Robert De Niro: Playboy Interview (January, 1989)
Translations of this material:
- into Russian: Роберт Де Ниро: Интервью журналу Playboy (январь 1989). Translated in draft, editing and proof-reading required.
Submitted for translation by gooverup 30.06.2010
Outside his bungalow at the Château Marmont, two state-of-the-art exercise machines—one for the legs, the other for the arms—are about to be picked up by the company that delivered them to Robert De Niro during his stay in Los Angeles. Inside, his trunks are packed and he is eager to return to New York, the only city in which he feels comfortable enough to call it home, the city whose rhythms he understands and one that has served as a backdrop for so many of his films—Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Once upon a Time in America, Falling in Love. The country's most respected actor is going home.
Some say De Niro is the individual who has taken the torch from Marlon Brando and run the farthest with it; Elia Kazan, who directed Brando as well as James Dean, said De Niro was the hardest-working actor he'd ever met; John Hancock, who directed him in Bang the Drum Slowly, compared him to Alec Guinness; Liza Minnelli, his co-star in New York, New York, tagged him "the greatest actor around today." Yet despite the superlatives, De Niro can also be maddening. His penchant for indecision and perfection of craft has driven make-up artists, directors and screenwriters to muttering obscenities. It is that very perfectionism that makes De Niro as enigmatic as he is gifted: "I like Bob," Francis Ford Coppola said after directing him in The Godfather, Part II. "I just don't know if he likes himself."
De Niro was born in Greenwich Village on August 17, 1943; his parents, both artists, separated when he was two. While his father, also named Robert, traveled to Europe to paint, the young De Niro lived in an apartment on West 14th Street with his mother, Virginia Admiral, who supported them by running a typing service. It was in a public school production of The Wizard of Oz that audiences caught the ten-year-old De Niro in his first role: the Cowardly Lion. Soon after, he enrolled in the dramatic workshop at the New School for Social Research for a summer. So shy he could scarcely stand up in front of strangers, he set aside his acting ambitions and joined a New York street gang.
At 16, he dropped out of school and returned to acting class, this time studying with Stella Adler, the woman credited with teaching Brando. Actress Sally Kirkland, a friend of De Niro's during those early years, remembers him going to auditions with a portfolio of pictures of himself in various disguises, just "to prove to casting directors he wasn't an ethnic." Gradually, he began appearing in plays and low-budget films.
In 1963, he auditioned for Brian De Palma's The Wedding Party and impressed the young director with his chameleonlike ability to transform himself into the character. He got the part, for which he was paid $50, and went on to do two other De Palma films, Greetings, a film about a draft dodger, in 1968 and Hi, Mom! in 1970.
That same year, he appeared as one of Ma Barker's bad boys in Bloody Mama, starring Shelley Winters. Then Al Pacino dropped out of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight to do The Godfather and De Niro took over his part in the comedy. That appearance, like his next three in Jennifer on My Mind, Born to Win and Sam's Song, wasn't memorable, but a young director named Martin Scorsese had seen something in De Niro's intensity and asked him to appear in a film he was about to make called Mean Streets. De Niro thought Scorsese, whom he vaguely knew from their childhood days, understood film making, so he took the part, made it his own and ran away with the picture. But it was his performance that same year—as a terminally ill catcher in the baseball film Bang the Drum Slowly—that many would consider De Niro's breakthrough role.
In 1974, Coppola chose De Niro to portray the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. Brando had created the role of the aging don in the original Godfather, and few moviegoers who saw both Brando's and De Niro's performances could have said which was stronger. Both won Oscars—Brando for Best Actor of 1972 and De Niro for Best Supporting Actor of 1974.
Bernardo Bertolucci was the next director to tap De Niro's talents, this time for his lavish, flawed epic 1900. It was after that exhausting shoot that De Niro made his second and, perhaps, most controversial picture with Scorsese: Taxi Driver. Based on Paul Schrader's script about a tormented and violent New York City hackie named Travis Bickle, the 1976 film became a De Niro tour de force. It also caused an uproar five years later, when the defense team for John Hinckley, Jr., said the Bickle character had inspired him to shoot President Ronald Reagan and three others outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. Hinckley did it, they said, to get the attention of Taxi Driver co-star Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed; he'd seen the film 15 times.
