The Interview: Robert De Niro

All interview photographs by David Yellen

Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, sits down for an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with one of the world’s most talented and decorated actors

The visceral rage of boxer Jake LaMotta. The calculated calm of young Vito Corleone. The bombast of gangster Al Capone. The shrewd, dry humor of father-in-law Jack Byrnes. Each of these characters and so many more have been brought to life memorably by Robert De Niro.
He is an actor, director and businessman, a two-time Academy Award winner who has appeared in more than 95 films. Turning 72 this year, he remains exceptionally busy. He appears alongside Anne Hathaway in The Intern, which hits theaters on September 25, and in December he stars in Joy, with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
His storied career began with little fanfare, with a tiny (and uncredited) role in the 1965 French drama Three Rooms in Manhattan. Brian De Palma gave him his first major role with Greetings (1968), but it wasn't until the 1970s that De Niro rose to fame. In 1973, he appeared in Mean Streets, his first film with director Martin Scorsese, and in 1974 he took the world by storm with a brilliant performance as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, which later won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. So many great dramas have followed: Taxi Driver. Once Upon a Time in America. The Deer Hunter. Raging Bull (for which he won another Oscar, this time for Best Actor in a Lead Role). Goodfellas. Casino. Heat. Cop Land. Silver Linings Playbook.
But drama is only one side of the De Niro coin. He has acted in many comedies as well, including The King of Comedy, Wag The Dog, Analyze This, Midnight Run and Meet the Parents. He has directed two films (A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd) and he has amassed an enviable portfolio of businesses, including an interest in Nobu restaurants (there are more than 30 around the globe), hotels and his new spirits venture, VDKA 6100 vodka.
A former cigar smoker, De Niro has appeared on screen puffing away expertly and earnestly. Who can forget his sadistic Max Cady character in Cape Fear smoking a fat cigar in the middle of a movie theater, cackling away without a care in the world. Or the cigar jammed like a weapon in his hand as he portrays Al Capone in The Untouchables, or the smoke in the jaws of a weathered Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull as he prepares to take the stage in the twilight of his career.
De Niro married Grace Hightower in 1997, and they have two children: Elliot and Helen Grace. He has four other children and six grandchildren, and is a longtime resident of New York City.
He has given few interviews throughout his long career, but on a hot day in May De Niro sat down in the New York City offices of Cigar Aficionado for a face-to-face discussion with Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of the magazine. The two spoke at length about De Niro's storied career in film, his goals for the future, his varied business interests and his onetime love of a fine cigar.
Marvin R. Shanken interviews Robert De Niro
"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" Marvin R. Shanken (left) tried Robert De Niro's most famous line during his interview with the acting legend.
Shanken: I've done quite a few interviews. I've never worked so hard, preparing for you. So you're in a lot of trouble to begin with. With all of your movies and businesses and everything else, I'm exhausted. I think I should get an award.
De Niro: (laughs)
Shanken: Let's get started. You're my age. When do you plan to retire?
De Niro: Well I don't really think of retirement because I don't know what else I would do other than do what I'm doing, I guess. I don't feel, and you can tell me how you feel, but I don't feel really much older than I think. I look at myself, I'm not even used to looking at myself as being older. It's a little disconcerting if you see somebody you've known in your 30s or 40s or even 50s who has not aged well, or just got older. That's life.
Shanken: How many movies are you currently working on?
De Niro: I just finished a movie that I did in two parts. I did the first part beginning of January, the second part we did it in Georgia, up until about two weeks ago.
Shanken: What movie is that?
De Niro: The working title is Dirty Grandpa. I don't know what the actual title will be. It's about a grandfather that takes his grandson on spring break, and all the shenanigans he puts him through.
Shanken: So how many different movies are in various states of production?
De Niro: I've done another movie with David O. Russell called Joy, that we did in between, in Boston, in February, March and April. I also did a movie about Roberto Duran [Hands of Stone]. I play the trainer Ray Arcel.
Shanken: That's the one you did with Usher.
De Niro: That's the one I did with Usher.
Shanken: In Hands of Stone, you're playing a boxing trainer. You very famously played a boxer in Raging Bull, you played a boxer in Grudge Match. Is it different looking at the role from the other side of the ring, looking at it as a trainer rather than being in the ring itself?
De Niro: The trainer I played is a really great trainer named Ray Arcel. I had a trainer with me, training me in Grudge Match, that I met through [Sylvester] Stallone, named Bob Sale. And Bob came on to Hands of Stone to help me play Ray Arcel. He not only knows boxing as a trainer but also the history of boxing. I couldn't have anybody better.
Shanken: Do you enjoy boxing?
De Niro: Yeah I do, as an exercise. But not that often anymore. It is a great exercise.
Shanken: I don't know if you watch TV. I assume you watch TV.
De Niro: Not much, but it depends.
Shanken: Did you ever watch "The Sopranos"?
