Robert De Niro on ‘Piece of Sh*t’ Trump, Whether the Mob Killed JFK, and Why Buttigieg Is ‘What We Need Now’
The film icon and star of “The Irishman” sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss his beautiful new film with Scorsese, the Dems’ 2020 chances, and why Trump has gotta go—and fast.
Robert De Niro is gazing admiringly at a wall of framed portraits of himself over the years. “There’s me with Fellini and Leone,” he says, directing his finger toward a photo of a shaggy De Niro sandwiched between the two filmmaking legends in the ’80s, as a smile creeps across his lips. “And there’s me with Marty and Joe,” he offers at a picture of the trio looking chummy during the promotion of Raging Bull. Then comes a pregnant pause, as he’s wont to do, taking it all in.
At 76, and with more revered film performances under his belt than perhaps any other actor in modern history—Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas, to name a few—De Niro is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s currently starring in two of the biggest movies of the year, the controversy-baiting Joker and awards-baiting The Irishman, the latter marking his ninth collaboration with celebrated filmmaker (and anti-corporate crusader) Martin Scorsese. In it, he portrays Frank Sheeran, a truck driver turned hitman for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and close confidant of teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino. The film is, more than anything, an elegiac meditation on aging and assessing one’s legacy—a fitting coda for this coterie of Italian-American icons who helped define a generation of cinema.
I’m seated with De Niro in his lofty Tribeca office, surrounded by stacks of papers, framed artwork that’s yet to be hung, and the blueprints for his latest business enterprise, adding to his ever-expanding empire that includes restaurants, real estate, a production company, and of course, the Tribeca Film Festival. We’re here to discuss The Irishman, for which he’s sure to receive serious Oscar consideration, but as with all things these days with De Niro, who is very much out of fucks to give when it comes to our orange-hued president, the talk eventually steers to Trump, which Democratic candidate he thinks can lead us out of the wreckage, Harvey Weinstein’s reign of terror nearby, and much more.
It’s been a decade-plus-long journey to get The Irishman to the screen. When did you and Marty first take each other’s temperature on this?
I’ve told this story so many times, so I don’t want to bore you with all the details! But how it started was, we wanted to do a movie for a while.
Because you couldn’t do The Departed, right?
I couldn’t do The Departed. I was doing The Good Shepherd and was in the middle of production, and was afraid that if I walked away the whole thing would fall apart. The money was iffy on the project and the whole thing was very tenuous.
So you’d have played Jack Nicholson’s role in Departed?
That one, yeah. So we finally got this project going with Jane Rosenthal producing it, and it was about a retired hitman out west who was a surfer too, I think, and it was what it was. It was a different type of thing—a genre-type piece. Marty was starting to show me movies, like a black-and-white Jean Gabin film [Touchez pas au grisbi], as he was feeling his way on how to present the whole thing. And then I told him I was gonna read this book I’d come across a few years earlier, I Heard You Paint Houses, for research, and when I read it I said, geez, Marty, you should read this because this is really where we should be going.
How did you manage to wrangle Joe Pesci for this?
[Laughs] Well, everyone’s saying to me, “How did you manage to get him out of retirement?” and he said to me at the opening in L.A. a week or two ago, “I was never retired! I just didn’t find anything I wanted to do.” I said, OK. So what I was doing was just trying to get him to do it, because I know he loves Marty and I think he cares enough about me that he’d want to try and make it happen. And who knew if we were ever gonna get a chance to work together again like this? Me, Marty, Joe, Al Pacino…
The film is a fascinating meditation on aging, and looking back and assessing one’s life.
That was all very in keeping with the whole project, and that’s what was in the book—all that sentiment, if you will, whatever you want to call it. It feels… appropriate.
Did it cause you to assess your own life, and your accomplishments?
Well, how could it not? How could you not think of all this stuff? It’s there, and you’re here, but all those things—and those years of living, and experience—factor into the whole thing with all of us. And me and Marty have always had sort of the same way of working together. It was very nice to just get back into the way that we were. It’s almost comforting, if you will. It made me happy.
