The Irishman is officially only the third time they've collaborated, but over the years they often turned to one another. Who else could understand?
There's no plaque to honour the encounter, and neither of its central participants can pinpoint the exact date it occurred, but somewhere on a stretch of 14th Street in Manhattan's East Village is the spot where, in the late 1960s, two rookie actors named Robert De Niro and Al Pacino first crossed paths.
They were up-and-comers enjoying early tastes of steady work and visibility, and they knew each other by name and reputation. They compared résumés, sized each other up — Pacino still remembers De Niro as having "an unusual look and a certain energy" — and each walked away wondering what the future held for himself and the man he had just met.
A half-century later, they ambled into a suite at a luxury hotel on the River Thames to talk about their new film,"The Irishman," with so many of those uncertainties put to rest long ago. Whatever can be achieved as an actor, De Niro and Pacino have pretty much done it, surpassing even the outsize aspirations they had as young men. They have provided cinema with some of its most transfixing and explosive protagonists, in landmark films like — let's just get these out of the way — Taxi Driver, Scarface, "Raging Bull and the Godfather series.
In doing so, their trajectories have become unexpectedly intertwined. They are not only peers and occasional collaborators but genuine friends who occasionally find time to check in, contemplate possible projects and push each other's buttons.
"We get together and talk, compare notes," De Niro explained. "Not quite miss each other. We might miss each other."
Perhaps most surprising of all is that at a moment when they could easily rest on their laurels — and have sometimes been accused of doing just that — Pacino, 79, and De Niro, 76, continue to care immensely about their craft.
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The Irishman, which opens theatrically in New Zealand on November 22 and will be released November 27 on Netflix, is directed by Martin Scorsese, and it puts the two actors on screen together for only the third time. The film, a crime drama of sweeping scope and ambition, is retrospective by design and decidedly conscious of the fact that eventually, everything ends.
That is a theme with deep resonance for Pacino, who plays Jimmy Hoffa, the unmanageable president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and for De Niro, who is a producer of the film and plays its title character, Frank Sheeran, a Teamsters official and mobster who claimed credit for Hoffa's murder.
Both actors are mindful of their legacies, too, and in The Irishman they are giving performances that are as vital as ever. Only now, if they have nothing more to prove to audiences, they find motivation in surpassing their own bench marks and keeping pace with each other.
In the rare instances when they get to work side by side, Pacino said, "it takes the edge off. And puts the other edge on."
They loom so large in the popular consciousness that they are preceded by caricatures, which aren't entirely unfounded. Pacino, his long hair tied in a ponytail, is the more rhapsodic, and the clean-cut De Niro is the more reticent of the pair. (Asked how he and Scorsese came to cast Pacino in The Irishman, De Niro answered, "I said, 'Marty, what do you think about Al for Hoffa?' He said, 'Yeah, great.'")
But they also share a decades-old shorthand, and when seated together, they draw each other out and enjoy tweaking each other. They both took great delight in the notion that Pacino would have had to try out for The Irishman.
"Yeah, I asked him if he could read a few lines of it," De Niro said sarcastically. He put up a hand and abruptly concluded the imaginary audition: "Oh, that's great, OK," he said.
Pacino played along and, in a soft, gravelly voice, described how he would have handled the hypothetical assignment: "You say, 'Listen, I've been working on this — it's not your script but I'm doing King Lear and now I'll read you a few excerpts,'" he said.
They laughed, and, as he really does when he is amused, De Niro narrowed his eyes, contorted his face into that famous ear-to-ear grin and glanced around the room.
If they can share a joke about their elite status now, it's because they bonded back when their renown was hardly assured, and they never forgot the constant rejection that they had to endure in their formative days. As Pacino explained, "I say to young actors today, no matter what you do, don't ever expect to get the role." ("Consider that a given," De Niro added.)
They both came of age in post-World War II New York, Pacino in the South Bronx and De Niro in Greenwich Village and Little Italy. Both were children of divorce who were drawn into the city's acting schools — the Actors Studio, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and HB Studio — and were enthralled by these institutions' influential alumni, like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley.
