A Rare Talk With Robert De Niro

His brilliant career includes a cast of characters ranging from a crackpot cabbie to the Devil himself. Now the enigmatic actor turns his talents to comedy with 'Midnight Run'

Robert De Niro
Ron Galella/WireImage
Robert De Niro during the 'Midnight Run' Premiere in New York.
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In David Mamet's Broadway hit Speed-the-Plow, a frenetic Hollywood producer visits the office of a studio exec and friend. On his lips is the magic name of a major male star who has agreed to star in his prison picture. "Dougie Brown," he hisses to the exec. Then he spreads his hands as if fanning the name across a marquee: "Douglas Brown." Yeah, he admits, it's only a prison picture, but it stars . . . Dougie Brown.

There are several magic names in American films. Some sneer and tote guns. Two made a $40 million mistake not long ago. One is named Eddie. One has blond hair and the best intentions. The one we may be fondest of is a Laker fan, and inimitably gifted. But for mixing box-office appeal with mystique and, above all, acting genius . . .

That didn't take long, did it? We can measure Robert De Niro's capacities by the number of characters we remember so vividly from his twenty-some films: Johnny Boy (Mean Streets), Vito Corleone (The Godfather, Part II, Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy). Historical figures Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull, Academy Award for Best Actor) and Al Capone (The Untouchables) put their own names out there, but whatever immortality they carry into the coming decades will be shared with De Niro.

Though De Niro has had success with a variety of directors, an entire pride of Italian American auteurs – Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino – has collaborated with him on some of his best work. Scorsese, who grew up on the same New York streets as De Niro, particularly seems to know what code to use to channel the actor's often fearsome screen presence – a presence full of choked rage – into compulsively watchable cinema. (Pressed for details about their teamwork, though, the actor says that offhand he can't recall much: "I haven't worked with Marty on a movie in over five, six years. I forgot some things.")

Around 1984, De Niro's career took a curious turn. Sergio Leone's epic Once upon a Time in America, with De Niro and James Woods as Jewish gangsters, came in at almost four hours, was radically cut for U.S. release and never had its intended impact. That year De Niro was also seen opposite Meryl Streep in Falling in Love, which got an indifferent reception. Nor was his next full-scale outing, in The Mission, likened to his earlier thunderbolts. He also did a series of odd cameos: a witty, weird moment as a technician in Brazil, a charged rum as Louis Cyphre – the Devil – in Angel Heart and the brief but effective portrayal of Capone.

De Niro's mystique has long been entwined with that of his great-American-actor predecessor, Marlon Brando. Mindful that Brando halted his career in its late prime and went out to pasture like an old bull while doing expensive cameos, observers began asking if De Niro, who turns forty-five this month, was on the same course.

Midnight Run is part of the answer. Originating in a witty and good-hearted script by George Gallo (Wise Guys), it became a thoroughly Hollywood project, shaped under the aegis of the powerful Creative Artists Agency, which had recently signed De Niro. Director Martin Brest, also a CAA client, was both a credentialed sensitive type (Going in Style) and the director of an in-your-face hit (Beverly Hills Cop). Universal is pushing Midnight Run as this summer's blockbuster action comedy.

De Niro was such an impeccable team player that he even submitted to this rare interview. Rare for good reasons: he's notoriously shy, and as a talker he reveals little of the brilliance he displays onscreen. Our get-acquainted meeting came on location in De Niro's suite at the Aladdin Hotel, in Las Vegas. Blinking neon signs from the Strip helped illuminate the barren room – De Niro had presumably made the place into the kind of shabby motel room his bounty-hunter character would occupy on the road. Our next meeting (which, like the first, came after several postponements) took place one afternoon in the Mayflower Hotel, in Manhattan, in the suite that had served as Jake LaMotta's Detroit hotel room in Raging Bull. Clearly not delighted with the chore at hand, De Niro was rigorously polite and just a bit threatening. "How did you like that answer?" he asked with an odd mixture of defiance and contriteness after one effective evasion. A follow-up phone session came after he wrapped Jacknife, a film about Vietnam veterans that costars Ed Harris and Kathy Baker. Finally, before he went off to begin Stanley and Iris, opposite Jane Fonda, he appeared at a Manhattan press conference for Midnight Run. He was amiable, if not notably revealing. When one reporter asked him what the biggest misconception about him was, De Niro squinted and replied, "You think I'm gonna tell you?" What follows, then, are some clues, some insights and a few turns down blind alleys with a master actor at a curious midpoint in his career – a man who's not so much a recluse as an enigma, and determined to remain so.

 

In Midnight Run, your acting partner, Charles Grodin, seems to he playing someone quite like his offscreen self.
Yeah. Chuck is funny, very dry. A lot of times, you don't know whether he's putting you on or what.

Did you feel you and Grodin were a good comic pair?
I don't know. That's up to people to decide. I guess the only thing I can say is you work on a movie, work on it so hard . . . it's like swimming the English Channel. When you're in the middle of it, you swim – you're committed to it, even if you see flaws. It's like a child, you know, take them for better or for worse. And you hope people who see it feel good about it.

In a certain way, the picture hinges on a scene in which Grodin's character, the Duke, and yours, Jack Walsh, go home to Walsh's estranged family. As you looked at the script, did that scene seem like a turning point?
It gives the whole thing more weight. I don't know if you can say it makes it another kind of movie, but to me, it's a wonderful scene.

Acting can be a competitive kind of work. As I was watching you and Grodin in that scene – it seemed almost like a boxing match.
No, he was doing what he thought was right for it. I think what he did was fine. Different people have different styles, and you have to orchestrate them, work together in a kind of harmony. . . . Did you think Chuck was mugging?

I was avoiding the word, but . . .
Yeah, well, that's something that you just have to like, 'cause he wants to make it humorous. You have to find a balance, you know. That's the director's focus. I trusted Marty would choose the material that was most suited for the scene. He's aware of everything in Chuck's style, in my style. He had to balance all that, and I think he did it very well.

Your other recent roles have been smaller character parts. Was there a reason you didn't feel like doing a whole movie?
Nothing had come along that seemed right, and I liked the idea of doing a cameo, too. It's fun. You do those kinds of bigger-than-life-type parts or characters – mythical almost I don't know what people's perceptions were, but the main thing is you have to do it for yourself. Please other people, and that's good, but if not, what are you gonna do?

I just didn't want to have to carry a movie, though doing The Untouchables was a lot like being a principal in the movie because of the preparation I had to do. I was trying to gain the weight – because everybody knows Capone as a big guy. So I used a bodysuit that I had made that fit very, very exactly, so it would be in proportion to my face and not look strange, like Humpty Dumpty or something. So the weight was for the face, and I put my hair up there so it would sort of round out the face and give me as much roundness as I could get with the time that I had.

But I enjoy doing cameos. I don't know how many more I'll do, or when, but I did feel it was time to do a movie, you know, do a whole thing.

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.

From The Archives Issue 533: August 25, 1988