De Niro in Moscow
December, 1987: De Niro speaks!
To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.
How Wolfgang Wilke fooled a legend
“The story of how The Face landed one of its biggest celebrity interview coups is somewhat murky. The notoriously media-shy Robert De Niro usually refused all interview requests. But while in Russia acting as jury chairman of the 15th Moscow Film Festival, he was approached by an East German journalist. Intrigued by the opportunity to discuss with a reporter from behind the Iron Curtain his views on the differences between the East and the West, and his thoughts on socialism, De Niro agreed to talk. In fact, the journalist was West German writer Wolfgang Wilke. He came up with the story about being from East Germany off the top of his head in order to secure his scoop, which he then sold on to The Face. Wilke admits his own deception in the piece (‘I imagine myself this poor, deprived boy from Eastern Germany’), detailing how he got De Niro’s hotel room number from a front desk naïve to the wiles of Western reporters and then charming the man himself. Elsewhere in the piece, De Niro even addresses the subject of never (usually) talking to the press, saying: ‘Why should I talk to journalists who put stupid questions to me? People should go to the cinema, watch my movies and make up their own minds.’”
Robert De Niro doesn’t give interviews and shields his private life from public view. When he dropped his guard making a rare public appearance as jury chairman of the 15th Moscow Film Festival, enterprising West German journalist Wolfgang Wilke moved in to secure this exclusive glimpse of the reclusive legend of modern cinema.
Before Mikhail Gorbachev the films of Robert De Niro were banned in the USSR for their depiction of violence and crime. Glasnost has changed all of that: De Niro has flown in from the USA to head the jury for the 15th Moscow Film Festival and the first foreigner to do so. A well-ordered and demanding schedule awaits him: more than two weeks of Soviet officialdom, living out of suitcases in one of Moscow’s huge hotels, a round of chairman duties involving press conferences and film presentations.
Here, in the heart of communism, there might be the chance to engage the 44-year-old actor in an activity he apparently despises; the possibility, however remote, that De Niro will reciprocate the new Russian openness with interviews for the attendant press. I travel in hope.
Arriving at Moscow airport the portents are not good. Checks, supervisions, more checks. But the next day I manage to obtain De Niro’s room and phone number with surprising ease. In the Rossija Hotel, a complex of 6,000 beds, I joke with the corpulent ladies at the reception desk until one of them produces a note which reads, ‘Mr De Niro, Robert, Hotel Moscwa, Room 410, phone 292 74 30’ in a spirit of Glasnost that would be unbelievable in Cannes or Venice.
The Moscwa Hotel is as ugly as Rossija. It’s a building from the Kruschev era and as charming as concrete. A woman is sitting on duty by the door of room 410. She smiles. “Mr De Niro is in,” she says in perfect English. I hesitate before knocking at De Niro’s door. “You have to beat quite loud,” she recommends.
The door opens. In front of me is a man with a red face, dressed in a grey jogging suit and t‑shirt soaked with sweat. “What do you want?” he asks.
“I would like to talk to Robert De Niro,” I reply and try to catch a glimpse of his room. “I am Robert De Niro,” the man says. Pause. No comment.
“I don’t want to disturb you. I can come by later today.”
“Why do you want to talk with me?”
“I’d just like to meet you. I am a journalist. I’m from East Berlin and thought I could come and show you Moscow.” What am I saying? East Berlin! I have been there only once. But I know he doesn’t like Western reporters.
De Niro checks me out. He hesitates. “What about East Germany?” he asks.
“It’s great, although Moscow’s more exciting.” I talk about East Germany as if I’ve never been to another country and De Niro becomes more friendly.
“Call me tomorrow, perhaps we can meet. I got my family with me, my son and my daughter. Just call, but now I have to get back to my training.”
The next morning he spends jogging, resting at noon, watching movies in the afternoon in his role as jury chairman. When l see him again in the evening at an official event surrounded by a crowd of people, he waves his hands and calls out, “Why didn’t you call me?” Two days elapse. The chairman is a busy man; I’m impressed by his business-like approach. Smartly dressed in suit and tie, the shy, cautious actor is a skilful chairman of the jury; all diplomacy and professionalism.
