Robert De Niro: Playboy Interview (January, 1989)

Author: журнал Playboy. Link to original: (English).
Tags: де, интервью, ниро, роберт Submitted by gooverup 30.06.2010. Public material.

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


PLAYBOY: Did you ever take LSD?


PLAYBOY: Your name was linked with drugs in Wired, Bob Woodward's book about John Belushi. In the book, Woodward says you had used cocaine with Belushi and were with him the night before he was found dead. How did you feel—— [De Niro turns off the tape recorder, communicates that he hasn't read the book, doesn't know what it says, doesn't want to know and doesn't want to talk about it.

We just want to straighten out what has already been published. For the record.

ROBERT DE NIRO: I'd rather not. I think it's exploiting something that shouldn't be talked about.

PLAYBOY: You've never talked about it. We're not trying to exploit, just to clarify.

ROBERT DE NIRO: If you say you don't want to exploit it, I think it's something you shouldn't talk about. Maybe later in life I'll talk about it, in a book or something, if I ever even do that. But it's not something I want to talk about now. It's horrible enough what happened to him.

PLAYBOY: Have you considered writing a book?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know about that. [Very definitely wants to leave]

PLAYBOY: We can understand your reluctance to talk about this, but——

ROBERT DE NIRO: You just got to. For the record. Yeah?

PLAYBOY: Woodward claimed that there was a scene in a movie Belushi wanted to make that called for him to shoot up heroin. He supposedly went to you to ask you about it, and you thought it was a good idea for him to do it. Any truth to that?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I would never tell anybody to take heroin—or any drug—to see what it's like. Especially heroin. I would never, ever, ever. I don't know where they got that idea. Those are the kind of things that people hear and they get retold.

PLAYBOY: Do you think about Belushi?

ROBERT DE NIRO: He was great. Great. I admired him so much and I'm so sad, to say the least. Such a wasted situation. Terrible.

PLAYBOY: Were you close friends?

ROBERT DE NIRO: We weren't. We knew each other, respected and liked each other. It wasn't that we hung out so much. People thought we did, but we didn't. His friends were [Dan] Aykroyd and others. Although there were times we spent together.

PLAYBOY: Is it wrong to make a film about his life?

ROBERT DE NIRO: Look, they can do it. I would never say it's wrong. I don't know what it's about or what the slant is. But I find it hard to believe. Maybe it's a very positive film.

PLAYBOY: Could they feature you in it without your permission?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know about that. If there was something that I felt was wrong, I might do something about it. People prey on other people; they have no respect. [Looks at his watch, says he has to go]

PLAYBOY: OK, let's change the subject. Scorsese said there was no one who could surprise him on the screen as you can. Who surprises you?

ROBERT DE NIRO: Comedians I love, like Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd. They're all terrific. They surprise me. They do some crazy stuff.

PLAYBOY: Moving back to Raging Bull, Molly Haskell said that La Motta was the meanest, most mystifying, unmotivated antihero ever to grace the screen.

ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes the movie critic is not sympathetic enough. I never felt that La Motta was an extremely evil person, but these people who don't know enough about him see enough to know that they don't like him. It's like anything. You learn about the Russians, you hear they're the Evil Empire, but then you go there and see that they're people. And that they're terrified of the Americans.

PLAYBOY: Still, with La Motta, even at the end, he's spilling a drink over a politician's wife, he's crude, barbaric. There isn't too much to like about him. It's a brutal portrait, yet audiences are won over by it. Why do you suppose that is?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't know. There's a certain redemption there, in his relationship with the brother and what they've done to each other. A lot of people go through those experiences. That's nothing compared to the horrible, unmentionable things we read about in the paper every day that people do to others. So unbelievably monstrous. Raging Bull is like a little domestic spat compared to what people can really do to one another.

PLAYBOY: It's more than a spat when Jake nearly kills his brother and his wife with his fists.

ROBERT DE NIRO: He thinks the brother is screwing his wife—that's a betrayal. He lives in a more violent, primitive world.

