Displaying the versatility that has led him to appear in over 100 movies, Robert De Niro talks Scorsese, reflects on five decades of cinematic brilliance, and surmises the vagaries of social media
Robert De Niro’s tenure at the top table of the movie world encompasses a greater breadth than almost any of his contemporaries. On-screen, he is unquestionably Vito Corleone, and undeniably Travis Bickle. He is Jimmy the Gent, or Jake LaMotta, or any number of the acclaimed characters he has inhabited like a second skin. And yet, for every moody gangster there is a jocular makeweight ensuring a slick equilibrium of dramatic turns.
Films like Midnight Run, Analyse That, and Meet the Fockers showed that his formidable screen persona can also revel in a comic setting. We laugh simply because we are relieved his characters have a lighter side, even though that sense of menace is always present.
And yet, away from the camera, the Manhattan-born movie icon is known to shun the media and eschew tabloid interest in his private life. To those who grew up watching the actor deliver some of his greatest performances, this disinterest in the press and the paparazzi matters not one bit.
“I’m an actor,” he begins. “I pretend, in almost everything I do professionally. When I go home I can relax and be myself, and I think everyone wants to be themselves without interruptions. I’m flattered that people are interested in me, but really, it’s not necessary,” he laughs.
"In this business, You're only ever as good as your last couple of pictures"
Ultimately, there are few actors in Hollywood so utterly dedicated to their craft. It is a devotion and unending drive to reinvent that makes Robert De Niro—or Bobby to his closest friends—one of our enduring acting greats.
But even now in his seventies, with a full five decades of cinematic success to his name, he remains wary of the fleeting nature of fame and fortune.
“The sad fact of this business is that you never ever leave it—it tends to leave you,” he muses. “You are only ever as good as your last couple of pictures, and if you’re causing the financial people to lose money, they don’t want to know. It’s not so much a race to get up to the top, it’s the effort to stay where you are without sliding all the way back down again.” In truth, it’s been quite a journey since a ten-year-old De Niro first took to the stage as the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. Having left education at 16 to pursue his dream of an acting career, the young hopeful managed a handful of supporting roles in the Sixties, before linking up with up-and-coming director and fellow New Yorker Martin Scorsese for his 1973 mob flick, Mean Streets.
“We share the same roots in Little Italy. We both grew up in the area around Mulberry Street, Elizabeth Street and Mott Street. He’s been good for me, and I’ve been very good for him,” De Niro chuckles, with that trademark glint.
That debut collaboration between the two was the first of nine—so far. The potent combination of celebrated director and legendary leading man has spawned some of the pair’s respective masterpieces, including Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bull.
“I’ve been very lucky to have known Marty and been able to work with him over the years,” De Niro says. “He’s a very close friend, and in all the years we’ve known each other nothing has changed between us. We’ve done so much together and we’ve always had this great chemistry.”
Although De Niro and Scorsese’s fruitful partnership has spawned some of cinema’s greatest gangster films, perhaps the most masterful of those mobsters was his portrayal of a young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II. To this day, the character of Don Corleone is the only one to have won two Academy Awards for different actors, with De Niro following in the sizeable footsteps of Marlon Brando’s original, elder patriarch.
It has led De Niro into cult status. While his protestations over shelf life may be relevant for actors a generation beneath him, the actor, who is also an activist, director and producer (1993’s A Bronx Tale and 2006’s The Good Shepherd being two of his finer efforts), has ascended into a realm all of his own. It means that while even catastrophic flops will be forgiven, he also finds himself a sounding board for those moving up the ladder.
"Being an actor can take you places, but you never lose sight of who you are"
“I’ll give advice but only when they ask me,” says the septuagenarian. “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.
I’m just passing it on—in the old days 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 too. I don’t know if my advice is any good, but I hope so.
“Of course the industry evolves so quickly this days—big screen, small screen, special effects, prequels, sequels—and this is coming from the perspective of someone who is slowing down.”
Towards the end of 2019, De Niro took centre stage in The Irishman. He takes on the role of Frank Sheeran, a mafia hit man 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 thriller, with a dynamic leading man, direction from Scorsese and everything else you would expect of De Niro’s return to form. So much for slowing down…
Away from the big screen, it’s easy to allow De Niro’s bewildering array of characters to confuse. The thought of the actor on social media or firing Whatsapp message to a loved one is perverse, but the sort of bullishness evident in the vast majority of his characters makes him the perfect late adopter. “I use Facebook, I use a computer. I’ve got a smartphone although I tried to hold out against that; but when you have children they always want to send you messages.
My children and grandchildren are texting all the time, but I usually send them emails rather than text messages. And I’d always 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’m an actor, after all.”
From his first paid acting job as a 19-year-old in Brian De Palma’s The Wedding to quitting work as a waiter to seek out Scorsese (then returning to the restaurant environment to poach Al Pacino from front of house for a part in Raging Bull), De Niro’s voice resounds louder than almost all others, even if that killer shyness still shines through.
“Being an actor can take you to certain places, but you will never lose sight of who you really are,” he says. “When I was a kid I was pretty quiet—I didn’t talk much to people and 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 I am still that same person.”
And while The Irishman, for instance, is another glimpse back to old-school De Niro, his career focus has long since been replaced by the yearning he feels to be a doting father to his six children.“I want them to look at my movies and get an overview of what I can do, and what I have done over all these years; but I do tell them, ‘this is not real—the rest of the world doesn’t live that way, so get real,’ ” he says.
And yet his admirers demand more, unwilling to tear their eyes from his unyielding talents. Being fiercesome, foreboding and supremely confident on one side; comedic, playful and farcical on the other, is no mean feat, and De Niro has it as much in his locker now as he ever did.
“People ask me my proudest moment across all those roles—simply, they are all my best because I got the opportunity to play them in the first place.
I’ve never been able to predict what was going to happen next or how things were going to turn out. I’m just happy that I’m still here, and that I’m healthy and can keep on working. That’s about it… end of interview.”
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