“I came to Moscow,” he underlines at a press meeting, “because I got nervous from the tensions between the USSR and the USA. I felt threatened, personally; that’s why I engage myself in mutual understanding.”
The third day I manage to talk to him on the phone. “Pass by for dinner,” he suggests.
The restaurant of the Moscwa Hotel resembles an airport departure lounge. In one corner of the huge hall, I recognise De Niro and his party. At the head of the table there is Drina, De Niro’s stepdaughter; a beautiful 19-year-old with a smile that reminds me of Sade. At her side is Raphael, De Niro’s 11-year-old son, brown haired and dark-eyed. Opposite him is Dan, a 26-year-old Springsteen look-a-like who works for De Niro as his personal trainer. Raphael has pommes frites, Drina eats Borschtsch, the Russian national dish. “I don’t like it,” she moans. Only De Niro seems content. “Daddy prefers vegetables,” says Drina, “there you can’t go wrong.”
“You got an idea what we can do tonight?” De Niro asks. “I’d like to see something new, maybe the underground. New York, too, is not that exciting if you show a foreigner only the Empire State building and the Museum of Modern Art.”
Fortunately, I had invited Moscow journalist Mikhail Sigalow to join us. Sigalow reels off the local ‘attractions’; a punk concert in the suburb of Luzhniki, a heavy metal concert in the Olympic Village, a Russian rockabilly group in the Blue Bird or the “U‑Fontana”, Moscow’s best disco.
They settle for the rockabilly group, Mister Twister, at the Blue Bird. “Let’s meet at nine at the hotel?” De Niro suggests.
The Blue Bird turns out to be a cross between a jazz club and a nightclub. Drina is astonished. There are hundreds of people outside, but inside there are empty seats. “The Moscow underground is crazy,” explains my colleague Mikhail, “the manager always has to reserve some tables for important apparatchiks, the nomenklatura-members.”
Dan prefers New York clubs. Drina tells him he’s a boring yuppie, but she refuses to dance with me. So it’s left to Dan to show the Russians the New York style. A blonde Russian girl wants a dance and Dan does his best Rocky vs Ivan Drago, but the Russians are the better dancers.
After midnight we leave. At the Rossija Hotel, only the Press Bar is still open, serving Vodka and Champinski until five in the morning. The festival guests meet there; Gerard Depardieu, Menachem Golan, Vanessa Redgrave. We sit at one of the few empty tables and Drina and Robert get into a discussion as to whether David Bowie played with Iggy Pop or Brian Eno. “Brian Eno is the right answer,” Drina argues.
“No, Drina, it’s Iggy Pop.”
“You mix Iggy and Brian. Iggy and Bowie have been to Moscow, but they didn’t play together.”
“But didn’t they send us that postcard from Red Square?”
“OK, but they didn’t play together.”
“But what did they do in Red Square? Didn’t they tour the USSR?”
“No, they just had their holidays here.”
At a table nearby, Marcello Mastroianni discusses the solution for all problems in Palestine. His idea; the Jews should move to Sicily and help the Sicilians improve their economy.
Nastassjia Kinski passes by. She stops, puts her head close to De Niro’s ear and says softly, “I admire your work,” then immediately walks away, slightly red in the face. I try to bring her back. “No,” she resists, “my husband wants to follow him like a dog.”
When I come back I find Quincy Jones at the table. “Quincy, this is Wolfgang from East Berlin,” I am introduced, before Jones and De Niro move to a separate room. Drina says, “He is always phoning, planning. He can’t stop working.”
De Niro and Quincy Jones are planning a film project together. Jones is the producer, De Niro plays the leading role, that’s all I hear. There should be co-operation between the Russian Film Institute and American film companies, because the movie will be shot in the USSR.
The next day I call De Niro in the morning and ask for an interview. This time he consents. “At two o’clock in the afternoon,” he tells me, but again he is cautious. “I don’t have much to say. I am more into the job than into interviews.”
In his room at the Moscwa Hotel there is a TV set on one side of the room; opposite stands a training bicycle. De Niro prepares tea. He gets out of his chair, brings sugar, sits down, gets up again. He really dislikes interviews and you can feel it.
“In both your films this year you star as an evil character, in Angel Heart as Louis Cyphre, in The Untouchables as Al Capone. Have you specialised in evil characters?”
