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"Robert De Niro bit my face off!”: How I learned to work with our greatest living actor without coming unglued

Even better than acting with De Niro was making him laugh. And my "Raging Bullwinkle" routine did it every time


Illeana Douglas
November 23, 2015 1:30AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies"

Everywhere I go, every movie I do, every relationship I have ever been in, every red light I’ve ever been stopped at, I am invariably asked: “What’s it like to work with Robert De Niro?”

I’ll be at an airport with guards going through my bags, making sure I’m not a threat, and suddenly one of the TSA folks will look at me very earnestly and say, Can I ask you something? And I think it’s going to be about my illegally stashed weapon, or the pot brownie someone planted on me, and instead he or she will say, “Hey! What’s it like to get your face bitten off by Robert De Niro?” I’m sorry, is that a security question? I’m pretty sure it’s not.

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A week before Cape Fear came out, I went on David Letterman’s  show. In Cape Fear, I played Lori, the jilted colleague of Nick Nolte who is attacked by Max Cady (Robert De Niro) after he picks her up in a bar. In the pre- interview for Letterman, I went over all my questions with the producer, but when I sat down, Letterman surprised me out of the gate by going off script and asking, “So what’s it like? Having Robert De Niro beat the crap out of you?”

And people always get an interesting look on their face when they ask me. Like I’m going to offer up some amazing insight. Something profound: “He covers himself with soot ashes, then incants the words of Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares.” Something mystical: “He only works at sunrise, with his body facing east.” Something ridiculous: “Well in between takes of getting beaten up we did Three Stooges routines.” I’ve always thought that if I did say any of those things except for the last one, which is actually true, people would smile knowingly at me and say, “Yes. That’s what I thought.”

People’s curiosity about this matter is a testament to one of our greatest living actors, and since it’s my legacy forever to be the girl who got her face bitten off by him in Cape Fear, I’m going to try to answer the question. So what is it like to work with Robert De Niro?

To give this some context, I’m going to go back to acting school— that first acting school I went to, where the headmistress thought I had no future. I heard that she was later run over by a bus. I had nothing to do with it, of course. But maybe just as she couldn’t see my huge talent right in front of her, she couldn’t see that enormous bus coming at her, either. My friend and fellow acting student was Elias Koteas. Elias is a wonderful actor who has created some edgy performances in films such as Crash, The Thin Red Line, and Zodiac. He is very serious, and he had a lot of ambitions, but his main ambition back then was to be in a movie with Robert De Niro, hopefully one directed by Martin Scorsese. He was obsessed with all things Robert De Niro. I mean, he would make me eat at the Belmore Cafeteria, because “That’s where Travis Bickle ate in Taxi Driver.” When I told Elias that I had never actually seen Taxi Driver, he was outraged and dragged me to a double feature of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver so that I could experience the genius of his favorite actor, Robert De Niro. I remember coming out into the light after seeing both films back to back and thinking, Jesus, I want my mommy! Take me to see Lassie Come Home or a Danny Kaye musical. Life can’t be that dark. Elias just laughed. He was wearing an army jacket and contemplating getting a Mohawk at the time. (I’m kidding.)

Part of the reason Elias thought it was his destiny to work with Robert De Niro was that Elias bore a striking resemblance to him. He had all his mannerisms down, too, which made the comparison more obvious. He was not above stalking him, either. Elias started lurking around the set of The King of Comedy, which was filming near our school, trying to get spotted by De Niro so he could hopefully get a part in the movie purely based on their resemblance. Now, unbeknown then to Elias, The King of Comedy is a movie about a stalker and Elias was spotted by De Niro, and he actually thought he might be a stalker, and someone from production told him to get the hell away from the set. This, of course, thrilled Elias. It was a sign that it was only a matter of time before he fulfilled his destiny and worked with De Niro for real.

I just wanted to be in show business. I thought my destiny was to do comedy. Be on a sitcom. At the time, I couldn’t dream a dream big enough that included working with Robert De Niro or Martin Scorsese. I was a comedian. How would I ever in a million years end up working with Robert De Niro or Martin Scorsese? After I was in The Last Temptation of Christ, New York Stories, Goodfellas, Guilty by Suspicion, Cape Fear— five movies in a row, all with Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro— I ran into Elias, and he good-naturedly accosted me. “You!” he said. “How did you end up with my life?”

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Elias did eventually work with Marty on Shutter Island, and I was thrilled for him.

