Robert De Niro – The King of New York City
The Academy Award-winning actor who’s brought us stellar performances throughout the years takes us on a journey through the streets of NYC as co-founder of The Greenwich Hotel.
A star. A legend. Today these words are used for almost every celebrity. Two or three successful movies and these superlatives are already being thrown around. But if there were someone everyone would agree deserves such accolades, Robert De Niro would be that person. The kind of person that people talk about with a lowered voice — like in a church or a temple — before he arrives on the set of a photo shoot. His name alone inspires respect. We all know his movies and his famous lines. Even the different expressions of his face are iconic. And then there’s De Niro the traveller and entrepreneur, which many people don’t know about.
On a beautiful day in New York’s Tribeca area, the shooting team gathers at De Niro’s own Greenwich Hotel, which can be described as an ultra-chic boutique hotel. But there’s no talk of “Mr. De Niro” among his staff. For everyone working with him, he’s just known as “Bob.” Arriving late, he apologizes profusely and goes straight to work, responding eagerly to every request made by photographer Marco Grob. Immediately, the whole set lights up, with everyone being literally transported back to classic movies like Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II and Once Upon a Time in America with every smile and wink from Bob. After the shoot, it’s at his huge personal office full of amazing movie memorabilia that we sit down to discuss the many sides of an American cinema icon. Marlon Brando looks down at us from a black-and-white framed picture with Martin Scorsese not far either. I’m surrounded by giants and facing a legend.
If you had to define New York City in three words …
It’s hard to define it in so few words! It’s a city where you can feel anonymous and part of a certain community at the same time, but also liberated in a certain way. I’m from New York, but I could imagine someone coming from a small town, from somewhere where there are less things to do, they come here and it’s so exciting, with young people and different areas and new places. Anything you want to see or do, you can do it. To me it’s the centre of the world. But of course there are also other great cities in the world, certainly Paris is an amazing city, London, Rome, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, etc. New York has a certain thing, though. I guess “liberating” is the word that best defines it.
The hotel where we did the photo shoot, the Greenwich, has a real artistic sensibility; it’s not a gimmick like so many other boutique hotels. Could you tell us how you got involved in the Greenwich Hotel?
My partner and I put a lot of work in it. 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 were deciding 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 Center [Robert 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.
He’s been a very good partner and his esthetic is good. He’s more like a producer/director and has experience running hotels. I’m more in charge of the visual aspect and making sure we adhere to a certain esthetic. 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 City. 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 the corner of the hotel should be round, instead of angular, as I thought it would be nicer. Artist studios on the West Side, on 57th Street, inspired the room where we just shot in. 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! 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.
“New York has a certain thing, though. I guess ‘liberating’ is the word that best defines it”
You’re very involved with this neighbourhood and real estate, restaurants and the Tribeca Film 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 totally transformed. When I was growing up, it was a lot more like in the movie 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 been loft spaces. I remember when I was in my mid- to early thirties I started seeing things and getting a sense of the city’s neighbourhoods. 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.
For people who have never been here, how would you describe Tribeca, the neighbourhood where your hotel and film production company are based?
It has a certain thing about it — the whole loft thing. It’s the main draw here; it’s a different way of living as opposed to a typical apartment, even a big apartment. There’s more space, more light — originally artists making art occupied the lofts. Then it changed to what it is now, with other people moving in. I like Tribeca — it hasn’t changed as dramatically as SoHo, which has all these stores and so much tourism. Here it’s a little more of a community. I don’t mind tourists, though. After 9/11 we did need more of them to come back for all the bars, hotels and restaurants here. It’s just a little less packed here, a little less dense.
Did you always feel this connection to your neighbourhood or were there times when you got tired of New York and just wanted to live elsewhere?
I always wanted to live in New York. I go to L.A. all the time but I never wanted to do anything other than work there. Then I saw this building and put a restaurant in there, the Tribeca Grill, which is the first restaurant we started. And then I put in the offices. And then other people came in, like the Weinstein brothers with Miramax (now the Weinstein Company). People have taken floors. [Steven] Spielberg has a floor. I liked this area. I had moved out here earlier and wanted to set something up here. It wasn’t easy.
When friends from out of town come to visit, do you take them to certain places for a great “New York” experience?
Just the places I enjoy going to. I’d tell them to go to the Village, to Tribeca, to Lower Manhattan to see the new Freedom Tower. Go to Central Park. There are so many places to see in New York, it just depends on what they’re interested in. Brooklyn is so active and busy with life. I rarely go there, but it has a lot going on, especially with young people. It’s changed a lot.
A number of movies you’ve done are set in NYC — you’ve covered almost every neighbourhood, from Brooklyn (Once Upon a Time in America) and the Bronx (A Bronx Tale), Little Italy (Mean Streets) to New Jersey (Cop Land) and many other movies happening all over New York. Is there one film you think rings truest to the city?
