GC met the actor and savvy businessman in Dubai recently on the sidelines of his visit to promote his most ambitious business investment plan to date.
Robert De Niro’s private jet has not even touched down in Dubai in October when a storm erupts around his latest appearance. In the 13 hours it has taken him to fly to the UAE from the United States on that day in October, a freshly released video in which he calls presidential candidate Donald Trump “a dog and a con” and “an embarrassment to this country” has taken the internet by storm and gone viral.
As we meet in the Palazzo Versace in Dubai, De Niro – who has just landed – is oblivious to the millions who have tuned in to hear his thoughts on the most controversial American election in decades. But with just weeks to go before the fate of his country is determined, De Niro is taking no chances and does not mince his words. “He’s an awful person [who] has to be stopped,” he says now, a hardened glint in his eye reminiscent of Al Capone in The Untouchables or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. “No more ‘oh, he’s a clown, let’s just ignore him’— we can’t ignore him and America can’t ignore him. We have just got to stop him, period. It is disgraceful this guy was allowed to get as far as he has. I don’t understand how people could be seduced into thinking this guy has an answer. He has no answer. “There are things that Hillary [Clinton] does but she is a grown up and will be a good leader. She has to become president as far as I am concerned. I feel that with someone like Trump… if he becomes president, there will be mass protests and demonstrations. I hope to God it doesn’t happen.”
The 73-year-old actor and director was persuaded to weigh in on the deeply divisive and bitterly fought election contest for a VoteYourFuture advertisement produced by Anonymous Content, which asked celebrities what they cared about. De Niro’s contribution never made the final cut as it was deemed too partisan but when he launched into a tirade against Trump, saying: “He talks about how he’d like to punch people in the face. Well, I’d like to punch him in the face,” the producers decided to release the recording online as a standalone video.
Hours later, the double Oscar-winning actor is in Dubai to promote his latest venture, a $250 million resort he is developing in Barbuda with Australian billionaire James Packer on the site of the abandoned K-Club, once a favourite haunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. The luxury 400-acre hideaway will include a five-star eco-friendly boutique hotel, a marina, yacht club and an airport for private jets. “It will be elegant and simple – a place I would like to go to myself,” says De Niro. “The intention is to make a beautiful resort that is simple – not ostentatious, not over-indulgent, not tacky.”
This is not De Niro’s first foray into the world of investment. A savvy businessman, he was instrumental in persuading the chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa to forge a partnership with him. The pair founded Nobu restaurants, opening the first in New York in 1994 and going on to win accolades with branches across the globe. De Niro is playing an equally long game with his Barbuda project, dubbed ‘paradise found’. He decided to build the resort after first visiting Antigua’s tiny sister island about 30 years ago. “I went to Barbuda for a day trip and I never forgot it,” he says. “I always thought it would be worth it if I could do a beautiful resort and maybe make it a Nobu beach club or another hotel – but really Nobu was what I was thinking of. Finally I found this property and we got in touch with the owners. It was a long process but I did it because I love the place so much and the people are great. I like to do certain projects that take a commitment but it has to grab me.”
Last year a public vote in Barbuda backed De Niro and Packer’s proposal. Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, named De Niro a special economic envoy and said at the time: “It is my belief your celebrity status will attract more American celebrities to the Caribbean. We expect this project to be one of the most exciting [in the region].” De Niro, a regular at the Jumby Bay resort in Antigua, admits not all his decisions pan out but says: “You have to believe in what you are doing to put the time in, especially as you get older.” He adds with a chuckle: “When it comes out in five or 10 years, we can say it was 40 years in the making.”
That is the thing with De Niro: for a man whose career stretches back more than four decades and who has been something of a chameleon in his roles – from the brooding intensity of Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II and Jake La Motta in Raging Bull to the lighthearted comedy of Meet the Parents and its sequels, longevity is key. He plays a long game, whether it is investing in a business project or a role. Notorious for his method acting, he gained 27 kilograms and learned how to box for his role as La Motta and worked as a cabbie for Taxi Driver.