It was early in 1989 that I first met Robert De Niro. It was right after the premiere of New York Stories. I was in a dark hall on my way to Martin Scorsese’s apartment to discuss being in a movie called Wiseguys, later changed to be called Goodfellas. At the time, Marty was living in a very tall, very modern building on West 57th Street named Metropolitan Tower, nicknamed the Razor Blade Building. The elevator that took you to his penthouse apartment on the seventy-fifth floor was so fast it was like a rocket launch. After you lurched to a stop and got off , the effect was always the same: complete disorientation, nausea, and confusion about which dimension you were in. Everything was pitch-black, as if you were in an air raid, so your eyes had to adjust like a raccoon’s as you made your way down the hall. There was also this loud screeching sound— day and night— that Marty assured me was the wind whistling through the glass and steel, but it made you feel as if the building were going to crash to the ground.

So, there I am, making my way down the dark hall, and the wind is blowing like a haunted mansion at Knott’s Scary Farm—Marty’s Spooky Hallway Ride— and who did I see coming the other way but Robert De Niro. There was no official word that Robert De Niro was in the movie, or even considering being in the movie, so I got a secret little thrill that maybe that’s why he was leaving Marty’s. I smiled politely at him as I passed by and respectfully and quietly said, “Hello.” He politely nodded back, said, “Hello,” and we both kept walking. I did notice that he was wearing large horn-rimmed glasses that I thought made him look very sophisticated. Like Clark Kent. It was a good look.

Marty opened the door for me, and I said, “I just said hello to Robert De Niro. Does that mean he’s going to be in the movie?”

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And Marty looked a little concerned and said, “You recognized him?”

I laughed, and said, “Of course. He’s Robert De Niro!”

And he said, “But he was wearing a disguise.”

And I said, “Marty, he was wearing glasses.”

And Marty said, “I know, he thinks that’s a disguise.”

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And I said, “Well, you might want to tell him it’s not working, because he looks like Robert De Niro with glasses on.”

I’m not sure if Marty did tell him, but I never saw him wear those Clark Kent glasses again.

The casting of Goodfellas was top-secret stuff. I was privy to hearing about and sometimes even seeing every actor or actress that was even in consideration, but I was sworn to secrecy. Listen, I knew that I was in consideration, and Marty wouldn’t confirm or deny if I was going to be in the movie, and we were in a relationship. That’s how top-secret it was! There was a building excitement that Marty would be reunited with both Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, but names like Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, and John Malkovich were also being mentioned. I let the De Niro casting issue drop, but it did not seem accidental that The Godfather had paid Marty a visit.

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The next time I saw Robert De Niro was on the set of Goodfellas. I became a fixture on set, sitting quietly behind or near Marty absorbing everything that happened on what is often called the best film of the ’90s. I was afraid not to go, because I would miss something. One day they were shooting at the Copacabana, which was near my apartment, and Marty said, “We’re doing something pretty interesting today. You should come down and see it.”

It was of course the famous Steadicam shot entering from the back of the restaurant. Another day we were jammed into the Hawaii Kai on Broadway. It was ancient, and inside everything was made of straw and grass. Marty said, “Careful, this place has fleas”— and let me tell you, it did. I was at a booth watching Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta act the “But I’m funny how? Funny like a clown?” scene. And then there was Mr. De Niro. Word was spreading about Goodfellas, and actors, mobsters, you name it were requesting if they, too, could come down just to get a glimpse of Robert De Niro. In some neighborhoods a carnival-like atmosphere developed and folks were having cookouts and sitting in lawn chairs outside places where they were shooting. It was like they were a part of the atmosphere and Marty harnessed that energy and put it into the film.

It’s hard to explain the impact of Robert De Niro at the time he and Marty were making Goodfellas. He was a god in New York. I mean, there were actors— Vincent Gallo, for one— who had agreed to be extras just to brag that they were in Goodfellas with him. I had just been watching and had been happy with that, but now I was going to be in a few scenes with him. In one scene, I was going to have a line right before his. Elias was right. How did I end up with his life?

