There are many ways to see New York City. One of them is to view it through the lens of films starring Al Pacino, 79, and Robert De Niro, 76, over generations. Of course, I wouldn’t have thought of this if it wasn’t for a morning in end-September, that I woke up in a hotel facing Central Park, to walk to a work appointment — a 20-minute joint-interview (along with a Filipino and Japanese journalist) — with De Niro and Pacino themselves.
Nothing has defined these two method actors — brothers from another mother whose careers have mirrored each other’s — than the city they grew up and honed their craft in. Almost simultaneously, albeit separately. Both De Niro and Pacino were born in Manhattan —Pacino on 86th Street, and De Niro in Greenwich Village. Both went to the same acting schools in the City — The Actors Studio, Stella Adler, HB Studio. Both debuted in the same year (1969). They first bumped into each other through common friends on 14th Street, much before they became famous…
In the same way, their films have defined New York City to global audiences as well. Just gazing from the sidewalk at Manhattan, through a Pacino film, the first thing that comes to mind is him heading out of Hotel Waldorf Astoria in Scent Of A Woman (1992)— causing chaos, zipping in his car through the city’s crisscrossing avenues and streets, being literally blind (“Hoo haa!”).
With De Niro, of course, you instantly reimagine the neighbourhood Little Italy that he immortalised, chiefly through his collaborations with director Martin Scorsese, starting with the masterpiece, Mean Streets (1973).
Only as I walk past Central Park towards Hotel Mandarin Oriental, the venue for the meeting, I’m told, right down the block is what used to be the glass-walled election campaign office, where Travis Bickle (De Niro) falls in love with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) — eyeballing her from across the street in Taxi Driver (1976).
Mandarin Oriental faces the massive Trump Tower, that De Niro may not approve of very much, but it overlooks Columbus Circus, which is exactly where he, as Bickle, shot down the senator in Taxi Driver — in what remains as one of the most memorable climax scenes ever.
And, hey, if you look closely, you’ll also find Columbus Circle in another assassination scene in Scorsese’s Netflix production, The Irishman. Which is the film I’m supposed to interview Pacino and De Niro for. Of course it’s not a ‘New York’ film. It’s an expensive, expansive historical account, set across America, over three timelines.
Pacino plays the controversial Teamsters’ Union boss Jimmy Hoffa. De Niro is his key aide Frank Sheeran, in what is, at its core, a believable bromance. Watching their chemistry ooze from the screen makes you bemoan how their individual stardom made them scarce for each other, all through their 50-year career.
The Irishman is only the third time that these two master actors have shared screen. Their first film together (although never in the same frame) was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1974). The first time they met on screen was at a coffee shop in LA, in Michal Mann’s Heat (1995) — a moment etched in movie history.
The situation in this Mandarin Oriental meeting is quite similar to that monumental scene. There are two chairs, and coffee, for one. Except De Niro and Pacino, instead of facing each other, are peering at this interviewer. And all I’m hoping is they can’t tell that I’m already overawed; also because Pacino does most of the talking, and hell, he has an overpowering presence, in life too.
The fact of having both of you on screen together is anyway a movie moment for fans cutting across generations, who’ve considered you to be the finest actors, with so much in common. How do you look back at your own relationship/rivalry with each other, at this stage of your life — how has it evolved over time?
De Niro: Well, I think we’re both happy to still be working.
Pacino: And alive. (laughs).
De Niro: We have known each other for long. And we have a special relationship, I can say. We get together from time to time. We talk about stuff that’s personal, help, give each other advice on things…
Pacino: You know, we have been through a lot of the same things. And unusual stuff has happened to us in this profession. We knew each other when we were very young, too. Not well. But we had met. And we knew of each other. But I think that even at that time, there was a certain comfort when we’d meet. Because we shared certain things. And it was helpful.
So you guys have been 4 am friends?
De Niro: Well if I need to ask him about something, we talk about whatever. Or he does (the same) with me, yeah.
Pacino: And there’s a lot of trust there between us. And love too.
Where I come from (Mumbai) has a pretty strong film industry, and in fact, Mr De Niro, you were with Bollywood folk, all of them sprawled on the floor, next to your feet, the one time you were there. A picture that went viral online in India…
De Niro: Oh yes, at Anupam’s (Kher) house. Was a lot of fun.
