Aging Bull: Robert De Niro Remains Ferocious as He Spars with Édgar Ramírez in Hands of Stone

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I had just arrived on the Croisette for this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was having lunch at my regular table at the Brasserie du Casino, a lovely little eatery across from the red-carpeted Palais des Festivals, when marching orders from the editors at MovieMaker came thundering through my smartphone and sent a tingle down my spine: see Robert De Niro’s new film Hands of Stone and interview him, along with co-star Édgar Ramírez, about their acting process.

This was a daunting assignment. First, I had only two days to prepare to interview De Niro, the most respected, awarded and critically acclaimed actor of his generation. Second, whether fair or not, De Niro has a notorious reputation for being a challenging subject and has been described as “difficult,” “obnoxious” and “sphinx-like,” walking out of interviews if he doesn’t like the questions. Piers Morgan once called on journalists to boycott De Niro, saying he was a “bloody nightmare” and “one step removed from interviewing a corpse.” Nevertheless, I figured I would somehow rise to the occasion, so I texted back, “Yes, I can!” and proceeded to hunker down in a back corner of the café with my computer and a series of double espressos.

Born in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Robert Anthony De Niro studied method acting in the early ’60s with mentors Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, and then launched a five-decade career that includes outstanding performances in such seminal films as The Godfather Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), Raging Bull (1980), King of Comedy (1983), Cape Fear (1991), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), to name only a handful of his 100-plus credits. His reputation as an immensely talented, intense, innovative actor was cemented long ago, making it all the more remarkable that De Niro has not slowed down at all in recent years, and in fact has expanded his range with solid performances in comedies such as Meet the Parents (2000) and The Intern (2015).

Elia Kazan, who directed De Niro in The Last Tycoon (1976), wrote in his memoirs: “Bobby is one of a select number of actors I’ve directed who work hard at their trade. He is more meticulous. He’s very imaginative. He figures everything out both inside and outside.”

Robert De Niro at the Cannes Film Festival 2016. Photograph by François Berthier

But how was I going to get De Niro to open up about his process? I was getting tingles down my spine again, but not the good kind.

The next afternoon, I lined up behind a hundred other privileged film professionals and was admitted to a hush-hush screening of Hands of Stone. Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, the film is about the rise and fall of boxing superstar, Roberto Durán, played by Édgar Ramírez, and his trainer, Ray Arcel, played by De Niro.

An hour and a half later, we filed out of the theater, squinting in the bright sunshine of southern France. I, for one, thought the movie was damn good. (Full disclosure, I like boxing. Though I abhor the serious injury and death that can occur in the ring, I don’t agree with the abolitionists who want to outlaw the sport. Ever heard of Prohibition?)

Ramírez gives a powerful, nuanced performance as the ferocious, conflicted Durán. But De Niro somehow becomes Ray Arcel for this movie. His gestures, his walk, his glances, are minimalist, and all totally believable. What’s more, as soon as De Niro appears on screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him. How does he do it? That’s what I needed to find out.

On the crowded sidewalk, I spotted the film’s producer, the venerable Harvey Weinstein. Feeling brazen, I approached and told him about my assignment. I asked him why he got involved with Hands of Stone in the first place. The great Harvey gave me a beleaguered look, then sighed incredulously, as if the answer was numbingly obvious.

“Because this movie doesn’t try to be high art,” said Weinstein. “It’s wonderful entertainment for all audiences, like one of those great old boxing movies you gotta love.”

“Like The Harder They Fall?”

“Yeah, or Body and Soul.”

Harvey knows movies, no doubt about it. I nodded in polite agreement and hesitated, wanting to ask the maestro if he thought Hands of Stone would one day be join the pantheon of classic boxing movies. But my moment had slipped away and Harvey was already holding court with others.

Weinstein is right about Hands of Stone being a crowd-pleaser. Confirmation came the following evening when the festival had scheduled an out-of-competition world premiere screening of the film in the beautifully appointed 2,300-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière. A French producer friend had an extra ticket for me, so I donned my tuxedo, tightened the requisite black tie around the collar of my white shirt and buffed my black shoes. I wanted to see the film again with a real audience of film lovers.

When the credits rolled this time, Hands of Stone received a rousing ovation, a massive outpouring of good will. It didn’t hurt that De Niro was in attendance, having arrived in Cannes that day to support the film. Before the screening, the festival had shown an impressive tribute reel about De Niro’s career and he had spoken briefly to the packed house. Now with the lights up and De Niro standing with fellow cast and crew, the black-tie, décolleté, mostly French audience was up on their beautifully clad feet, cheering ardently.

No doubt about it, the French love Robert De Niro. Still, it was amazing to witness firsthand the power of cinema that night, those thousands of clapping hands acknowledging how much this 72-year-old actor had touched each life with his work.

I continued prepping for the big interview, watching for the umpteenth time Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) starring De Niro as Jake LaMotta, the gold standard against which all boxing films are measured. I also checked out archival tape of Roberto Durán’s greatest fights. And I kept thinking about Harvey’s off-the-cuff remark about those “great old boxing movies.” So I rewatched Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947), King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) and Mark Robson’s The Harder They Fall (1956), Humphrey Bogart’s last film, adapted from the novel by Budd Schulberg, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for On the Waterfront (1954).

What the “great old boxing movies” had in common were deeply moving personal stories, more about inner strength than powerful fists. That took me to the spate of more recent films that deal with “the sweet science,” beginning with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976) and continuing through last year with Ryan Coogler’s Creed.

