Interview with Robert De Niro

From the November Edition
Words by Sophie Smallshaw

It’s not always so easy to forget your past; a fact that isn’t likely to bother anyone with a stellar acting career like, say, Michelle Pfeiffer or Bobby Frickin’ De Niro, but as for their characters in the new Luc Besson-directed movie The Family, things aren’t so clear cut.

The pair, alongside Glee star Dianna Agron, play the Manzoni family, a clan of Mafiosos who are forced to relocate to a small village in France as part of a witness protection programme. Needless to say, things don’t go so well. Check out the trailer here:

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We caught up with all three stars for a chat about the movie and what they did to prepare for their roles as mobsters:

Michelle Pfeiffer: “We had the book as a reference which was really viable. For me really, I focused on family and utilising it more. Ultimately Maggie’s role in the film is to protect her family at any cost.”

Robert De Niro: “I spoke to people to try and find a believable reason why [my character] would be in France but we didn’t quite find it [laughs]. Other people I spoke too had some experience with Henry Hill (infamous NYC mobster) and during Goodfellas I’d talk to him a bit. Every time I had a question I’d get word to him that I needed to talk to him and he would call me on set. Also, this story, as Michelle says, it is what it is. It’s kind of not about accuracy in the witness protection programme. The fine details would be interesting, yes, but I think there are a lot of details in there that were good as they were.”

Dianna Agron: “Yeah, it is a dark comedy and it is something that Luc Besson does very well Like what Bob and Michelle have said, it was on the page, and I think because it’s a little bit more fun instead of a serious in depth study it gave us a lot of room to play [with the characters].”

And how did the cast adapt to living in rural Normandy?

Dianna: “I went to a livestock fair with Tommy Lee Jones, which is one of the most comical things that has ever happened to me in my life. One because they don’t know who Tommy Lee Jones is in Normandy so Tommy was having the time of his life...”

Michelle: “He’s a cowboy!”

Dianna: “Yeah, he’s a cowboy. So he was in his element. Normandy is very untouched so you feel as if you’re in the 80s. People are walking around town as we’re filming slowly peeking their heads out of the windows and staring at you like you’re an alien.”

Unlike Tommy Lee Jones, the Manzoni family don’t quite blend into to their surroundings in lazy rural France; you don’t have to watch far into the trailer to see them blowing up the local supermarket and beating villagers about the head with a variety of sporting equipment. Evidently the characters’ short tempers don’t fit well with a laid-back lifestyle, but what gets the cast riled up in real life?

Michelle: “Rudeness in supermarkets actually gets to me. That one does get to me, I have to say. I will speak up if I see somebody being rude, like to waiters. I don’t like that sort of thing. People who take cuts in line [also annoy me]. That doesn’t fly!”

Dianna: “Some guy cut his car right in front of me whilst I was leaving a parking structure. I was so mad by that. I was really upset. Like, more upset than I thought I should be in that moment. [I was like] ‘Fine, you’re better than I am apparently, in your mind. Never mind get on with your day.’"

Robert: “I think in the movie, Luc has a good way of doing that. It’s personal and that’s why I think it is funny, in a sense. It juxtaposes this certain extremely violent scene, when [my character] puts a guy’s head on the grill. He personalizes it.”

Dianna Agron is best known to audiences as Quinn Fabray from the TV show Glee, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that working with Pfeiffer and De Niro at such an early stage in her career is a bit like being thrown in at the deep end:

Dianna: “They’re just lovely people. I think the main thing is that everybody wants to do a good job. In order to make it believable, it involves actually speaking to each other not just in the scene - that would be quite awkward [laughs]. Although I have heard of incidences with people being asked not to talk to fellow actors, look them in the eye or not wear purple!”

Now, the more observant movie fans among you will notice that this isn’t the first time that Robert has starred in a film dealing with the FBI’s witness protection programme. In fact, De Niro’s character actually watches Goodfellas in the movie, and the actor himself and the rest of the cast watched the film in preparation for The Family.

Robert: “Well I looked at the movie and the DVD. There were things on the DVD that I hadn’t been aware of so I went through the whole film carefully and then I went through the other [bonus] stuff which turned out to be really helpful for me.”

Michelle: “We did revisit Goodfellas and it was hilarious. It’s an amazing film. We screened it [without Bob] when we were staying in Normandy.”

While in hiding Robert’s character, the notorious Giovanni Manzoni decides to pen his life story. Has Robert himself been approached about writing an autobiography?

Robert: “I have been but I haven’t really entertained it much. I understand why [some actors choose to do so] but It takes time. Once Scorsese and I were thinking about doing a book together, and we might still, I don’t know.”

And what is it about gangster movies that he keeps bringing you back to the genre, and why are movie fans so fascinated with the mafia?

Robert: “I’ll do a movie if it’s written well, it’s fun to do, and if the characters are interesting. Like I did with Luc Besson [in The Family] or Martin Scorsese, who I have another gangster film we’re going to do but it’s a very interesting one (2014’s The Irishman). I’m really looking forward to it. I guess these films fascinate people because they’re against the establishment in some ways and some ways they’re not. There are people who can write and explain better than I can why people are fascinated by them.”

Cinema goers are unlikely to give up there mob fixation in a hurry, which can only be a good thing if Hollywood keeps turning out kick-ass black comedies with all-star casts like The Family. You can check it out for yourself when it’s released on 22nd November!