In 1976, De Niro married a beautiful black actress, Diahnne Abbott, and adopted her eight-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He and Diahnne also had a son, Raphael, in 1977. While Abbott would eventually appear in a number of De Niro's films (most notably, as his reluctant girlfriend in Scorsese's The King of Comedy), the marriage didn't last. They were recently divorced.
After friction with the movie's director, Mike Nichols, De Niro was fired from his next film, Bogart Slept Here. Nor were his next two efforts—Kazan's The Last Tycoon, based on the life of Wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg, and Scorsese's musical New York, New York—commercial or critical successes.
Controversy also surrounded De Niro's next movie, Michael Cimino's 1978 Vietnam-war story, The Deer Hunter, shot in Pennsylvania and Thailand. Even though it was hailed as a masterpiece, it has never been shown on network TV, for fear that its scene in which POWs play Russian roulette would inspire youngsters to repeat the deadly game.
De Niro won his second Oscar, for best actor, for his 1980 portrayal of fighter Jake La Motta in his next Scorsese film, Raging Bull. Bringing to the screen a performance of equal parts of explosiveness and vulgarity, De Niro was reported to be characteristically obsessed with his role, befriending the real-life La Motta and gaining 60 pounds to resemble the bulky fighter in the film's later sequences.
All of his subsequent performances have been studied as serious efforts, whether or not the films themselves were well received. Those roles are stunningly varied: the troubled priest in conflict with his brother (Robert Duvall) in True Confessions; Rupert Pupkin, the desperate, manic stand-up comic who kidnaps talk-show host Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy; a Jewish Mobster in Sergio Leone's gangster epic Once upon a Time in America; a married man having an affair with Meryl Streep in the quiet, warmly romantic Falling in Love; a cameo as a wacky terrorist in Terry Gilliam's brilliantly futuristic Brazil; a murderer turned Jesuit priest in Roland Joffé's The Mission; the Devil in Alan Parker's Angel Heart; and gang lord Al Capone—a ten-minute appearance for which he was paid $2,000,000—in De Palma's The Untouchables.
In 1986, De Niro appeared in the off-Broadway play Cuba and His Teddy Bear. Then came last summer's sleeper, Martin Brest's hilarious Midnight Run, a film Universal Pictures considered—after all this time—De Niro's commercial breakthrough.
De Niro is almost as famous for his silence as he is for his movie roles. He has thrown a Garbolike cloak of mystery around himself, leaving gossip columnists a diet of hearsay. He apparently looks on interviews as a form of torture. So rather than feed the rumor mill, De Niro chooses to work: By the time Midnight Run was enjoying its success, he had already completed another film, Jacknife, dealing with the stress syndrome of returning Vietnam vets, and was shooting Letters—formerly titled Union Street—with Jane Fonda, whose anti-Vietnam-war activities overshadowed the making of the movie itself.
To talk with this most extraordinary actor for the 35th Anniversary Issue, Playboy sent Contributing Editor Lawrence Grobel on his trail. The assignment seemed fitting, since it was Grobel who interviewed Marlon Brando for Playboy's 25th Anniversary Issue. Grobel's report:
"When I learned that De Niro was actually willing to meet with me, I found it hard to believe. I had been trying for years to interview him, unsuccessfully. When I finally went to see De Niro at the Château Marmont in Hollywood, I found a nervous, edgy, thin, small-boned man who answered his own door and couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. He wore a beard, as in Angel Heart, and talked in half sentences when he spoke at all, leaving me with the uneasy feeling that it just might be impossible to expect to get anything quoteworthy out of him. After half an hour, he said he'd call me to arrange our first session, and he did, two days later.
"'We'd never really said we'd start here,' he said. 'Maybe we should start in New York. It's something that may take a year or two, y'know?' But I managed to persuade him to begin in L.A., where we talked for an hour and I worried that little actually was said. For De Niro, however, it was a breakthrough. He thought we had talked up a storm and he joked about our prevailing on Playboy to send us to China to continue our talks.
"A few months later, I flew to New York to meet with him in my suite at the Drake Hotel. The beard was gone, but the restlessness wasn't. Always aware of the tape recorder, he was constantly reaching to turn it off when he wanted to say something off the record. When I suggested he just say, 'Off the record,' rather than turn off the machine, he said, 'If I don't turn it off, I may say it's off the record, but it's still on your tape. So it's on, not off.'
