The Irishman Week: Robert De Niro Q&A

The Irishman – Robert De Niro

by Nick De Semlyen |
Updated on

In the run-up to The Irishman arriving in UK cinemas, Empire Online presents The Irishman Week – a series of features to get you ready for Martin Scorsese's latest gangster epic. First up is an interview with the movie's star – a guy you might have heard of, who goes by the name of Robert De Niro.

In 1984, Banarama released a perky, effervescent pop ditty called, ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’. Thirty-five years later, in April 2019, Empire find ourselves in the reception area of De Niro’s Tribeca HQ, waiting for him, and discovering that it’s an experience conducive to neither perkiness nor effervescence. Meeting the legendarily taciturn and interview-shy screen legend is both an incredibly exciting prospect and one that makes you feel a bit like you’re visiting the dentist, the doctor and a first date, all at the same time. We leaf through a copy of a magazine we find on a table — weirdly, a copy of Interview from 1985, with Madonna on the cover — and scan our list of possible questions one more time, trying to figure out which one might make him bolt the room, as he has been known to do when a conversation goes awry.

Fortunately, once we’re finally summoned upstairs, past posters for To Be Or Not To Be (the Ernst Lubitsch one), Scarface (the Paul Muni one) and 1992’s Mistress (an obscure De Niro film that merits prime placement outside his office), we find him in a reflective, relatively chatty mood, ready to discuss his career and his latest collaboration with Martin Scorsese, The Irishman. At least, he is once the Venetian blinds have been lowered to stop the sun going in his eyes. He watches, visibly unimpressed, as Empire fumbles with the various strings — then joins in, making us feel like we’re participating in a bizarre, A-lister-enhanced Chuckle Brothers sketch. Finally, the blinds are down, we take our seats, he cocks an eyebrow, and the waiting is over.

The Irishman – Robert De Niro

I rewatched GoodFellas recently, and in your very first scene your character is referred to as “the Irishman”.

Yeah, he was Irish, the Jimmy Conway character.

You have Irish roots yourself, don’t you?

Yeah. My mother’s Dutch, French, German. And my Father was Irish and Italian. I hitchhiked around Ireland when I was about 18, 19. I’ve been trying for years to find relatives there. For some reason it’s not easy. I don’t know why. Italy was easier.

So The Irishman feels inevitable in a way. Yet it’s taken a really, really long time.

It has been a long time. Marty and I were about to do a movie. The same kind of thing — it was about a hitman and so on — but it was a more popular type of thing. And Marty was showing me films. Certain sort of gangster, genre films that he was thinking about. He showed me a French movie — I think it was Jean Gabin or something. It was just stylistically something in that vein. And then in the meantime I’d been wanting to read this book that Eric Roth told me about. He brought it up when it first came out. And I said, “I gotta read this book as research.” And I read it and I said, “Jesus. To me this story’s kind of great.” I told Marty, “I think we should look at this. And we should maybe consider.” So he did and then we both talked about it and felt, “Yeah, this is more what we should be doing.” And then Marty got Steve Zaillian to write a script. I mean, this all took… I was looking at the date of the book. I date the books, usually just to remind myself, ’cause you forget. It was ten years to the time that we started shooting, the date on the book.

What were your feelings towards that other hitman movie? (The Winter Of Frankie Machine, based on Don Winslow’s novel)

It was a totally different type of film. It was a genre piece about a hitman, but it was another type of thing. It didn’t have the reality that this one had. The specificity, as far as that goes. It was good. It was just — I don’t wanna use the word romantic, but kind of romantic in the sense that it was less specific about this world. And didn’t have that emotion, for me, with this relationship with these guys and then the betrayal and all that.

"Marty was concerned, rightfully so, that we don’t get all distracted by all that [de-ageing] stuff. So they brought it down to, like, a couple things on your jacket, your suit, your shirt. Little make-up dots here and there on your face and that was it."

You’ve played characters over decades of their lives before — GoodFellas, Once Upon A Time In America, Casino, Raging Bull. But this is the first time you’ve done it via digital effects…

Yeah, well, I’m happy it extends my career hopefully another 30 years.

Was it easier than using make-up to do it?

It’s a different thing. Me and Joe Pesci and Al Pacino and Marty, we were talking about this. And Marty said, “It’s like a new kind of make-up in a way.” I did some [digital effects] in Grudge Match. We did a lot of sitting in a thing with all kinds of lights and gadgets on us and this and that. But this, they tried to go a different way. Marty was concerned, rightfully so, that we don’t get all distracted by all that stuff. So they brought it down to, like, a couple things on your jacket, your suit, your shirt. Little make-up dots here and there on your face and that was it. And lots of photographs. There was always these guys taking photos of us before the take, after it, just getting all kinds of angles and whatever.

Did you try to do all scenes playing a certain age at the same time, to make it easier to keep track?

