June 22, 2008 Robert De Niro: I'm not an acting legend Robert De Niro talks exclusively about his dodgy rep, the comic touch and what really goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood
Robert De Niro admits he has been reflecting a lot about the crazy world of Hollywood in recent times. This is just as well. Few scripts match his own bizarre life as one of its biggest, best-known players. His latest film, What Just Happened?, however, has a good stab at replicating the lying, the cheating, the falsehoods and the utter madness of trying to keep a career on track for an ego-driven star. “It’s serious stuff,” he says. “But it made me laugh. You can’t take yourself too seriously, otherwise you’d go nuts.”
De Niro, 64, has had to plunge deep into what seems an untapped reservoir of humour over the years to keep that famous little half-smile on his face.Against all the odds, he celebrated his 11th wedding anniversary to his second wife, Grace Hightower, last Tuesday. In 2001, they looked set for what was already being called the divorce of the year. In the opening salvo, Hightower claimed De Niro’s drug use made him an unfit father to their son, Elliot, born in 1998. A New York judge ruled that he should seek psychiatric help. De Niro took divorce proceedings no further and made his peace. He already had his hands full with his twin sons, Aaron and Julian, born in 1995 to his former lover Toukie Smith. That was far from a conventional relationship: the twins were conceived by IVF via an unnamed surrogate mother. Then there was the nurturing of his son Raphael, now 31, from his first marriage, to Diahnne Abbott, which ended in divorce in 1988.
In 2004, De Niro even renewed his marriage vows to Hightower, a former air stewardess whom he met at a club in London in 1987. One of his peace-making gifts, a $95,000 pair of diamond earrings, was then stolen by their Polish housekeeper, who claimed in 2005 that she took them only because Hightower was “mean” to her.
“I have had my hands full over the years,” De Niro says by way of explanation. “And, instinctively, I have been able to stay away from that stuff when I am working. Others can talk about it. I can’t.” Others have talked, including the young British R&B singer Jamelia, who last year revealed De Niro had made a beeline for her at a party. “I’d heard he’s got a thing for black women,” she observed, in reference to his wives and lovers. “At the end of the night, we were finally introduced, and he was so full-on, straightaway talking about how I was a ‘delicious chocolate thing’. He started to churn out chat-up lines like, ‘Don’t you want to be my leading lady?’”
Today, De Niro looks remarkably relaxed and untroubled. The fact that we are talking in the south of France - at the Hôtel du Cap, on the Côte d’Azur, where he’s enjoying a few days in a suite costing £5,000 a night as his film closes the Cannes film festival - is a breakthrough in itself. When he was falsely accused, 10 years ago, of being part of a prostitution ring in Paris, he sued the judge and swore that he would never again set foot in France.
“Did I say that?” he asks querulously. “It’s no use going over old ground. I have decided to move on. I am happy to be here, happy to have such a great film at the festival and more than happy with my life. If I listened to every story and every seed of doubt that was planted in my mind, I would never get out of bed in the morning. Do I look like a worried man?”
I take a close look. He is wearing a white shirt, with a blue bomber jacket on top. He’s packing a fairly hefty midriff, as befits a man of his age. His face is notably pale: the same pale looks that won him the nickname Bobby Milk on the streets of his native New York. (He is still known as Bobby by all who work with him.) But, no, he doesn’t look worried about a thing. He looks more like the bloke in charge of the hotel’s drivers who has wandered along to the swimming pool and smart cabanas to hunt for a missing guest. How, then, has this reputation grown that he can be difficult and grumpy?
“Difficult?” he asks. “Me? I don’t think I am difficult compared to other people. It is hard to make a movie at the best of times, so you don’t want to give people a hard time. People all have their own agendas. But it is not worth acting out something from your own history to make a point on a film set. If you have a problem with, say, your father or some other father figure, why give the director a tough time?”
The mention of a troubled relationship with a father is perhaps revealing. De Niro’s own dad, also called Robert De Niro, who died in 1993, aged 71, was a well-known New York artist. He walked out on De Niro when he was just two, leaving him to be brought up by his mother, the abstract painter Virginia Admiral, who died, aged 85, in 2000. “You can look into my background all you like, but I have never had problems with authority on film sets,” he says. “Even if I disagree with a film director, I work through it. I am also not one for regrets. I don’t regret any film I’ve made, because there was a reason for making it at the time. If it hasn’t worked out, then don’t spend time worrying about why and how. Just move on to the next project.”