"After eight sessions over a period of seven months—waiting for De Niro's calls, waiting for him to arrive late and knowing that he would leave early—I began to understand that it wasn't just me he was juggling around; it was his life. Every day, weekends included, De Niro lives a moment-to-moment existence, balancing his time among his children, his friends, his associates, his lovers and himself. Like mercury, he slips right through your fingers; you can't grasp him, can't hold on to him. Try to shake his hand and it's limp. Try to look him in the eyes and they're darting around. Corner him and he side-steps you; pin him down and he outfoxes you. Ask him about his childhood, his parents, his interracial marriage and he's ducking out the door. Robert De Niro, it finally occurred to me, is the real-life White Rabbit, always on the move, always checking his watch, always late for a very important date.
"For a guy who arrived a long time ago, you'd think someone would have told him he doesn't have to look at his watch all the time. Because time stopped for De Niro a dozen years ago. He can be as late as he wants. Everybody will wait for Bobby."
PLAYBOY: After so many years of trying to see you, it's hard to believe that we're actually here.
ROBERT DE NIRO: OK, that was a good conversation. We'll pick it up next time. [Laughs]
PLAYBOY: Seriously, this is your first in-depth interview, but lately, there have been a couple of cracks in your wall of silence. You even spent a few minutes on the Today show. Are we seeing a new Robert De Niro? Should we look for you next on The Tonight Show?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No. I like Johnny Carson, but I wouldn't do his show. It's not my energy; it's another type of energy. He realizes that.
PLAYBOY: Do print interviews interest you? Do you read them?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I read them. I read two of yours, with Pacino and Brando. I'd like to read them again; I just don't have the time. [Quickly glances at his watch]
PLAYBOY: OK. Is the question you get asked most often the one about your weight? How you managed to put on 60 pounds for your role in Raging Bull?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, that's been asked a lot.
PLAYBOY: Let's get it out of the way first: How did you do it? And how did you feel?
ROBERT DE NIRO: All right. At first it was fun. I ate ice cream and everything I wanted—it's like part of the fantasy that one has about eating everything. I took a tour through France, from Paris to the Riviera, stayed in inns and ate. And for two weeks I was miserable, because as good as the food was, it's rich—you could eat only one big meal a day and then lie there, digesting it. But I'll never, ever eat like that again—it gets boring, it's tiring and I did it in a fast way. I was uncomfortable, I couldn't see my shoes or bend over. My feet hurt because of the extra weight. I was breathing heavily. I felt terrible. After 15, 20 pounds, it was hard work. I had to get up early to eat a full breakfast and digest that in order to eat a full lunch and digest that in order to eat a full dinner. And lots of Di-Gel or Tums.
PLAYBOY: The next question has to be: Why did you do it?
ROBERT DE NIRO: The transformation, to me, was interesting. I didn't want to do it with just make-up. I wanted to really do it so you could see his stomach. So I thought, Let me try this as an experiment. I said, "Shut down the production." Marty and I planned it. There was something about Jake—he was a young fighter and then he let himself go and it was so sad, in a way. To see that deterioration and to capture it on film was really interesting to me.
PLAYBOY: Were you just as interested in getting the weight off afterward?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Oh, yeah, I was sick of the weight; I just wanted to get it off. But I couldn't go back to eating the way I normally did, because I would then feel sick. I had to let myself down gradually.
PLAYBOY: Raging Bull wasn't a commercial success, in spite of the Oscars you and the picture received. Did that surprise you?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I didn't expect it would be. We just did the movie the way we wanted to do it and that was it. Of course, you always want people to see it and hope that it will be OK, but it's more important to do movies that have a meaning and some relevance 50 years from now. I'd rather be part of a movie like that than of a movie that's not gonna be around. Certain types of films—I won't even say which ones; you know which ones—are recognized for other things....
PLAYBOY: Rocky sorts of movies?
ROBERT DE NIRO: You said it; I'm not gonna say it. [Checks watch again]
PLAYBOY: Jake La Motta was almost 60 when you made Raging Bull. Did you go into the ring with him to learn how he fought?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes I would spar with him. He knew the language so well that you'd be making a mistake not keeping your guard up. He was a tough guy.
PLAYBOY: La Motta paid you a big compliment: He said he would have ranked you in the top-20 middleweights of all time. Could he have taken you out with one punch?