I think Mean Streets would probably be closest to the actual neighbourhood and to the way Little Italy was. It’s not far from here. Taxi Driver is happening at night during the seventies. 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.
What are some of your favourite New York movies by other people?
On the Waterfront by [Elia] Kazan is a great New York movie. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a whole other side of New York. Also The French Connection starring Gene Hackman.
What’s your opinion of the gentrification of NYC? My dad lives in the centre of Paris and is always complaining about “one more fashion boutique opening.”
Where do you come from in Paris?
The Fourth District near Bastille. The Marais.
That’s a nice area. It reminds me of the movie The Family I did with Luc Besson not long ago in Paris. He started a studio, a very nice place in an old electrical factory. He renovated it — it’s a terrific space. We were the first movie he directed that was shot in his studio in the fall of 2012.
Was it a good experience shooting with Luc Besson?
Yes, he was great. It was very good. Hopefully we’ll do another one together soon.
So you don’t 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 anyway. 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 seventies was so gritty whereas now it’s more gentrified and “cleaned up” — yeah, that’s true. But there are still areas of New York that are gritty. It’s what it is; it has evolved. Paris is also a good example of this kind of evolution.
Nobu Restaurants have become quite popular with the fashion elite around the world. Did you always have a fondness for Japanese food? How did you decide to start a partnership with renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa?
I was in L.A. right after Matsuhisa’s restaurant opened. I told him, “If you ever want to open a Japanese restaurant in New York, let me know.” He contacted my partners and me 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.”
You recently launched Nobu Hotel in Vegas. How would you define it compared to your own Greenwich Hotel here in Manhattan?
It’s a different thing. So many places were asking us to put a Nobu restaurant in them, so 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, if ever. 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.
Do you plan to launch Nobu Hotels in other countries?
There’s one in Manila, one in Riyadh [Saudi Arabia], and plans for more that we’re talking about now. If we never tried it, we would’ve never known. The most important thing is that the Nobu Hotel is very interesting and good. It has an Asian concept, since it’s Nobu, and the service is great. You don’t know it until you try it.
You travel a lot for work, both for filming and promoting. What are some of your favourite destinations?
I always love Paris and France in general. Italy and Spain, too. Asia. I’m always curious to travel places around the world. Polynesian islands, I’ve been to a couple of those. Africa and the Indian Ocean. I like warmer places. Although I’d like to go to Norway and I’ve been to Sweden for a couple of days. I’m going to go to India for a week. I’ve always liked to travel when I can. For vacation, I like to go to warm weather places, like the Caribbean islands.
Do you have any favourite cities other than NYC?
London, Barcelona. I did a movie there. Madrid and Rome, of course. Berlin is an interesting city. I like Moscow for many reasons.
Does travelling sometimes inspire your work?
It depends on the movie. When I was doing The Good Shepherd [De Niro directed this movie], going to Russia and the idea of the Kremlin, of the Cold War, intrigued me. I had been going to Russia many times before the wall came down, when it was a completely different world. It’s totally transformed now. That’s another thing I never thought I’d see.
Can you list three destinations you’d like to visit in the next few months?
I’ve always been curious to go to Mongolia. Also I’ve always wanted to go to Norway in the winter. The Amazon rainforest, too. And New Guinea — it’s supposed to be so primitive there.
Do you have favourite hotels around the world that you like going back to?
Sure. The Hôtel du Cap in Cap d’Antibes, in the south of France. I used to like the Savoy, in London; I heard they remodelled it. There’s the Ocean Club 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.
Do you think there’s a special relationship between actors and hotels? Some people say that the lobby of a hotel is a bit like a stage, but at the same time the rooms are anonymous and private.
That’s an interesting idea. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels. For some reason, I have a hobby or fantasy of doing hotels. I thought of doing resorts, for example, a Nobu resort, which I hope one day will happen. There’s talk of that. It’s kind of fun to create a place you would like to be at — that’s the way I look at it.
Some actors take residence in hotels and stay there for months or even years, like Warren Beatty at the Beverly Hills Hotel or Egyptian actor Omar Sharif living at the Hôtel Le Royal Monceau in Paris.
I’ve stayed at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles for many years myself. I stayed at a hotel in New York called the Mayflower for a few years, near Columbus Circle. It’s not there anymore. It’s not a bad combination of things — it’s convenient, you have your privacy. I understand the appeal. Things were also a lot quieter at hotels in those days.
