For a very long time, the actor Robert De Niro was reticent in interviews. He was solitary or shy or inarticulate – biographers couldn’t decide which. Then Donald Trump was made president, and public De Niro – the De Niro we read in magazines, who appeared at Hollywood events – became openly, angrily, exasperatedly chatty, at least on politics. Trump was a New Yorker, like De Niro, but not a good New Yorker, it turns out. He was a “fool”, a “bozo”, a “national disaster”. How could he have become president? Why weren’t more Americans embarrassed, or terrified? “Fuck Trump!” he shouted while appearing at an awards ceremony in 2018. It was an offhand remark that earned him an ovation. During an interview later that year he added, “I feel that more people should speak out against him, not be genteel about it.”
This is the De Niro I meet on Zoom, one afternoon a few months ago. Outspoken De Niro. Politically frustrated De Niro. He is bethroned in a hotel suite in Cannes, gray-haired and lined of face, present as an irked but not unpleasant grandpa. (He recently turned 80.) It is shortly before the actors’ strike and long before Trump’s appearance at a New York courthouse on charges of fraud.
“I’m going to go into this,” De Niro says. “The political situation we’re in in my country, it is crazy and absurd – we lost control. I see the phenomenon of Trump, the phenomenon of people not standing up to him, people who ought to know better… They’re causing great concern in the country and a lot of anxiety. I feel like since he’s come on the scene – even after being president – it’s like when an abusive parent rules a household, only it’s not just one household it’s the whole country. We’re like, ‘What’s this guy going to do next? What’s he going to aggravate us about?’” The actor shrugs. “Is he just doing this to aggravate people? To make people unhappy? Maybe he is.”
De Niro and I are meant to be discussing his latest picture, Killers of the Flower Moon, which recalls a dark period in 1920s Oklahoma during which members of the Osage Nation were murdered for their oil rights, and in which De Niro plays William Hale, a benign-seeming ranch owner who is in fact at the root of much of the period’s evil. (The film is based on David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller of the same name.)
But Trump keeps getting in the way. At a press conference earlier in the day, De Niro had suggested that Hale’s kind of immorality – his entitlement and greed, his racism, his disregard for anyone outside his own bloodline, all of it wrapped up in a kindly aspect – is easy to spot in contemporary politics, in what was a not-so-veiled swing at Trump and a broader swipe at members of the Republican party, accessories to the chaos.
When I mention his allusions to Trump, De Niro says, “Of course. He allowed more of it to come out” – the racism, the disregard. “One of the main tasks of being a leader, the responsibility, is to lead. Even when the masses are turning in a certain direction, you have to show them the right way. And that comes down to personal integrity, what you know is right and what you know to be wrong, what you stand for.” Trump is “doing whatever he can to be the boss,” he goes on. “He just wants to be in charge. He has no moral center.”
In Killers of the Flower Moon, Hale is similarly unprincipled, bigoted, and vengeful. Many if not all of his actions are propelled by avarice. Asked what appealed to him about playing the character, De Niro replies, “I don’t know if he appealed to me. He’s… I don’t know.” Then he adds, “The older I get, people do things that I just don’t understand. I have no pretense to know.”
“What sort of things?” I ask.
He gives a brief answer that he boils down to: “The state of the country.”
A few years ago, a suspect package was mailed to one of several New York restaurants De Niro owns. Similar packages were delivered to other outspoken Trump critics, including Joe Biden, then a former vice president. The event proved De Niro’s concern that things were not OK. “It was sent by somebody crazy,” he recalls now. “But I don’t want to make it simple. All you can do is keep an eye on them. Suppress or repress it. Because it’s always going to be there. People have their reasons.”
Trump is “doing whatever he can to be the boss. He just wants to be in charge. He has no moral center.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is De Niro’s 10th collaboration with the director Martin Scorsese. (Their first, Mean Streets, was released 50 years ago.) Of De Niro, Scorsese said recently, “Bob doesn’t talk a lot.” (In a typically halted style, De Niro has said of the director, “There’s a connection, but it’s hard for me to define.”) I ask now why Trump has made De Niro, a man so diffident even his close friend and collaborator has described him as taciturn, suddenly so forthcoming.
“It upsets me so much that somebody like him could get so far in our political system,” he says. “Many New Yorkers were on to what a fool he is, a joke. But when the country started buying it? I mean, he didn’t win by much. He didn’t win the popular vote. She won. But look what happened. What’s scary is it’s such a fragile thing, to swing like that. And the odd thing about Trump is that if he had any brains he could have become president again. But he doesn’t care. He did stupid things. He’s not somebody who should ever be allowed close to leadership in this country again.” (Remarkably, or perhaps not, Trump is currently polling highly as a 2024 presidential candidate.)
I ask, “The fragility he created, do you think it’s still there?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Don’t you?”
“I mean, I wish the media would not give him much attention, would ignore him. But it’s like watching a train wreck. You’re fascinated by it. What will eventually happen is he will die away. He’ll become not even an afterthought. It’s like the pandemic. We had it. Now people are forgetting. And it was only three years ago.”
De Niro was born in New York during the Democratic presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. His father, the painter Robert De Niro Sr, studied under the German émigrés Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann, briefly waited tables with the playwright Tennessee Williams, and worked as a night watchman at the Guggenheim Museum alongside Jackson Pollock, who De Niro Sr considered both peer and friend.