HANDS OF STONE

Center: Durán (Édgar Ramírez), Arcel (Robert De Niro) and Panamanian boxing promoter Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades) in the ring. Photograph by Rico Torres / Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Regardless of box-office results or critical assessment, Hands of Stone can hold its head high in this company, because on a purely visual level it thrillingly captures the violent dance of two adversaries as their gloved fists let fly in a 24-square-foot ring. The film is about much more than fisticuffs, however. It’s a compelling story of two very different men, each facing insurmountable challenges.

The big day was upon me and, after going through a few security checks, I arrived early at a swank VIP lounge atop the Palais des Festivals with magnificent views of Cannes and its coastline. I was scheduled to sit down for a 30-minute one-on-two with De Niro and Ramírez, as well as squeeze in a chat with their writer/director Jonathan Jacubowicz. Things were running late, though, and their handler apologized for the delay. An hour and a half later I introduced myself with a handshake and launched into my prepared questions, asking De Niro right off the bat if Raging Bull had informed his performance as Ray Arcel in Hands of Stone.

“Not really,” he replied, “I was on the other side of the ropes this time. Managing a fighter, not being one. So it’s different.”

I asked about how his character, Arcel, bends to the will of the mob, quite unlike De Niro’s own famous mobster roles.

“Yeah, I guess so,” said De Niro, whom I found to be a modest, unimposing man. He looks you straight in the eye with a New York-bred intensity and speaks in a clipped, no-frills manner. He certainly does not mince words, and responds with precious few. I felt him sizing me up, wondering when I’d cut the crap and come up with a question that he’d never heard before. De Niro rarely smiles, keeping his face set somewhere between a cool grimace and a friendly frown.

Ray Arcel also grew up in New York City, and became the greatest cornerman in the history of the sport, training more than 2,000 boxers, including 20 world champions. In 1953 he was attacked by a goon with a lead pipe and suffered a serious concussion. He later arranged fights for ABC-TV, and expanded his role from manager to matchmaker. That put him on a collision course with mob boss Frankie Carbo (played by the always salutary John Turturro), who at the time had close ties with a rival network. Arcel came close to death, but upon recovery announced his retirement from boxing.

(L-R) A one-two punch: De Niro’s Arcel supports Durán both psychologically and physically in Hands Of Stone

Hands of Stone takes up Arcel’s life story 18 years later when he returned to boxing in 1972 to work with the gifted Durán. Training the Panamanian fighter without compensation (to keep the mob off his case), Arcel was more than a coach, he was a philosopher, circumspect and cerebral, the type of role De Niro doesn’t usually get to play. Right?

“Yes, Arcel had an elegance about him,” De Niro said. “I had met him on the set of Raging Bull, but that was just a handshake, a how-are-you thing. I wish I could have known him better and spent more time with him because he was so interesting. For this film I went back to the old fight footage, studying how Arcel moved in the corner, how he talked to his fighters. And I read everything I could about his career. Then I met his wife [Stephanie, played in the film by Ellen Barkin] and spent some time with her. She gave me some insight into him. I also studied a few audio recordings of Arcel speaking.”

I knew De Niro had attached himself to the film years before, so I asked what attracted him to the project.

“It just evolved,” said De Niro. “I liked Jonathan, I liked the first movie he had done, I liked the energy. So I got involved, even though I wasn’t sure about the character.”

Later I would ask Jakubowicz, a likeable, lucid Venezuelan, if he was apprehensive about wading into the very stylized world of boxing cinema after having made only one previous feature film, a brisk thriller shot on hand-held cameras entitled Sequestrado Express (2005) that recounted a ruthless kidnapping that takes place in his native Caracas.

“No,” Jakubowicz told me, “for me it was more a father-son story between Durán and Arcel. Yes, the film was anchored in the world of professional prize-fighting, but I wanted to focus on these two fascinating men, one from the slums of Panama and the other from New York City, and how they changed each other’s lives.”

Jakubowicz had watched all those “great old boxing movies” too, and he felt confident he could handle it, inspired by those works but not wanting to imitate them.

I was curious how Jakubowicz convinced De Niro to commit to working with the sophomore filmmaker.

“We hit it off right away,” said Jakubowicz, “but it was the script that made it happen. I had worked hard researching the story and Robert was convinced it was a role he could get his teeth into.”

Usher Raymond stars in HANDS OF STONE

Usher Raymond stars as Sugar Ray Leonard in Hands of Stone. Photograph by Rico Torres / Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

With De Niro, I put away my prepared questions, which weren’t really working, and decided to just wing it. The more spontaneous the query, the more comfortable he seemed to feel. “Why had it taken over five years to get the movie made?” I asked.

“They had approached Durán and gotten his OK,” De Niro said. “I had made a handshake deal to be part of the production, and at first they were talking about shooting it in Puerto Rico. That didn’t happen, so I said they should talk to the Panamanian government and get them involved, offer tax breaks, all that, and that’s what they did. But movies take a long time to set up.”

Jakubowicz had told me that, despite everything in the movie being scripted, he let the actors go where they wanted to, in terms of improvisation. Was that constructive for De Niro’s performance?

“I liked his approach,” said De Niro, “because you follow your instincts, and you go off, but you can always cut out what’s not good. It was a bonus that he wanted to see where scenes would go. It gives you a certain freedom. And he doesn’t have to use any of it, so you have nothing to lose.”

Does De Niro like boxing? “My parents were artists,” he said. “So I didn’t grow up going to fights. I got into it because of the movies. I like the training—it’s good for you, great exercise. I have a ring that I should use more than I do, but I work out in other ways. It’s a matter of time constraints. Boxing is a terrific sport and I do go to important fights when I’m free.”

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