“These characters are not simply bad or evil, they are people living at the edge. I prefer the so-called evil because it’s more realistic. Good or only positive characters always tend to be unbelievable and boring, I like to play more rounded characters. But finally, it depends upon the script. A good writer describes realistic characters that are neither good nor bad. A rounded movie character is put into situations, into trouble, that force him into decisions. His decisions might sometimes be not the best but his reactions show the audience that they are not alone with their hopes and problems. So the people can identify with that character.”
“Characters that react always positive are OK for fantasy films, I prefer realistic characters that are more believable.”
“In only one film, Falling in Love (with Meryl Streep), have you played a romantic role…”
“Oh, I would like to do those characters. But I don’t like that Gone With The Wind type of acting. Clark Gable was a good actor, but he always played himself. It’s the same with Humphrey Bogart; he just plays Humphrey Bogart. I prefer actors like Walter Houston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He is a real actor. The problem is the right script. If there was a good script I would do those charming characters, too.”
“Tell me about Angel Heart.”
“It’s a cameo part. I play the role of evil, of Lucifer… Louis Cyphre. Angel Heart has a traditional concept behind its script; it’s the fight between good and evil. Rourke plays a private detective who is hired by my character to take care of some people in New Orleans. In the end he finds the person he is looking for and that is the surprising moment of the movie. If I say more I give away the story.”
“There is a lot of voodoo and black magic in that movie. Director Alan Parker told the press that he gave you a lot of books about evil characters, from Rasputin to Hitler.”
“I was just interested, that’s all.”
“Mickey Rourke once said there has been a lot of competition between you…”
“I can’t answer that. Mickey Rourke, and Kevin Costner too, are gifted young actors. It is difficult for me to talk about actors I worked with.”
“Alan Parker seemed very impressed with your acting. In his production diary, he wrote that he was fascinated how Mickey Rourke and you did the last scene. He told the public that actors like you are the reason why he prefers to film in the USA.”
“Oh, nice compliment. I didn’t pay for that.”
“There are rumours that the last scene wasn’t in the script. So Mickey Rourke and you improvised it?”
“In Angel Heart we did only a few improvisations. Most scenes had been in the script. That scene too.”
“But didn’t you change the script?”
“Of course I work on the script. But this scene was shot exactly the way it was written. You know, sometimes it’s not good to change too much because you destroy the rhythm of the play. Only occasionally improvisations are useful. Like in the movies I did with Brian de Palma. We improvised a situation, then we filmed the scene, looked at it and learned again. Then finally we shot the scene.”
“Did you work on The Untouchables the same way? Brian de Palma directed that too.”
“No, we had a very good scriptwriter, David Mamet. He’s perfect because he writes a combination of street slang and poetry. So we didn’t have to improvise the scenes. It was even easy to get the idea of Al Capone by reading the script.”
“The story of The Untouchables takes place in the Thirties. As did The Godfather and Raging Bull. Are you fond of that period?”
“Every movie gets its own approach to that time. The Untouchables describes the anarchy in Chicago during prohibition, this lawlessness. Al Capone was at the height of his power. The gangsters behaved like they were in the Wild West.”
“There had been a TV serial about The Untouchables starring Robert Stack as detective Eliot Ness. Why did Brian de Palma do a remake?”
“The fight between Ness and Capone is a good story. Before the shooting the producers did a survey. Everybody remembered Al Capone, but no one thought of The Untouchables. So they decided, ‘Let’s do a remake.’ That’s all.”
“You are famous for your precise and exact work in acting. How did you prepare for the role of Al Capone?”
“I saw a lot of photographs. You can get a lot from the pictures. I saw the movies that have been done about him and then I did it intuitively. Everybody knows that Al Capone was a robust, massive character. So I had to gain weight. I could have taken a bodysuit, but what should I have done with my face? So I did the weight thing although I didn’t want to do it and, I promise you, I never will do it again.”
“In Raging Bull, playing boxer Jake LaMotta, you also had to gain weight. How did you succeed in changing your appearance so that even friends did not recognize you?”
