Robert De Niro on Bringing Dark American History to Life in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

After decades of telling stories set in the American underworld Martin Scorsese reaches a special milestone with “The Irishman.” The cinema master’s first feature-length drama for Netflix, this sprawling, three and a half-hour chronicle of dark men walking through the last half century of U.S. history culminates many of the themes that have dominated Scorsese’s work. Fittingly it reunites him with longtime collaborator Robert De Niro, whose work with Scorsese is as legendary as anything else in American cinema. The list of films these two have made together is astonishing from “Mean Streets” to “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver,” “Casino” and “Goodfellas.” Joining them are fellow screen titans Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in his first major film role in over a decade. 

De Niro plays real-life hitman Frank Sheeran, who became close to famous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) in the 50s and 60s. Sheeran’s first major link to the Italian American mafia is Russell Bufalino (Pesci). As Sheeran grows closer to Hoffa he also gets deeply involved in both Teamsters’ politics and the workings of the mob, witnessing everything from unreported killings to the mob’s collaboration with the CIA against Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. When Hoffa’s relations with his gangland friends sour Sheeran will then get pulled into one of the great underworld mysteries of contemporary U.S. history. 

“It felt great making this movie,” said De Niro to Entertainment Voice, “we, me and Marty and Al, were trying to do something again together for a long time, so we had a movie that we were working on but then this book, ‘I Heard You Paint Houses,’ came along, we read it and said ‘we have to do this.’” The book in question is by Charles Brandt, a former prosecutor convinced his research not only cracks the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance, but also sheds light on other infamous events such as the JFK assassination.

There is a particular calmness in the way De Niro describes preparing for a role like Sheeran, which brings him back to the crime world he and Scorsese have dabbled in so famously. “There’s video on Sheeran, audio on him so I closely studied that,” said De Niro, “I spent time with Charles Brandt, author of the book, who knew Frank well. So he was very helpful.” 

Accustomed to meeting prominent figures for decades now, De Niro has also been politically outspoken recently when discussing the current president of the United States. “The Irishman” has a very political core to its storytelling as the ruthless politics practiced by Hoffa, a militant union man, parallel with the cutthroat business ethics of the mafia. How would De Niro rank President Trump with a brash figure like Hoffa and his inner circle? “Some of these guys have more integrity than he does,” said De Niro, visibly engaged by the topic, “in the world of this movie people give their word and that’s all they have and they make sure that they honor it. He’s got a warped sense of what he’s got to honor and doesn’t honor it anyway. He’s all over the place. He has no character or backbone. He doesn’t care about his base, to him they’re just a bunch of yokels, he just cares about being the boss and that’s messed up.”

Stephanie Kurtzuba, who plays Sheeran’s second wife Irene, had a particular advantage in preparing for her role. “Irene’s actual granddaughter worked in the costume department and fortunately she was very generous with her time and energy and spoke to me about Irene and what she was about.” Kurtzuba was also motivated by working surrounded by some real legends. “Titans is the right word, it was by turns incredibly intimidating and yet they also manage to be completely authentic and real human beings and also titans simultaneously.” 

Sebastian Maniscalco who plays gangster Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo in the movie, a hothead who eventually gets into major trouble with Sheeran’s bosses, admitted researching this kind of personality has its difficulties. “I didn’t find a lot on this guy,” said Maniscalco with a chuckle, “I like to find any sources to know how someone acts, someone moves…and there wasn’t a whole lot on this guy. But I talked to some people who knew him, read some books. He was pretty cocky, arrogant and I had a great time playing him. Different from my usual role in standup comedy.” For Maniscalco the film has some deep resonance, “it’s about family and friendship. It’s also about what was going on that specific time in the world.”

“The real challenge was the story was so long,” said Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian, “and I don’t mean the length of the film but just the length of a life. He talks in the book about his entire life, so finding that real center was the challenge.” On working with Scorsese, Zaillain shared, “What the great ones have in common is that they care so much about the script and the script being right and they’ll spend time with the writer, like Marty did with me until we were both satisfied with it. That’s something I’ve noticed is similar among the great directors.”

The Irishman” opens Nov. 1 in select theaters and begins streaming  Nov. 27 on Netflix.