Beyond the Canvas: Visionaries of the Arts
Robert De Niro on ‘The Irishman’ and his prolific career
Judy Woodruff: One of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, nominated for 10 Academy Awards, is "The Irishman," and one of its stars is among the best actors of many years, Robert De Niro.
Jeffrey Brown sat down with De Niro recently at the New World Stages in New York City for Canvas, our ongoing arts and culture series.
Al Pacino: I heard you paint houses.
Robert De Niro: Yes. Yes, sir. I do.
Jeffrey Brown: It's an epic of American organized crime and political life in the 20th century.
"The Irishman" is directed by Martin Scorsese. But the idea for it originated with his longtime friend and collaborator Robert De Niro, after he read the Charles Brandt book on which it's based, "I Heard You Paint Houses," code for mafia killings.
Robert De Niro: Once I read it, I said, Marty, you have got to take a look at this, because...
Jeffrey Brown: Why? What was it that grabbed you?
Robert De Niro: I just -- the character was great. All the things he described were very real, and the situations, the way he talked, everything.
And it had historic characters like Jimmy Hoffa and Joe Gallo, even how they were killed. And it had a size to it, a historical panorama, if you will.
Al Pacino: Hiya, Frank. This is Jimmy Hoffa.
Robert De Niro: Yes. Yes. Glad to meet you.
Al Pacino: Well, glad to meet you, too, even if it's over the phone.
Jeffrey Brown: The story had all that. The film has De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran who becomes a mafia foot soldier and hit man working his way up.
It's an all-star cast, some of the greats of the era, including Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, a crime boss who takes Frank under his wing, and Al Pacino as the headstrong labor boss Jimmy Hoffa, for whom Frank works.
The real Hoffa disappeared in 1975, presumably murdered. He was declared dead in 1982.
Al Pacino: What's the matter with you?
Robert De Niro: I'm concerned.
Al Pacino: Yes, I know. You look concerned. What are you concerned about?
Robert De Niro: Tony told the man to tell me to tell you, it's what it is.
He's been given a very clear warning to be careful.
Al Pacino: They wouldn't dare.
Robert De Niro: But he's not listening. He's just going off.
And I'm like, what am I going to do?
Jeffrey Brown: And it's not giving away too much to say you don't convince him.
Robert De Niro: No. He's a little headstrong.
Jeffrey Brown: In real life, like his "Irishman" character, De Niro is a man of few words. A lifelong New Yorker, he grew up in Greenwich Village, the son of two artists, and credits acting with helping overcome shyness as a child.
Robert De Niro: Being an actor enables you to play other parts, have other experiences, limited in some ways, of course, by getting to know a character, being in that world.
So, it kind of forced me to be looking to this world. What's that about? What's that character? Or what's the reason for their behavior?
Jeffrey Brown: "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," just one example among many of the lengths he would go to transform himself into his character.
And the list of great performances goes on and on. In the comedy "Analyze This," he even had fun with his own by then well-recognized mannerisms and acting style, in all, some 115 films to date, a seven-time Academy Award nominee with two Oscar wins.
Robert De Niro: I use elements of my character or myself that I feel will work for the character, personalize it, if you will.
It's an unconscious process. Something feels right. I might not even know why, but it feels right for this. Can we try it? And, say, if I'm working with Marty, I will try something. I will say, what do you think about this? He will say, yes, OK, try it. It sounds OK.
I'm not sure why. It just feels right.
Jeffrey Brown: So it's a craft, right?
Robert De Niro: It's a craft, and there is a mystery to it.
I always feel that whatever works, as long as you don't hurt yourself or anybody else, it's OK.
Jeffrey Brown: What gives you the most satisfaction when you're acting?
Robert De Niro: When a scene is, I feel, done to its maximum, if you will, and then it has the effect that you want.
And that could be after, when it's put together, not -- I might feel that way doing the scene from my end.
And, say, if I'm doing a scene with Al, I look and I say, no, he's great. I'm actually responding as moment to moment in real time as I feel -- as I can. So that feels good.
Now, how will it be put together, and how will it be -- what kind of an impact will it have? That makes me happy, if it works.
Jeffrey Brown: Do you teach actors or give advice to young actors?
Robert De Niro: Well, I give advice, if they ask for it.
What I say to actors, young actors, if they're going for a reading, for example, assume that you're not going to get the part.
Jeffrey Brown: Very practical.
Robert De Niro: Yes, and -- but just so that you can free you to try things in your reading. What do you care? You're not going to get it. So, try it. Try whatever you think, even if it's a little off the wall. Just act as if you don't have the part.
It frees you in a way.
Jeffrey Brown: "The Irishman" draw attention for its extensive use of digital technology to de-age the actors, allowing De Niro and others to appear to be decades younger.
At age 76, he's joked that the technology will allow him to prolong his career indefinitely.
But will he? "The Irishman" is itself a kind of meditation on aging and mortality, even bringing together a group of great, now older actors.
Robert De Niro: It's about the relationship with -- family relationship, about getting older and dealing with all of that. And that was the appeal of it.
Jeffrey Brown: Did it end up feeling like kind of culmination for you? I mean, it is a sort of gathering of a tribe in a sense, right?
Robert De Niro: Yes, I felt that. And I don't know if we would ever be doing another movie together like this. And so it felt right.
And to have Al and -- and Joe and Marty directing us, that was great, if it could happen.
You don't know the first thing about me, pal.
Jeffrey Brown: That hardly means an end to acting, though.
De Niro also appeared in this year's acclaimed "Joker" film, and he remains busy planning new projects, including another with Scorsese that will co-star Leonardo DiCaprio.
Why keep working?
Robert De Niro: At this point, that's what I'm going to do. What else am I going to do?
Man: The one, the only, Mr. Robert De Niro.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Jeffrey Brown Last week saw another honor, a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild.
An outspoken critic of President Trump, De Niro used that platform to defend his right as an artist to speak out.
Robert De Niro: If I have a bigger voice because of my situation, I'm going to use it whenever I see a blatant abuse of power.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Jeffrey Brown: In addition to starring in "The Irishman," Robert De Niro served as one of the film's producers. He will be at the Academy Awards next month when it vies for best film at the Oscars.
Robert De Niro: I know what to say, Russ. It's...
Joe Pesci: Say anything. Slip it on. See how it looks.
Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.
Joe Pesci: Feel good?
Robert De Niro: Yes.
Judy Woodruff: One of the best ever. We hope he keeps on doing it forever.