ON A BEAUTIFUL autumn day in New York's Tribeca area, a shooting team gathers at The Greenwich Hotel, an ultra-chic boutique property owned by the subject of the photo shoot. Before he arrives on the set, people talk about him in lowered voices, as if they were in a church or temple. His name alone inspires respect. We all know his movies and his famous lines. Even his facial expressions are iconic. And then there's the unknown side – the entrepreneur.
Arriving late, he apologises profusely and goes straight to work, responding eagerly to every request made by photographer Marco Grob. Immediately, the whole set lights up, everyone transported back to classic movies – Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter – with his every smile and wink. Words like star, myth and legend are used in current media-speak for almost every two-hit celebrity, tossed around like cheap confetti. But if there's an actor who really deserves such accolades, it's Robert De Niro.
After the shoot, it's in his huge office full of amazing movie memorabilia that we sit down to discuss the many sides of this American cinematic luminary. The hour passes as if it's five minutes. De Niro puts his hand around my shoulder and walks me back to the door. “I'll see you around,” the legend says with a smile.
The hotel where we did the photo shoot, The Greenwich, has a real artistic sensibility. How did you get involved with it?
I put a lot of work in it – me and my partner. We supervised every detail. It's not perfect, but I tried to do as much as I could. I was involved in everything. It was an eclectic project. Ira Drukier, my partner, and I decided everything. He had the practical experience running other boutique hotels, I had the land. I always thought if I didn't do an addition to the film centre [De Niro owns the film production company in the adjacent building] I would do a hotel, a nice hotel. I'd have fun designing it, I thought.
Ira's been a very good partner and his aesthetic is good. He's more like a producer/director. I'm more in charge of the visual aspect, making sure we adhere to a certain aesthetic. If we had only one designer do it, there would always be something I wouldn't like. It has to come out of feeling. We mocked up the outer brick wall by meeting these Irish brick makers in Long Island. We all liked it, but I said, “Let's do a mock-up” to get a sense of how it looks en masse, as opposed to just a couple of bricks. I thought of the corner of the hotel being round as opposed to being angular – I thought it would be nicer. The room we just shot in was inspired by artist studios uptown on the West Side, on 57th street. I thought it would be nice to have two-storey windows. David Rockwell designed it. I wanted real fireplaces downstairs, it gives a whole other feeling. Take a look around! The penthouse space was created by Axel Vervoordt, a Belgian furniture designer. He's not an architect per se, but he does houses that are very tasteful for high-end people. He's very special and has a great aesthetic. All of the artwork in the hotel is my father's. If you go downstairs you'll see it in the lobby, the restaurant, in the back.
You're very involved with this neighbourhood, with real estate, restaurants and the Tribeca Festival. It's also near where you grew up. What makes this neighbourhood special?
I grew up in the Village, up the street from here, and then spent time on the Lower East Side. Everything has changed so much in New York. Little Italy has become so gentrified. It has been totally transformed. When I was growing up, it was a lot more like in Mean Streets. The neighbourhood in A Bronx Tale is still a more intact Italian-American neighbourhood than here in downtown. It hasn't changed as much. Much of the East Side has changed too. The Village hasn't changed as much. Tribeca started like Soho – big spaces, industrial spaces, open spaces. That's where it started, and then it got gentrified. And now in general it's just loft spaces.
I remember when I was in my mid to early thirties, I started seeing things and getting a sense of the neighbourhoods of the city. All of a sudden, I started noticing new bars and restaurants opening – another generation of venues. This was then, now the whole thing has transformed even more. It's like watching all kinds of plants and grass grow. A whole new generation of vegetation, some of which you don't even know, like exotic plants. The change is overwhelming here in New York. In other places, it's slower sometimes. Here it's pretty fast.
Did you always feel this connection to your neighbourhood and to New York, or was there a time when you wanted to live elsewhere?
I always wanted to live in New York. I go to LA all the time, but I never wanted to do anything other than work there, I never wanted to live there. Then I saw this building and put a restaurant in there, the Tribeca Grill, the first restaurant we started. And then I put in the offices. And then other people came in, like the Weinstein brothers with Miramax [the space is now occupied by The Weinstein Company]. People have taken floors. Spielberg has a floor. I liked this area. I had moved out here earlier, and I wanted to set something up here. It wasn't easy.
Do you miss how this neighbourhood was before?
