SAG Life Achievement Award Honoree Robert De Niro Opens Up
Art and Experience: Robert De Niro is a big winner. It’s the afternoon of the AFI Luncheon, honoring the best in film and television, and De Niro has just left the ceremony with three certificates. “There they are, yeah,” he gestures to a table in his hotel room at the Four Seasons when asked, as if it’s no big deal. Because De Niro, widely considered one of the Greatest of All Time, makes it look easy.
The three awards are actually for his producing work: for the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” and two films he also appears in, “Joker” and “The Irishman.” Accolades are nothing new to De Niro; he’s a multiple Oscar nominee (and two-time winner for “The Godfather, Part II” and “Raging Bull”), a nine-time Golden Globe nominee (he won for “Raging Bull” and received the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2011), and a five-time SAG Award nominee, including this year for his work in the “Irishman” ensemble.
“The Irishman” is De Niro’s passion project. Based on the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the film reunites him with his longtime collaborator Martin Scorsese for the first time since 1995’s “Casino.” De Niro plays hitman Frank Sheeran, leading a spectacular cast that includes Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa.
But even if “The Irishman” isn’t called at the SAG Awards ceremony Jan. 19, De Niro can relax knowing he’s not going home empty-handed; he is receiving the SAG Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment.
“It’s a nice thing,” De Niro says in his typically understated way. But rather than focus on himself, he quickly shifts the attention to his peers. “I was so happy about the ensemble nomination for ‘Irishman.’ It’s great.”
De Niro is famous for being low-key in person; he’s polite, thoughtful and chooses his words carefully. It’s a strange juxtaposition with the man who brought to life such powerhouses as Jake LaMotta, Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle and Max Cady. But that’s part of what makes the actor so fascinating — we literally have no idea how he does what he does. And while much is known about his career and collaborations, here are a few things that you might not know.
He’s not sure when he got his SAG card.
De Niro got his start in the world of low-budget filmmaking, working with the likes of Roger Corman and Brian De Palma. (His love for indie film continues to this day with the Tribeca Film Festival, which he founded in 2002 with Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff.) His first role was in De Palma’s “The Wedding Party,” shot in 1963 and released in 1969.
“I think it was around the time I did ‘Greetings’ and ‘Hi, Mom’ with Brian De Palma,” he says of his SAG card. By the time he did the studio film “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” in 1971, he was definitely a member.
He’s aware that he can be intimidating to others.
Perhaps because of the roles he plays or because of his towering reputation, De Niro can cut an intimidating figure. And he recognizes that when he shows up to a set, some people are going to be in awe. “I’m aware of it to a point,” he admits. “But not to where people have behaved differently — you get word people feel this way. I just say, ‘Well, they’ll get over that soon enough.’ We’re just all there to get it done.”
Ray Romano, who plays Sheeran’s lawyer in the film, confesses to being one of those people. The first scene they were in together, they were sitting in a booth with a group and when Scorsese yelled cut, Romano didn’t want to get up to leave until De Niro did. “In my head I’m like, ‘I can’t get up until he does, it seems that would be disrespectful!’” Romano recalls. “Five, six, seven minutes went by. He was friendly and warm, but I didn’t know what to do or say. “ Finally, much to Romano’s relief, “He got up, and I got up.”
Two days later, when they shot their big one-on-one scene, Romano says his insecurities really kicked in. “I’m ad-libbing a little and adding little things and it was going on for hours with Martin Scorsese right there, not in video village, watching,” he recalls. “We finally wrap and listen, I’m not the needy actor who needs to hear, ‘That was wonderful!’ But in that situation, I needed something.”
Romano says he called his wife from the car ride to the hotel and was airing his insecurity. “I was saying, ‘I don’t know if I can get fired at this point but I have no idea if Marty liked it or Bob liked it, I don’t know.’ ”
While checking in at the hotel, he heard someone call his name and looked over to see De Niro standing there. “He just walked over, put me in a headlock and gave me a kiss on the cheek,” Romano reveals. “It wasn’t a conversation, but everything was said in the gesture. I went to the room and called my wife and said everything was going to be OK.”