De Niro’s mother, the artist Virginia Admiral, briefly counted the writer Anaïs Nin as a mentor, and transcribed several volumes of her diaries. (For a time, both Admiral and De Niro Sr wrote erotica for Nin, who paid a dollar a page.) De Niro’s early life was bohemian. An only child, he grew up quietly in the company of adults and books, loved but not coddled. His parents, who called him Bobby, separated when he was two – they divorced a decade later – and he lived with his mother, who stopped painting despite a promising career and began a successful typing business.
Still, it is De Niro Sr who has loomed large over De Niro’s life. At auditions early in his career, De Niro would mention his father’s name in case the casting director had heard of him. He would later hang his paintings on the walls of his business ventures, including his restaurants, to generate interest in his father’s career. When I ask if legacy is something De Niro considers, he replies, “Yeah, I think about legacy,” but goes on to discuss his father’s work rather than his own. “I think about his legacy,” he says. “I’ve tried to keep it going. To me he was a great artist, he was a genuine artist. And it’s not like I want to revive whatever he did. I just want my kids, my grandkids, to know who he was, what he stood for.”
De Niro Sr died in 1993, on his 71st birthday; Admiral died in 2000, aged 85. De Niro has described his father as witty and affectionate but prone to loneliness and severe self-criticism. (De Niro Sr was gay, though not publicly, and his sexuality was never discussed between father and son.) That the senior artist’s star never exploded led slowly to bitterness, and he fell into poverty. De Niro has talked before of how he considers it his responsibility to maintain awareness of his father’s work – to “see him get his due”.
At auditions early in his career, De Niro would mention his father’s name in case the casting director had heard of him.
I ask De Niro now what he thinks his father thought of his fame.
“I think he was proud of me,” he says. “At the same time, a little jealous, or envious, and so on. But he always… He was proud of me. And what I remember is I was proud of him when I was a kid – he was an artist. But that’s normal. People in families have certain feelings. It doesn’t mean they don’t love the family member, that they’re not loyal to them.”
I ask about their relationship.
“We had an OK relationship,” he says. ” He was not with me, we didn’t live together. But I would see him, spend time. I would always go to his shows, take the kids to his openings.” Sometimes father and son would run into each other in the street and talk, or De Niro would visit his father while he worked. “We had what I suppose people would call an understanding,” De Niro has said. “We were close in some ways but not in others.” The painter regularly requested his son sit for a portrait, but the son demurred. (“I wouldn’t sit still,” he has said.) A couple of years ago, De Niro, while showing a journalist around his father’s SoHo studio, which De Niro has preserved faithfully, said, “I wish I had listened more to my father so I could speak more carefully about his work.”
I ask now, “Why is this important to you?”
“It just is,” he says. “It’s family. Tradition.”
“It’s for your children,” I say.
“It’s for the family, yes.”
Not long before De Niro and I meet, it is announced that he has had another child – his seventh, and his first with his current girlfriend, the actor Tiffany Chen. When I offer congratulations he nods plainly. And when I ask how things are going, he says, “It’s going OK,” shrugs, and screws up his features into a kind of parent face that suggests he might be muddling through.
We both laugh.
De Niro has said of child-rearing, “It’s always good and mysterious and you don’t know what the hell is going to happen.” I ask if he agrees with that statement now.
“You never know,” he says.
“That’s still true?” I ask.
“Of course it’s true!” he says. “It’s true for everybody.”
“It’s still mysterious?” I ask.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “They surprise you.”
I ask if things get easier.
“It doesn’t get easier,” he says, becoming pleasantly private. “It is what it is. It’s OK. I mean, I don’t do the heavy lifting. I’m there, I support my girlfriend. But she does the work. And we have help, which is so important.”
I ask if he enjoys fatherhood.
“Of course I do.”
“What about it do you enjoy?” I ask.
“All of it! With a baby, it’s different to with my 11-year-old. My adult children. My grandchildren. It’s all different.”
“In what way?” I ask.
“Well, I don’t talk to the adult children the way I talk to my baby,” he says, in a way I think suggests exasperation, “or the way I speak to my 11-year-old, though she’s pretty smart. But… I don’t know if you have kids.”
“I have two,” I say, adding, “I think that’s enough for me.”
Smiling, De Niro says, “Well, that’s understandable.”
Talk turns to his upcoming plans. When I ask De Niro his intentions for the next couple of years, he mentions a Netflix series I was unaware he had scheduled, what might be another piece of make-work for which the actor has been regularly, often unfairly criticized. (A student of the acting coach Stella Adler, a two-time Oscar winner, the force behind Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, one of our greatest actors, he is also responsible for Dirty Grandpa.) But soon another, more plain ambition is revealed. “And to stay alive,” he says.
“You think about that?” I ask.
“Of course I think about it, at my age,” he says. “You think about it at your age, why wouldn’t I think about it at my age?”
He looks briefly off camera to his publicist, then goes on, “It’s not going to stop me, but you think about it.”
“What do you think about?” I ask.
“I’m aware of it,” he says. “You think more about time. Every summer, every new season, everything, you say, ‘Well, I’m going to use these few months of the summer to be with my kids, my family.’ I can’t wait until the next – I don’t know what’s going to happen. So each thing becomes more important. Everything I do, time-wise, is important. Whatever I’m thinking about doing in two years, I’d better think about doing it now.”
I ask, “Do you enjoy being older?”
“I don’t mind,” he says. “I have no control over it. What am I going to do? I might as well give in and go with it.”
And with that his publicist rises, and De Niro gives in and goes with it.
Killers of the Flower Moon is playing in cinemas across the U.S. and U.K.
Alex Moshakis is a U.K.-based editor at The Observer Magazine. He has also edited two books on design, including Wonderwall Case Studies: Works by a Global Interior Design Firm