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Robert de Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer on The Family

Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, stars of The Family. Picture: Getty

Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, stars of The Family. Picture: Getty

  • by Claire Black
 

INTERVIEWING one Hollywood legend would be daunting enough. But two – at the same time? Cue nerves and excitement as Claire Black meets Pfeiffer and De Niro.

Standing in a rainstorm outside the Dorchester Hotel, I feel a little unwell. I am sick with nerves. Inside, tucked in a suite that smells of expensive pot pourri, perched on a beautifully upholstered sofa in front of a ridiculously abundant fruit bowl, sit Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. And I’ve got to interview them. Both. Together. At the same time.

In the days leading up to this rain-sodden one, I had convinced myself that talking to De Niro and Pfeiffer together was a good idea. After all, De Niro might be a titan of cinema, the most celebrated actor of his generation, but he isn’t exactly known for his love of being interviewed. It’s not that I’ve ever heard anyone say that he’s unpleasant, far from it. He is, I can confirm, very nice. It’s just that he doesn’t always say very much. A man of few words is how he’s described; the kind who answers a complex, probing question with single word, or, worse, a nod. Pfeiffer, on the other hand, is generally known to be charming, and by that I mean talkative. As I jump the puddles, heading for the revolving door, past the hotel guests being walked to their cars underneath huge umbrellas held aloft by top-hatted doormen, I’m pinning my hopes on Pfeiffer. Come on Pfeiffer. Come on Pfeiffer.

‘Bob and Michelle’

There is a while of sitting in a holding room where several seasoned journalists are looking pasty and nervous. It’s not big of me, but hearing them ask “how is he today? talkative?” with barely suppressed panic makes me feel considerably calmer, which is just as well because then it’s my turn.

“This is Bob and Michelle,” is how we’re introduced. Five innocuous words that do not, in any way, capture the combination of genuine excitement and lingering mild panic, evoked when Bob is De Niro – Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Johnny Boy from Mean Streets, Ben Stiller’s father-in-law Jack Byrnes in Meet the Fockers - and Michelle is Catwoman before Anne Hathaway was even a kitty, Elvira in Scarface, Madame Marie de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons, Susie Diamond in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Seriously, Bob and Michelle.

We shake hands. They both smile. She is lean and languid in a black trouser suit, black blouse and towering black velvet platform heels. He looks a lot more comfortable, dressed down in khakis and a sports jacket. They seem at ease with each other, but not like people who’ve been friends for a long time. She speaks immediately, it’s just pleasantries but I’m so relieved to hear her voice. Bob just smiles. Silently.

The pair are together to promote The Family, a Luc Besson mafia spoof adapted from the novel Malavita by Tonino Benacquista. De Niro and Pfeiffer play a mob boss and his wife, Fred and Maggie Blake, who, along with their two children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), are in the witness protection programme after Fred (real name Giovanni) breaks the omerta and rats out his mafiosi buddies. For the family, this means new identities and a quaint, crumbly house in a village in Normandy watched over by FBI minder Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones). Actually, it transpires that the house is their last chance saloon given the family’s insuppressible homicidal tendencies.

Chemistry

The film isn’t Besson’s finest work mainly because blending high farce with graphic violence is a tricky task to master, but what does work is the chemistry between De Niro and Pfeiffer. True, De Niro could play a boy from the wrong side of the tracks in Brooklyn while heavily sedated, but who gets tired of seeing him do that stuff? Not me. And as for Pfeiffer, oversized rollers in her hair, pot of tomato pasta on the stove, murderous intent in her eyes – she’s an older, wiser, weirder Angela deMarco from Married to the Mob. More than this, she’s funny.

“I’m only as funny as the material,” she says, batting away the compliment. “I’m not just one of those funny people, so it’s tricky with me.”

De Niro looks impassive but I’m reminded of something he said about Ben Stiller, his co-star in the Meet the Fockers movies, being able to be funny without actually doing anything. He nods. “When he responds to my character, he just has these facial expressions that tell you exactly what he’s thinking,” he says. He tosses a satsuma segment into his mouth. It seems unlikely that he’s going to speak through it.

“You are hilarious in those movies,” Pfeiffer says. “Hilarious. I love that character.”

He looks pleased, but says nothing.

Pfeiffer and De Niro have been in the same movie twice before – in Stardust and New Year’s Eve – but they’ve never shared a scene. Pfeiffer smiles. “When my agent sent me the script for The Family, I said, ‘you know, if I don’t have any scenes with him’” she nods her head towards De Niro, “I’m not even opening it. Don’t bother me.” She smiles, hamming it up. “In this we actually have some lovely scenes which I really enjoyed. The third time was a charm and definitely worth waiting for.”

“We had a great time,” agrees De Niro. “I regret that we hadn’t done a movie earlier in our careers.”

“It’s OK,” Pfeiffer soothes him, “we’re not done yet.”

“I know, I know,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

Long pause

In the 1980s and early 1990s, when Pfeiffer and De Niro were at the very peak of their careers, they were both making movies almost every year, including some of the best films of those decades. I wonder how they managed to avoid each other? I also wonder if it ever nearly happened – imagine The Witches of Eastwick with De Niro instead of Jack Nicholson, or Casino with Pfeiffer instead of Sharon Stone. “There was one thing,” De Niro says. “I can’t even remember what it was, but I remember I was calling you and calling you,” he says, glancing in Pfeiffer’s direction. “I was in a car. This is maybe 20 years ago.” This is a classic De Niro anecdote. Sentences tend to just unspool, some of them with a purpose, others not so much.