Acting let them steep themselves in the lives of others and surprise themselves with their spontaneity. Explaining their divergent approaches in an email, Scorsese said, "I suppose I could say that Al tends to go toward fluidity and music while Bob likes to locate states of mind and being, settling in. But that's just a matter of their instincts and personal orientations, I think. They're both tremendous artists with powerful 'instruments,' as an acting teacher might put it."
Pacino's earliest breakthroughs arrived in the stage plays The Indian Wants the Bronx and Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, while De Niro's came with the films Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets (his first movie with Scorsese). The actors' fledgling friendship became more crucial once their careers gained momentum and they turned to each other as colleagues who could understand the awkwardness of their emerging celebrity.
"We were in an unusual position," Pacino said. "It was a whole different idea, being well-known. Not quite the way it is now. It was not as accessible, to be famous." More archly, he added, "It hadn't caught on yet."
De Niro agreed. "It was a good thing that we had each other to talk about stuff," he said.
Nothing transformed their lives like Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies. Pacino's place in the pantheon was secured with the original 1972 film and his quietly captivating portrayal of Michael Corleone — a part that De Niro, among many other actors, had vied for.
Not that he regarded Pacino as his rival: "You're not competitive," said De Niro, who had also eyed the role of reckless Sonny Corleone that went to James Caan.
"If a person gets a part and they're great in it, that's fine," he explained. "It's when an actor is not good for it and they're chosen for the wrong reasons, then you are regretful and not even jealous. You say, well, OK, there you go. That's just what it is."
De Niro won his first Academy Award for The Godfather Part II, released two years later, in which he played the young incarnation of Vito Corleone. ("I said I want Bob to be my dad," Pacino joked.)
Getting them to appear on screen together seemed for years like an unattainable feat, although not for lack of trying: They nearly co-starred in The Pope of Greenwich Village (Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke did instead); in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900" (De Niro did, Pacino didn't); and in James Foley's film version of Glengarry Glen Ross (Pacino yes, De Niro no). Asked why any of these pairings didn't coalesce, they could only shrug their shoulders and cite the vagaries of time.
They did finally collide, fleetingly but spectacularly, in Michael Mann's 1995 crime drama, Heat, about a resourceful thief (De Niro) and the dogged police investigator (Pacino) on his trail. Mann explained in an interview that he sought the actors not only for their cinematic cachet but also because they personified the idea of men who could be both parallel and wildly dissimilar.
"There's a thesis and an antithesis, and they have some characteristics in common, and the ones that aren't in common are polar opposites," Mann said of the actors. "Al learns his dialogue two weeks ahead of time — it's a free-form, psychological absorption. Bob is determined to be completely in the moment."
The result, Mann said, is that "they both have a total artistic immersion — the way they get to that is radically different."
Thirteen years elapsed before De Niro and Pacino would reunite, in Righteous Kill, a garden-variety buddy-cop drama that neither remembers especially fondly. "We did it," De Niro said humbly. "We did it."
Even then, the wheels were turning slowly on The Irishman, a film that emerged from De Niro's fascination with Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses. The book, which De Niro discovered while researching another potential project with Scorsese, chronicles Sheeran's rise through a Pennsylvania crime family as it supposedly intersects with the sagas of Hoffa and the Kennedy family.
"It had this grand size to the story," De Niro said. "It had historical figures whose outcomes had been unresolved, and this story had those answers, according to this character, which I believed."
But getting the film made would take more than a decade as De Niro and his collaborators waited for Steven Zaillian to finish a script and for a slot to open up in Scorsese's relentless schedule. The Irishman also needed the patronage of Netflix, which picked up the reported US$160 million budget. A portion of that cost includes special effects used to digitally de-age De Niro, Pacino and Joe Pesci in scenes about their characters' younger days. (De Niro said they also considered casting younger actors to play them in these sequences.)
The Irishman" is the ninth feature film De Niro has made with Scorsese but the first Pacino has shot for the director. Even though they were acquainted — Pacino sought out Scorsese many years ago to direct an unrealised project in which he would have played Modigliani — Scorsese still wanted some advance intelligence on his less-familiar star.
As De Niro recalled, "Marty said, 'What's Al like?' I said, 'He's a sweetheart. You'll see.'" (Pacino did not mind the description. "You see me smiling," he said.)
