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Robert De Niro on his sports films, from Raging Bull to Hands of Stone

Josue Evilla illustration

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Robert De Niro slumps into a loveseat in his eighth floor office in lower Manhattan and directs his guest to the adjoining couch. "Or wherever you're most comfortable," he adds, referring to the surfeit of seating options before us. I, of course, claim the couch, because when you gain entry into the private workspace of America's greatest-and quite possibly most intimidating-living screen actor, you pretty much do as you're told.

Visible just beyond De Niro's silver mane is a wall-wide bookshelf chock-full of keepsakes from his five-decade-career in Hollywood, including a baseball bat that looks exactly like the one he used as Al Capone in The Untouchables. On the opposite end of the room sits a desk canvased with piles of unproduced screenplays, proof that this lifelong New Yorker, 72, has no intention of fading to black.

De Niro's next film, due August 26, is Hands of Stone, an Oscar-ready biopic on Roberto Duran starring Edgar Ramirez (Bodhi in the Point Break remake) as the Panamanian pugilist and my host as legendary trainer Ray Arcel. The boxing film is De Niro's third and his fifth entry, overall, in a quietly prolific sports filmography that includes the Martin Scorsese-classic Raging Bull and dates so far back, the two-time Academy Award winner and seven-time nominee whiffs at recalling the list.

Still, much to my delight, the topic appears to bring out the best in the fiercely guarded actor, who has a history of, shall we say, sparsely worded interviews. Even when he dismisses a question that doesn't interest him, he'll do so with his disarming smile-grimace, AKA the Robert De Niro Face.

What's your favorite sports film, as a moviegoer?

I liked the running film, the British film.

Chariots of Fire.

Chariots of Fire, yeah. There was something about it. Even the music, the slow-motion running - that I remember.

Having made five sports films, what, in your mind, are the keys to making a good one?

I suppose a good, human story, where the person is against all odds - you don't think they'll win but they do - is usually a component of a great sports film.

Do you follow sports?

Not too much.

Why?

I'm just not interested in watching sports. Sometimes I'll watch a great game, or great fight, but I'm just not that into it.

Last great game or fight you saw?

I know I'm missing some, but Duran's "No Mas" fight, obviously. And the Tyson fight, when he bit that guy's ear.

If you had to watch one sport, outside of boxing, what's your pick?

I like watching fights. So, if I had to, mixed martial arts also is interesting. It's more extreme, more visceral, more everything. I don't know how a great prizefighter would match up against a great mixed martial artist - I don't know what would happen, I don't even know if they'd allow it, but that's an interesting thing to see.


BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY (1973)

You played Bruce Pearson, a terminally ill catcher who isn't very bright or particularly good. What do you remember from the making of that film?

I read a couple of times for the director for the part that Michael Moriarty played, then I read for the part of Bruce Pearson, then I read for the producer. I was lucky enough to get one of the parts. I enjoyed doing the movie. We had a professional baseball player as a trainer, Dell Bethel. Dell worked with us to make me into a catcher and look believable on film.

You filmed at Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium. As a native New Yorker, what was that like?

It was a great feeling, especially Yankee Stadium, where we shot the opening scene, where Michael Moriarty and I were running around the field. We shot it in the morning. The players weren't around. They were playing an out-of-town game.

Did you have any playing experience of any sort, growing up?

I played basketball at the playground, that's all.

Any good?

I was okay.


RAGING BULL (1980)

What drew you to the story of Jake LaMotta?

I had seen Jake once at a gentleman's club in the Broadway area -- he greeted people at the door, and he was kind of overweight. I just thought it was interesting that he was so out of shape. Then when I read his book, about the battle that he and a lot of athletes have with weight, I called Marty Scorsese and said, "The book isn't great, but there's something about it -- it's got heart, or something." I said, "Take a look, see what you think."

I've read differing reports on how much weight you gained during filming to play Jake in his later years.

I gained 60 pounds, as much as I could over a certain amount a time.

Is it true that they shut down production and sent you on a binge-eating trip?

I gave myself four months. Maybe two months in, I did an interim scene where he's somewhat out of shape.

How would you describe its physical toll?

I knew I couldn't do it past that age -- I was 34, 35. That was my one chance.

La Matta, who served as your trainer on the film, has called you one of the top 20 best middleweight boxers of all time.

My boxing skills were okay. Just okay. I sparred a lot, but it was always very carefully. It wasn't full-out with anybody. I was always concerned about breaking something. Even Jake, who was maybe 50 at the time, would say, "Hit me, hit me, don't worry about it, hit me." [Laughs] I couldn't do it.


THE FAN (1996)

You play Gil Renard, an unhinged, obsessive San Francisco Giants fan. What drew you to the project?

I thought he was an interesting, kind of a crazy character, and [director Tony Scott] was so enthusiastic about it. I'd be flying in every week to LA to work with him and prepare. I was drawn by his enthusiasm about it. He was terrific to work with, very open to suggestions and stuff like that.

It was prescient, in that it centered on an obsessive, intrusive fan. Thanks to social media, you could argue today's fans are even more obsessive and intrusive than they were back in 1996.

