other films, you know. We'll see, you know."
De Niro's own mantelpiece bears Academy Awards for The Godfather: Part II and Raging Bull, which bookend a decade -the 1970s -of outstanding work. Though he continued to make some exceptional films throughout the 1980s -The King of Comedy, Once Upon a Time in America, Midnight Run -his 1990s output was a bit patchy. It is said De Niro doesn't like to talk about his old movies. "He was absolutely delightful and deeply gracious," says Sessions (who never did manage to wrangle De Niro into Stella Street). "But I remember one day when I asked him something about The Mission, and he just looked very uncomfortable. I rather wished I hadn't."
But does De Niro never sneak a peek at one of his films? "From time to time, yeah. If I catch it on television directly, I'll watch it," he says. Is he self critical? "Well, how could I not be, I guess?" Part of it, he says, is his deep personal involvement in them all: "I remember everything I did." He admits, however, that some recently unearthed footage for Taxi Driver -"Certain rehearsals Marty and I had done with video tape before shooting, which we incorporated into the script" - had escaped even him.
The 30th anniversary of the release of Taxi Driver has just passed. "Really? That's right, yeah," he muses. It's the one, he says, that follows him around the most, with that classic line they all yell at him, hoping he might just quote it back. Which one would that be? "You know what they do," he smirks. There was a rumour of a sequel to Taxi Driver, jumping back into the life of Travis Bickle a decade on. "We talked about that," he says, "(the writer) Paul Schrader and
Marty and myself, but we could never somehow come up with what he would be doing those 10 years later." So, thankfully, the prospect of Meet the Bickles is laid to rest.
It seems an obvious question to ask about his favourites. Maybe there's a hidden gem he treasures -Jacknife, This Boy's Life? "Well, I started saying that whatever people like the most, that's my favourite -if people like Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. I liked The King of Comedy. I really enjoyed doing that." Scorsese has always maintained that Rupert Pupkin is De Niro's finest acting performance. "Really?" he goes again. Certainly, the film seems ahead
of its time, foretelling the cultural obsession with celebrity (replicated in less edifying fashion in De Niro's sports-nerd flick, The Fan).
The one everyone keeps on coming back to, of course, is the critical darling Raging Bull, a film whose "greatness" tends to be confused with the beauty of its cinematography and De Niro's undeniably consuming performance. Key to it was the physical transformation -athlete to lard-ass - achieved by halting production and his embarking on an eating Tour de France.
Until he was outmunched by Vincent D'Onofrio on Full Metal Jacket (and possibly, unwittingly, by Marlon Brando elsewhere), his 60lb bulk-up had stood as something of a method benchmark, convincing a generation of actors and awards panellists that disfigurement is the noblest thespian sacrifice.
I read that the first role De Niro ever played was the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. "That's right, I was 10, I was 10, yeah," he enthuses. Did he bring to it the same fabled intensity? He chuckles (honest). "God knows, I don't know. My mother couldn't tell." But really, was all that extreme character absorption necessary? If doing those roles again, would he go to such lengths? "I think, as you get older, you reduce the energy you spend on certain things," he says. "It's more a case of what the essentials are for the task at hand."
Every now and again, there's a little chink of light, as if the impenetrable persona De Niro has perfected over the years was another character, there to preserve the sanctity of his private self –the loyal pal, the bon vivant, the playful father who's a little shy. "He loves jokes," says Sessions. "John Turturro (who plays an agent in the film) is very funny, and there was one day when he was taking the mickey out of a scene, a very heavy scene, and I thought De Niro was
going to fall on the floor -he was laughing his head off."
Perhaps it accounts for his recent rash of comedies -the simple prerogative of a man who has reached a certain age and wants to, well, let it all hang out. "Yeah, and I had fun doing them -could be, you know."Perversely, while they have not landed him any acting accolades, the early 2000s have marked the most commercially successful period of De Niro's career. "It's nice to have both, nice to have everything," he smiles. "It's not possible."
De Niro doesn't have to do anything at all, for he is now a wealthy man. He reinvigorated a whole New York neighbourhood, TriBeCa, with his film-production offices, downstairs Grill and patronage of a now huge film festival. (Living just a piece of falling masonry from the Twin Towers, he threw open his eaterie as a refuge, credit he is said to have blown by including a 9/11 reference in his American Express commercial.)
Then there is his partnership in various restaurants, including Nobu, his patronage of the West End musical We Will Rock You and assorted other ventures. "The restaurant stuff has become very successful, and I did that just because I like good food. It just evolved, it happened." Recently, he was in negotiations to buy The New York Observer newspaper -a little ironic, given his antipathy towards the press. "Well, exactly," he grins. "I thought, let's
change, you know. I'll be fair game, you know, the way it should be, the way it's meant to be."
So how the hell did he end up in Extras? "Well, I was doing Stardust (a British fantasy film, directed by Matthew Vaughn), and I had a scene with Ricky Gervais. He had asked me before. And I couldn't do it then. And I liked that movie, so -that was it." And what did he think of the episode? "They sent me a copy," he says, "but I haven't seen it yet."
De Niro has several films lined up, including The Winter of Frankie Machine (about a retired hit man) and What Just Happened? (about a Tinseltown producer). He mentions the younger actors he admires (DiCaprio and Damon, obviously, and his kindred spirit Sean Penn); how he would still like to do something landmark, such as Seven Up!; all those projects unfulfilled.
He has one particular desire above all: to do two more films with Scorsese. "I just think if we can get those two numbers, make an even 10, I'll be happy," he says. "We've started some things, but over the years, you get distracted. We're anxiously waiting to come up with something."
There's a touch of sadness in the way he says it, as if acknowledging that, wellbeing, fortune and all, the clock is inexorably counting down; that his career is officially entering its twilight. But he's not going to get too maudlin.
"Hey," he quips. "You better believe it.