Robert de Niro: I felt I had to make the ‘F**k Trump’ speech
Interview: The once reticent star on becoming one of Donald Trump’s most vocal critics
Here, with Orson Welles and Spike Lee on the walls, and James Dean and Natalie Wood on the doors to the toilets, is where Robert De Niro might have died. In October, a pipe bomb addressed to the actor was sent to the New York warehouse where his film production company hugs an atrium dotted with vintage movie posters.
A security guard found the suspicious package in the mailroom at 5am and police vehicles swarmed the Tribeca neighbourhood before dawn. De Niro got a call from security early that morning telling him the pipe bomb was being removed. “Naturally you are concerned,” he says phlegmatically. “It’s just what it is. Just be careful.”
Cesar Sayoc, a bodybuilder, pizza deliveryman and fanatical supporter of Donald Trump, was subsequently arrested in Florida and charged with sending a total of 13 pipe bombs to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other critics of the president. De Niro says only: “There are a lot of crazy people out there. Everybody’s got their reasons.”
How did the double Oscar-winner find himself on a hit list alongside Obama and Clinton? The short answer is that De Niro has become one of the most colourful, pugnacious and unsubtle decriers of the Trump presidency.
The late politicisation of De Niro is all the more remarkable because of his reputation as a man of few words, notorious for responding to journalists’ questions with terse monosyllables.
He stormed out of interviews with the BBC’s Barry Norman – who rashly gave chase – and with the Radio Times, claiming he was being asked questions with a “negative inference”. The New York Times mused in 1993: “No one, perhaps, is better suited to being an actor and less suited to being a personality.”
Yet today he is warm, generous with his time and even garrulous, at least on the subject of Trump. Wearing a black T-shirt, he relaxes into a chair in a personal office so full of memorabilia it resembles a Robert De Niro museum. He points out a photo of himself with Nelson Mandela, a Godfather poster signed by the cast and a prop from his upcoming film The Irishman, directed by his old friend Martin Scorsese.
The brooding, saturnine artist has evolved into a genial grandfather. Perhaps it comes as a relief, at 75, to finally not be asked about himself, his method or whether his best work is behind him.
“I’m older now and I’m just upset about what’s going on,” he explains. “When you see someone like [Trump] becoming president, I thought, well, OK, let’s see what he does – maybe he’ll change. But he just got worse. It showed me that he is a real racist. I thought maybe as a New Yorker he understands the diversity in the city but he’s as bad as I thought he was before – and much worse. It’s a shame. It’s a bad thing in this country.”
Trump, who launched his political career by propagating conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace, has drawn moral equivalence between white nationalists and anti-fascist protesters and turned back the clock on racial diversity in the White House. De Niro, who has six mixed-race children, admits: “Yeah, I worry, and one of my kids is gay, and he worries about being treated a certain way. We talk about it.”
Like many white liberals, he says, he was “naive” about Obama’s two election wins and their implication of a post-racial America. “I felt we were on a new thing. I didn’t realise how against him certain people were – racially against him, offended that he was there.”
Would he call Trump a white supremacist? “Yes,” De Niro says instantly.
And what about a fascist? “I guess that’s what it leads to. If he had his way, we’d wind up in a very bad state in this country. I mean, the way I understand it, they laughed at Hitler. They all look funny. Hitler looked funny, Mussolini looked funny and other dictators and despots look funny.
“What bothers me is that there will be people in the future who see him as an example and they’ll be affected in some way, but they’ll be a lot smarter and have many more colours to their personality and be more mercurial and become someone with the same values as he has but able to get much further and do more damage as a despot.
“That’s my worry. There are people who look up to him: ‘I want to be like him.’ But they’ll do it much better and they’ll be more smart about it.”
De Niro is speaking just after Trump has described his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, as a “rat” for cooperating with federal investigators, prompting news networks to play clips from some of the actor’s greatest mobster hits, such as Goodfellas, The Godfather Part II and The Untouchables.
He muses: “I mean, a mob boss calls people ‘a rat’. That means you lied and somebody snitched on you, so you did commit the crime. So that’s interesting and he makes mobsters look bad because there are mobsters who will shake your hand and keep their word. He can’t even do that.
“He’s a con artist. He’s a huckster. He’s a scam artist. And what bothers me is that people don’t see that. I think that The Apprentice had a lot to do with that, which I never saw but once, maybe. It’s all smoke and mirrors, it’s all bullshit.”
Trump and De Niro have some things in common. Both are entrepreneurs who own hotels and restaurants. Both are in their 70s. And both are New Yorkers who deliver blunt insults.
But they have met just once, De Niro recalls, at a baseball game. They shook hands but that was it. “I never had an interest in meeting him. He’s a buffoon.”
De Niro would not go as far as banning Trump from one of the restaurants he owns but vows: “If he walked into a restaurant that I was in, I would leave. I would not want to be there.”
In 2016, De Niro made a video in which he called Trump a punk, a pig and a dog, and said he would like to punch him in the face. Last June, at the Tony awards in New York, the actor took the stage and declared: “I’m gonna say one thing. F**k Trump!”
The primal scream won a standing ovation. The president responded the next day on Twitter, calling De Niro a “low IQ individual” who had taken “too many shots to the head”. There were also voices who warned that such profanity-laced outbursts were counterproductive.
Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, responded that anger is not a strategy and spewing four-letter words is falling into a trap.
“When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him,” Bruni wrote. “You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves. Many voters don’t hear your arguments or the facts, which are on your side. They just wince at the din.”
De Niro is aware of the criticism but is not entirely repentant. “I won’t do it again because that’s not the way to get things done. [But] I felt that this is something I should say because it’s basic. Trump is basic. He’s just a guy who just thinks he can rattle off his mouth and say anything. Well, I want to say the same thing to him: there are people who are going to say the same thing back to you, no matter who you are.”
This touches on a strategic dilemma for the Democratic party. At its 2016 convention, Michelle Obama declared: “When they go low, we go high.” Others, however, prefer sledgehammer to sabre.
“The things that Trump has done; if Obama had done one fiftieth, they’d be all over him,” says De Niro. “That’s why I feel that Democrats have to be more aggressive. You’ve got to stand up, you can’t be so gentlemanly all the time because you’ve just got to say: ‘Sorry, I’m nice to a point, then I’ve got to push back.’
“You have to fight fire with fire. You’ve got to say: ‘I’m sorry – let’s call a spade a spade. You are who you are and we’ve got to confront you at your own game and that’s what’s needed.’ You can do it in a nice way but you have to be hard and tough about it.”
Rightwing media seized on De Niro’s Tonys outburst as a symbol of fancy New York and Hollywood elites who are out of touch with salt-of-the-earth folk in middle America (“the deplorables”) and driven insane by their loathing of the president. The 2016 election exposed divisions along lines of class, culture and educational achievement: men without university degrees overwhelmingly backed Trump.
De Niro comments: “We have to really solve the problem with the country and people who are dissatisfied and are so angry that they vote for him thinking that he’d make a difference and not seeing that he in no way will make a difference.
“There has to be a way for people to come together and work it out and help the people who are in pain now in certain parts of the country that I, as a New Yorker living here, am not aware of. I feel that Obama tried to, at least. He made mistakes, I’m sure, but you have to try and encompass everyone and it made us aware of this schism in the country through what’s happening now.”
The tribalism is continually reinforced by the media. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has become all but an extension of the White House. De Niro, a sharp critic of Trump’s anti-immigration ideology, is dismayed by the Australian-born mogul’s contribution to the US.
“Rupert Murdoch became a citizen of this country; look what he’s contributed by this. This is what he’s going to leave. This is his legacy. It’s disgraceful. He’s cynical, amoral, but he has a responsibility. He came here as an immigrant, technically, and look what he did. You cannot justify having Fox News as a mouthpiece for the government. It’s wrong. It’s beyond disgusting.”
De Niro is hopeful that the new nightmare can end at the ballot box in 2020. He names Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum – all of whom narrowly lost in the midterm elections – as Democratic candidates that have caught his eye.
“You need somebody who’s strong enough to outmouth him – because that’s all he is, mouth – and smart enough and well-informed enough in a debate, say, to override all that nonsense that he does, because basically it’s just name-calling. He has no substance. I don’t know how people fall for it. He’s just a big blowhard. But it ain’t over till it’s over as far as I’m concerned with a guy like him because he’s a dirty player.”
De Niro, whose life and career have spanned the second world war, the Vietnam war and 9/11, remains optimistic about the future. “I have to be. I look at it like we’re in a nightmare now and it’s going to pass. I’ll look back on this hopefully, if I’m still around” – he leans over and knocks a table – “and say, well, we knew it could happen, it will always change for the better. I have to be optimistic that we’ll have people come in with the right intentions to run this country.”
One of De Niro’s greatest films, Taxi Driver, tells the story of Travis Bickle, a damaged, narcissistic, volatile sociopath from New York. The Trump presidency might be described as America’s Travis Bickle moment but it has also been the catalyst for a democratic awakening across the country.
“I used to joke that Trump would shake it up and now I give him big credit, full credit: he shook it up all right, big time, made everybody including myself much more aware of our civic duty to stand up and make our voices heard about what’s happening in this country.
“We have a lot of problems that we have to work together to fix. It all sounds very noble and all that, but that’s the truth. Let’s start at home.”
Last year, the venerable journalist Dan Rather suggested that Scorsese – a regular collaborator with De Niro – would be the ideal director of a Trump biopic. But it may be an unplayably two-dimensional part.
Profiling Trump for the New Yorker magazine in 1997, journalist Mark Singer found him to be a man without a hinterland, basking in the luxury of “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul”. De Niro, who turned down the role of Jesus in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, offers an actor’s perspective on the president’s psychology.
“I don’t want to play him ever,” he says. “I always find the character’s point of view and I can of course find his, but I have so little sympathy for him, for what he’s done, the responsibility he’s been given and just thrown away. He doesn’t care.
“I always say every person has a story that’s interesting. It’s how you tell it. And of course his ‘how you tell it’ would be interesting, too, but I’ve not seen one moment of reflection from him, ever.
“He knows what he is and everything he says negative about people or things is really a projection of himself. I don’t know how he was raised but I never thought there’d be evil people –”
De Niro catches himself. “He’s not even evil,” he says. “He’s mundane.” – Guardian