Yeah, you're right. Gil Renard probably would have been active on Twitter.

You also played a sports fanatic, an Eagles fan, in Silver Linings Playbook. In both films, you had to fire out a lot of sports terminology. Given your disinterest in baseball and football, did you find that to be challenging?

Yeah, in the parlay scene [in Silver Linings], I had to learn all that dialogue, and know [the sports terms]. That in itself was a lot of work. But Jennifer Lawrence, she's great - she has such a supple mind. She learned all the lines. She did all that dialogue.

Was there ever a time you were starstruck as a fan?

When I met Brando. I met him a few times, but I first met him on his island years ago. I liked him.

Ever been rendered starstruck by an athlete?

Muhammad Ali. One of the last times Nelson Mandela was in this country a lot of people came to see him, including Ali. Ali was very sweet, very nice. I liked him. Everybody did, obviously. He had difficultly moving, but he had a great sense of humor. He was great.


GRUDGE MATCH (2013)

What drew you to Grudge Match?

I thought it would be interesting, just the subtext of me and Sylvester [Stallone] going at it. We represent Rocky and Raging Bull, so I thought it'd be interesting to do. It didn't work as we'd hoped, but that's OK -- it was a good experience for me. And he was great, Sylvester. He really is into boxing, knows a lot about it. He was terrific.

You were 70 years old at the time. Sly was 67. But was there a hint of competition between the two of you during filming?

No, no, he's very realistic about it. It's about throwing the punches in certain ways, so it's realistic. There was contact at times, and he's had more contact [over his career], so he was less worried about it. I didn't want anybody to get hurt. But it was fun. And he had a great trainer, Bob Sally. Sylvester used him on his films the last couple of years. He was terrific.

If you and Sly were to have squared off in your primes, who'd win the match?

Who knows. I don't know if we'd be in the same weight class.


HANDS OF STONE (2016)

You play Ray Arcel, Roberto Duran's trainer. What is it about boxing that keeps you coming back?

I think it's just coincidence. [Hands of Stone writer/director] Jonathan Jakubowicz had a great script. I didn't know as much as I know now about Ray Arcel, but I met him once or twice as I was doing Raging Bull. I liked him. He was a very elegant guy.

With this you graduate from playing an athlete to playing the mentor. What research did you do?

I read up more on Ray. I met his wife a couple of times. I watched video of him in the ring with Duran. I even had help from Bob Sally, who we brought in to help me in the corner. He's like a fight historian, so he knew certain moves Arcel would do.

Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard were on hand as advisors, but as a boxing movie legend, did you find yourself fielding advice on movie-boxing from the filmmakers or cast?

No, not really. If there was something I saw that I felt was [off], I might make a suggestion. But Edgar Ramirez and Usher [who plays Leonard] both did a terrific job. They worked very hard, trained very hard, they looked great.

Like Raging Bull, Hands of Stone is fact-based. Are the best sports movies based on true stories?

Familiarity helps. If there's a built-in story everybody knows -- like in Hands of Stone, the famous moment "No mas" -- that makes a difference.


So that's five sports films. Which of your roles was the most challenging?

I'd say Raging Bull, probably. Grudge Match was, too. But it's Raging Bull, with the weight.

Your favorite experience making a sports movie?

I liked the training, especially in Grudge Match with Bob Sally, Sylvester's trainer. It's great exercise, great for cardio and speed.

Have you stuck with the training, or do you just let yourself go upon wrap?

I'm on the border. [Laughs] I work out, but I don't do any boxing training. I'm more of a treadmill guy now.

Got a sixth sports film in you?

Sure, if it comes along.

What's your favorite film of any film you've done?

Midnight Run.

For me, it's right up there with Heat, Goodfellas, and Godfather II as far as personal favorites.

It's funny, I run into a lot of people, younger people, who say they love Midnight Run.

Why do you think it still resonates?

It was funny, yet there were certain dramatic moments. It wasn't just a comedy, per se. I guess they call it a road-type movie. I had fun doing it.

Which of your films do fans want to talk to you about the most?

Well, what happens is, you get fans who come up with photographs that they ask you to sign, and it's either a photo of Goodfellas, Casino, Godfather, Cape Fear or Raging Bull. And also Heat.

Which of your lines of dialogue do fans most often quote back to you?

I do hear, "You talkin' to me?" That's the one.

Do you ever find yourself saying it to a mirror?

No, no. [Laughs]

Do you have a favorite scene from your career?

I like the restaurant scene that Michael Mann wrote for Heat, when Al Pacino and I had our first encounter. I really like that scene. It was also your first scene, ever, with Pacino.

What did you like about it?

It was just a very well written scene, and you really wanted to see these two characters have their moment, interacting. It was so good.

It might be my favorite scene of all time. I didn't want it to end. Did you?

Yeah, I was tired. [Laughs] We shot it late at night - we rehearsed it until midnight, then we had a dinner break as I remember, and we didn't start shooting until 12:30, 1 a.m. When it was over, I wanted to go home and sleep.