Marty created an atmosphere on the set that was fun and homey, like a large Italian family, but the scenes with De Niro always changed that dynamic. His presence brought a tension and energy that I had never experienced before or have since. When he walked on set everyone stopped talking, and it was like, boom, something important is about to happen. We were shooting the famous Christmas scene in the bar where Robert De Niro chews out Johnny Roastbeef for having bought a new Cadillac. All of Brooklyn was outside cheering—as I’ve said, people were having barbecues and drinking wine and applauding every time an actor walked into or out of the bar. It was past midnight, but nobody wanted to leave. When they were shooting that scene and De Niro opened the door and revealed the Cadillac there were hundreds of people to the side that the camera had to avoid. Inside I had a front-row seat watching Robert De Niro. Enough time to get pretty nervous because my first line in Goodfellas was coming up. We had been shooting in the bar a few days, and there was going to be this very long, complicated tracking shot, with most of the cast involved, and I had a line during it to Julie Garfield, which was “If I even look at anyone else, he’ll kill me.” The camera then holds for our reaction, and then moves on to De Niro and Joe Pesci, and the scene continues. It was like an eight-minute shot. We rehearsed it almost all day. Finally Marty said they were ready to shoot. And even though I had told myself, Don’t screw this shot up. Don’t do anything phony. Don’t do anything that makes Robert De Niro go over to Marty and say, “How did that bad actor get in my movie?” I didn’t quite pull it off. The first stupid thing I did was to try to get a laugh. I thought, Let me goose my one line in the scene like a bad actor. So the camera is tracking along, there are twenty people in the frame, all these actions. Out of the corner of my eye I see the camera getting to me, and all of a sudden I become Eve Arden. “If he catches me with anyone, he’ll kill me!” then I downed a glass of wine to button it. It was dreadful, of course, awful and hammy. I knew it immediately, and so did Marty. He yelled out, “Cut. Cut. Technical difficulties.” Everyone started groaning. Everyone else had been brilliant. Marty came over to me and whispered into my ear so no one could hear it but me: “Don’t do that again.” Then he laughed, “Sorry, everyone, sorry,” running back to the camera, “Our fault. Our fault. Technical problems.” Twenty-thousand dollar mistake, Marty later told me. He never let anyone know but me, but he cared enough that he wanted every actor in the frame to be perfect.

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People always ask me, what did you learn from Marty? A thousand things. That was one. Sensitivity. A love for actors and their processes. I did it right the next time. Wait, the next hundred times, because we continued to shoot the same scene for the next fourteen hours!

There was a lot of downtime between shots, and this is where I learned the first surprising thing about what it’s like to work with Robert De Niro: He’s really funny! He loves to laugh. I was in a sketch-comedy group at the time called Manhattan Punch Line, and I dabbled in stand-up. I had a couple routines that Marty was aware of, so in between takes he brought De Niro over to hear them. I used to do a pretty good Shelley Winters impression. She was then a blowsy older actress with a kind of warbly voice who had an association with the Actors Studio. She would make the talk-show rounds babbling about her association with De Niro or Marilyn Monroe. She had this habit of sort of rubbing her rather large breasts and saying, “When Bobby and I were at the Studio with Marilyn, I taught Marilyn how to be sexy.” So I would do that impression for De Niro, adding, “When Bobby and I did Bloody Mama, he asked me for advice, and I said, ‘Bobby, don’t eat fish off the truck; go with the chicken. Here, have some of my breasts.’ ”

I had another routine called “Raging Bullwinkle.” Basically, cartoon characters Rocky and Bullwinkle acting out a scene from Raging Bull as Jake and Joe LaMotta. So with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci both staring me down, I did my Rocky the Flying Squirrel. “You’re nuts! You let this girl ruin your life!”

Then Bullwinkle, “Rocky. Did you fuck my wife?”

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Then Squirrel, “How could you ask me that? I’m your brother.”

People ask me if making Cape Fear was scary. No. Doing “Raging Bullwinkle” for Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci was much scarier! But I got my laugh. I made Robert De Niro laugh. And if my only interaction with De Niro had been being in Goodfellaswatching him work, getting to say a line before him, making him laugh, I would have been content. Little did I know. Irwin Winkler produced Goodfellas, and he wanted me to audition for a part in Guilty by Suspicion, which he was directing. I didn’t get the part for which I had auditioned, but Irwin still wanted me in the movie, because it dealt with the Communist blacklist, and my grandparents, Melvyn and Helen Gahagan Douglas— who was the first Democratic woman elected to Congress from California—had been in the thick of all of that. He offered me the part of Nan, Daryl Zanuck’s assistant. It was a small part, but I would have a couple scenes with Robert De Niro, so I said sure. This is where I learned the next interesting thing about what it’s like to work with Robert De Niro: It’s not so easy. It’s like waking up and realizing you’re on a tightrope one hundred stories up with the world’s greatest tightrope artist and wondering how the hell you got there.