His Falling in Love co-star Meryl Streep says of him: “He is relentless in his desire to find just the right detail, the little things that tell you everything about a man. I had the privilege of watching his process in a wardrobe test. For three hours, he tried on 37 identical little boxy jackets – windbreakers – that to me looked identical but he was checking the cuff, the collar, the zip, until he found the right one. Details are important and Bob knows that. He changed everything for generations of actors.”
De Niro simply shrugs as he says now: “I just like to do what I do. As an actor, you try to be as honest as you can with the material that’s given. I try to find out as much as I can about a character, the world around him and I use parts of myself – whatever I feel is relatable. With Jake La Motta and the deterioration of him physically, I thought it was interesting to actually do that to get the sensation. The first 15lbs were fun. After that, it was pure torture.”
His iconic roles and 43-year acting legacy mean his fans are somewhat forgiving of some of his more recent film choices. His reputation can survive the odd knocks, such as the widely panned Dirty Grandpa, in which he starred with Zac Efron, released earlier this year and described by the Rotten Tomatoes movie site as a “Werther’s Original dropped down a sewer drain”.
His upcoming projects are a melee of comedy, drama, television and even a musical, showing his extraordinarily diverse talents. In next year’s The War With Grandpa, starring alongside Christopher Walken, he takes on a comic role. “It’s more in the vein of Meet the Parents and is based on a nice book written by Robert Kimmel Smith that was actually required reading in certain schools in America. It is about the grandfather coming into his daughter’s home and his grandson is displaced in the attic. They have a kind of war, playing tricks on each other.” A father-of-six and grandfather-of-four, De Niro’s face cracks into a broad smile: “It’s great to act with little kids – they’re so cute.”
Then there is The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s $100 million opus and a decade in the making, in which De Niro will star opposite Al Pacino. In The Comedian, directed by Taylor Hackford, he plays a bitter, ageing comic alongside Danny DeVito, Leslie Mann and Patti LuPone. Sony Pictures Classics describes it as “De Niro at his very best”. Meanwhile in the boxing biopic Hands of Stone, screened at this year’s Cannes film festival, he played trainer Ray Arcel (having used his business nous to persuade the Panama government to offer filming tax breaks) and this Christmas, he will co-direct a musical adaptation of A Bronx Tale with Tony award-winner Jerry Zaks, based on Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical play-turned-film about the mob. “I like taking my kids to musicals but I don’t sing. I wish I could,” chuckles De Niro. “Jerry is really doing all the heavy lifting.” Not one to rest on his laurels, he is also appearing in the upcoming TV movie The Wizard of Lies, in which he plays Bernie Mado, the disgraced banker behind a fraudulent Ponzi scheme, with Michelle Pfeiffer starring as his wife Ruth. De Niro is even linking up again with David O Russell, the director of Silver Linings Playbook and Joy, for a “long family-type saga” for the small screen.
The move to TV might seem a surprising one but De Niro says: “The only real way you could do it is in television because you can take the time to tell all the little parts of the story that in a movie, you have to cut down. As a director, you always hate to lose that stuff. When I was younger, I was never really interested in television. Most actors who took themselves – I don’t want to say serious about everything – but they would want to do a movie in a theatre. Now TV is so different. There is a five-hour version of Bertolucci’s 1900 that I have never seen and want to see and now they can talk about whether that could be” — he pauses searching for the right word — “binge-watched.”
Then he admits: “This binge-watching that they do, which I did not even know about – I was talking about it to one of my kids the other day – apparently you don’t leave for something like 10 hours as you watch something. Me, I don’t have the time.”
And just like that, De Niro – living legend, multiple award-winner, Oscar holder and the face of some of the all-time greatest movies – is right back into dad mode, the role he has been practising for a lifetime.