No, you had to just take it as it came. There’s always something — something changes, schedule, this, that, somebody unavailable, whatever happens. So you have to just be ready for any of the stages.

The book The Irishman is based on, I Heard You Paint Houses, gets into Frank Sheeran’s experiences in World War II. Do you cover those in the film?

Not much. Not much. We have one scene in the war. Marty was concerned. He felt it was too — I don’t know, maybe I’m using the wrong word for him — predictable, in a way. He had killed a lot of people in the war, so it was easier then and da, da, da, da, da. But that was something actual that [Sheeran] had done. He’d had a lot of previous experience before being on the street in Philadelphia and so on. He went through a lot in the war.

The Irishman – World War
A de-aged Robert De Niro in The Irishman

It’s inevitably getting a lot of comparisons to GoodFellas and Casino. But is it fair to say it has a different energy?

It’s different. The only thing I would put it in the style of, maybe, is Roma. I saw Roma, which is a wonderful movie. That idea of sort of a grand work. Netflix came along and just really gave us what we needed and did not bother anybody. They were great about it. So you couldn’t have asked for a better situation. And then the way it’s presented, we’re working that out as far as theatres and so on. I mean, that’s the way it should be seen. And that will be worked out.

You and Joe Pesci appeared on stage at the 2016 Guys Choice Awards, where you said, “Marty and I are planning to get back together for a movie… that is if Joe has any more fucks left in him. So far all he keeps saying is ‘Go fuck yourself.’” How much truth was there to that?

(Laughs) Yeah, he might’ve been saying whatever. We know each other a long time, so yeah. He doesn’t wanna act too much or anything. But I said, “We gotta do this together. Who knows if there’ll be anything else after this?” And Al wanted to do it and Marty of course was ready, so it happened.

How did you first meet Joe?

Well, I saw Joe in a movie called The Debt Collector and we were looking for somebody to play Joey, my brother [in Raging Bull]. And we had met some good people. But then I saw this movie and said, “Marty, you gotta see this guy, Joe.” So then we looked him up. We found him. He was working in a restaurant up in the Bronx. And we had him come and he read with us. We already had a kid who was wonderful as the brother — he was younger, he understood the world, he was from downtown. And Joe was older and he meant to be the younger brother. But we felt that what Joe gives off was so special and incredible that we said, “Let’s go with him.”

Once he finally got on the set of The Irishman, was he happy to be there?

I think he was happy, in spite of himself. We had a good time. We started with the de-aging part, but in that case it was not make-up. At different stages, you do some make-up or prosthetics and others you don’t. And this was the one where he was de-aged in some way. But we both looked like ourselves. That’s how we started. Then we went back and forth and it went on for months and months.

Al Pacino has said he used sense memory to play himself at younger ages. How about you?

Well, we had a guy on the set who was reminding us about the age thing, ’cause it was important. And he’d come up to us while we’re shooting and prompt us when it looked like we were acting our older ages as opposed to younger. Like, there was one thing where I was going down the stairs in my younger years and this guy, Gary, he showed me how I should go down the stairs. And I said, “You’re right.” To myself, I said, “I gotta do that.” So I kind of skipped down it. Not skipped, but kind of hopped. Let myself fall down the stairs as opposed to carefully stepping down them. What’s the word? Sprightlier.

You and Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio made a promo film for a casino together in 2015, which was all about you and Leo vying to work with Marty. Was there a kernel of truth to that premise?

(Laughs) We always make that a running joke. I work with a guy named Lewis Friedman. He writes stuff. And Lewis started turning it into a running thing: how many Leo does as opposed to me. But no, that’s great. And we’ll hopefully do something, me and Leo and Marty. We have something planned. (The film, Killers Of The Flower Moon, has since been greenlit.)

Martin Scorsese is a film addict. He seems to see everything. Do you try at all to keep up with him?

Marty knows so many movies. If I have a question about any film I’m trying to find, I always ask him, of course, and he will know. There’s no comparison. I wish I knew the movies as much as he does. We'll talk about some obscure film or he’ll tell me about it and then send me a bunch of films of this director from Africa. I mean, God bless him. I don’t watch as much as I should. I try. We have so many great things to see that I don't always have the time.

There’s a poster for the ’30s Scarface in your lobby. Is it true you and Scorsese almost did a remake together?

We were talking about it. And I talked with Al [Pacino] about it. We were out one night. I said, “If you’re not gonna do it, I wanna do it.” But I would’ve done it with Marty. Brian De Palma wound up doing it and I felt he should do it with Brian. He was thinking of some other people.

Yours wouldn’t have been Cuban American, presumably?

Yeah, it was a whole different thing. Who knows what would have happened, where we would’ve gone with it.

The Irishman arrives in UK cinemas from Friday 8 November. The film arrives on Netflix on Wednesday 27 November.

Empire – October 2019 Irishman issue

Read Empire's world exclusive Irishman issue, available digitally via the Empire Magazine app on the App Store and Google Play.

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