Crafting A Role Takes More Than Talent
Jimmy Breslin wrote The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight in 1969. The novel was loosely based on “Crazy” Joe Gallo’s attempt to take over the Columbo crime family. The popularity of the book spiked the interest of producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff who optioned the rights to the novel and made it into a movie. In the Spring of 1971 shooting began. Robert De Niro was cast in the role of Mario, an Italian bicyclist who comes to New York City and gloms everything he can get his hands on. De Niro was determined to delve into all aspects of his character including his accent. Unable to get his producers to provide him with the money to fly to Italy to study the language, De Niro used money of his own. His research included using a recorder to tape the locals so that he could begin to master the specific elements of their patois. Selecting articles of clothing that would be worn by Mario, and necessary objects essential to his character, were all a part of his preparation. Like Brando before him, De Niro wrote detailed notations on his script that illuminated his understanding of his character. Rhythm of speech, emotional condition, physical mannerisms were all a part of building his character from the ground up.
De Niro’s father and mother had instilled in him the importance of working diligently to achieve his goals. De Niro, Sr. was by all accounts an accomplished artist with a propensity toward perfection. He could spend an entire day working on a painting and if it did not meet with his expectations he would tear it up and start over. His mother had this very same tenacity in her work. When asked the secret of hers son’s success she replied, “Will. Force of will.”* De Niro’s work ethic was greatly influenced by his parents, who made a lifelong impression on his approach to his craft. When it came to the work he had no patience for “actors” that failed to take it seriously. At auditions he would distance himself from actors that were more concerned with their looks than preparation.
Rejection is a part of the process for all actors. Hard work eventually wins out as he had witnessed with fellow actors and peers, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, who landed impressive roles in The Graduate, and Panic In Needle Park (respectively) before De Niro won roles in Mean Streets and Bang The Drum Slowly. Although his success was to come a bit later he did not dwell on it. He continued to work in experimental theatre and low budget Indie films to stay sharp, auditioning and working as often as he could. When he landed the role of catcher Bruce Pearson in Marc Harris’s, Bang The Drum Slowly, he approached his role with the same attention to detail as he had in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. In addition to taking a trip to Georgia to study the specific Southern dialect spoken by Pearson, he began to study the game of baseball and contacted City College baseball coach Del Bethel for instruction. As the story unfolds we learn that Pearson is stricken with Hodgkins disease. To learn the effects of the disease on the body and how it progresses through its various stages he contacted doctors to gain information that fueled that aspect of his performance.
Robert De Niro’s approach to his craft has become so well know that some have made jokes about it. One that comes to mind: “He turned down the role of Christ in “The Last Temptation Of Christ because he didn’t want to fake the crucifixion.”
There is no doubt that his parents were a major influence on him, but another of the people who contributed immensely to his approach to his craft was the late, great acting teacher, Stella Adler. Ms. Adler provided him with the tools that are necessary for achieving truth in acting. Attention to detail, researching the time and place in which you live, bringing all of yourself to the work, fleshing out the relationships, are all a part of crafting a role and Adler conveyed that to her students constantly.
No one can argue that talent is a necessary ingredient for success but it is not something that you can hang your hat on. All great actors develop a way of working that is personal to them. No two work exactly alike but the one thing they all have in common is attention to detail and ability to craft a role. It’s solely up to you the kind of actor you want to be.
*Robert De Niro, A LIFE, by Shawn Levy, published in the United States by Crown Archetype. copywright 2014 by Shawn Levy