“I ate and drank 24 hours a day. Beer, milk and so on. You can’t imagine what kind of torture it was. I had to gain weight from 160 pounds up to 200. I couldn’t breathe no more, I couldn’t even close my shoes. Even friends did not recognize me. In Cannes, at the festival, some people said, ‘Hey, there is Sergio Leone and James Woods. But where is Robert De Niro?’ I was just standing beside them.”
“For Taxi Driver, you worked as a cab driver for three months, for New York, New York you learned to play the saxophone, for The Godfather you practised Mafia dialects. After New York, New York, how good a sax player did you become?”
“I learned it, but in the movie a professional sax player was doing all the musical parts. I had to train to get the technique to make it look authentic. Only if you get into your character will people start to accept you seriously. Otherwise, the audience will feel that there is something wrong.”
“You even took care of smaller roles. You did some casting for Raging Bull, it’s said.”
“That’s right. If you cast the wrong characters the whole movie may not work. For the role of Jake’s wife Vikki, we found a girl in a New York discotheque. She had a feeling and an aura you will seldom find among professionals. Sometimes amateurs are better to work with, because of their instinct.”
“You like to play with amateurs?”
“I don’t mind. If you are doing a theatre play, it’s difficult. But in a movie you re-shoot the scenes. For me, criteria like intensity and creativity are very important, not questions of professionalism or unprofessionalism.”
“Do you prepare for your new films with the director, or is it on your own initiative?”
“I do my research completely alone. Sometimes I take the director with me, to give him an impression of my preparations. Michael Cimino and me walked through the worker townships in Pennsylvania for The Deer Hunter. Together with Martin Scorsese I walked into boxing fights for Raging Bull. Although the fighting scene in the movie takes only 15 minutes, we were working on that scene for nine weeks. The choreography was very difficult and the positions of the cameras were extremely complicated.”
“Did you learn this commitment at the actors’ studio?”
“No, you don’t learn that intensive work at school. They don’t teach you the details. Alec Guinness, for example, impresses through his care for details… wearing special shoes with a thick sole, changing the way he walked.”
“Have you learned from other actors, too?”
“Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Spencer Tracey, Walter Houston. Shall I name some more?”
“Who is your favourite actress?”
“Your favourite movie?”
“(long pause) The Searchers starring John Wayne directed by John Ford.”
“And which one of your own movies do you like best?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you in ten years. I don’t like to watch my own movies. I feel embarrassed, like listening to your own voice the first time.”
“How did you start your career?”
“ln the Sixties I played some theatre roles and Diner Theatre. That means I walked in the restaurants from table to table and played for the guests. Most actors don’t like that, but for me it was an interesting experience. I got so many tips that I didn’t worry about having no job. My first movie I did with Brian de Palma in 1968, The Wedding Party. I had seen an advertisement in Showbusiness and I went into de Palma’s studio for the audition and after that he called me.”
“Is it true that you only received 50 dollars for that role?”
“Yes. I thought I was getting 50 dollars a week. But my mother, who signed the contract because I was under age, told me; ‘You get 50 dollars for the complete movie’. At that time de Palma and me did kind of underground, low-budget movies. We had to work with little money and there was no distribution of our films.”
“Are you satisfied with those early movies?”
“Especially with the movies I did with Brian de Palma. We did the movies to have fun, there was not that big business atmosphere like nowadays in Hollywood. And, also he was the first director I worked with.”
“When did you meet Martin Scorsese, the other important director of your life?”
“We knew each other from the streets of Little Italy in New York when we played there as children. In the beginning of the Seventies, we met again through a mutual friend. I was really interested in getting the role in Mean Streets but I couldn’t make up my mind which character I should choose. I met Harvey Keitel, who played the role of Charlie. He told me, ‘You are the one to play Johnny Boy.’ Finally, I played that character.”
“How do you rate Scorsese, with whom you did five movies?”
“It’s fun working with him. He risks more than any other director and we understand each other without discussions.”
“Your movies have been criticised because of the violence in them. The Russians left the Berlin Festival under protest because The Deer Hunter was shown in the competition.”
“That’s the way they felt at that time. Today it’s different. We made a film about a young boy whose heart and soul had been shaped by the Vietnam war. For me this film is still an important experience and I’m glad I did the movie.”
“Other critics claim that your role as assassin Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver created imitators.”
“There are always people who jump with a towel from the roof because they think they are Superman.”