There was an actor in Guilty by Suspicion who found himself on the tightrope. He couldn’t believe he was acting with Robert De Niro. He just thought, I am not good enough, and it threw him. He was so intimidated that he just froze in De Niro’s presence. The scene would begin and he’d start flop-sweating, and it was brutal. He confided in me that he was pretty sure that De Niro thought he was miscast. He kept saying, “I don’t know why I’m here.” No amount of my encouraging him could boost his confidence.

I saw this happen on Goodfellas a couple of times, too. Actors would “go up” on their lines— they’d forget what they were saying, or suddenly be like I once had been: really, really bad. It happened to me with my only line in the movie! It suddenly occurs to you, Oh, he’s like the world’s greatest actor. How long is it going to take him to discover that I am a hack? You have to work against this fear that he is judging you in the scene. So, on Guilty by Suspicion, every time I was scared or thought I was awful or didn’t deserve to be acting with Robert De Niro, I remembered making him laugh on the set of Goodfellas. I discovered making him laugh made me less intimidated of him. Pretty soon every time he saw me he expected me to do something funny— and now I couldn’t wait to see him. It almost got me into trouble.

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One day we were shooting a scene, and I only had one line in it, something like “He’s not in,” and that was the day that Steven Spielberg and Mike Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists Agency, decided to visit the set. Imagine you’re doing a scene with the world’s greatest director and world’s greatest talent agent watching you and you have one line in it. Pitiful. Now, I knew Bob’s next movie was going to be the remake of Cape Fear, and Steven at the time was possibly going to be directing it. So we’re doing the scene, and De Niro walks up to my desk, looking for Daryl Zanuck in the movie, and says, “Is he in?” And I have to say very solemnly, “He’s not in.” Well, De Niro turned to walk away, and I gave it a couple beats and then yelled out to Ovitz, “What do you think, Mike? Have you seen enough? Ready to sign me? When do we start Cape Fear, Steven?”

It was pretty ballsy—we were still shooting the scene— but being a comedian at heart, I went for the joke. Luckily for me, Bob busted up, so everyone else followed.

There was a poster shop on Hollywood Boulevard— sadly, it’s no longer there— that I went to because I wanted to give Bob a thank-you gift after filming ended. I had this small part in Guilty by Suspicion, yet he went out of his way to be gracious to me, and I really appreciated it. So I was in there, looking around this dusty shop, and I actually found lobby cards from the original Cape Fear, so I gave them to Bob as a wrap gift. We were standing outside on the old Goldwyn lot where my grandfather had once been under contract. I remember De Niro’s tearing the paper off and smiling that wonderful, iconic smile as he looked at the cards. Back-to-back movies with Robert De Niro. Not bad.

I went home to New York, and things had changed— now Marty is directing Cape Fear. He tells me that there is a part that I’m right for, but that it’s not up to him. I will have to audition for Robert De Niro. If Bob doesn’t think I’m right, I won’t get it. I watched the original movie, with Barrie Chase playing the part of the drifter Diane Taylor, which in the version Marty was directing would be Lori, an attorney who gets involved with Nick Nolte. Again the casting was top secret, but I knew I could do this part if I got the chance. I auditioned first for the same casting director from New York Stories, Ellen Lewis, and then it was time for De Niro to approve me. There wasn’t really a script at that point so we improvised some scenes, specifically the bar scene, and I was cast in the movie. I remember everything about that audition, including what I wore. It was a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar and a short black skirt. The only thing that changed when we filmed the scene was the color of the skirt. Marty liked the Peter Pan collar because he thought it made me look like a nice Catholic girl, which I was. Still am!

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Because of Robert De Niro and Cape Fear, people know my name. And if they don’t know my name they always recognize my face— probably because of the harrowing and controversial rape scene that we shot, where part of my face is bitten off. A lot of folks thought the scene was gratuitously violent. I can only say, sadly, that it was based on actual events Bob had researched. To make it truthful, I also spent time with a criminal attorney in Florida’s Broward County Court house doing my own research to prepare for the scene and its aftermath. After a seventeen- hour day and fourteen hours of shooting that scene, Bob went over to Marty and said, “I think she’s done.” I went back to my hotel room and cried. I had gone to places I didn’t know I was capable of. On the second day, the mood on set was so somber that Bob and I lightened things up by doing Three Stooges routines between takes just to let everyone know I was OK, that we were . . . acting.

Excerpted from "I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies" by Illeana Douglas. Copyright © by Illeana Douglas. Reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.

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