I’ve found that people in different countries don’t necessarily appreciate your movies the same way. For example, I grew up in France and we always watched Once Upon a Time in America by legendary Italian director Sergio Leone (it was shown on TV almost every year), but it’s not as popular in North America, possibly due to the editing problems of the U.S. version. It’s also a hugely popular movie in China — people there quote the movie all the time in daily life.
Really? Wow, I didn’t know that.
Do you think there’s something unique in the storytelling of this movie? 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 editing it and cut a lot. Even I said, “why don’t you have two screenings, one for the long version Sergio wanted, and one for 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” while we were shooting the movie in Rome. I was hoping these details would make people understand that it is very close to what it was. But he wasn’t doing that. 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.
Would you ever consider being in a movie produced for another country’s film industry?
Funny you mention this. I am 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 but I cannot say whom. It’s very real; we’re talking about it.
You’ve often played characters with a lot of street smarts, the tough guys and the “wise guys.” But in reality you come from an artistic background and own sophisticated restaurants. I’m wondering if you ever get offered parts closer to who you are in real life. Would they be as appealing to you?
They would be appealing, of course, if they are parts I can identify with.
There are certain roles 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 definitely connect with. I use those parts that will fit with that story. I did a movie called Everybody’s Fine, which is a remake of an old Italian movie called Stanno Tutti Bene with Marcello Mastroianni and 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 and visit all of them once they’ve grown up to find out what they’re doing but they’re avoiding him. It’s a movie any father would certainly understand.
One of your recent movies, Silver Linings Playbook, deals with mental illness. In the movie your character is either just a bit intense or has obsessive-compulsive disorder, we’re never quite sure, but it’s implied that Bradley Cooper’s character didn’t fall that far from the tree. I’m wondering if you saw parallels with previous characters you’ve played, all the way to your early movies in the ’70s.
Nowadays, 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 is dealing with. Bradley’s character is bipolar. The only connection I’d say is that the father could have those traits to a lesser degree. Through alignment of the genes, they’ve been intensified in Bradley’s character. Is there a connection? Yes. But every person with a disorder is different, even if it’s the same label. Regarding the Taxi Driver character, at one point I tried to get Marty Scorsese and Paul Schrader together to talk about doing a sequel. I said, “What if we try to do my character twenty to twenty-five years later?” We tried, but didn’t think it was worthy. It never came to fruition because we never saw where we’d go. But I certainly thought about it.
Most of your younger fans have first seen you as Jack Byrnes in the Fockers trilogy. This movie resonated with me because when I met my soon-to-be father-in-law, I wondered if he’d be like Jack Byrnes and whether or not he’d let me inside the circle of trust. What do you think differentiates playing a father versus a father-in-law? Where did the inspiration for this character come from?
Actually, I didn’t have a father-in-law at the time. I didn’t feel any family pressure in my personal life. I had no idea what that dynamic was. But the performance resonated with a lot of people because that’s usually what happens with families. Since the movie came out, my life has been more like that so I understand it more. At the time I understood it only intellectually.
“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”
Now you’re a father-in-law yourself.
Yes. I have a daughter-in-law. You understand that when things are pulling at family members that you have no control over it. The simplest thing is in the movie when Jack’s daughter is getting married. He’s losing her, she’s going to have a family, and now he’s going to have to deal with her and her husband. She’s not going to be “daddy’s little girl” anymore.
I’ve read an interview of Ben Stiller where he says the first time his character met your character in Meet the Parents, his reaction was the 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 [Marlon] 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.
Are you a strict father yourself, or are you getting more lenient as time goes by?
I’m not like Jack Byrnes. 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 and 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.
Getting back to movies, do younger actors ask you for advice? What do you usually tell them?
Sometimes. I like to give advice if people are interested. Bradley and I became friends. I tell him some things, maybe about what happened in another movie I worked on years ago and 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.
In one of your most recent movies, Last Vegas, you’re part of an ensemble cast starring Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline. But it’s not the first time you shot there — we all remember Casino. 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 twenty years ago, things had already changed, but there weren’t any good restaurants like there are today. Even the seventies and sixties were different, too. We had a nice time shooting the movie in Vegas.
Do you still see acting as being your priority among your 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 those 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 with organizing. I wasn’t sure when we first started that it would get this big.
A lot of people dwell on the past, but you seem to be able to stay focused on the here and now. How do you manage to always look forward, especially since you’ve done so much? Doesn’t the past sometimes invite itself into the present?
I’m nostalgic of certain things, of course, like children when they were younger and more innocent in a certain way. Now they’re older and in different stages in their lives. My teenage son is more interested in being with his friends than being with me, but that’s OK. He’ll come back. I try to be practical, because you can’t do anything about most things; things move on. Life goes on, so just enjoy it and make the most of it as you go. Stay healthy, stay strong and keep doing things that interest you, and keep family as close to you as you can.
Photography by Marco Grob