Fred Blake is no Jimmy from Goodfellas and Maggie is certainly no cocaine-snorting Elvira (“Elvira was not exactly maternal,” Pfeiffer says, wryly), but there is something of a neat symmetry about these parts for De Niro and Pfeiffer. “I was very aware when I first read it of asking how do I make sure I’m not repeating myself,” says Pfeiffer. “But there are similarities inherent in those worlds and in that sort of person and I wasn’t going to fight that.” The fact is, Maggie is fun. A maniac, but fun. “Really fun,” beams Pfeiffer, “and maybe that’s why you do it so often,” she says, nodding towards Bob. I flinch slightly for him, but he doesn’t seem to mind. “Because they’re really fun to play.”

“Yeah,” he says.

There’s a pause. A long one. It’s not exactly awkward, but it will be. I decide to put us out of our misery by asking a laboured question about whether as people who have been famous for most of their adult lives, they might, unlike Fred and Maggie, see the upside of the anonymity offered by the witness protection programme.

“Actors can relate to the constant need to hide,” says Pfeiffer, “the constant need to not be noticed, to not be found out. There is an innate understanding of what it means to live your life like that.

“I have no dream of going to live anonymously in a small town, but I would love to walk through the city of London and not be noticed. That would be my fantasy.”

De Niro grimaces.

“I walk a lot in New York,” he says. “I’m conscious of certain places but if nobody is looking for you then they don’t see you.”

“I find it really hard to believe that you don’t get noticed,” Pfeiffer chips in.

“I do sometimes but a lot of the time I don’t. I walk on quieter streets...”

“It’s true that you do know where to walk and how to walk to be less noticeable,” she concedes. “And you have to keep moving...”

“I always keep moving,” De Niro agrees, using his hands like blinkers, acting out the head down, eyes to the front manner of someone who doesn’t want to be noticed. “I was on Broadway yesterday, right in the middle,” he says, sounding almost boastful, as though he’s describing walking through a war zone. “What you sometimes notice is that you’re walking in a place, on a street, and all of a sudden you feel the body turn of the person next to you,” he says, warming to the theme. “You don’t have to look. Then a minute later, they run up ahead of you, they stop and take a really good look at you.”

“Do you ever deny who you are?” asks Pfeiffer conspiratorially. “I do.”

Flat

As I sit, listening, I cannot help but feel so glad that I suffered the indignity of asking a clunky question about the potential appeal of the witness protection programme. “And I start talking like this...” she continues, putting on her best southern drawl. “They say, ‘who do you look like? You’re that actress...’ And I say, ‘Kim Basinger? People mistake me for her all the time.’ And they say, ‘no, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer.’”

Surely she doesn’t get away with it?

“Sometimes. Actually, a lot of the time I do.” The trick is, she says, for that moment at least to really believe that she’s not Michelle Pfeiffer. “And then I get out of there really fast.”

I’m on a roll with the movie parallels now, so there’s another one I want to ask about. In The Family, Fred is using his time in hiding to write his memoir. Looking back over his life, stabbing away at his old manual typewriter, he wants to set the record straight. De Niro says he wouldn’t know where to start in terms of writing his autobiography, but he does have an interest in looking back – he wants to rewatch all of his films.

“I have thought about that,” he says, “but it’s one thing to think about it and another to do it.” He shrugs and pauses and I feel a pang that this line of questioning has fallen flat. And then he starts again. “But I would like to do that, just to see, just to review. It would take me a few weeks. I don’t know where I’ll find the time. But I will do it.”

Watching

Watching their own work is something that many actors find intolerable, but De Niro says that doing it for a specific purpose would be OK. “I’d be deliberately doing it to see what I did and where I could do something much different,” he says, “where I could go in a different direction.”

Pfeiffer looks horrified, albeit in a respectful way.

“I never look [at my movies],” she says quietly. “Not that long ago I watched a little bit of Married to the Mob because my kids were in the room. They were channel surfing and normally I’d make them change it but I thought, well, it’s been a long time and actually, maybe they’d like that movie. I stood it for about 10 minutes.

“I just don’t like watching myself, so I watch only as much as I need to. I might watch a little bit of the rushes at the beginning when shooting starts, just to make sure that I’m in the right movie. But then I stop because it becomes counterproductive because I’m just way too critical. Then I’ll watch the movie when it’s finished and then that’s it.”

That’s interesting, I say, but De Niro interrupts.

“I mean, I don’t like watching my movies either,” he says, sounding a little defensive, “but I’m going to do it deliberately. I mean, like Michelle, I sometimes catch something on television and if it’s been a long time, you know 20 years, then it can be interesting to watch.”

They both smile. Time’s up and I feel a relief that’s quite unusual. Pfeiffer chats as we shake hands and say goodbye. De Niro walks me to the door and smiles. He doesn’t say a word.

• The Family (15) is in cinemas from 22 November

 

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