He took the idea of playing Robert Mueller on “Saturday Night Live” to Lorne Michaels.
An outspoken opponent of President Trump, De Niro has been earning laughs (and an Emmy nom for guest star) for his frequent spots on “Saturday Night Live” as prosecutor Robert Mueller, the special counsel for the Department of Justice who led an investigation into Trump. It was actually De Niro who initially approached “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels.
“I felt it was my civic duty to do Mueller because of what’s going on with this whole administration,” he says. “Whatever I can do to contribute to that, I’ll do.” While he knows some people don’t like actors speaking out about politics, De Niro disagrees.
“I think there is a responsibility at some point,” he notes. “There’s right and there’s wrong and there’s common sense and there’s abuse of power and as a citizen I have as much right as anybody else. And if I have a bigger voice because of my situation I’m going to use it against what I feel is a blatant abuse of power.”
He can get passionate discussing “The Irishman.”
Though he’s been talking about “The Irishman” for months, De Niro shows no sign that he’s tired of discussing the world of Frank Sheeran.
When he first told Scorsese about “I Heard You Paint Houses,” he says he got very emotional. “I said, ‘Jesus, Marty, you gotta read this.’”
Even though Sheeran is an unrepentant killer, his work eventually costs him everything, leaving him alone and estranged from his daughter.
“The book has a lot of heart,” he says. “The guy did these things, he has a lot of guilt and I said, ‘That’s a great story.’ It also includes historic, bigger than life characters that have unresolved endings. There was so much there, so much for Marty and I to do.”
Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker was blown away by his work in “Irishman.”
There’s probably no one who has watched De Niro’s performance in “The Irishman” more than Schoonmaker, who spent countless hours editing the film. In a recent Q&A for the film, she confessed she wasn’t sure what to expect from his performance. “I was a little concerned, I hadn’t edited a film with Bob since ‘Casino’ and hadn’t seen a lot of his work in between then,” she admitted.
Her fears were soon allayed. “From the moment we started, I just could not get over this beautiful, amazing performance he was giving,” she raved. “Some of it is so subtle, but you just see him sink into the character and all these remarkable things he was doing and how heartbreaking he is in those final scenes, it just broke my heart.”
The film he wishes had gotten more love is “Everybody’s Fine.”
Asked what movies people want to talk to him about, De Niro says it all “depends on who you’re talking to.” Classics including “Raging Bull” are often brought up, whereas younger people might cite “Meet the Parents.”
With a resume as long and varied as De Niro’s, there are going to be some hits and misses, some films that didn’t get the attention he would have liked. One in particular that stands out is the 2009 family drama “Everybody’s Fine,” in which he played the widowed father of Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale and Drew Barrymore. “I liked the director, I liked the story,” he notes, adding that it was released by Miramax at a time when the company was about to go under. “Still, I never like to blame a distributor because if a movie is going to hold up, it’s going to hold up. I like that people are discovering that one.”
He’s known Scorsese longer than you might think.
De Niro and Scorsese are considered the ultimate example of a fruitful partnership between actor and director, with films like “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” to their credit. While they’ve been collaborating since 1973’s “Mean Streets,” they go back even further.
“We met when we were 16,” Scorsese says, calling him “the greatest actor of his generation” whose “creative impact in acting will always be felt so long as there are actors to express their art.”
Says De Niro: “We had mutual friends who went back and forth between his group and my group.” De Niro estimates he hadn’t seen Scorsese in about 10 years when he ran into him at a friend’s party. “I had seen Marty’s film ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door?’ and told him how much I liked it and understood it,” he recalls.
“And we started talking about ‘Mean Streets.’ He basically let me decide which of the characters I was going to play, other than Harvey Keitel’s character, which was already cast.”
And while it may have taken over 20 years for the pair to reunite for “The Irishman,” fans need not worry: they’re already working on their next film together, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The film will also star Leondardo DiCaprio, who in a lovely bit of kismet, is presenting De Niro with his Life Achievement Award.
WHAT: The 26th annual SAG Awards
WHEN: Jan. 19, 2020, 8 p.m. EST
WHERE: Shrine Auditorium