De Niro and Pacino: ‘We are very close... We have known each other a long time’

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Foreground photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty
THE ACTORS ON FIVE DECADES OF FRIENDSHIP, SOME TIPPERARY ROOTS AND THE UNITED STATES’ ‘GANGSTER PRESIDENT’

We will eventually get Robert De Niro riled up. But it will take a while. The actor has never wasted much energy in interviews – many decades ago the famously relaxed Barry Norman once went “nose to nose” with him after he huffed away from an innocuous question – but there is, in the current season, one subject that sends our subject into a reliable rage.

“We have a real immediate problem in that we have a gangster president who thinks he can do whatever he wants,” he rumbles. “If he gets away with it then we all have a problem. The gall of these people around him – the Republicans who defend him – is appalling. We must do something about it. The people must do something about it.”

The two old pals make contrasting entries. De Niro, now 76, is solid and unbending. Al Pacino, who will be 80 next year, has the bearing of a chatty theatrical knight

We’ll get back to that eventually. But let’s first deal with the long calm before the brief storm. There’s something close to a religious atmosphere at the press junket for Martin Scorsese’s incoming The Irishman. Dealing with the life of Frank Sheeran, the notorious hoodlum who claimed involvement in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the picture brings back two of the director’s stock company, De Niro and Joe Pesci, for a gangster epic that moves at a notably more sedate pace than GoodFellas or Casino. De Niro is Sheeran. Al Pacino, who plays Hoffa with a gorgeous, awkward wit, finally turns out for the director after a lifetime of near misses. 

It feels as if we’re celebrating the summation of several glorious careers. That impression is heightened by Scorsese’s decision to have the older stars, deaged digitally, play themselves over five decades. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the technology, but it is certainly something to see a thirtysomething De Niro in the same film as an eightysomething variation.

The Irishman: Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro at the film’s London premiere. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty
The Irishman: Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro at the film’s London premiere. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty

De Niro and Pacino are about to enter the room. About 30 years ago I saw Sammy Davis jnr and Frank Sinatra at the Royal Albert Hall. The anticipation is comparable. Olympians are set to walk among us.

Later in the day Stephen Graham, the great Liverpudlian actor who plays a younger rival in The Irishman, gives me an impression of his own awed reaction before meeting them.

“When I was 15 I said to Mum and Dad, ‘I’d love to do this acting as a career,’” he says. “My dad said okay, and we went to the video shop and got The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver and The Godfather. We went home and watched those. He said, ‘That’s cinema.’ I was slightly traumatised. Cut to 30 years later: can you imagine my dad’s voice when I said, ‘Can you guess what I am doing?’ The pride in that man’s voice!”

The two old pals make contrasting entries. De Niro, now 76, is solid and unbending. Al Pacino, who will be 80 next year, has the bearing of a chatty theatrical knight (or its American equivalent). His hair long, clothes thrown on in dishevelled layers, Pacino is eager to launch into the lengthiest anecdotes time will allow. Both Italian-Americans were born in New York City in the 1940s, but they come from very different backgrounds, De Niro the son of a distinguished painter, Pacino raised in working-class corners of the Bronx. The former does what he must in such situations. The latter is still throwing everything into it.

‘My Irish side is O’Reilly,’ De Niro says. ‘I am from somewhere near Tipperary... I was happy to hear that. I like the countryside round there’ 

Everyone hates the local journalist who asks the local question for local people, but it is, in this instance, fair to prod De Niro about his Irish roots. Like his character in GoodFellas, Frank Sheehan is, in the new film, a rare Irish-American among Italians. Don’t stress Bob’s surname too much. He has as much north European blood as southern.

“Well, my Irish side is O’Reilly,” he says. “I have been trying to find out my Irish roots. A company came up to me recently and sent me some stuff which I haven’t looked at yet. I am from somewhere near Tipperary. Did you know that? You knew that?”

Erm, no. I was just nodding along in interest.

“Oh, I knew it, Bob,” Pacino says.

Pacino can, perhaps, spot a Tipperary head.

“I was happy to hear that. I like the countryside round there,” De Niro says before saying no more.

The two men have bounced off one another for more than 50 years. Both availed of the changes that hit American cinema in the late 1960s when directors such as Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, inspired by the French new wave, leaned towards a grittier class of actor who, untroubled by their ethnic origins, felt no need to change names to Biff, Russ or Rock. Both appeared in The Godfather: Part II for Coppola, but they didn’t actually share a scene until Heat, in 1995.

“We have known each other for a long time – since ’68,” Pacino says with a sigh. “I think early on in our careers we connected from time to time. Similar things happened to us. Then our lives would take different paths. It was that camaraderie that got us together. We are very close. We don’t see each other very much, but when we do it’s always there... Erm, where was I going with this? Ha ha ha!”

The Irishman: Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in Martin Scorsese’s new film
The Irishman: Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in Martin Scorsese’s new film

Among the things that keep The Irishman interesting is Scorsese’s ability to gesture towards his early gangster films while adopting a very different tone. The cuts are less frantic. The camera is less excitable. The most conspicuous stylistic difference is, however, to do with what we hear – or, more accurately, what we don’t hear. Almost entirely stripped of the contemporaneous pop music that punctuated Casino and GoodFellas, the film is at home to silence and reverie. For all that, it can’t help but seem like a culmination of those collaborations.

