The legendary actor tells Garth Pearce about the facts and fiction of playing the Hollywood game.
Originally published in December 2008.
Robert de Niro has at last starred in a film which reflects the crazy world of Hollywood, in which he’s been one of its biggest players over the last 30 years. What Just Happened? is about the lying, the cheating, the falsehoods and the utter madness of trying to keep a career on track for a major ego-driven star.
“It’s serious stuff because I recognise something there in virtually everyone I’ve worked with – including myself,” he says. “But it made me laugh. You can’t take yourself too seriously, otherwise you’d go nuts.”
From producer and screenwriter Art Linson’s slim memoir subtitled ‘Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line’, De Niro plays a producer trying to balance a manic schedule and two ex-wives whilst smoothing over egos, setting up a new movie and dealing with a neurotic star’s insecure agent.
The curious blend of true life and fiction, directed by old hand Barry Levinson, seems to add to the authenticity that we’re watching a real slice of Hollywood madness. There is even a line, which is apt in De Niro’s case, when his character asks of the 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 tried to do that to De Niro? “If they have, I haven’t noticed,” he shrugs. The familiar little half smile flickers on to his face. “I also bought my own restaurants.”
When we meet, he’s 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 very same pale looks which won him the nickname of “Bobby Milk” around the streets of his native New York.
He doesn’t look worried about a thing. In fact, 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 says. “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 some problem with, say, your father or some other father figure, then why give the director a tough time?”
The mention of a father is a moot point. De Niro’s own dad, also called Robert De Niro, who died in 1993 aged 71, was a well known New York artist. But he walked out on De Niro when he was just two, leaving him to be raised by his mother, abstract painter Virginia Admiral, who died, aged 83 in 2000.
“You can look in to 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 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.”
Those projects have come fast and furious of late, including the profitable Analyse and Focker comedies with the odd directing stint like The Good Shepherd in between.
He also recently re-united with Al Pacino in Righteous Kill this year, to less than critical approbation. What others think clearly doesn’t faze him.
“There is this image which has been built up – invented, more like,” says De Niro, “and there’s me, living the life. I do not consider myself some sort of acting legend, but just an actor doing his best with the material that is there at the time.”