You two have made nine films together over 46 years…
…Is that it? Forty-six years? Jesus! Wow. Geez.
[Laughs] 1973 to 2019. And many of them are some of the greatest entries in the American film canon. How do you characterize that special spark that happens when you two get together?
I’ve just been very lucky to work with Marty, and for us to come together on all these projects. He’s very open with people creatively—whoever they are, and whatever department they’re in. He’s open with the actors, the DP, everybody, and that’s how he’s always been with me. He’s not afraid to try certain things—“Let’s try that!”—and sometimes you work with certain directors, and good directors, but they don’t want to go there because it may open up a can of worms, but Marty somehow manages to be open.
And you two have very different energies.
Marty has his ways of doing something, I have mine, and we come together in the middle.
You and Joe Pesci also have this very special onscreen chemistry. I understand you and Marty had liked his performance in The Death Collector, and then reached out to Joe for Raging Bull. And at the time, I read that Joe was living above an Italian restaurant he was working at?
Yes, a restaurant in the Bronx and he was working there. I saw him in this movie, The Death Collector, and I said, “Marty, you gotta see this guy!” And then me, Marty and Cis Corman, the casting director, went up to the restaurant he was working at and met him for dinner one night. And then we were down to the final crunch and did a test with Joe and another young kid who was younger and more chronologically right to play my younger brother—since Joe is a couple of months older than me—and made the decision that whatever Joe had was so special that we just had to have him. And that’s it. Joe is special, and great to work with, and the thing about this movie is, the things that he’s been known for—not in Raging Bull, but in the other movies since that he’s done—this was going way against all that stuff, as it should, because he’s that type of character.
It’s a curious thing: you’re probably the biggest Italian-American acting icon but you’re only a quarter Italian. Has that ever struck you as a bit strange?
I identify more with them, I guess.
Why is that? Did working on Godfather II and learning the language bring you closer to it?
No, it wasn’t that. It was interesting because I remember when I [auditioned] with one of the producers, Gray Frederickson, on Godfather I, and getting ready for II, I remember we shot the Brando scenes with this old Sony camera up by Columbus Circle, and I just studied what Brando did in The Godfather and whatever else was written and added, and so on, so it was more technical almost, because I had to pick what was set before, add whatever I can, and continue his performance.
Irishman does float a very strange theory, which is that the mob killed JFK. It’s a theory that was also floated recently by Quincy Jones.
Oh, did he? I used to think, no, that’s too obvious. Maybe some guys bragged that it happened that way here and there, but I thought that Oswald did it. There are some theories though, and as time goes on, you start to think, well, maybe there was something to that? Maybe there was something to the mob being connected to it somehow? Maybe there was? Frank Sheeran touches on it through things that he was asked to do that connected it, in a way. My feeling is always that it’s got to come out somehow but it hasn’t so far, though these types of things are always released later, so maybe someday we’ll get some kind of answer.
The de-aging in the film is one of the reasons why the film took so long to come out, but it takes a bit of an adjustment as you’re watching the film—and then it doesn’t seem like so much of a distraction anymore.
If it works, it works. The thing that excited me about it was that ILM and Pablo Helman were going to make it be the best that it’s ever been, and so that was a great thing to aspire to. When I looked at the movie, there were chunks that were not de-aged yet, and we were all waiting to get to a point where it was all kind of there, and that didn’t happen for a while. Some people even said that without looking at the de-aging they followed the story very easily, so I thought that was an interesting observation.
Did you read Marty’s New York Times op-ed on Marvel? I thought it was beautifully done.
I did. And I thought it was really good too.
I’m sure you’ve been offered your fair share of roles in massive blockbusters over the years.
Marvel’s never tried to get you?
Well, Marty did seem to have a point in that, when you look at the top 10 films at the box office each year, they’re almost all Disney films, and now that Disney swallowed up Fox, they’re one mammoth company now. Do you, like Marty, see this as a sort of existential threat to auteur cinema?