“In a lot of ways it is,” De Niro says. “I was talking to Joe Pesci about this. He was back and forth. And I said, ‘Come on, Joe. We don’t know if we’ll ever get to do this again. We should do this.’ It was tough to get it done. I don’t see us doing another movie like this again. I hope to do other movies together, but not maybe in this genre.”

Will Donald Trump end up in jail? ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see him in jail,’ De Niro says. ‘I don’t want him to die. I want him to go to jail’

Scorsese has a habit of devoting years – sometimes decades – to the development of “long-cherished” projects. Gangs of New York and Silence eventually made it into cinemas. We are still waiting to see his much-chattered biopic of Sinatra. Based on I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt, his study of Frank Sheehan was first mooted as long ago as 2007. Paramount came on board in 2016, but the production eventually passed to Netflix. Who else has $159 million to spend on a grown-up epic (some 3½ hours) that features nary a Jedi nor a superhero? Happily, the streaming company will be putting the film in Irish cinemas before its debut on the service.

“This movie went through all the twists and turns,” De Niro says. “From time to time Al would phone up and say, ‘Is it happening?’ We talked about it maybe seven or eight years ago. We had a reading maybe five years ago. We had it documented that way for studio people. So it could be shown to anybody who was interested. Marty was doing Hugo and then Silence. We just kept it steadily on track.”

GoodFellas: Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro
GoodFellas: Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro

Much was the cheering when it emerged that Pacino was to play Hoffa, the controversial union leader who vanished in 1975. It still seems incredible that Marty and Al never before worked together. They are of similar age. They moved in the same circles. Conspiracy theorists need not get overheated. It seems that there was no falling out between the men. Life just got in the way.

“In this business things get started and they go in different places and don’t always culminate in a film,” he says. “There were a couple of films Marty and I were going to do. We were working a year on a film about Modigliani. Then schedules don’t come together or whatever. It’s odd. I am myself surprised that it hasn’t happened.”

Al is about to move into one of his reveries. He gazes somewhere over my left shoulder and pulls together memories from a busy life. He should do a podcast. AlCast would be a smash. He enjoys the life as much as ever.

The Irishman: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro talk about the film in New York. Photograph: Dia Dipasupil/Getty
The Irishman: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro talk about the film in New York. Photograph: Dia Dipasupil/Getty

“It depends what you are doing,” he says. “Sometimes it’s between inspirations. You can go 20 years between inspirations. You develop a way of working that is to do with technique. I am a little bit more oriented towards the theatre. With me the excitement usually comes more from something like a play. You are always hoping. Erm...” 

He mutters about losing his way. But the momentum still seems strong.

“I have to go through the bushes to get where I am going here. Sometimes you are working and the work you’re doing to survive is restricting your freedom to find something you really want to do. It’s a lot like other forms of expression. You have got the blank page and hopefully you keep the blank page. There is a character you’ve not explored yet. Sometimes I feel I know nothing about acting. Then you start and it’s exciting.”

Both Pacino and De Niro have made some questionable films over the last few decades. But nobody could question their determination to keep shoulders to the wheel. There is little sense that either is going to retire to the Hamptons and raise honeybees. Al thinks that the urge to toil is at least as important as any God-given talents. Maybe that’s the working-class kid speaking.

“Desire is more motivating than talent,” he says. “I have seen people with great desire take it through. The truth is it’s the same thing for me as it always was. You’re still dealing with a new character, a new story. You are an interpretive artist. It’s also great to go out and see new things: plays, films, books you read. You need that stimuli.”

The Irishman: Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro
The Irishman: Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro

As well as new stories and new characters, the actors are dealing with new technologies here. We have seen deaging this year in Captain Marvel and in Gemini Man, but no director has previously used the technique at such length in a serious, Oscar-targeted drama. I guess the business must make an actor think about the passing of time.

“What do you think? Don’t we all at the end of the day?” De Niro says with a wry smile. “It was great we had this de-aging thing. We talked about younger actors playing us. But the thing went on so long that the technological stuff advanced this much and then Netflix came on and said, ‘We’ll do it.’ They paid for this process that helped all the more.”

But I wonder if he sees himself when he looks at the younger version on screen. Is it akin to getting out a DVD of GoodFellas or does the technology get in the way?

“You are always going to be more critical than anybody else,” he says. “I tend to say to the editor, ‘Don’t mind me. Don’t pay attention if I say that’s not right.’ You are always going to pick out this or that. It’s interesting. People who saw early versions, before the deaging, felt it didn’t affect the final version that much.”

“That’s true. I saw it before it was worked on,” Pacino says. “And I felt that. Maybe it’s my vision. Because I’m old. Ha ha! It is carried by story. That’s the important thing.”

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat, the first film in which they shared a scene
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat, the first film in which they shared a scene

The time has nearly come for the Olympians to pass on to other devotees. Maybe we should push that Donald Trump button now. Let’s see if we can get a rise out of the hitherto imperturbable De Niro. You’d better believe it. That button needs just the gentlest of brushes.

Where did we leave him? The people can’t take this lying down.

“Being gentle is no good,” he continues. “Because they think you are just elite snobs. It’s a resentment of people who are smart – like you guys – writing about obvious gangsterism. They don’t like that, so they say, ‘Fuck you!’ If they’re wrong, they’re wrong. They can’t get away with bullying us – people who have common sense.”

Will Trump end up in jail?

“Oh, I can’t wait to see him in jail. I don’t want him to die. I want him to go to jail.”

He exits on waves of fury.

The Irishman is in cinemas from November 8th and on Netflix from November 27th