ROBERT DE NIRO: If it came to a real fight, of course he could; no question about it. The only thing would be the age difference; but even with that, he's still so skilled as a fighter.
PLAYBOY: As a kid growing up in Manhattan, you were pretty skilled, too. Didn't you once belong to a street gang?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That's a whole other thing to talk about, not here. No big deal.
PLAYBOY: Wasn't your nickname Bobby Milk?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That was one of a few I had.
PLAYBOY: What were the others?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't want to get into that.
PLAYBOY: Why Milk?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Maybe because I drank milk. I don't want to go too much into that.
PLAYBOY: We don't have to go too much, but maybe just enough to get some idea of where you came from.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Listen.... [Reaches over, turns off tape recorder, talks about the pressures on actors to do interviews]
PLAYBOY: We'll keep things general, then. What kind of kid were you—introverted, extroverted, shy, loud?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It's hard to talk about yourself, about what kind of kid you were, and so on. So I don't feel that disposed to it.
PLAYBOY: Why is it hard?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It just is. That's why I don't do interviews. I think it's self-evident. I know people who don't want to talk about things in their life. It's a personal thing and it's really nobody's business.
PLAYBOY: Is your past something you've decided to shut out? Was it a happy past or an unhappy past?
ROBERT DE NIRO: No, it's not that. It's.... [Turns off recorder, and begins to explain why he doesn't want to talk about his childhood, becomes emotional, angry] This has nothing to do with you, it's just that I'm feeling angry about this. I'm being pressured into doing an interview, and I resent that. I don't like the feeling. Why should I have to put myself in a position that makes me feel this way? I know the studios think it's important for a movie—that's their job. Everyone's got his job to do, so they all make like it's important to do these interviews, when it's not. I know it's not. So why bother?
PLAYBOY: So, you had an unhappy childhood? [De Niro is not amused. Pacing the floor now, he calms down when room service brings the coffee he ordered.]
Why turn off the tape recorder to say you don't want to talk about your childhood? Why not just talk about why you don't want to?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't want to look like I'm complaining. I'll just say this: I'm not good at editing how I feel. And those personal things that I feel—like maybe who I would talk to in the past or something—are not something that I care to let anybody know about. That's my own personal thing.
PLAYBOY: Then why not talk about your need for privacy? Brando felt the same way and was articulate about it, saying he wouldn't hang his private laundry out in public. How about you? What are the demands of fame and success?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I can't even make a clear statement about that; there's no clear-cut rule about it. My only rule is if I'm in discomfort, If I'm not feeling right about it, I back off and don't even subject myself to it.
PLAYBOY: Then we'll move on: Your film with Jane Fonda, Letters, produced headlines such as "Angry War Vets Try Jane Fonda For Treason," referring to her trip to Hanoi in 1972. She then met with some of the vets and apologized. Did you get involved in the politics of the film?
ROBERT DE NIRO: A little bit. Some vets sent me literature on Agent Orange and I said I would do something. And then Jane asked me to help raise money for the victims of Agent Orange, something they don't get much of. I hope that her having interaction with the vets will bring about better feelings and a better understanding.
PLAYBOY: How strong an actress is Fonda? [De Niro turns off the tape recorder to ask what we mean by strong, then says he doesn't know her well enough to answer.]
You also talked with vets about your role in Jacknife, the film you made with Ed Harris, which deals with the effects the Vietnam war still has on those who were part of it. Did you hear a lot of horror stories?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I heard a lot of horror stories, yeah. Jacknife is about the post-Vietnam stress syndrome, the trauma of two veterans who have unresolved feelings about each other and a third friend who died in the war. We've all heard stories of the negative feedback felt by returning vets, but it was brought home to me more by talking with some of them and watching documentaries and interviews with guys who hide in the woods in the Northwest and can't really deal with things. They're afraid of themselves, being around people. That made a big impression on me. Coming back, they felt a real rejection. They were really persona non grata.
PLAYBOY: A number of your films—from Greetings to The Deer Hunter to Jacknife—have dealt with Vietnam. How politically aware were you of the Vietnam war?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I was aware. I thought that the war was wrong. What bothered me was that people who went to war became victims of it; they were used for the whims of others. I didn't think that the policy makers had the smarts. I didn't respect their decisions or what they were doing. And it was a right of many people to feel, "Why should I go and get involved with something that's unclear—and pay for it with my life?" It takes people like that to make changes.