Yeah, I understand what he’s saying, and if he feels that way he’s got a good reason. I don’t see any of those [Marvel] movies—nothing against them, I just don’t unless my kids want to or something. But nothing against those films because people work hard on them. But his point is that an auteur-director telling their story is less by committee—you tell your story as an author of sorts, and that’s it. So how personal Marvel movies are, I’m not one to say, because I don’t watch them.
You have Joker out now as well. Having two of the biggest films of the year at 76 is no small feat.
[Laughs] True! True.
I saw Joker at its first screening in Venice before all the silly online discourse surrounding it, and I think the media’s coverage of it has been very irresponsible. So many critics wrote about how a movie like Joker might inspire a loner to be radicalized, which seems pretty silly on its face, to suggest that Hollywood movies do that.
Yeah, I agree.
And just look at Asian countries. They’re watching some pretty fucked-up movies and not going out there shooting people because… they have strict gun laws.
Right, right. You’re always gonna find somebody who’s unbalanced and who’s going to do that. My feeling about movies is that they’re like dreams. They’re not real, and they can help people fantasize about something in whatever way they want to fantasize, but it’s always meant when you walk out of the theater that it’s not real. They can have a profound effect on you, but they don’t inspire you to go out there and shoot somebody. There are a lot of crazy films out there that are so off the wall—and video games, too—and they don’t do that.
As I would say, I consider it my civic duty to do that. I wanted to do an SNL version, and I mentioned it to them—I said, “What if we did a sketch where Mueller said all the things that he hoped he could say?” I understand that position, and how someone like Mattis also doesn’t want to rock the boat and hurt the morale if he’s too much against Trump at this point.
It’s a tough position that some of these generals are put in, because in a way it’s admirable to want to go in there and prevent this guy from destroying the planet, and on the other hand you’re always going to be seen as an accomplice, and someone who’s endorsing the Trump agenda.
You have to make a decision, and Trump’s taken a lot of people down. He’s a piece of shit who never should have been there in the first place. It’s a joke. You look at this fool and you say, what’s happening? But I like that McRaven stood up and said something, because you are a public servant but you’re also representing integrity and strength, and you have to be able to say, no, there’s a real problem here. Maybe it’s The Apprentice? I never saw it, but my feeling is that had a big effect on people.
Also The Apprentice producer, Mark Burnett, is sitting on a trove of damning Trump material that he refuses to release.
Oh, I know. I’m sure.
Are you worried he’ll be re-elected in 2020? The Democratic Party seems pretty split at the moment.
I’m worried because if he gets re-elected, it’s gonna be very, very bad. Very bad on a lot of levels. We already have a lot of reparations, if you will—repairs—to do to the damage that he’s already done, and he has to be gotten out. Part of it too is, people have to go out and talk about what’s positive, because forget about him. He’s going to be history at one point, though he’d love to be president for life—he jokes about it. I think that if he became president for a second term he’d try to have a third term, and let smarter people manipulate it into getting us into some kind of altercation—a war. The only other president who served a third term was Roosevelt because he was in a war, and this fool would go and start something. This was what Marty Scorsese was saying, and I said, “Marty, I never thought of that. I never thought he’d go for a third term if there was a war or something. He joked about being “president for life” with Xi [Jinping], and so on, he’ll pardon anybody, he’ll do anything. The day after he was elected, I went on a TV show and said I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and say that I hope he won’t be as bad as I think he will be, but he’s turned out to be a lot worse.
While you spoke out against Trump during the 2016 election, I gotta say, Hollywood as a whole wasn’t very mobilized against Trump during the election season. I think there was some Clinton fatigue, because they’ve been asking celebrities for a lot of money for over 25 years and people were just tired of it.