Having lived and worked all your life from New York, I wonder if you’re even aware of the sort of impact the two of you have had on audiences, and actors, across the globe. Let alone half a world from Manhattan from where I am from.
Pacino: That’s a good question. When you travel is when you discover that movies go all over, and you want to meet people there. And I have to say, it’s made traveling possible for me because I know if I’m going somewhere, I’ll have complete, immediate contact. My daughter wanted to go to Japan. And I said, “Yeah, yeah, alright.” I was thinking of what we could work out. Because you really get access to things. And it’s a wonderful thing. What’s better than that, right?
De Niro: I think it was in London or Paris that we both were, and I said, you know, it’s so nice that there’re so many people, for this big premiere on the street, and everything. Let’s hope that we do something really special the next time that we’re in this situation. I don’t know whether I was thinking of the movie (The Irishman) then, or was aware of it… How long was that?
Pacino: Oh that was long ago, I don’t think you were. That was a feeling you had, which is very interesting, because it was kinda prophetic — that we both knew that we wanted to do something (together). Because he (De Niro) was so positive (about it).
Both of you were there together for?
De Niro: Well, we were at the openings/premieres in Europe. And we felt, I mean I felt, and I think Al can say the same, that all this is so nice. And that we want to be able to give something to deserve this kind of adulation. Or whatever you want to call it. So we were lucky enough to do something that we feel very strongly and good about — this movie (The Irishman).
You guys were together for the opening of Righteous Kill (the last, largely unnoticed film De Niro and Pacino did together in 2008).
De Niro: The Righteous Kill. That’s what.
Pacino: And we thought we could do something else that we feel a little stronger about. And that’s what Bob said to me. And I got that. But I thought, “Gee… I didn’t think it would ever happen, of course.” Because it doesn’t, usually. I was just happy to hear it. You know, it takes a while to… What was that thing Paul Newman once said? He said, “He works!” He said if he only did what he really felt good about— he’d work once every five years. And he can’t do that (laughs).
(As an actor), stuff comes to you. It’s not like you generate your own work. Although Bob does a lot of that — get out and do things, besides acting. The idea is to get around, read, in case you see something you like.
And Bob saw this project (The Irishman). And he read it (the book I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt, on which The Irishman is based). He had the foresight to say there’s something that we can do here. Bob and Marty came together, and we discussed it in LA almost seven to eight years ago. It’s wonderful when that happens. I have a little bit of that going in theatre. That’s where my thing is.
Oh is that so…
Pacino: I’m pretty much half and half. I do more theatre than I do films. So if I’m thinking about what I am going to do next, I go to theatre. You know, I was just thinking about this play called The Visit. Don’t know if you know that one. It’s wonderful. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane did it on Broadway. Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn did it as a movie. But it really is a play — has some surreal stuff. But then, I found out Tony Kushner is now adapting it. So I had one idea. And even that’s taken. In some ways, though, I’m lucky to have a go-to thing in live theatre. Maybe I’ll come to your place with something once.
Mr De Niro, you haven’t collaborated with Scorsese since (Casino), 14 years ago (they’ve done nine films together). What was it like after the long gap?
De Niro: It was back to normal, you know; great. We had a couple of times we could have done stuff together. It was just impossible (to work it out). And so I didn’t. I was always sorry that I didn’t, and couldn’t. But we got back finally. And I’m very happy that we have another project coming up (according to news reports, Killers Of The Flower Moon, co-starring Leonardo Di Caprio).
You, Mr Pacino, had never worked with Scorsese…
Pacino: What can you say? It’s just easy, when you work with a director who is able to allow you a freedom, just by who he is, and what he knows. I did use the expression before: Working with Marty is like working (jumping) without a net, and feeling safe. That’s a good way to describe it. I’m sure that’s how Bob feels too. It’s why they do what they do together. You feel like you’re in a place where it’s creative, but you’re free to do whatever you want. And he’ll take care of it, which is nice to know. There have been directors I’ve had that feeling with. But not many. And he’s way up there.