PLAYBOY: Did you talk much with Jake about that incident?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I tried to ask him every kind of question, but it's hard to get somebody to be straight and honest about himself, because he is not even sure himself. Eventually, it's up to you to say, "OK, we've got what we can. Now make the movie."

PLAYBOY: Sort of like what we're up against with you.

ROBERT DE NIRO: Exactly. That's why I'd rather not do interviews! I'm only going to say some things. I'm not going to go into my life—that would be ridiculous. What am I going to open up and reveal myself for? Impart certain wisdom in a certain way and you make your own deductions out of that.

PLAYBOY: Well, you've talked about wanting to do movies that are seen in 50 years. But what you say about yourself and your movies may become key reference points. If all that's available is books full of speculations and misquotes, you won't be fairly represented. Wouldn't you like to know more about Kean or Shakespeare?

ROBERT DE NIRO: You didn't read the Playboy Interview with Shakespeare?

PLAYBOY: You know what we're saying. You don't have to do a lot of interviews, but since you are doing this one, at least it could be an answer to the lies and rumors.

ROBERT DE NIRO: There's a time and place for it. What you're doing is good, that I see——

PLAYBOY: Hold the compliments; we have a way to go yet. Getting back to La Motta, he thought he was a pretty bad guy and that you helped him change his opinion of himself. What did you tell him?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I just kept repeating in his ear, "You're not so bad, you're not so bad." [Laughs] People did not like him. Jake had done some low-life things that were supposed to be bad, but I felt that the drama in his life—with the brother and all that stuff—was real. He had to face a lot of problems, problems that a lot of people faced coming out of the Sixties and Seventies—when you weren't supposed to be feeling jealous or obsessive about someone, and then you realized, "Wait a minute, it is a natural feeling, so why fight it?" Not that you should nourish those feelings, but there was a very primitive, basic way of showing them. The guy was a fighter—you go from here to there, you don't circumvent. He had a real direct way of dealing with things.

PLAYBOY: During the making of the movie, did you ever reflect on why men become boxers?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I did. Some of it may be from abuse as a child. Then they have a lot of street fights and they're good at them and they're smart enough to capitalize on them by getting into fighting.

PLAYBOY: Do you admire Mike Tyson?

ROBERT DE NIRO: He's a great fighter. I just hope that he's born in the right time so he can find opponents. He could be unlucky, born in the wrong time, literally.

PLAYBOY: What about all the turmoil in his life?

ROBERT DE NIRO: It's good that his money is being looked after.

PLAYBOY: Are you in control of your finances?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't even have a quarter in my pocket. You got any money you can lend me? [Opens a small fancy jar of strawberry preserves that came with his toast and coffee, notices a small indentation in the jam] This is what they send! I always send it back when somebody else has used it. I got that the other day on the plane. It's like at boy-scout camp—after you've finished eating, they say, "Hand back everything." What wasn't eaten was put back.

PLAYBOY: You were a boy scout?

ROBERT DE NIRO: Once. Anything you didn't eat they took back and re-served. I was about ten or 11.

PLAYBOY: Hard to picture De Niro as a boy scout.

ROBERT DE NIRO: Don't picture me; I wasn't in it too long. It was just a camp I went to for a short period of time.

PLAYBOY: When you were growing up, what movies and which actors caught your attention?

ROBERT DE NIRO: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, the Kazan films, A Place in the Sun, Splendor in the Grass—the ending was so good. Dean was terrific. Brando, Montgomery Clift, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Spencer Tracy—he didn't vary a lot, but he had a great sense of truth. And Walter Huston—he was great in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

PLAYBOY: What about Bogart in that film?

ROBERT DE NIRO: That's another kind of thing. Walter Huston was the one who was spectacular. Bogart was something else. [Turns off tape. He is not crazy about Bogart.]

PLAYBOY: Why go off the record about an actor who died more than 30 years ago?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't like saying anything bad about actors.

PLAYBOY: OK, then, let's go back 30 years to your childhood. Legend has it that you played the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz and that's what made you want to be an actor.

ROBERT DE NIRO: I was ten when I did that and I was very nervous. It was very exciting. I was a kid.

