You've said you didn't feel Capone had ever really been delivered the way you saw him. Is that why you took the part?
I'd seen some other Capones, and I didn't like the way they'd been done at all. I didn't think they were done with any kind of point of view, really. And Mamet's writing [for the Untouchables screenplay] was terrific and gave it a real strong rhythm and style.
Let's talk about the Louis Cyphre cameo in Angel Heart. You said you felt like you didn't want to carry a movie just then. That was the most interesting role to come along in that stretch of time?
Well, [director] Alan Parker offered me the lead originally, then he had the idea of offering me that, so I thought, well, that would be interesting. I thought it would be fun to do, not having to worry about having to do the whole movie, you know, concentrating on four scenes and that's it. It worked out, schedulewise.
Your next two projects are full-length parts. Still, you don't seem to feel the pressure to do blockbusters, as some actors do. What do you look for when a script comes across the transom?
Everything is different; you just can't tell. The script could have something that I've never even thought of, that I like, and I say, "Oh, this is interesting, and I'd like to do it." It could just be anything from anywhere, and that's part of the excitement about it.
Your career took off abruptly. Was there ever really a time when you had to scuffle?
Well, I had years where I didn't work and so on. Unemployment, stuff like that. Typical, usual stuff.
Did you ever start to think that acting wasn't a viable occupation?
I was lucky in that there was always something that I would wind up doing from here to there. It kept me moving just enough. I had down periods, but not where you'd give up and say, "I've got to go into something else."
You were raised by your mother after your parents split up, when you were about two, and you were a very self-sufficient kid from early on. Did you feel like a loner?
Some ways yes, some ways no.
Your father is quite a noted painter. Was he glad you went into the arts?
He was glad I was doing acting as opposed to – if I'd become a businessman, he probably would have been a little upset. He wasn't saying to go be an actor or go be something, but I think he was happy I was doing acting as opposed to going to IBM school or computer school.
Your career really blossomed with Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets, in 1973. While Scorsese was casting Mean Streets, there was talk of your playing Charlie, the lead role, but it went to Harvey Keitel. Apparently Keitel told you, "I think you'd make a great Johnny Boy."
Yeah. I ran into Harvey in the street, and he told me. I said, "Frankly, you know, I'm at a certain stage as an actor, so I have to ask for the lead. I'll be honest with you." But another part of me said that it really doesn't matter – you want to do it, or you want to work with the director. That's the way it should be. Then I spent a period of time kicking around the four parts. . . . But I wanted to work with Marty. Finally, I just said, "Okay, I'll do that."
In 1972, Marlon Brando played Don Corleone in The Godfather; two years later, you played the don as a young man in the The Godfather, Part II. Did you ever discuss your characterization with him?
No, I'd never met him until last year. What I did was study the film, study his scenes and figure how I could connect it.
You and Scorsese visited Brando in Tahiti last year. What was that like?
Well, it was nice. Marty was talking to him about some project. We had a good time. He's very funny, got a good sense of humor. I don't know, what can I say?
In 1984, you made Falling in Love, with Meryl Streep, your acting partner in The Deer Hunter. Were you surprised when it got a lukewarm reception?
I'd liked the script and the combination, me and Meryl and [director] Ulu [Grosbard]. Certain people tell me they like the film, but I guess it didn't do as well as everybody thought it was gonna. We tried our best.
And you would like to work with Streep again?
Yeah, she's terrific. She's smart, Meryl, but she's also very funny. A great comic sense, a great comedienne. I've always wanted to do a comedy with her. At one point we were even trying to find something, but we didn't come up with an idea. We used to do takeoffs on Falling in Love, and that was fun.
There was talk that you and Scorsese were going to work together again on The Last Temptation of Christ. Why didn't you?
I just didn't want to do it. I didn't see myself [as Christ], even though Marty wanted to do it in a way which was much more connected to reality. To play Jesus is like playing Hamlet; it's like everybody's done it. At that time, I had my head shaved because I was doing Once upon a Time in America, and I took my hat off, and I said to Marty, "Do I look like I can play Jesus?"
Producer Joseph Papp approached you about taking part in his Shakespeare Marathon. You said before that everybody's played Hamlet, but for that – or any other classic role – isn't there always another way?
There is, but I don't know that my way would be that special or that interesting that I would want to put all that time in, to put myself on the line. There are other people with much better qualifications for doing it. I mean, Shakespeare is great, but I'd rather have the same problems in a contemporary situation where people can relate to it more directly.
You're producing a film based on Philip Carlo's detective novel Stolen Flower, which deals with the child-porn industry. How do you get something that controversial onscreen?
It's a real problem to find a point of view, a way of handling it and telling a story. It's a big thing. The writers' strike is a problem. But it has to be tackled in the right way, and if it's not, it can't be done. At this point, it's in a real initial stage, so I'd rather – it's like a jinx. You put bad luck on it talking about it at this point.
While we're on social issues, you seem to have a great interest in Soviet-American relations.
Yeah, well, it's logical. When you go over there and you meet people, they're just like everybody else. It's like we've said this a million times. . . . And I think what interests me – because of my children or whatever – is that people can have differences, but when you get to the point where we're gonna kill each other, actually have these missiles pointed at each other, it's hard to imagine. So I'm interested in trying to meet other people in different countries, different cultures. And Russia to me is a great culture. So if I can do any little thing to help make the situation better by extending myself, then I will do it. They're opening up, and it was something I wanted to be a witness to. So I took my kids there, which was – you don't really do that. But I brought them anyway, and it worked out. I thought it was more of an experience for them in a way, to just be part of that and witness it.
Are you finding you can raise your kids in a fairly normal fashion, being so well known? [De Niro has a stepdaughter, Drina, 19, and a son, Raphael, 11, from his marriage to actress Diahnne Abbott, which recently ended in divorce.]
Pretty well. They have their own problems as kids, being children of someone in my situation. Maybe that does affect them. They have to deal with it, and that's like, to get into it, I couldn't – it's like a whole other subject to deal with and talk about.
Vanity Fair did a piece on you without doing an interview. The author put it together by talking to lots of friends and business associates, and it ran with a picture of your girlfriend, Toukie Smith. Did you feel invaded by that, or did you just shrug it off?
The fact is, there was a mixed signal. People were asking me if they should do it, and I said, "Do what you want." And there were other people that were saying, "I'm not gonna talk," and I said, "Fine, then don't." People were telling me that they liked the article – well, fine, that was okay. Certain things that people said were totally crazy. Not totally crazy, but just off. I didn't want to do it; I just sort of stayed out of it. I didn't want to be – not that they were doing that – but I didn't want to be shaken down: We're writing an article about you. If you talk to us, you'll only set the record straight. Well, who cares about setting the record straight?
This story is from the August 25th, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.
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