I don't miss how it was before. Things change. I don't get nostalgic for things of the past that you can't change anyways. Unless things were nicer then and they're bad now. But they're not bad now. They're just different. You just have to adjust to that. It's like people say that New York in the '70s was so gritty, whereas now it's more gentrified and cleaned up – yeah, that's true. But there still are areas of New York that are gritty. It's what it is, it has evolved. These are just different times, it's not bad.
A number of movies you've done are set in New York City – from Brooklyn (Once Upon a Time in America) to the Bronx (A Bronx Tale), Little Italy (Mean Streets), Cop Land is New Jersey and
many movies happen all over downtown (New York, New York). Is there one you think rings truest to the city?
I think Mean Streets would probably be closest to the actual neighbourhood, to the way Little Italy was. It's not far from here. Taxi Driver is happening at night during the '70s. It's another feeling – New York is not like that anymore. A Bronx Tale was really Chazz Palminteri's story. He did it as a one-man show and then we made a movie out of it. It has a lot of truth about it, about that neighbourhood. It's kind of like a fable, there's something a bit magical to it. But as the director, I tried to make it very real, with all the kids in it. They're real kids, they're not actors. It would've been hard to find actors who would play these parts believably unless they understood the culture.
Is there something unique in the storytelling of Once Upon a Time in America? Is it a movie about America for foreigners?
I think so. When we did the movie, the people distributing it knew what they were getting from Sergio [Leone], but they tried to make it into something it never was in the first place. It's Sergio's vision of America, through his eyes, the eyes of a foreigner. When the movie was finally done, the length was three-and-a-half, four hours, they were not happy. They started having it edited and cut a lot. Even I said, “Why don't you have two screenings?” – the long version Sergio wanted and the edited version. The style, the texture, the feel of the movie is about us, Americans, but by someone who's not from here, filtered through his sensibility and feeling. It was never intended to be accurate about things. I used to tell Sergio, “We don't have this type of coffee machine in America,” but he was doing something that was in his own head, a romantic thing. It was based on a book called The Hoods, which I happened to have read way before shooting the movie. It's a good book about Jewish gangsters in the Lower East Side in New York. But the movie has nothing to do with the book. It was Sergio's take. He was very passionate about it, he wanted to tell the story. I had met him years earlier to discuss this project, he met Gerard Depardieu and myself at the time.
I can't imagine Gerard Depardieu as a Jewish-American gangster!
He wanted to do the movie. Sergio didn't care about this kind of stuff. Me, I cared that it was accurate, but that was not what the movie was, in his eyes.
What are some of your favourite New York movies by other people?
On The Waterfront by Kazan is a great New York movie. Breakfast At Tiffany's is a whole other side of New York. The French Connection with Gene Hackman.
One of your forthcoming movies is Last Vegas, It's not the first time you've shot there – we all remember Casino and Midnight Run. Can you tell us about the movie and how you think Vegas has changed throughout the years?
Vegas has totally changed. Even when I was doing Casino, 20 years ago, things had already changed, but there were not good restaurants like there are today. Even the '70s and '60s were different too. We had a nice time shooting the movie in Vegas. I play a tourist, it's nothing like the character I played in Casino.
You recently launched Nobu Hotel in Vegas. How does it compare with The Greenwich?
It's a different thing. With the Nobu Hotel, so many places are asking us to put a Nobu restaurant in them and I said, “Why not do a Nobu hotel and put a restaurant in it?” Why do we need to help other hotels get a certain cachet, a certain credibility by putting a Nobu restaurant in them? Why don't we do it ourselves since we have a real brand? Why are we allowing others to take advantage of it and exploit it? Let's take advantage of it ourselves! This kind of opportunity rarely comes along.
There were instances where people were saying, “You just do the restaurant, you just stay over there.” I said no. Anybody can do it. How did you wind up doing this? Maybe you came from a family already in the hotel business, but excuse me! We have something that's very real, that people want. Why not try to move forward with it? We try to find strategic partners in each country where we go. It's that simple.
How did you decide to start a partnership with Nobu Matsuhisa?
I was in LA right after Matsuhisa restaurant opened. I told Nobu, “If you ever want to open a Japanese restaurant in New York, let me know.” He contacted me and my partners about a year later, and that's how it started. The first one was right up the street over here. I knew that Nobu was special. There are a lot of Japanese restaurants in New York and they're good, but when I tasted his food, I thought, “This is special, people are going to like this.”
