I’ve been told repeatedly that he rarely grants interviews, so I’m not sure what to expect as I sit staring at my iPhone waiting for Robert De Niro to call. Two things are running through my mind, the iconic Bananarama song “Robert De Niro is Waiting”, and, the fact that my Mother’s cousin, playwright and actor, Michael Gazzo, was up for the same supporting actor nomination for GODFATHER II. Fate favored Mr. De Niro that Oscar night in 1975 and the rest is history. I decide to break the ice by mentioning this. What followed was a very long pause, and then a most unexpected response:
Robert De Niro: “Huh…That’s a strange thing!…that’s really kind of surreal. I haven’t thought of Michael in a long time, but today, I was driving up the FDR toward the Brooklyn Bridge and I saw the projects there. I saw the projects and they look the same way, the same projects that Michael wrote about…freshened up a bit. I remember when I saw that movie, it was a play first, the projects, they shot the projects just north of the Bridge, or Stuyvesant Town. I remembered that was one of the establishing shots for Hat Full of Rain. Michael Gazzo wrote that great play.”
One of the greatest actors of all time has just set me at ease with this remarkable coincidence, and his kind and humble words. Robert De Niro is in fact so humble during our conversation that I am left with an entirely new perspective on this tremendous performer. Gratitude and his thoughtful nature set the tone of our interview. Despite having made over 90 films, earning him 7 oscar nominations and two wins, Robert De Niro wants everyone to know that he is nothing but thankful for having led such a beautiful life.
CHRISTINA LESSA: The work that you have done in terms of philanthropic outreach through your Tribeca Film Festival is simply outstanding. Among the many arts awards that you’ve created is the Robert De Niro Sr. Prize, which focuses on a mid-career American artist devoted to the pursuit of excellence and innovation in painting. What was the inspiration for this particular award?
ROBERT DE NIRO: My Father was part of the celebrated New York School of post-war, WW2, American artists. In his honor, this award was created to support the next generation of artistic achievements. I’m proud to say that it’s among the first of its kind to celebrate and shine a light on influential mid-career artists. We are trying to give recognition, however helpful that would be, and money as part of a foundation in my Father’s name. So we started it a few years ago just for artists who are under appreciated or to bring more awareness to artists. I give it to people in the art world who decide on someone and recommend who it should be given to. It’s that simple.
CHRISTINA LESSA: That’s a very important award. FLATT aims to support mid-career artists with as much enthusiasm as we support established and emerging artists because we really believe that phase in an artists life is where they are beginning their peak, but it is where they are the least supported.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yes. I saw how he was living and so, yes. It was struggling. He led a classic New York artist’s life, in a loft, in the downtown area. What we know as SoHo and NoHo today was mostly industrial in those days. This award honors my Father and his legacy, which was one of great artistic integrity and struggle, both creative and otherwise personal. At a point he was known in some New York circles in the 1950s and 1960s for his influential work in the abstract expressionist movement, but he never quite achieved the same level of celebrity as say Williem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. He was more inspired by the great French painters. He was very clear about what he thought was art and what he liked, and yet at the same time he was generous. People can appreciate things. It doesn’t matter if the aesthetic can be different from yours. He had his own distinct style.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You just completed the documentary of his life, “ Remembering the Artist, Robert De Niro Sr.”…
ROBERT DE NIRO: I did this for him. I wanted my younger kids — who were born after he died — to know what their grandfather did. I even kept his painting studio intact so they could see it. I’ve kept my father’s studio for 20 years — since he passed away. I’ve kept it just about the way it was. At one point I was thinking of letting it go. Then I had a gathering of family and friends — you know, to see it for the final time. Videotape it. But I realized it’s different in person than it is on video. It’s another experience. So I’ve held on to it. At a point I realized how important it is for children to appreciate certain things that their parents want to share with them, like my Father did with me.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You say often that you are not connected to the visual arts world per say, but I see, in the style of your process, there’s something that’s very deeply rooted in the way a painter or a fine art photographer works. It’s a sort of zooming in and recognizing one particular object or trait or moment and connecting it and its history in your subconscious. It’s the personally touching detail that establishes a direct relationship with the observer. Many fine art historians refer to this as the punctum of the work. I see evidence of this in all of your roles. It’s a classic visual arts process. Legend has it that you drove a taxi and experienced the indifference and isolation often developed in that line of work to prepare for Taxi Driver. You underwent the intense-focus of training as an actual professional boxer with legend Jake LaMotta himself only to rapidly gain 60 pounds in order to illustrate your character’s decline. You are willing to be wounded and touched by the work you do. I wonder how you view your process because it is so unique.
