Kaleem Aftab: Channelling Travis Bickle to trash Trump and showbiz sleaze

Robert Di Niro and Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, left, and Martin Scorsese, far left, get together again as the old gang play younger versions of themselves in The Irishman
Robert Di Niro and Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, left, and Martin Scorsese, far left, get together again as the old gang play younger versions of themselves in The Irishman
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It is a few days after the death of Bernardo Bertolucci and Robert De Niro is at the Marrakech Film Festival to receive a lifetime achievement award from Martin Scorsese. Both start their speeches by singing the praises of the Italian director.

For all the eulogies, a dark cloud had hung over Bertolucci since he was accused of abusing his power when filming a rape scene involving Maria Schneider. De Niro has also worked on films produced by Harvey Weinstein, most notably Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Earlier this year, the Tribeca Film Festival, which De Niro co-founded, hosted the inaugural event for Time’s Up, the organisation formed to combat sexual harassment in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.

When the #MeToo scandal unfolded, De Niro says he was caught by surprise. “Maybe I’m naïve. It made me aware how prevalent it was. You hear about the casting couch, but I found it hard to believe people would behave so badly to get laid.

‘Donald Trump is a blight on our country. I’m tired of saying how much I dislike him. Now we have to do something about him’

“It’s disturbing to me,” he says. “When a casting person or a producer infers something could happen – if you sleep with me, I’ll get you to this person – that is beyond unacceptable. Actors are very sensitive about actors. When they want a part, and if you intimate you are going to give them a part, they believe you, and if they want that part, you have to be very careful.”

So what has De Niro seen? “I don’t witness that stuff too much and certain people are not going to tell me what they do to a person, or how they try to seduce them or use them, or harass them. They probably sense that it’s not something that will sit well.”

Ask De Niro about his career and his responses are factual and short. Only when he talks about President Trump or #MeToo is he animated. Occasionally, he lets out that famous closed-mouth grin – the one he began using more and more in the 90s as he sent himself up in comedies, when it was prematurely claimed that his best years were behind him.

Today, he seems content in the sunshine, despite his recent split from second wife Grace Hightower, with whom he has two children; he also has four other children, two with ex-wife Diahnne Abbott and twins with Toukie Smith. On the table in front of him are a camomile tea and an espresso. “Espresso will give me a little energy,” he says. “And camomile will calm me down.”

He doesn’t need the caffeine when President Trump is mentioned. De Niro made an infamous video in the run-up to the presidential election which ended with him saying he’d like to punch him in the face. Ahead of the midterm elections, a pipe bomb was sent to TriBeCa Grill, a restaurant co-owned by De Niro in New York. When I ask him what happened, he brushes it off, and jokes: “We sent it back to Trump Tower.

“I always thought after he got elected, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” he adds. “But he is a blight on our country. I’m tired of saying how much I dislike him. Now we have to do something about him.”

It’s easy to imagine Travis Bickle, the hero of Taxi Driver, saying these words. Of all the characters he has played, it is Bickle that De Niro would most like to revisit. “I thought people would be curious to see where he is today. Marty [Scorsese] and I talked to [writer] Paul Schrader, but we just couldn’t come up with ideas.”

Born in New York, De Niro was the son of painters who divorced when he was two, after his artist father, an abstract expressionist, came out. A tearful De Niro appeared in a documentary about his father’s struggles with his sexuality for HBO in 2014. He is now planning a documentary about his mother.

At the age of 16, he dropped out of school to pursue acting. Brian De Palma gave him his first role four years later, in 1963’s The Wedding Party. It was in the 70s that he went from actor to icon, with roles in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, and playing the young Vito Corleone in Godfather: Part 2, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In 1981, he won Best Actor for his mesmeric turn in Raging Bull.

Next year, De Niro will once again work with Scorsese, whom he met when they were teenagers in the Little Italy neighbourhood of New York – at 75, he is one year younger than the director.

The forthcoming film, to which Netflix has bought the global rights, was De Niro’s idea: “We were about to do a movie about a retired hitman in California. I read a book as part of my research called I Heard You Paint Houses by [homicide prosecutor] Charles Brandt and I said to Marty: ‘Let’s incorporate it into our story.’ It didn’t work, so we decided to make this instead.”

The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran, a union leader and alleged hitman. Al Pacino co-stars as Jimmy Hoffa, alongside regular De Niro counterparts Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. If it feels like an exercise in bringing the old gang back together, one of the most exciting innovations is that the film will feature the actors playing younger version of themselves in a major technological advancement.

“The idea was to go back four or five decades. Marty wanted to make us look younger,” says De Niro. “I was excited by the thought of being able to do it without the use of make-up.”

‘Bob does not question the character, and in not judging, he conveys to the audience not to judge. And he always brings the audiences along’

He rules out another stint in the director’s chair, to add to his credits on A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd. “I wanted to have that experience and make my own creative decisions and make my own mistakes,” he says.

“I don’t know if I’ll direct another film. But Marty and I have another project, with Leonardo DiCaprio.” He doesn’t confirm whether he has taken a role in Scorsese’s adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon or a Roosevelt biography, both of which have been announced with DiCaprio starring, however.

It is still Scorsese who best understands the magic. “It’s become a cliché to say that an actor doesn’t judge the character he plays,” says the director of his muse. “I really know that Bob does not question the character, and in not judging, he conveys to the audience not to judge. And he always brings the audiences along.”

The work speaks for itself.

nThe Irishman will be released on Netflix in the New Year