PLAYBOY: Were you in a lot of school plays?

ROBERT DE NIRO: No. My mother did some work—typing and proofreading manuscripts—for Maria Ley Piscator, the wife of Erwin Piscator, who founded the Dramatic Workshop. She knew I wanted to go to acting school, so in exchange for my mother's work, I began going on Saturdays. It was the biggest acting school in the city at that time. Stella Adler taught there.

PLAYBOY: Was acting class easy for you?

ROBERT DE NIRO: They had so many students in the class, it was hard to get up; you had to try to overcome that. An actor is sensitive as it is—shy—and the whole point of your doing this is that you want to express yourself. There's a kind of thread there as to why people become actors, and if you're intimidated by the situation and not encouraged, it's not helpful.

PLAYBOY: How did Stella Adler, who also taught Marlon Brando, help you overcome your shyness as a teenager?

ROBERT DE NIRO: Stella Adler had a very good script-breakdown-and-analysis class that no one else was teaching. A lot of people I know took the class; it was just a way of making people aware of character, style, period, and so on. People could sit down in a classroom as opposed to having to get up and demonstrate it.

PLAYBOY: Did you learn a lot from it?

ROBERT DE NIRO: Oh, yeah. In fact, that's a class I'd want to take again. It taught me that if you have a very balanced script, you can take from the script without putting anything into something that isn't there. That's what she would call fictionalizing—which is not real, there's no substance to it, it's not concrete. [Turns off the tape recorder and makes a funny observation about his former teacher]

PLAYBOY: Why give us the setup, then turn the tape recorder off for the punch lines?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I don't want to say something against anyone. That bothers people. I don't like it when someone says something negative about me.

PLAYBOY: It was funny, not negative, but we'll let it pass.

Stella Adler's father, Lou Adler, once told Brando that actors should never give 100 percent, they should always give a little less than they have. Can you relate to that?

ROBERT DE NIRO: You can't give what you don't have or what you're not able to give. Once you give up more than what you have, you're lying, you're forcing something. You have to trust yourself and do it as simply as you can. Don't try to bring something that's not there. Some actors do a lot more, and right away, you see it; you see they're trying very hard and it's not credible. Simple is hard.

PLAYBOY: Bruce Willis, who knew we were talking with you, had one question for you about just that: He wanted to know how you keep it fresh and simple.

ROBERT DE NIRO: When I'm working, I believe in rhythms of things. One thing complements another; it's a complete arc—a beginning, a middle and an end that comes about nicely. Make the point and move on.

PLAYBOY: And what about the transition within a character, such as your murderer turned Jesuit priest in The Mission——

ROBERT DE NIRO: That anybody could do anything, that there are all kinds of contradictions in life—that's not a problem. It's like the prostitute who becomes a nun.

PLAYBOY: Interesting analogy. You once said that you wanted to feel that you've earned the right to play a character. What did you mean?

ROBERT DE NIRO: To have done enough research on the character to feel that you have the right to play that character the way you see it—bringing what you've experienced, what you've learned, making it your own.

An actor hears these words all the time: "Make it your own, make it your own." Stella Adler would say, "Your talent lies in your choice." It's one thing to know that, it sounds great; it's another thing to really feel it. And then you have the right to do it.

PLAYBOY: You've been known to go pretty far in making characters your own. For example, early in your career, you appeared as one of Shelley Winters' boys in Bloody Mama, when, according to Winters, you lay in an open grave after your character was dead, even though you couldn't be seen on camera. Why go so far?

ROBERT DE NIRO: What happened was, people broke for lunch and I was just lying in that state without getting up. It seemed like an easy thing to do and I wanted to help the actors, because once they saw me like that, they were forced to deal with it.

PLAYBOY: Have you ever surprised yourself when you've been working?

ROBERT DE NIRO: Sometimes, and that's a good feeling. When you get that, you've got to really ride with it. Sometimes, when I do something that I think is really funny, I break up and start laughing, because it feels so good. Then I get so mad at myself for breaking up, because the rhythm felt so right—I was right there—and if I'd held out just a little longer and not broken up, I wouldn't have ruined the take. That happened during Midnight Run, between me and Charles Grodin. I knew it was perfect, just perfect.