ROBERT DE NIRO: In acting school they say if you can find a word that defines what you are doing, what your action is, what it means to you – personalize it. You have certain images but sometimes they are not even that clear. You’re going on instinct. You are moving towards something… I don’t mean to sound abstract. It’s just that sometimes… It’s not so clearly defined. Sometimes, I get to the character through some clothing that I’m wearing or some behavioral thing that I pick up that feels right for the character. I can use that. And there will be other things that maybe I wouldn’t. It’s instinctive. Ideally, you want to get as close to a character as you can and learn as much about the character as you can. Working, researching and whatever it may be, if you are the director or whatever. In my case, I try to find out about as much as possible before I make a decision what character choices I make. If I can, I will strip the story down to its primal elements, revealing states of being, not even states of mind. You don’t want to come across as trying to explain anyone’s behavior in your process, you want to draw the audience into it, making them absorb every element of the character. When I get to a place where I have to make a choice, I have to make it on a gut level -based on all of the information that I have. In an ideal situation you are so into it that, whatever it may be-the character- that you don’t have to worry about what the writing is. The writing we’ll assume it’s good, but say it’s wanting or lacking some authenticity because there’s not enough… The overall concept of the character, the situation, the story is good, but there’s not enough specificity of the characters. Hopefully in the research process, you’ll get there. But then you want to, if you’re lucky, be able to ad lib or improvise as the character if you don’t have it from the script. And the director will understand and let you do that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I recently interviewed Mathew Modine who spoke very fondly of his teacher Stella Adler. I understand that you also studied with her. He said that when he met her, she said that if she was lucky she would teach him to be a human being. Can you tell me about your experience there?
ROBERT DE NIRO: When I was 15, 16, I studied with Stella Adler at the Conservatory of Acting, and then to the Actors Studio when I was 18. My feelings were, use a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and whatever works for you as an actor is fine. I’d like to tell you more about my experience there, but I was totally invisible in her class. I was a student that she, I don’t think, really remembered. I took a lot from her, but I was not a special student. I was there and learned a lot. One of her best classes from the script, the script breakdown -which I had not done when I studied at other schools. The script analysis was not to fixate on lines, not to read into things, but to pull out what you saw, what was real. The scripts were usually good plays – the classics. As I remember it at the Stella Adler Conservatory in acting, you weren’t being neurotic about it, but pulling from what there was.
ROBERT DE NIRO: You would do the character, interpreting what you thought the intention of the author was. And usually these authors were very good playwrights to say the least. Working from that level, compared to other things, especially the movies where you’re using a hodge-podge of different things-from one writer or another and a director – in plays you put in what you put in yourself. Pulling out what is real – that’s another way of doing it. It becomes another way of creating something.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Could you tell me who are some of your greatest mentors?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I don’t have mentors. Stella Adler was really good. A bit full of herself, but, whatever. There were no mentors. There were people I liked, people like Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift. They all had something more… An intangible feeling… Heart, soul… It wasn’t just about interpreting your character, it was something so much more than that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: With over 90 films in your past, there must be a great alignment between your film history and your life experiences. I’m wondering if there’s any period that particularly stands out in terms of your career?
ROBERT DE NIRO: They all stand out in certain times and in certain ways. I consider myself very lucky to be able to do what I have been doing and get paid for it too. They are all different. There is no one period, I mean. The only thing was when I was younger and at a certain point when I was doing certain independent films. Then, all of a sudden I was in Godfather II which sort of catapulted me career-wise into another era because I was able to do other things… So the period that stands out was when Scorsese and I did Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, the King of Comedy, New York, NY. All of those films we did at that time, the 70s or mid-80s. We were lucky to be able to do that.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So moving into the 21st Century, how do you see the future with your career? Is there a dream project ?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I ask myself a lot about doing a dream project. Working as a certain character or with a certain director. There’s one that I have with Scorsese that we have been trying to do for the last few years and I think we will do it. It’s just an interesting book that me and Marty want to do. Me, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Marty Scorsese directing. The screenplay’s been titled, “The Irishmen.” I don’t know what it will end up titled when it’s done. It’s based on a book, “I Heard You Paint Houses”, by Charles Brandt. It’s about a guy who says — he’s now passed away — he confessed that he killed Hoffa and Joe Gallo on Hester Street in New York. I’m gonna play that character. That’s something I’m looking forward to very much. I’m hoping it happens. I think it will. I mean, I’m really — we’re really — working towards making it happen. But I can’t officially say it is since I don’t really fully have us all committed yet.
CHRISTINA LESSA: We talk a lot about creativity at FLATT and we really believe that creativity is America’s last great export, at least at this particular moment in history. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this and how you think that this has affected the film world, if at all?
ROBERT DE NIRO: You mean coming out of America? American films have always been very popular all over the world and in a way I feel grateful that I’m part of that film culture because automatically the movies I’ve been doing get exported all over the world. People look forward to them, not all of them, but more than a few. That’s a great thing. Indie film is also a great thing we have here in America. Sometimes they have financial constraints – it’s a benefit. It forces them to be more creative. There are wonderful movies coming from all over. India makes more movies than we do. We see them at times, you see them at the festival and sometimes they don’t get as much play as some American films. Some do that turn out to be exceptional and get recognition. There are great filmmakers all over the world, many styles and different ways. They also have restrictions in terms of budgets so they have to come up with ways to create things.
CHRISTINA LESSA: A final thought: what advice would you give a young actor today
ROBERT DE NIRO: In acting, always try to go back to what would actually be the real situation, the real human behavior in life. I always tell actors when they go in for an audition: ‘don’t be afraid to do what your instincts tell you.” You may not get the part, but people will take notice. Keep at it and don’t give up. If you love what you are doing, maybe you’ll enjoy it for what it is. Just keep going. Maybe one day you can earn a living at it. It’s a modest living, but you’re able to do what you enjoy doing and create what you enjoy creating. Be someone who understands what it is to create something special, and not just what you can get out of it. That’s the best you can have.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s a beautiful thing.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Yes it is.