De Niro has certainly moved on of late, choosing to send himself up with a clutch of successful comedies. Though he directed and starred in last year’s The Good Shepherd, his recent box-office success rests with films such as Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002), or that other double whammy Meet the Parents (2000) and Meet the Fockers (2004). He has even “dragged up” for Stardust, in which he seemed to be enjoying himself hugely playing a gay pirate.
Some have accused him of selling out. A bitter e-mail circulating in Hollywood - allegedly from his former agent, CAA - claims that, these days, De Niro just takes the money and runs for what they call “godawful paycheck films”. The comedies, it says, turned him into “that old psycho guy”. It adds: “He could have concentrated on quality stuff, but instead wanted to keep funding his little empire in New York.”
De Niro is having none of it. “I’ve always done comedies,” he says. “There were comic elements in Mean Streets [his breakthrough film in 1973] and even Taxi Driver . And I did The King of Comedy . I’ve always had what I consider to be a good sense of humour. There is this image that has been built up - invented, more like - and there’s me, living the life. I do not consider myself some sort of acting legend, just an actor doing his best with the material that is there at the time.” He also makes no apologies for being a New Yorker. “I have lived in Los Angeles, working in Hollywood, countless times, doing movies,” he says. “I am not against the place. I was not a young actor kicking around, living by the seat of my pants, desperate for work. I went by invitation, and my experiences have been good ones. But I have never chosen to live there full-time.
“I like New York because I can still walk the streets and sit down in a bar or restaurant and observe people. If you can’t properly observe, as an actor, you’re finished. The impression sometimes given is that I can’t leave my own home without being recognised or bothered in the street. That’s just not true. I can go out, at leisure, meet people for lunch or take my kids to the park. I don’t think I am glamorous enough for Hollywood.”
There’s certainly no hint of glamour today. He’s not sleekly fit and rugged, like the suited-and-booted Harrison Ford, 65, whom I’d also met again at the festival. The towering figure of Clint Eastwood, 78, also staying at this exclusive hotel, had loomed into view earlier, tall, lean and oozing fame and fortune. But De Niro doesn’t seem much bothered by comparisons. He has built up what is disparagingly called his “empire” in New York by transforming the previously run-down TriBeCa district with an annual film festival, opening glossy hotels such as the Greenwich, where rooms come with saunas, and investing in the Nobu restaurant chain. His son Raphael, recently married, now runs his hotels. “It is good to have a few other interests,” he says mildly. “But my main interest has always been movies – making them, directing them, being involved. I have never lost the passion for that.”
His performance in What Just Happened? seems to back that up. It is based on the producer and screenwriter Art Linson’s book of the same name, subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line. One such tale reports the fury of 20th Century Fox over the actor Alec Baldwin, at the height of his fame in 1997, turning up to shoot The Edge overweight and with a beard. In the screen version, Bruce Willis has been persuaded to play a character called Bruce Willis, who furiously objects to being ordered to shave off his beard and lose weight before shooting begins on a new film.
Ben (De Niro),a top producer,tries to balance a manic schedule and two ex-wives with soothing egos, setting up a new movie and dealing with neurotic stars such as Willis, as well as their insecure agents. De Niro’s friend Sean Penn – they share the same birthday, August 17, with a 17-year age difference – also plays himself, as a star who won’t accept that the ending of his film is in need of urgent change.
The curious blend of true life and fiction, directed by old hand Barry Levinson, seems to add to the impression that we’re watching a real slice of Hollywood madness. There is even a line, apt in De Niro’s case, where his character asks of Willis’s agent, played to the edge of nervous breakdown by John Turturro: “Are you scared of him?” The agent admits: “I am scared of all of them.”
De Niro says: “This is as close as it gets to what it can be like to be in the middle of this stuff. The fear factor is always there – everything from losing tens of millions of dollars on a film that doesn’t work to not being able to get a good table in a top restaurant because your last movie flopped.”
Has anyone dared to shunt De Niro from the grandest table to the one in the corner, near the kitchens? There is, allegedly, a dog of a film coming up, called Righteous Kill, backed by Israeli financiers and co-starring his old acting friend Al Pacino, for which knives have already been sharpened.
De Niro shoots another of his little smiles. “Nobody has moved me from my seat yet,” he says. “But, just in case, I’ve bought my own restaurants.”