Do you have favourite hotels around the world?
Sure. The Hôtel du Cap, in Cap d'Antibes. I used to like The Savoy, in London. I heard they remodelled it. Ocean Club [Reethi Rah] in the Maldives. In India, there's the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. I haven't been there in years, but I hear it's still great.
Does travelling inspire your work?
It depends on the movie. When I was doing [the De Niro-directed] The Good Shepherd, going to Russia, the idea of the Kremlin, of the Cold War, intrigued me. I'd gone to Russia many times before the wall came down, when it was a completely different world. It's transformed now. That's another thing I'd never thought I'd see.
Would you ever consider acting in a Chinese or Indian movie?
Funny you mention this, I'm actually talking to some people in China who want to do a movie with me. It's a love story. I met a Chinese director. I cannot say who. It's very real, we're talking about it.
You've often played tough guys, wise guys. But in reality you come from an artistic background and own sophisticated restaurants. Do you ever get offered parts closer to who you are in real life?
There are certain parts that come along that part of you can understand and identify with. It's not you or what you've been through, but there are elements in the story that you can connect with. I use those parts that will fit with that story. I did a movie called Everybody's Fine, a remake of an old Italian movie called Stanno Tutti Bene with Marcello Mastroianni, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. It was made about 25 years ago, I think. I enjoyed that movie. It's about a father who has kids and he wants to go visit all his kids once they've grown up and find out what they're doing and they're avoiding him. It's a movie any father would understand.
One of your recent movies, Silver Linings Playbook, deals with bipolar disorder. Today everything is labelled, bipolar, OCD, depressed, etc. Does this change the way to play those characters?
We're getting closer to labelling conditions accurately, which is both good and not good. It doesn't necessarily mean it's what the person has. Every person with a disorder is different, even if it's the same label. With Taxi Driver, I talked to [director] Marty Scorcese and [writer] Paul Schrader about doing a sequel. I said, “What if we try to do my character 20 to 25 years later?” I thought it was something people would be interested to see. We tried, but it never came to fruition because we never saw where we'd go.
Ben Stiller says the first time his character met yours in Meet The Parents, what you see on the screen is his genuine feeling of being intimidated by you when he first met you. Did you ever have that feeling with another actor when you were starting out?
I used to know Brando a little bit, I met him, he was great, I loved him. But still, on set he was “Brando”. So I understand that. Ben was very good and funny for that movie. Whatever he does, you know what he's thinking.
I've noticed most of the father roles you've had represent stern men. Are you a strict father?
I'm not like Jack Byrnes [in Meet the Fockers]. I could be closer to the character in Silver Linings Playbook, if anything. I'm a pretty liberal parent. I can be tough on certain things if I know it's a very serious matter, when the children need a certain discipline – not physically, but getting them on the right track. Tough decisions, but you have to do it. I've been through that.
Do younger actors ask you for advice?
I like to give advice if people are interested. Bradley Cooper and I became friends. I tell him something, maybe what happened in another movie I worked on years ago, my feelings about it. With him I know he'll understand and appreciate it. I'll tell him something about one director versus another. I trust him, I know he's smart, so I'll tell him something I wouldn't necessarily tell someone else.
Does acting take priority over the restaurants, hotels and family?
Yes, because it's something only I can do in my film production company. It's a more simple, one-on-one type of thing. The other things, I'm very much involved, but I'm not running them. I'm not cooking the food at Nobu. I have decisions to make about the whole business of it, but day-to-day decisions are left to the people in charge. Like the Tribeca film festival, I'm there when I'm needed. I try to watch as many movies as I can that are going to be shown, and help organising. I wasn't sure when we first started that it would get this big.
You seem to be able to stay focused on the here and now. How do you manage to always look forward?
I'm nostalgic about certain things, of course, like children when they were younger, and more innocent in a certain way. Now they're older and something is past, they're at another stage of their life. My teenage son is more interested in being with his friends than being with me, but that's OK. He'll come back. But I try to be practical, you can't do anything about most things, things move on. Life goes on, just enjoy it, make the most of it as you go. Stay healthy, stay strong and keep doing things that interest you, and keep the family as close to you as you can.
PHOTOGRAPHY / MARCO GROB
STYLING / ISE MICHELLE WHITE
GROOMING / LYNDA EICHNER
LOCATION / THE GREENWICH HOTEL, NEW YORK CITY