PETER BRANT: I was sitting with Dennis Hopper last night and he said, “I think the thing people will really want to know about Bobby De Niro is, when did he get the first hint that he wanted to be an actor?
ROBERT DE NIRO: I was about nine or 10 or something. I don’t remember what made me want to be an actor. In fact, I’m always curious. If Dennis were asked the question, he might say, “It was this or that that made me want to act,” but I just don’t know. I know I saw him when I was 16. Did he tell you the story?
BRANT: What story?
DE NIRO: I saw him when he was doing Mandingo with Franchot Tone, like, 32 years ago.
INGRID SISCHY: What was Dennis like?
DE NIRO: He was a brilliant young actor at that time. You know, I would go backstage and watch.
SISCHY: And what happened?
DE NIRO: It was just the way it was.
BRANT: [aside to Sischy] The first time Bobby met Dennis, a beautiful girl came up to Dennis and asked him something about acting. [laughs] Bobby, did your parents have any problem with your wanting to be an actor?
DE NIRO: Not at all. They were both supportive. They would never tell me no. My mother worked for a woman, Maria Ley-Piscator, who with her husband founded the Dramatic Workshop, which was connected to the New School. My mother did proofreading and typing and stuff or her, and as part of her payment, I was able to take acting classes there on Saturdays when I was 10. This couple had come out of Germany, and the guy went back, but his wife stayed and ran the workshop. It was a big school with a lot of actors, some of whom were able to study acting on the G.I. Bill. Brando and Steiger went there, the generation before me. When I was 15, 16, I studied with Stella Adler at the Conservatory of Acting, then I stopped again and went to the Actors Studio when I was 18. Stella Adler prided herself on teaching the Stanislavsky Method the way it should be, according to her, and I must say I agree with her standpoint. My feelings were, use a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and whatever works for you as an actor is fine.
SISCHY: Did going to acting classes make things difficult for you and with your friends?
DE NIRO: Actually, most of my friends were O.K. about it. Sometimes you figured the kids would make fun if they came to a play that you were in, so I would never even think of having them come.
SISCHY: Did watching your father try to make it as an artist have any effect on you?
DE NIRO: I saw how he was living, and so on. Struggling, I guess, for want of a better word. He led a classic New York artist’s life, in a loft, always downtown—Great Jones Street, West Broadway, Bleecker Street. What we know and SoHo and NoHo today was mostly industrial in those days.
SISCHY: Did you grow up in SoHo?
DE NIRO: Well, I always lived in the Village, but I would go to see my father. He was separated from my mother.
BRANT: Your mother was very active in the SoHo art world in the late ’60s, wasn’t she?
DE NIRO: Yes, she was. She can probably tell you more about that, though.
SISCHY: Your first movie as director, A Bronx Tale, has just come out. I notice you dedicated it to your father.
DE NIRO: Well, he passed away in May, so I thought it would be a nice thing to do—and the movie’s about fathers and sons. I love his art. I’m very proud of it, but I wasn’t an art enthusiast the way he was. It was his whole life.
BRANT: The film’s based on Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play, about a boy, Calogero, growing up in the Bronx in the ’60s and coming under the influence of a neighborhood mobster, Sonny. How did you come across Chazz’s play?
DE NIRO: My trainer told me about it four or five years ago, so I told Jane [Rosenthal, De Niro’s partner at Tribeca Productions] to go see it when she was in L.A. She said, “Yeah, it’s very good, but Chazz wants to play the part of Sonny himself if it’s made into a film.” At first, I didn’t want anything in the ingredients if I did a film of it—I wanted a totally clean slate—but I saw it and liked it and liked Chazz. While he was writing the screenplay I said, “Let me make this clear. If you give it to a studio, they’ll play you for it and people will get involved and they’ll give the Sonny part to another actor. If you give it to me now, I can guarantee you’ll be in it and we’ll set it up our own way and I’ll have more control, which is what I want. I don’t want any producer getting in the way and telling me what to do.” I didn’t want all that mishmoshing—I knew what had to be done.
I felt like Chazz had written from such a specific point. He knew that world, he knew what he was writing about. He wrote great characters, had a very good structure. I just had to fill it with the right people, and I didn’t want to use any name actors—other than Joe Pesci, who was perfect, because he knows that world too. A few other actors had parts, but mostly we worked with nonprofessionals. I told the casting director, Ellen Chenowith, that I didn’t want her to start calling the agents. I said, “It’s not going to be the usual way of casting a movie. You have to hit the streets now, a year before we start shooting. You gotta get out there and look. I know the people we want are out there. But I don’t have time to teach them. It would take forever to do that, so we just have to get the right people, who have a flair and understand what we are doing, and then put them together.” That was very important, because that world is like a medieval village. It’s a world unto itself—like it says in the film. We had a wonderful story, and the way to make it work was to have people be totally authentic, totally believable. Even their awkwardness would work for the movie. We had a kid, Marco Greco, who runs the Belmont Italian-American Playhouse in the Bronx, send us tapes of local people, and we’d bring some of them in to read. We looked in Philadelphia, we looked in Chicago—anywhere with an urban feeling. I said to the casting director, “Keep putting out the ads, on the radio stations, in the uptown papers, in the local community papers. Keep hammering away. I want to keep looking until the day we start shooting. I don’t want to stop until we’re totally satisfied.”