De Niro: No.
Shanken: Interesting. So my next question might not apply—did you ever think of being on "The Sopranos"?
De Niro: No, Sopranos came out right after Analyze This or Analyze That. I forget. No. I heard about it, it was very good.
Shanken: Martin Scorsese was the executive producer of "Boardwalk Empire" on HBO. You could have had a part or two in there. Was that ever discussed?
De Niro: No, Marty didn't ask me, but that's fine.
Shanken: You don't watch TV, that's why he didn't invite you. (laughs)
De Niro: No, he had his reasons, and it might not have even occurred to him to ask me about it.
Shanken: Tell me about The Irishman. I asked [Hollywood producer] Arnon [Milchan] about it, and he didn't know what I was talking about. [Slated for future production, The Irishman will reunite Martin Scorsese with De Niro, and it also will star Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel.]
De Niro: No, he doesn't know about it.
Shanken: I told him to call you. (laughs) I said, with Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Martin [Scorsese] again, it's gotta be a home run.
De Niro: We're doing it in another way, we're getting it all set now. It's been a long time coming.
Shanken: When would that be shot?
De Niro: We probably wouldn't start that for another year, year and a half.
Shanken: That should be an unbelievable movie.
De Niro: And nobody knows about that. We're just getting everything underway, schedule wise.
Shanken: OK. Let's get a little deeper. You, over the years, have done roles on what I call the dark side. A mobster. Vietnam War veterans. A psycho. A drug addict. Then all of a sudden 15 years ago you do Meet the Parents. Which is comedy. What happened? What caused you to go 180 degrees from serious, tough movies to family entertainment?
De Niro: It didn't bother me, and I never thought about it. Billy Crystal asked me, with Analyze This, and I just said ‘Let's have a reading of this.' Actually, Pacino got me on that, because he liked to have readings too. He was influential in that. So you have a table reading to just kind of lift it off the page a little bit. You have a bunch of actors, who are not necessarily going to be in it, you have a reading, you have a director, or sometimes no director, you sit, and you have somebody in charge of where it's going to go financially. And you just read it. Sometimes you see you have to work on it more, or you say let's get it ready and do it.
Shanken: But did you wonder if this was a good or bad move for your career?
De Niro: No, I didn't worry about that too much. After Analyze This, Jay Roach asked me if I wanted to do Meet the Parents. I liked Jay a lot, so that's how it started.
Shanken: I doubt there's anybody on earth who hasn't seen you as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. So how did the role come about, that you got the part? It's a great part. You did a great job.
De Niro: I had known Francis [Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather trilogy of films] a little bit before. Mean Streets had come out and he was talking to Marty [Scorsese] the way I understand it. Marty, I think, showed him that, and Francis wanted me to come out and read for him in San Francisco. Then I got a call a week or two after, don't bother, the part's yours. That was it.
Shanken: How did that role impact your life?
De Niro: Getting the part changed my career, or revved it up, if you will. Then winning the Academy Award, you're kind of guaranteed that you're going to work again as an actor. The way I remember it, the movies that were becoming the blockbuster type films, Godfather part one was the first one that I remember in my lifetime as a young man. Then there was Jaws, then there was Godfather II, so these movies started coming out that were huge. The anticipation of Godfather II was really big. Luckily, Francis wanted me to do it.
Shanken: Apparently, you auditioned for [the role of] Sonny in The Godfather, and James Caan got the part.
De Niro: [Coppola] had already wanted him, I think, but he was reading people. He had wanted Al [Pacino], he had wanted James Caan, Bobby [Robert] Duvall, I think. I never confirmed this with Francis.
Shanken: Were you upset?
De Niro: No, not at all. Everybody in New York wanted those parts.
Shanken: I was surprised, and I said this to Francis when I spoke to him. I don't understand. This was an epic movie for him, The Godfather Part II, and for you, and yet you have never done movies together since.
De Niro: Mmm.
Shanken: When I said that to him, he said he offered you the lead role in Apocalypse Now. He doesn't know why you turned it down, but he thinks it's because it was being shot in the Philippines.
De Niro: No, no, the reason I couldn't do that, as I remember it, I was with Michael Philips, and Randy Julia Philips and Marty in the Sherry Netherland Hotel. We were having dinner there one night. Francis called. As I remember, and I could have it wrong, I said 'Francis, I'm about to do Taxi Driver with Marty. I can't.' He wanted Al [Pacino], he couldn't get him. That's what it was—I couldn't do it. I wasn't inclined to do it, but if I had been in a situation where....ah, you never know. At that point I just couldn't do it as I remember.
Shanken: You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? How'd I do? (laughs) Why is that considered your most famous line?
De Niro: Sometimes things strike a chord with people. Simple stuff.
Shanken: I have my own favorite line of yours. It's from The Untouchables. "I grew up in a tough neighborhood. And we used to say, you get further with a kind word and a gun than you can get with a kind word." That's a powerful, powerful line.
De Niro: Well, that's David Mamet. He's great.
Shanken: How many takes was that?
De Niro: I don't remember.
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