PLAYBOY: Do you remember your first experience before the cameras?

ROBERT DE NIRO: There was some little thing I did that I don't know whatever happened to. Some walk-on for an independent film: I walked in and ordered a drink at a bar.

I remember a bunch of other young actors hanging around, moaning and bitching, all made up, with pieces of tissue in their collars; it was the kind of thing you always hear about actors—where they're just silly or vain, complaining back and forth, walking around primping, not wanting to get the make-up on their shirts.

PLAYBOY: So you didn't exactly feel as if you had found a home.

ROBERT DE NIRO: No, I didn't want to be around those people at all. I just walked in and walked out. I was nervous, though, just to say the line "Gimme a drink." It makes me think of that joke: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" You know that joke?


ROBERT DE NIRO: I'm surprised you never heard it; it's a famous actor's joke.

This guy hasn't acted in about 15 years, because he always forgets his lines, so finally he has to give it up. He's working in a gas station and gets a phone call from someone saying that they want him for a Shakespearean play—all he has to do is say, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" He says, "Well, God, I don't know." The director says, "Look, it'll be OK. You'll get paid and everything." So he says, "OK, I'll do it." The play has five acts and he has to go on in the third act and say, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" That's all he has to do. So he rehearses it when he's in his apartment: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" Every variation, every possible emphasis. They're into rehearsal, and he's got it written on his mirror: "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" And so on. Finally, comes opening night, first act, no problem. Second act, things go fine. Audience applauds. Stage manager says, "You have five minutes for the third act." He tells him to get backstage. His time comes, he runs out, muttering to himself, "Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar! Hark! I hear the cannon roar!" And as he runs out, he hears a big brrrooooom!! Turns around and says, "What the fuck was that?"

PLAYBOY: We knew if you gave this enough time, you'd loosen up.

Moving on: In 1981, you and Harvey Keitel were put up against a wall in Rome as the police aimed machine guns at you, then threw you into jail. Want to explain?

ROBERT DE NIRO: We weren't thrown into jail. The paparazzi in Italy are the worst. They're so bad, you have to laugh at them. They were chasing us in a cab and we couldn't get away from them. It was then that I learned something: It's hard to escape, especially in Rome, where people drive up one-way streets the wrong way and don't care about lights. Finally, the police came by and the cabdriver told them to stop those people behind us, that they had been following us. Then we made a U-turn and drove away. A couple of minutes later, the cops were behind us with their sirens and lights going. They stopped us, got us out, they had machine guns on us, put us up against the wall, and the paparazzi were right behind them, taking pictures of the whole thing. So I said to them, "You got what you want, right?" Then the chief of police came over to me and said, "I take all the cameras; put them over there. Don't worry, no problem." And I said, "Yeah, this I'll believe." They took us to the station. They didn't put us in jail, we just sat around and talked. One or two of the cops were so stupid and belligerent, saying, "Ah, so you were in this movie, acting like a bully," talking about Taxi Driver. They finally let us go.

In the station, we were arguing with the paparazzi, saying they had no right to bother us. They were saying they had a right to take a picture. Those guys were actually arguing that—they're the slimiest people who ever lived.

PLAYBOY: Did the pictures ever appear in the newspapers?

ROBERT DE NIRO: Yeah, two days later, in a London paper. There we were, up against the wall. And the cop had told me no problem. The paparazzi know every angle. They show you a phony roll of film and pocket the real one; it's an art with them.

PLAYBOY: Do you think you could ever play a paparazzo?

ROBERT DE NIRO: I thought of it. See, it's one thing to take pictures. I say, "Go ahead, take." But in Italy, they don't know when to stop. They have no respect. No respect. You feel battered. You say, "Boys, enough." But it's an incessant barrage of flashbulbs. They're just vultures.

PLAYBOY: Have you ever gotten violent with a photographer?

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