"I'm different in certain ways," Robert De Niro says of the actor that he is today versus the one that he was when he first was establishing himself as one of film's all-time greats back in the 1970s. As we sit down in a Los Angeles hotel room to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, he acknowledges, "I don't spend as much time on certain things that I would have concerned myself more about when I was younger because I don't feel that I need to put that much time and effort in it."
Some have suggested that the 73-year-old's work, in recent years, has reflected a certain lack of attention and drive, at least in comparison to his earlier work in instant-classics like 1973's Mean Streets, 1974's The Godfather Part II, 1976's Taxi Driver, 1978's The Deer Hunter, 1980's Raging Bull, 1990's GoodFellas and 1995's Casino. "If someone said that," he responds, "I'd say, 'Well, look, I'm happy I did Raging Bull. If you think nothing compares, fine. At least I did one or two."
But the best way for De Niro to quiet the naysayers is, of course, to show, on the big screen, that he's still got the magic. And the good news is that that's precisely what he does in Taylor Hackford's new dramedy The Comedian, which premiered at AFI Fest on Nov. 11, goes into limited release on Dec. 2 and then opens wide on Jan. 13. In that film, ironically enough, De Niro plays a guy who struggles to escape from the shadow of his past work as he tries to move on and do new things. Sound familiar?
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Born in 1943 to two New York City artists, De Niro began taking acting classes on Saturdays when he was just 10, and continued sporadically thereafter. Nicknamed "Bobby Milk" by fellow street gang members, he eventually dropped out of high school in order to study acting during the day. He ended up working with two masters of very different schools, Stella Adler at her Conservatory and Lee Strasberg at his Actors Studio, and retained both of their teachings, but ultimately came to a conclusion all his own: "At the end of the day, you do whatever works."
De Niro broke into the movies in the late 1960s with a string of three low-budget films directed by Brian De Palma, and soon thereafter reconnected with a childhood acquaintance, Martin Scorsese, who cast him in Mean Streets, a film shot on the same blocks they used to roam. Even before Mean Streets hit theaters, he was approached by Francis Ford Coppola about appearing in The Godfather Part II as a younger version of the character Marlon Brando plays in The Godfather, and was given the part after Scorsese showed Coppola some Mean Streets footage. But even after Godfather II won the best picture Oscar and brought De Niro a best supporting actor Oscar, the up-and-comer still was collecting unemployment. It wasn't until he played the main character in Taxi Driver, which he had read and recommended to Scorsese, that he became a bona fide star.
Two years later, The Deer Hunter (which De Niro says he was sold on doing after seeing the photograph on the cover of its script) won the best picture Oscar, as should have Raging Bull two years after that. The latter, a biopic about boxer Jake La Motta that he made with Scorsese, a non-fan of sports to whom De Niro suggested the idea, and for which he put on 20 pounds of muscle before adding an additional 60 pounds of fat, brought him the best actor Oscar. Three years later, he and Scorsese reteamed for The King of Comedy - one of the first of many comedic films De Niro has made - and then didn't work together again until GoodFellas seven years later. In the interim, he gave other memorable performances in Once Upon a Time in America, Brazil, The Mission and The Untouchables, the last of which reunited him with De Palma.
GoodFellas and Casino marked both reunions with Scorsese and returns to the crime genre with which De Niro has become closely associated. Does he frequently play crime world figures because he particularly enjoys those sorts of characters or because that's just how things have worked out? "It's a combination of the two," he says, noting that he also enjoys both dramas and comedies, especially "if it's a drama that has comedy in it," like his more recent trilogy of collaborations with writer/director David O. Russell and actors Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, 2012's Silver Lining's Playbook, 2013's American Hustle and 2015's Joy.
The Comedian, which De Niro made in collaboration with producer Art Linson (they go back to The Untouchables), also blends drama and comedy. In it, De Niro plays a stand-up comic who long ago starred in a popular sitcom, the most quotable line of which ("Arlene!") follows - and, in a sense, haunts - him in all of his subsequent pursuits. Since the character is played by a guy who's uttered quite a few memorable lines himself - not least of all "You talkin' to me" - it offers rich subtext, as well. ("I understand it," acknowledges De Niro, "but I don't mind it because I get quotes from other things besides 'You talkin' to me,' so I'm flattered in some ways.") De Niro told Linson the script also reminded him of 1960's The Entertainer, starring Laurence Olivier, and it's an apt comparison.
Read more: 'The Comedian': Film Review | AFI Fest 2016
What's next for De Niro? He directed 1993's A Bronx Tale and 2006's The Good Shepherd, so might he step behind the camera again? "I wanted to do a sequel to [The Good Shepherd]," he says, "and I was waiting on a script with Eric [Roth]. I'd love to do it, but it's a real uphill battle." In the meantime, he is co-directing, with Jerry Zaks, a Broadway musical adaptation of A Bronx Tale, which currently is in previews at the Longacre Theatre on 48th Street. "I can't be in it," he says regretfully. "I can't sing. I wish I could."
He's also set to reunite with Scorsese, Heat co-star Al Pacino and possibly even his now-reclusive GoodFellas and Casino co-star Joe Pesci ("I'm tryin' to get him in, I hope I can, I don't know what'll happen") on the film The Irishman, a Steven Zaillian-penned mob film due out in 2018. He say he's nothing but happy watching the recent collaborations between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, emphasizing, "Leo loves Marty the way I do, so it's great. I'd love for the three of us to do something." (De Niro also reveals that Scorsese asked him to appear in 1987's The Last Temptation of Christ, 2002's Gangs of New York and 2006's The Departed, but that scheduling issues got in the way.)
And, of course, De Niro and Jane Rosenthal continue to guide the Tribeca Film Festival, which they co-founded in 2002 as part of an effort to revitalize New York City after 9/11. "I was living down there and I saw it out my window," he says of the attacks on the World Trade Center. "The neighborhood was really depressed and down, and we thought this might be the time to do something like this." The fest's 16th edition is set for April 19-30. (In the meantime, De Niro is grieving over the recent presidential election of fellow New Yorker Donald Trump, who, he said in a pre-election video, he'd like to punch in the face. "I feel like I did after 9/11," he says now, "and we'll just see what happens.")
In other words, De Niro has no plans to slow down anytime soon. He says with a chuckle, "What else am I gonna do? I enjoy doing what I do."