People often ask me if I ever get nervous or starstruck. The answer is “not often” but I was almost overcome with excitement last weekend in anticipation of interviewing Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro onstage at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre. I’d talked to both men before, but not in such a high-profile setting, and not together.
The occasion was an American Cinematheque event that screened nine movies they’ve made with each other, including an encore showing of their latest, The Irishman, which had its L.A. debut some weeks ago at the Egyptian before finding a permanent home on Netflix.
I wasn’t nervous about Scorsese; he loves to talk. It’s not De Niro’s favorite thing to do, however, especially in front of a television camera or an audience. He’s not inarticulate—not at all—just shy and nervous. The most relaxed conversation I ever had with him occurred 25 years ago when he and Al Pacino agreed to be interviewed together for Entertainment Tonight. They were promoting their first costarring film, Heat, and I got the only tandem interview because they felt comfortable with me.
I didn’t know what to expect on Saturday, but I counted on Scorsese’s presence to put De Niro at ease. My wife Alice and I were seated, hidden from the audience on the side aisle of the theater. Our guests would be arriving at the entrance just footsteps away. People with headsets paced back and forth and I tried to stay calm.
Then, no more than two or three minutes before show time they walked in. Marty gave me a friendly hello and Alice started chatting with him, leaving me free to schmooze with Bob—yes, I got to call him Bob. I made small talk with the actor and reminded him that our chat would cover all nine of their collaborations. (Both men have been on the promotional trail and can’t be expected to remember who’s who or what’s what.)
Moments later I was introduced to the packed house and decided not to bother with lengthy introductions. As I brought them on stage the audience rose to its feet for a prolonged and enthusiastic ovation.
The hour was 6:00 and I knew I had exactly 45 minutes to cover a lot of movies and a relationship that dates back to boyhood. In fact, that was my first question: what were their first impressions of each other? We were off and running.
That was the only question I had thought about in advance. As proof that I don’t script myself I forgot to ask about Goodfellas in sequence but fortunately realized my mistake and backtracked.
One thing I’d never thought about asking was how much audience and critical reaction means to them. As we surveyed their pictures I realized that Scorsese spoke each time about reviews and feedback—from critics, studio chiefs, and cash customers—in a self-deprecating, even fatalistic, way. As much as he is respected, even revered, he has had to deal with failure more than once. He described each jab as “a little death.”
Like the director, De Niro puts himself on the line time after time to be judged. He used the word “hurtful” with respect to reviews. Then, to my surprise, he said he welcomes honest critiques and learns from them, knowing they will be honest when even friends aren’t for fear of hurting his feelings.
I peered down at my watch and saw that time was up, but I didn’t cut off the panel until I received a signal from someone on the theater staff. Both gentlemen were whisked outside to their waiting cars and thanked me along the way.
Then I had to catch my breath and get ahold of myself. I just spent three-quarters of an hour with two of the most talented men on the planet. They were candid and forthcoming beyond my expectations. And we had just steamrolled our way through nine unforgettable movie milestones covering my entire adult life. No wonder I was gobsmacked!