Beyond the chance to work with Scorsese and each other, De Niro and Pacino saw "The Irishman" as an opportunity to once again invest themselves in real-life figures and pore over documents and recordings of these men as they constructed their characters from the inside out.
Pacino, who in recent years has portrayed a string of real people like Joe Paterno, Phil Spector and Jack Kevorkian, said his responsibility was not to duplicate Hoffa but to play the version of him that he found most compelling.
"You have to find the fictionalisation of it in some way," Pacino said. "You have to find the drama and the character. Because otherwise, do a documentary on someone."
In a gentler voice, he added, "I want to play George Washington. I do, by the way."
De Niro seemed genuinely surprised by that. "You do?" he said quizzically. "OK."
They acknowledged that they were drawn in by the elegiac tone of The Irishman, which follows its characters — the ones who survive, anyway — into senescence and leaves them, largely in solitude, to wonder how history will remember them.
Scorsese said it was appropriate and inevitable that he and his leading men would want to explore this mournful subject matter. "I think we all share that need to look back — me, Bob, Al, Joe, the characters they're playing," he said. "But that's the age we're at. We just wanted to give form to it in the cinema."
But the actors found it a delicate task to explain why this facet of the film appealed to them and for obvious reasons: Who wants to admit that he is nearer to the end of things than to the beginning? As Mann put it, "Does one walk around thinking, oh, I'm an elder statesman now? Or do you still secretly think, who am I going to be when I grow up?"
With some hesitation, De Niro said that he and Pacino had to reckon with the existential questions that "The Irishman" raises.
"We're at a point where we're getting closer to seeing" — he made an oscillating, over-the-hill hand gesture as he sought the right words — "I don't want to say the end, but the horizon," De Niro said. "The beginning of the tip around and to the other side."
Pacino said he saw these ideas more clearly after the movie was finished; to whatever extent they came through in his performance, he said, was the result of Scorsese's direction and the movie's long gestation process.
"I don't think 10 years ago, he makes a film like this," Pacino said. "He's accessed — it's a new word I'm using, but I like it — he's accessed something I can't even put my finger on, that I was surprised I was feeling. What is this that we're in? What are we doing, the flailing around?"
It was easier for them to admit that they wanted their films to stand the test of time — "Of course you think about it," De Niro said. "There are things that you do that you would like to be remembered for being special, even better than special." ("The Irishman," which has elicited some of the most enthusiastic reviews that Pacino, De Niro and Scorsese have ever received, would seem to fall within that category.)
But asking them to pass judgment on their own work felt crass. So instead, I wanted to know if they each had a favorite performance by the other.
De Niro answered right away: "I think of Godfather I and II," he said for Pacino.
Pacino, in turn, had an immediate choice for De Niro: "The one that dominates for me is Raging Bull," Pacino said, but then he began to wonder if he was undercutting De Niro's other accomplishments and started rattling off more movies.
"Of course there's Taxi Driver, " he said absently. "I am thinking about your films, Bob. I'm going to have a Bob De Niro film festival." While Pacino said this, an uncomfortable grimace began to cross De Niro's face, as if simply hearing the names of his best-known movies was causing him discomfort.
Pacino had a sudden realisation: "He won a couple Oscars," he said, then asked, "You won the Oscar for — — ?" But there was no response, as De Niro seemed paralysed with chagrin. Pacino answered himself: "Oh, Godfather II!" he exclaimed. "He was great in that, too." (De Niro's other Oscar was for Raging Bull, but no need to remind him.)
In The Irishman, Sheeran and Hoffa's proximity eventually leads them to form a tender friendship — at least, before the blood-spattered climax — but De Niro and Pacino explained that the duties of promoting the movie did not quite replicate this relationship.
Even on a globe-trotting publicity tour like this one, with all the premieres and red carpets and after-parties, Pacino said, "we don't even see each other that much."
De Niro added, "Everybody does their thing, comes back, works, hangs out a little bit." There was no need to check in, he said, because they'd eventually run into each other again.
In a voice that was teasing but also authentically affectionate, Pacino added, "It's just nice to know that he's there."
Written by: Dave Itzkoff
Photographs by: Philip Montgomery
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES