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Robert De Niro, 80, Reflects on Life, Fatherhood, Family

The Oscar nominee for ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ shares the secrets to his legendary career


VIDEO: Robert De Niro on Martin Scorsese and a New Baby at 80

Robert De Niro shakes my hand, sits down across from me and dispenses with the niceties: He’s trying to reckon with the nature of evil. “I’ve been trying to figure out how it works,” he says. “How the people at the center of some of the most insidious situations in history are often very banal.”

Of course, he’s talking about his latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, in which he stars as William King Hale, the real-life mastermind of a vast murder-for-oil conspiracy targeting members of the Osage Nation. (His performance won AARP’s Movies for Grownups award for best supporting actor and scored De Niro his ninth Oscar nomination.)

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“William Hale, he’s very charming, very polite,” De Niro continues. “He likes the Osage. Or thinks he does. And he feels that they like him, which some of them probably did. He speaks their language, and he deals with them on a one-to-one basis. It’s almost like, ‘Nothing personal.’ ”

This transposition of that old saw from The Godfather into 1920s Oklahoma cracks me up. A what’s so funny? look darkens De Niro’s face.

“Look, I don’t pretend to understand it,” he continues. “But what it really boils down to is: They’re not people. And they have something that we want. He’s not very self-­reflective.”

He moves on to a related theme, central to both Killers and our current national moment: how American history gets taught, which stories get told and which get buried, and who gets to do the telling. The story behind Killers went untold for the better part of a century, and even now, some public schools in Oklahoma are cautious about teaching the eponymous book on which it’s based.

“As a country, we have not allowed certain stories to be told because they’re painful reminders,” he says. “Well, it doesn’t matter if the history is painful. It’s what happened.” He says this very quietly; De Niro is an almost vehemently watchful man, and his sotto voce seems to be of a piece with this. “I gotta admit, for most of my life I wasn’t aware of the Black Wall Street thing [the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, also taught selectively in our nation’s public schools], which happened during the same period of our story in Killers. We weren’t taught!”

He smooths both hands over his forehead and slicked-back hair, as if to keep whatever’s in his head from boiling over. He’s handsome when he’s mad, De Niro. Wait, scratch that — he’s handsome, period. Surprisingly so. Over the past two decades he’s played a lot of men with craggy and blanched souls, and looked craggy and blanched while doing so. He turned 80 in August. Yet the man who just strode up and shook my hand looks more like a well-sunned 60-year-old who spent the last week sailing his yacht up the Amalfi Coast. Today he’s blue on blue on blue: jacket, turtleneck and slacks. The ensemble and the man pair well. Both seem smart and unfussy.

“Can I talk to you about the way you walk?” I ask. A beat. De Niro blinks. He finds the question suspicious. Another beat. I’ve asked because there is something to the way Robert De Niro carries himself. The instant he breached the door, I recalled a simple shot from Killers in which William Hale is seen from a 4 o’clock angle, behind and to the side. Hale, too, is a man who strides the world, but in a methodically evil way, and his physicality discloses this to us. The shoulders slump, giving his spine a stiff, question-mark curl. The poison he dis­penses to the Osage people he pretends to love has rubbed off on him, crooking his spine and curdling his soul.

De Niro acknowledges that the way King Hale holds his body and the way it holds him are integral to the performance, though it’s not something he consciously thought through.

“The camera rolls ...” he says by way of explanation — and no more.

spinner image actor robert de niro photographed for a a r p
Photograph by Jim Wright

That laconic answer is vintage De Niro. He remains unfailingly cordial and attentive during our time together. He even becomes emotional at one point. But from beginning to end, he responds; he does not dish. And his voice never rises above a gentle piano. He remains immune to my provocations. Still, one tries.

“I’d like to talk to you about your animosity now,” I tell him.

“Yeah?”

“And how funny it can be.”

“Yeah?”

Here’s what I mean: that the signature Robert De Niro Snarling Animosity™ isn’t limited to his dramatic roles. That it’s also present in his comedic work — and is, in fact, the very thing that makes him so funny.