Yeah. And I’m not really political but I saw when he would go to those rallies and he’d say, “I want to get this person and punch him in the face,” and I’d think, how dare this person have this kind of a rally. How dare you do that. And I think about [Rupert] Murdoch, and what he did to this country. He’s an immigrant who became a citizen, and look what he contributed? Look what this guy did? It’s disgraceful—beyond disgraceful, beyond cynical. Fox News, it’s all about money and power. At what cost? And you’re not even an American; you’re someone who wanted to be an American, and this is what you gave us?
So who do you think beats Trump in 2020?
I don’t know. I like Buttigieg. Biden could get us into calmer waters, that would be a good thing. He means well, and to me, he’s a guy who would do the right thing, make the right decision. But Buttigieg I like a lot. He’s got all the credentials—Rhodes Scholar, Afghanistan veteran—even though he’s young, and if he could get a chance it could be something special, I think. As a gay person, he’s someone who comes from a marginalized community, so people from other ethnic groups can identify with him, even if they’re not gay, because they know what it’s like. I think he’s the best for what we need now. I have friends who really like him a lot, as I do. With Obama, he had the middle name “Hussein” and a lot of things that people tried to use against him—including Trump with the whole stupid “birther” thing—and he went right through it. It could happen with Buttigieg. And there’s Bloomberg.
But with Bloomberg, you don’t think it’s a vanity thing? He’s got no shot, so it’s like, what are you doing, guy?
No, I think he can run the country as an adult. He ran this city for 12 years, he sees how awful the situation is and deplores Trump and the whole thing. What else are you gonna do when you have all that money? You’ve got to try to fix the situation.
What about Bernie? He’s a Brooklyn guy.
I like Bernie. I don’t know enough about what he does, but I know he appeals to a lot of people. And I like Elizabeth Warren too, but I don’t know how realistic it will be, to have them get everybody over the hump. I don’t know if people are ready for that. It’s too extreme.
I recently took a cross-country road trip with my girlfriend, and we listened to the new Ronan Farrow book Catch and Kill, about how NBC botched the Harvey Weinstein story. And Weinstein’s hunting ground was right here—his offices were in this very building, and he’s been accused of using your establishments, the Tribeca Grill and the Greenwich Hotel, to abuse women.
You know, Harvey doing that stuff, he’s not gonna tell me about it. I’m not gonna know about it. I’d see him here and there maybe, but I knew nothing about what he was doing.
He had a pretty bad reputation as a bully and generally abusive person…
…but even that I would not see much of, in our relationship, but I’d hear it and sometimes people wouldn’t even want to share it, so it was not in my purview, or whatever you want to call it.
Was it disconcerting to learn that he was using your establishments to target women? In addition to that being awful, predatory behavior, it also exhibits a level of disrespect toward you.
That was the way he was. The whole thing is terrible.
That behavior was glamorized for a long time in Hollywood—the bellowing, angry, abusive studio executive—and even the “casting couch” was something that was treated as a punchline in Hollywood for ages, and not the seriously fucked-up, abusive thing that it is.
It is good that things are changing. But I just… I had no idea that it was as bad as it was.
Let’s go back to The Irishman. The scene between you and Al Pacino in Heat is legendary, but that’s more subdued—a hardened cop and criminal sizing each other up. Here, there are some serious fireworks between you two.
It was a chance for us to do a lot of stuff together, and I was very happy that we finally had the chance to do it with this project, because we did the other one, Righteous Kill, and nothing against the director or anything, it was what it was, but we went to a few premieres in Europe and the public was so great with the adulation and all that, and I said to Al, “Hopefully we’ll do something one day where we feel deserving of all this.” When he wrapped, I was still shooting for another few weeks, and I said to him, “Remember when we said that? At least we know, with this movie, we worked on something special—whatever happens.”
We spoke about The Irishman and looking back on one’s life. How do you feel when you look back on yours? There must be some sense of contentment, looking back on all you’ve accomplished and built.
I have other projects I want to work on, and I like to keep busy—I enjoy that. I consider myself very lucky, so I just need to keep going. I have a couple of things I’m doing, including a new project with Marty next year, Killers of the Flower Moon, which is set up at Paramount. I have a new project with David O. Russell. So, I’m not done yet.