“But in general the films you star in are quite violent. What is your position towards violence?”
“Movies are not real life, but show it. In America there is more violence than in other countries. Thus we have to get along with violence, to find a way to handle it. Each culture has its own way to handle that problem. We have to respect that.”
“I can imagine that you get a lot of offers to act, although your price is high. For 11 days of working on the set of The Untouchables, it is said you were paid 1.5 million dollars. Besides the money, how do you choose your roles?”
“First the quality of the script is important. It’s difficult to find a script with a good story, a beginning, a centre and an end. Then the director is important. I have to talk with him a lot. I must be sure that I feel alright doing the movie. If you don’t keep control things get crazy. I once had that experience and don’t want to have it twice. The job is tough enough as it is.”
“Who is the director you are talking about?”
“I’ll never tell in public.”
“Do you improvise your roles?”
“If there is a good script, you don’t need to improvise.”
“Have you worked with a bad script, too?”
“During the filming of New York, New York we found out that the script didn’t work. The question is, ‘Why does it have to be that scene? Does it fit into the film?’”
“Only one of your movies really flopped: Once Upon a Time in America. Do you know why?”
“During shooting, I felt that this movie would not be a success. The story is too imprecise concerning modern American history. Even for an American this project would be difficult. And done by a European like Sergio Leone, it became even more difficult.”
“Everybody knows that you don’t like publicity. Do you suffer being popular? Do people stop you in the streets?”
“People recognise me. In New York people tend to be friendly but in Los Angeles it’s different because everybody feels he is in the movie industry and tries to behave important. I only go to Los Angeles when I am paid for it.”
“If you don’t like life in the public eye, why are you here?”
“I came to Moscow to see some movies I never would have seen at home. And I always felt threatened by the fact that the USA and the USSR stand hostile against each other in the world. However, there are some similarities in both countries. We have to respect each other’s style of living and culture and try to understand each other. Movies can help this understanding.”
“Are you involved in politics?”
“No, not directly.”
“You did Live-Aid.”
“That’s true, but that’s all.”
“What did you want to bring to the Russians? Some Hollywood glamour?”
“In America there is Hollywood, but there are a lot more things. If the Russians would come to the USA they would have a chance to make up their own minds. That’s why I took my children with me, because they should see how Moscow looks. I do the official programme but I like to see the other, unofficial culture, too. If young Russians would visit the USA they would see that there is an underground too. We need more mutual information and this only works by personal contacts.”
“Moscow is an exception. Generally you refuse interviews and press conferences. But a movie star has to do publicity. Did you choose the wrong profession?”
“Why should I talk to journalists who put stupid questions to me? I do what I have to do and don’t waste my energy by talking. People should go into the cinema, watch my movies and make up their own minds.”
“Spending some time with you, I notice that you don’t always like to speak to celebrities but to ordinary people.”
“It depends on the situation. I had a job to do in Moscow, people expect certain things, so I did a TV show with my family for the Russian TV, saying, ‘Hello, I am an American.’ In America, I wouldn’t do this.”
“Who is the director you would like to work with?”
“I would like to work with some young directors, whose films I maybe haven’t even seen. They should pass by and, if I like their movies, then let’s do something together.”
Later that evening, accompanied by Drina, we visit the home of Moscow faith healer Dshuna, a friend of Mikhail Sigalow for many years. Earlier De Niro had expressed interest in meeting her. Her house is in the centre of Moscow, near the ‘Arbat’, a pedestrian zone where the brightly painted houses are in striking contrast to Moscow’s overall greyness. Dshuna is a Moscow institution. The former Kremlin leaders Brezhnev and Chernenko were among her patients.
Her apartment is like a 19th century salon. Even during the night there are 20 to 30 people in the room, drinking tea, talking, exchanging ideas and gossip.
De Niro is inquisitive. He asks questions, talks about the voodoo scenes in Angel Heart and wants to know more about this woman and her arts. Old photos of the late Russian director Andrej Tarkovsky, a friend of Dshuna’s, are produced.
It is late when we leave. I ask for a lift in De Niro’s black limo. I imagine myself this poor deprived boy from Eastern Germany. De Niro opens the door for me. “You know, Wolfgang,” he says, “you should go to America. Everybody there has a car like this. And even better ones.”