“Go on.”

Like Meet the Parents — in which he plays the scowlingly humorless ex-CIA interrogator, Jack Byrnes, who subjects his future son-in-law (Ben Stiller) to a polygraph. “You’re scary.”

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“Yup.” Then a smile crosses his face, and he actually does dish a bit. “You know, there’s this moment I’m very proud of as a comedic actor. In Midnight Run. This scene with Charles Grodin where I’m in a phone booth yelling at his bail bondsman, telling him I’m gonna leave him on the hook for half a million dollars by killing Grodin. I’m going, ‘I will shoot him, and I will dump him in a f ------ swamp!’ And Chuck’s standing right there, so I do this quick little thing” — he flashes me the same just kidding! look from the movie — “to reassure him.”

It is a terrific little grace note, not only because it’s funny but because it clues us in to the characters’ warming relationship. It’s telling, too, that from a career overflowing with Oscar-worthy films, characters and scenes (he’s won twice; in fact, since AARP gave him our career achievement award in 2010, he’s only upped his game), De Niro singles out this small moment as a point of pride.

Here’s what it is: Since he’s played so many scary men so convincingly, moviegoers 1) assume at some level that Robert De Niro is scary and 2) wonder, Is he playing himself? I suggest that De Niro capitalizes on these unconscious assumptions in his comedic work.

“Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” he allows. “The way some people achieve a certain level of fame, and how that gets layered into the subconscious part of people’s minds.”

spinner image actor robert de niro as a child in nineteen fifty three
Robert De Niro in 1953.
ARCHIVIO GBB/Alamy Stock Photo

Unsurprisingly, De Niro comes from art. His parents, who separated amicably when he was 2 (his father, also Robert, was gay), both painted. The senior Robert, a prominent figurative expressionist, moved to Europe. His mother, Virginia Admiral, who raised her son in the West Village and ran a typing service to make ends meet, sold a painting to the Museum of Modern Art while still in her 20s. (She also wrote erotica for Anaïs Nin and pulp fiction for True Crime magazine.) After a turn as the Cowardly Lion in a public school production of The Wizard of Oz gave her painfully shy 10-year-old son the acting bug, she traded her typing services for his admission to the Dramatic Workshop, where Marlon Brando had studied.

That bug — when it struck, it struck. For young Robert De Niro, sitting in a darkened theater was but the first half of a movie experience; the ritual wasn’t complete until he’d returned home and reenacted everything he’d seen for his mother. For a time in his teens, he ran with a street gang around Kenmare Street in Little Italy, where his pale complexion earned him the moniker “Bobby Milk,” but the lure of the boards eventually prevailed.

Early in his career, De Niro used to announce to casting directors that “I’m Bob De Niro, and I’m sure you’ve heard of my father,” then show them his dad’s sketches. To this day, he maintains his father’s studio on West Broadway exactly as the old man left it upon his death in 1993. Asked if he inherited his parents’ painterly eye, De Niro becomes … unexpansive: “Could be. Could be. Maybe.” Even so, the mention of family lights him up. “Here,” he says, pulling out his phone to show me its screen saver image. “This is my about-to-be 12-year-old daughter.” He grins with pride. In the picture, Helen, his second child with Grace Hightower (from whom he separated in 2018) is still a toddler. “And that giant cloud all around her is a Bernese mountain dog. He’s no longer with us, but I’ve got a bunch of little dogs now.” A beat. “You know, I just really like animals.”

Something in him pauses, then deepens, at the mention of Gia, the baby girl he and his girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, welcomed in April. (She’s their first child and De Niro’s seventh.) “It feels great,” he says of becoming a new father in his ninth decade. “Everything that I’m consumed with or worried about just goes away when I look at her. It’s wondrous. When she gets older — who knows? But that very sweet way she has of looking at you, taking you in, thinking and watching and observing …”

De Niro actually gets verklempt, then teary-eyed, and winds up taking a moment. It’s hard not to suspect this is an emotional surge touched by grief: In July, he lost his oldest grandchild, Leandro, to a drug overdose. This, understandably, is among the subjects he will not discuss with a stranger.

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Robert De Niro (center) stars as Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull."
United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

Curiously, another thing De Niro seems reluctant to discuss is his immersive preparation process. He offers only a whatcha gonna do? shrug when I ask him about mastering the Sicilian dialect for his Oscar-winning turn as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. (His Vito spoke only eight words of English in the film.) He is somewhat more forthcoming about learning the Osage language for Killers: “Well, my character was supposed to speak it well, so I got a great teacher, and we worked on Zoom.” A beat. “And that was it.” De Niro spent a year training under Jake LaMotta, the prizefighter he played in Raging Bull; LaMotta said that his protégé would have ranked among the 20 greatest middleweights in the sport’s history. “Eh,” De Niro responds. “He was just saying that.”

There is one aspect of his craft that De Niro is game to discuss, however. “Rhythm,” he says, leaning forward. “Every character has a certain rhythm to it, and you have to do whatever it takes to locate that.”

A rhythm that’s internal to the character, like a heartbeat — or a rhythm that’s created and shared by two or more characters?

“Both, but the second is more important. There is a rhythm to the way you and the other actors work together. You all pick up on each other’s rhythms and play off one another. This is so important to me.”

Once an actor dials into rhythm, he suggests, everything else — backstory, psychological complexity, motive — falls into place. “Sometimes you don’t know what motivates a character,” De Niro says. “Sometimes it’s easier when characters don’t know themselves.” And mastery of a character’s rhythm enables an actor to break free of his script and improvise. And improvisation, it turns out, plays a far larger role in De Niro’s craft than most people realize.

spinner image actor robert de niro photographed by a a r p in new york city november twenty twenty three
Robert De Niro photographed for AARP in New York City.
Photograph by Jim Wright

“A couple of years ago, I get this call: ‘Come down to Tribeca. You and Bobby are gonna meet in his office and read three scenes over Zoom for Barry Levinson in L.A.,’ ” recalls Debra Messing of Will & Grace fame. She eventually landed the role as De Niro’s 1950s younger mob wife in Levinson’s upcoming film, Alto Knights. “I went to town. I memorized and analyzed the s--- out of that script. So the day comes and I show up in period garb, with a Jackie-O updo and the red lipstick. Bob walks in wearing shorts and Crocs, takes one look at me and says, ‘Whaddya, going to a prom?’ Then we start. And three lines into the first scene, he starts to improvise. I’m like, Bob De Niro is improvising! What the f--- am I gonna do?

“He kept going outside of and back into the scene while I tried to keep up,” Messing continues. “I finally realized, This is how he does it — how he finds his character. He prepares and prepares and prepares — and then tosses it all away. Every scene we did was improvised. It was terrifying at first. But then I just became more open to trying things. How many times have you heard an actor gushing about ‘how much I learned from Robert De Niro,’ right? Well, this is what they’re talking about.”

Something doesn’t quite square here, does it? On the one hand, he is known as a man who lacks the gift of gab. At least half the stories written about Robert De Niro over the years have focused primarily on what a difficult interview he is — unself-reflective, brusque, calling interviewers and their questions “creepy,” and so on. (GQ magazine published profiles in 1991 and 2006 headlined, respectively, “15 Mumbling Minutes With Robert De Niro” and “And Now, 972 Words From Robert De Niro.”) That reticence helps explain how — despite his presence in our lives over the course of six decades and 115 movies — he has kept his mystery intact.

“Every other actor, I kind of know how they’d be in real life,” Billy Bob Thornton once remarked. “De Niro is the only guy I really have no idea.” Even Martin Scorsese — whose 10-­movie director-actor collaboration with De Niro is the most fruitful in Hollywood history — has said he didn’t know “for years” that his friend’s father was a respected painter.

On the other hand, the world abounds with actors like Messing who have worked with De Niro and speak of him with an awe and sense of connection that borders on the religious. Leonardo DiCaprio calls him a “cinematic father figure.” The spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone said De Niro could don a personality as easily as he might don a coat.

spinner image robert de niro as travis bickle in martin scorseses nineteen seventy six film taxi driver
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver."
COLUMBIA PICTURES/PHOTOFEST

What’s more, De Niro has had an enormous (and uncredited) screenwriting role in his most important work, including all 10 movies he’s done with Scorsese. Ream upon ream of dialogue, and this is a man who gets tongue-tied? The same man whose You talkin’ to me? moment before the mirror in Taxi Driver — among the most iconic in the history of cinema — was entirely improvised? While Killers of the Flower Moon was shooting, the industry press abounded with accounts of Scorsese, De Niro and costar DiCaprio furiously writing and rewriting their own lines on the set.

“He’s most comfortable in stream-of-consciousness mode where he can find his way to the most precise way of articulating something,” Messing says. To such a person, she adds, the rigid rhythm of an interview — one question, one answer, march on — might well feel like a “verbal straitjacket.”

Compare that dynamic to the one Martin Scorsese cultivates on his sets. “Of course, he offers direction,” De Niro says. He’s a director, after all. But far more important, De Niro continues, carefully choosing his words, “he orchestrates, he titrates.” That is, he attunes his actors to their all-­important rhythms. “And that’s what gives you the confidence you need so that there’s no such thing as doing something wrong.”

spinner image actor robert de niro photographed by a a r p
Photograph by Jim Wright

He eyes his watch. Message received: last question. I start in, then realize I’m not so much asking him a question as dumping something in his lap. It’s just that … there are certain performing artists who are so transcendentally good over such a long period of time that they come to feel important to you — personally so. (Talkin’ to you, Bobby Milk.) Their performances, cumulatively, take on the weight of memory, compelling you to recall your own life and self — who you were with and what you felt the first time you saw The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The Untouchables, Casino, Heat, The Irishman, Killers of the Flower Moon. Trying to formulate a question from this, I ask De Niro how he thinks he’s changed and grown, as an actor and a man, in the 50 years since he and Martin Scorsese shook up the cinematic world with 1973’s Mean Streets.

“I’ve learned how not to worry or tax myself too much,” he says with a shrug. “I like to just let things happen.”

spinner image left robert de niro in cape fear right robert de niro in the godfather part two
(Left to right) Robert De Niro as Max Cady in "Cape Fear" and as Vito Corleone in "The Godfather Part II."
Universal Pictures/Photofest; Mary Evans/Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant/Courtesy Everett Collection

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Robert De Niro

De Niro was originally picked for the Tom Hanks role in Big.

The actor was set to play Josh Baskin in the 1988 hit comedy that catapulted Tom Hanks to film stardom. Director Penny Marshall even shot test video of De Niro skateboarding, riding bikes and shooting baskets. But De Niro dropped out before film­ing began because, he said, “we had a thing, an issue, with the negotiation, so it went the way it went.”

He ruined his teeth for Cape Fear.

For his role as a violent rapist in the 1991 psychological thriller, De Niro paid a dentist $5,000 to grind his teeth down to make them look sharper and his character look more evil. When filming ended, he paid the same dentist $20,000 to repair them.

He loves casting his oldest daughter in his movies.

Drena (his first wife Diahnne Abbott’s daughter from a previous relationship, whom De Niro adopted) has appeared in at least nine of his films, including The Intern, The Adventures of Rocky & Bull­winkle and City by the Sea.

De Niro is immortalized in an ’80s pop tune.

All-girl British pop group Bananarama released the hero-worship single “Robert De Niro’s Waiting …” in 1984. It reached num­ber 3 on the U.K. singles chart and stayed there for 12 weeks.

He and Marlon Brando are a rare pair.

They are one of only three sets of ac­tors to win Oscars for playing the same character. Both played Vito Corleone in the Godfather films — Brando in 1972, De Niro in 1974. Rita Moreno won for playing Anita in West Side Story in 1962; Ariana DeBose won in 2022. In 2009, Heath Ledger posthumously won for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight; Joaquin Phoenix won in 2019 for Joker. —Natasha Stoynoff

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