Robert De Niro – Oscar-Winning Actor Makes Sure Everybody’s Fine
by Brad Balfour
Originally posted on January 1, 2010.
On the heels of the broadcast of his Kennedy Center Honors (along with Bruce Springsteen, Dave Brubeck, Mel Brooks, and Grace Bumbry), legendary actor Robert De Niro can be seen on the silver screen again. While he’s being lauded for past laurels, he’s also garnering kudos for his latest film, Everybody’s Fine, a comparatively modest work that has recently been released after making a festival circuit tour – most recently it had a special feature screening at the 2009 Denver Film Festival.
Based on Oscar-winning director Guiseppe Tornatore’s 1990 hit Italian film, Stanno tutti bene (which starred Marcello Mastroianni as an Italian bureaucrat on a veritable travelogue across Italy in search of his adult children), English director Kirk Jones transfers the story to the States and De Niro.
The 67-year-old actor plays retired widower Frank Goode who used to string telephone wire – a job that encouraged interaction – but is a guy not good at communicating or even knowing what’s going on with his kids. When his wife was alive she handled his quartet of kids; now, as adults, they are spread across the country, so Frank goes on a surprise tour to re-connect with them.
Though the narrative falls flat at times, De Niro makes up for it with his passion and understanding of his character. The interplay between him and the trio of actors playing his kids – Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale – is authentic and affecting. A great turn this late in his career; De Niro shows a softer side and redeems himself for some of his recent, lesser movies.
Ever since he established himself through his breakout performance in 1973’s Bang the Drum Slowly, De Niro has racked up quite a track record of cinematic achievements – culminating in various Oscar nominations and two wins. In ’74, De Niro received an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in The Godfather: Part II and won Best Actor for Martin Scorsese’s 1980 boxing film, Raging Bull. The New York born and bred De Niro has made a unique partnership with his fellow Italian American Scorsese, establishing quite a catalogue together from 1973’s Mean Streets to the two Oscar noms for best actor in two of Scorsese’s greatest films, Taxi Driver (1976) and Cape Fear (1991).
In 1993 De Niro made his directorial debut with the touching A Bronx Tale and directed the epic CIA historical, The Good Shepherd. Now De Niro heads his own production company, owns various restaurants and other real estate in lower Manhattan, and, in response to the 9/11 attack, co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival.
At least in Everybody’s Fine, he neither plays a character that kills someone or plays a parody of Robert De Niro as either a crook or cop. Instead, he has made a seasonally appropriate movie about a parent’s loss and the enduring relationship with his adult children.
Getting De Niro to speak on much of anything is a bit of trick – not unlike his character in this film. So when a crop of journalists sat down for an Everybody’s Fine press conference with director Jones and actor Sam Rockwell and this the veteran New Yorker, they were seriously tested.
De Niro deferred to Jones unless they were directly addressed to him (and Rockwell wasn’t asked much anyway). Fortunately, enough questions were asked to produce some decent answers, but nobody will ever call Bob De Niro longwinded…
When did you get involved with the process of making this film?
Kirk and I had a meeting and he told me the story and what it was based on. He had photos of the whole project – the traveling across the country – and I was impressed with how passionate he was about the project. I could see that he was special and doesn’t do movies often. This will have been his third [after two long hiatus between each of his other films, Nanny McPhee and Waking Ned Devine]. So that informed me obviously [about how] he cares so much. I saw the original [Italian film] and [Kirk’s] other two movies, and then I read the script. We then just decided when to do it.
How does your personal life affect the roles you pick and the way you play them?
Obviously, I related to Frank and drew on my own experiences like I do in all my parts. You draw on whatever’s relevant to the part you’re playing; it makes it more personal. There was a lot here of course. I have five children, and two grandchildren. But also, going back to Kirk being the director and his caring [about the project], that’s the anchor of the whole thing [here]. That’s really, really important.
More important than the role itself?
Well, yeah. It’s not more important but it’s equally as important. He has to steer the ship. It’s his baby, so he’s got to make choices and all that. I put myself in his hands so to speak.
You watched the original Italian movie; how did you relate to the Marcello Mastroianni character? What do each of the fathers have in common?
It was just a different type of movie. I love Mastroianni. Since I was kid I always watched his movies. He’s been in great films – part of the great Italian tradition, obviously. But it was a different thing, totally. Kirk made it his own. The structure was there and all that stuff. But it was totally different.
Possibly the most moving moments in the film are when we see Frank’s telephone calls to his kids. When was the last time you heard a busy signal? Do you get nostalgic for those times or are you into the techno-gadgets?
Do you tweet?
I don’t twitter. Somebody told me about it. I didn’t know what it was.
How do you feel about new technology?
I only know how to use a computer. I don’t even know how good I am at it. I slowly use the little things and get emails and look at videos on the computer and use an iPhone. I guess I use it adequately.