Robert De Niro: 'I fear for independent cinema, it will not be what we're used to'

Robert De Niro has starred in some of the greatest films of the past 40 years. But huge change lies ahead in his industry, he tells James Mottram

When you think of Robert De Niro and New York, what comes to mind? Maybe blowing up a Little Italy mailbox in Mean Streets, cruising the East Village in Taxi Driver or ushering Lorraine Bracco down a seedy Brooklyn backstreet in Goodfellas. There is, of course, one other neighbourhood where he's left his mark – that of Tribeca. The lower Manhattan area has become synonymous with De Niro since he founded Tribeca Productions with his producing partner Jane Rosenthal in 1989.

Since then, he's diversified into swish restaurants, Nobu and the Tribeca Grill; the 88-room luxury Greenwich Hotel; and the Tribeca Film Festival, which began in 2002 as a way to help regenerate the district after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. De Niro claims he's not part of the day-to-day running of the festival. “I stay out of it completely,” he explains, a typically blunt answer, delivered in those distinct East Coast vowels, from a man who prefers to operate out of the spotlight wherever possible. “If a call from me can help, then that's what I do.”

Turning 70 in August, De Niro may have never stopped acting – last year alone saw him in Silver Linings Playbook, gaining a seventh Oscar nod; portmanteau film New Year's Eve and thriller Red Lights – but he's just as much an entrepreneur now. “It's a different part of my life that's very important and I'm committed to it,” he says. “It's a whole other thing. It's more like producing.” Which, it should be noted, he seems to have a flair for – backing numerous projects, from the Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy to the Queen-inspired stage musical We Will Rock You.

Still, it's the Tribeca Film Festival that's on today's agenda – and its expansion via a new video-on-demand service that will bring a slate of six films from the festival into UK homes across a variety of platforms. With this diverse sextet including Greetings From Tim Buckley Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley plays musician Jeff Buckley in the days leading up to his father's tribute concert – it's a forward-thinking way of piping indie movies directly on to our screens.

Part of Tribeca Film, a distribution label dedicated to acquiring and releasing independent films in the US, the VOD service has been in operation for three years, reaching 60 million homes. De Niro simply sees it as part of the future of film-making. “I figure there are other different ways of telling [and sharing] stories and they'll evolve with technology. It won't be what we're used to. But it just will change, whether we care to deal with it or not. It's gonna be what it's gonna be.”

Admittedly, nothing quite beats being there – and this year's festival, its 12th edition, has a particular poignancy for De Niro. Events include an “in conversation” between director Jay Roach and actor Ben Stiller, De Niro's collaborators on Meet the Parents, the film that – along with Analyze This – turned him, rather improbably, into a bankable comic actor. Was that his idea? “No, it wasn't. I wasn't even invited!” he jokes. “But I'd rather sit and watch.” Does he get much time for that? “This year, I'm going to try and go to more of the events, other than just walking the red carpet.”

The festival will then close with a 30th-anniversary screening of The King of Comedy, for some the finest of his eight collaborations with Martin Scorsese. “Am I in that? Oh, yeah, right!” he says, coming on like the film's would-be stand-up Rupert Pupkin, when I bring it up. “I haven't seen the movie in at least 20 years, so it'll give me the chance to see it with a fresher eye, I suppose. And give me a chance to not only remember about things that I had done in the movie, but also that time in my life other than the movie – 30 years ago.”

Back then, he was the undisputed greatest actor of his generation – winning Oscars for The Godfather Part II and Raging Bull and critical adoration for his unwavering dedication. The Greenwich Village-born son of a painter and a poet, he spent years perfecting his craft at the Stella Adler Conservatory and Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio until 1973's Mean Streets finally gave him his big break when he was 29: “The kid doesn't just act – he takes off into the vapours,” wrote the critic Pauline Kael.

He was then married to his first wife, Diahnne Abbott, and his focus was purely acting. Now, he's a polymath. Currently on the slate? A mooted cable-television sequel to The Good Shepherd, the CIA drama he directed in 2006, and a Freddie Mercury biopic starring Sacha Baron Cohen, which he'll produce. Then there's fatherhood. With six children across three relationships over the years, including two with his second wife, Grace Hightower, a heavy financial burden may account for why he's taken to acting more regularly (sometimes in potboilers that have dented his reputation).

Yet in the wake of the Oscar nod for Silver Linings Playbook, his screen work has regained some momentum – up next, a family comedy The Big Wedding, with Diane Keaton; Motel, a thriller with John Cusack, and Luc Besson's Malativa, a story of a mafia family relocated to France under the Witness Protection programme. But, despite the work of Tribeca and its VOD service, he sounds worried when I ask if he's concerned for the state of independent film. “It's a good question. I don't know what's going to happen. I just don't know.”

He's more forthcoming on the subject of The Irishman – an adaptation of Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses, centering on mob hitman Frank Sheeran. The one his fans have been waiting for, not only will it team De Niro up with old pals Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, it's set to be his first film with Scorsese since 1995's Casino. “I'm planning on it. We're planning on it, yes. I think it's a great story. And Marty does. We're all drawn to it. So it's just a matter of setting the time when we can do it.” As reunions go, it sounds unbeatable.

The 12th Tribeca Film Festival runs from 17-28 April, Tribeca Film on Demand is available via Virgin Media, as well as iTunes, PlayStation and Xbox

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine


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