The ubiquitous term “icon” is all too often bandied about. However, when attached to award-winning actor, director and producer, Robert De Niro, an inspiration for up-and-comers and seasoned actors alike, the term is well deserved.
Given De Niro’s status, not to mention his reputation for being “a man of few words” (and certainly not known as being the easiest interview subject), I’m feeling more than a little trepidation as I enter the Four Seasons’ penthouse suite in midtown Manhattan, where we’ve arranged to meet. He’s here to promote Grudge Match, the upcoming comedy in which he stars opposite Sylvester Stallone. The surprisingly gripping tale casts boxing legend Jake LaMotta (whom De Niro played Raging Bull) and the fictituous Rocky Balboa (Stallone’s character from the Rocky franchise) as old rivals returning to the ring for one last bout.
De Niro faces the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a picture postcard view of the bustling, snow-covered streets below, packed with Christmas shoppers. He turns around and gestures for me to sit on the circular sofa opposite him. More unassuming than you might imagine, De Niro is wearing a baseball cap, grey trousers and a navy blue shirt. He quietly places his flip phone under the coffee table.
From personal experience as a staunch BlackBerry user – I’m regularly forced to defend myself to aggressive iPhone loyalists – I mention that his far-from-current phone must cause much ado when he displays it in public. He laughs, shrugging.
“Well, yes, I suppose it’s old-fashioned.” The phone doesn’t even appear to be equipped for selfie-taking, much less Tweeting. Does he do any of that? “Oh, I don’t Tweet. I don’t do Facebook, none of it. I have enough distractions.”
Not content to rest on his laurels as “the greatest actor of his generation,” a title he earned from starring roles in projects such as The Godfather franchise, Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, and Goodfellas, he co-founded the production company TriBeCa Productions, the Tribeca Film Festival, and also co-owns the famed Japanese restaurant chain Nobu. His philanthropic endeavours include supporting the initiative A Logo for Human Rights.
Romantically, De Niro has led a complicated life. He and his first wife, Diahnne Abbott have a son, Raphael, a former actor who currently works in New York real estate. De Niro adopted Abbott’s daughter, Drena, from a previous relationship. His twin sons, Julian and Aaron, were delivered by a surrogate mother in 1995 during relationship with former model, Toukie Smith. De Niro married his second wife, actress Grace Hightower, in 1997. Their son, Elliot, was born the following year. Though the couple split in 1999, they renewed their vows in 2004. In December 2011, their daughter, Helen Grace, was born via a surrogate.
Like any family man, De Niro’s relationships with his kids are what matters most in life. “I try to be honest with my kids and have them confide in me, if you will. I let them know that what they’re going through is not very different from what I went through growing up.”
De Niro made his name in the 1970s, playing mobsters, mafia dons and the formerly mentioned boxer. “I didn’t realise it was a major crossroad for me when I was offered The Godfather. I just went along with it; I knew I wasn’t going to turn it down but you have no way of predicting how anything will be received.”
Now 70, the actor has gravitated towards lighter fare with comedies such as Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers and Silver Linings Playbook. It would appear he revels in portraying harried family men dealing with everyday issues, with plenty of laughs along the way. “I have fun making comedies,” he says. “I make a good living from them.”
Grudge Match focuses on the challenges of these two ageing men, as they struggle with their Luddite tendencies. Is the great De Niro ever told by directors and studio execs he’s too old for certain roles?
He pauses. “You are not told, but people are just suddenly not offering you certain things. It’s all very subtle and polite. You don’t want to insult somebody and say, ‘You can be honest and say I’m not right,’ but you should know yourself that you are not right for something. It’s a pervasive kind of thing; an elephant in the room that nobody will talk about.
“It’s not just in my working life, but when I walk down the street and a young, pretty girl passes by. All of a sudden, the girl doesn’t look at you anymore, the peripheral vision is not working because she just sees an older person,” he says, shrugging. “So she is not interested and it’s clear discrimination,” he adds with a laugh.
It’s difficult to believe that De Niro could walk down a street uninterrupted by “civilians” (a term Liz Hurley memorably coined to describe the non-famous).
“People don’t recognise me – unless they look me in the eyes; then it’s all over.”