When you saw yourselves de-aged into your younger selves in The Irishman, did it bring back memories of how you were (as actors on screen) back then?
De Niro: No, well, you know, I was saying (to myself), that it looks pretty good. I’m just hoping that the audiences will go with it. And it’s interesting. Even before de-ageing was not as complete as it is in the final film, Marty screened The Irishman to a few people. Marty said the age (factor) didn’t get in the way of the story. He said they (the audiences) were there (with the film). I thought that was interesting.
Given that The Irishman really plays out like (an altogether dark) Greek drama, what’s the redemptive quality in your character that helped you connect with it (on human terms, as actor)?
Pacino: The film is, as Marty says, about betrayal. And it’s about friendship, and love. And the choices (you make), really. Who knows what Jimmy Hoffa was really like? It’s a mirror of my interpretation. Which is, that he would act upon things. And sometimes act before he thought. I think it was a wonderful quality for him to have at work. It would also get in his way sometimes. I created a kind of stubbornness. But at the same time, what I loved about this character is that he believed in something so strongly. And believed in pursuit of his vision of what is fair.
When Jimmy (in real life) was in prison, been sent away for five years, he even started getting involved in prison reforms thinking that these people can’t live like this, it’s wrong. His natural go-to in life was to organise and protect. And that in a lot of ways so was (true) for Frank Sheeran (De Niro) as well. Jimmy saw in Frank someone who could lead the union.
I think one of the funniest and strangest things was the guy Tony Pro (Stephen Graham), who took over the (teamsters’) union (from Jimmy). What bothered Jimmy about this guy, more than anything else, was that he wasn’t a visionary. He was just someone who was going to lead. I mean he (Tony Pro) could have his position if he wanted, but he wouldn’t be able to do what Hoffa saw himself doing, in terms of taking something forward, and helping. Jimmy had that side to him.
Jack Nicholson has played Hoffa in the (1992) biopic of the same name. Would you avoid watching that version before playing the same part?
Pacino: No, I enjoyed that film. I like the way (director) Danny DeVito did it. And I loved Jack. But that has nothing to do with the way I was interpreting (the same role). It only inspired me when I saw it.
When you see another actor do something, sometimes, it lends a kind of credibility to the role. Like, it makes you say, yeah, I’m not the only one doing this. That person exists. I saw Bob Duvall do American Buffalo on stage, I remember. I thought his characterisation’s brilliant. And that I can do it now on stage. I won’t do it like him.
But I’ll tell you one thing: When I saw (Paul) Muni’s Scarface (1932), all I wanted to do was copy him in that performance (for the 1983 version). After I saw Muni, I said, I just want to do (it like) him — so let’s do this film, you know.
Of course, it turns out — it always turns out — that I didn’t (do it like him). I don’t know why. Maybe it was always in the back of my head somewhere. But he gave me something with the anarchy in that performance, that was incredible. With Jimmy Hoffa, there was so much stuff on him. So you watch and wait and hope to absorb.
And you have played major/intense biographical roles in the past—like, say, Serpico.
Pacino: I knew him — NYPD officer Frank Serpico, on whom the film’s based—very well. And I studied him, and worked with him.
How about Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (on an actual, failed robbery in a Brooklyn bank)?
Pacino: For some reason, I didn’t meet him (the person Sonny Wortzik character was inspired from). Because I had some sort of idea (about him). And again, he was in prison. Also I didn’t meet (Dr Jack) Kervorkain either. I don’t know if you ever got to see that (HBO’s 2010 TV film, You Don’t Know Jack, on a controversial euthanasia practitioner). Because he was in prison as well. And I didn’t want to go in there, because he wouldn’t give me the feedback that I wanted. I wasn’t playing him, when he’s in prison (anyway).
A lot’s written about Jimmy, of course. Because he disappeared off the face of the earth. And that was a big thing that went on for years, with people trying to find him, looking for him all over. (TV presenter) Geraldo Rivera — oh, wait, that was Al Capone (whose secret vault he opened up). In a lot of ways, it was disturbing that Hoffa just disappeared. But there’s so much footage on him. (In any case) you can just go to the Internet and go find stuff on anybody (now).