PLAYBOY: How did you manage to beat the draft?
ROBERT DE NIRO: That's an area I don't want to talk about. [Looks at watch]
PLAYBOY: All right, then, let's jump to the future: There's a project called Stolen Flower, which you want to direct.
ROBERT DE NIRO: It's about a girl who's kidnapped. We're working on the script and it's going through a lot of changes, so I don't like to talk much about it—that's a kind of superstition: Talk about it, then nothing happens. It's bad luck to say too much. Jinx it.
PLAYBOY: So you're superstitious?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes I'm very superstitious; other times, I think it's all bullshit. A black cat walks by and I say, "What's going to happen?" Other times, I just don't care.
PLAYBOY: Would you live in an apartment number 13?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I might not. Unless it was a nice apartment and I got a good deal. [Laughs]
PLAYBOY: Well, Bob, where do we go from here? You don't want to talk about your past; you don't want to jinx your future and you're not real nuts about discussing the present.
ROBERT DE NIRO: [Turns off tape recorder, complains about having to do this interview] Are you going to show this to me?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I ask because someone told me that sometimes you get to see it.
PLAYBOY: It's OK to ask. But it doesn't help the integrity of this interview if you get to see your answers and then edit your own copy. Then it really isn't journalism anymore, it's promotion.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I can understand. I know it's a form of censorship and that's not good, and I know it takes away from what you're doing—I know all that. But, on the other hand, if I could look at it, see if anything that I said I would feel very uncomfortable about, you know, then.... Now I have to edit my own thoughts. There's a lot of things I'd like to say, but I don't feel I am very clear in my thinking right now, so it comes out wishy-washy. "I don't think this, I don't think that"—it's boring; who cares? And why come off that way? I think, in time, down the line, maybe when I'm old, looking back, it will all make sense; I'll be able to say something. Right now, I can't say anything. There are real times and places for everything, and when it's not the right time, it's upsetting.
PLAYBOY: It's tough on us, too. We're prepared, we're waiting for you to do this, we have a lot of questions to ask, yet we don't want to upset you or get you angry, as you were before.
ROBERT DE NIRO: I never got angry.
PLAYBOY: You certainly did when we asked you about your childhood, unless we read you wrong. Right now, it's hard. Talking in these spurts, it's tough.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah. It's a tough one.
PLAYBOY: Look, let's concentrate on your movies for a while. How did you meet Martin Scorsese?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I met him at a mutual friend's house about 16 years ago, before he did Mean Streets. I'd seen Who's That Knocking at My Door? and I liked it a lot. I knew him off and on when I was a kid. Then he asked me if I wanted to be in Mean Streets. He offered me the part.
PLAYBOY: Johnny Boy?
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah. It's like Rashomon—everybody has a different way of telling it—but my recollection is that Marty offered me a choice of any of the four parts, except Harvey Keitel's part, Charlie. At the time, I felt like I should be asking for the lead. There was a self-worth side of me; I had done a lead in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight—which was a total disaster—and I felt like this was a step down. I was thinking, I want to work with Marty, but I'm going to hold out for the lead.
Then I ran into Harvey Keitel in the street. He said, "I think you should do that part." I said, "I know, but, to be honest about it, I think I should have the part you have." I said it in such a way that he wasn't offended by it; I was just being straight about it. He said, "Well, I think you would do very well with Johnny Boy." I couldn't see it. But finally, I mulled it over and decided I'd do it.
PLAYBOY: It wound up being an explosive performance. Were you happy with it?
ROBERT DE NIRO: It was OK. When you're working on a movie, you never really get a full satisfaction, it's always anticlimactic. You're too connected to it to really be objective. Ten years later, I can look at it with a little distance and say, "Yeah, that wasn't bad."
PLAYBOY: Francis Ford Coppola saw your Mean Streets performance, and you wound up playing the young Vito Corleone in his Godfather II. How intimidating was it playing the young Brando?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I wasn't intimidated. I just looked at it like a mathematical problem: Brando had already established the character, so I just figured out how to connect to what he had done. We videoed scenes from the movie with a little camera, and I'd play those back, look at them and see what I could do to connect it all.
PLAYBOY: You both used a mouthpiece. Did you use the same dentist?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I went to Brando's dentist, Dr. Dwork. He made up a smaller piece, because my character was younger.