Here, with Orson Welles and Spike Lee on the walls, and James Dean and Natalie Wood on the doors to the toilets, is where Robert De Niro might have died. In October, a pipe bomb addressed to the actor was sent to the New York warehouse where his film production company hugs an atrium dotted with vintage movie posters.
A security guard found the suspicious package in the mailroom at 5am and police vehicles swarmed the Tribeca neighbourhood before dawn. De Niro got a call from security early that morning telling him the pipe bomb was being removed. “Naturally you are concerned,” he says phlegmatically. “It’s just what it is. Just be careful.”
Cesar Sayoc, a bodybuilder, pizza deliveryman and fanatical supporter of Donald Trump, was subsequently arrested in Florida and charged with sending a total of 13 pipe bombs to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other critics of the president. De Niro says only: “There are a lot of crazy people out there. Everybody’s got their reasons.”
How did the double Oscar-winner find himself on a hit list alongside Obama and Clinton? The short answer is that De Niro has become one of the most colourful, pugnacious and unsubtle decriers of the Trump presidency.
The late politicisation of De Niro is all the more remarkable because of his reputation as a man of few words, notorious for responding to journalists’ questions with terse monosyllables. He stormed out of interviews with the BBC’s Barry Norman – who rashly gave chase – and with the Radio Times, claiming he was being asked questions with a “negative inference”. The New York Times mused in 1993: “No one, perhaps, is better suited to being an actor and less suited to being a personality.”
Yet when he greets the Guardian he is warm, generous with his time and even garrulous, at least on the subject of Trump. Wearing a black T-shirt, he relaxes into a chair in a personal office so full of memorabilia it resembles a Robert De Niro museum. He points out a photo of himself with Nelson Mandela, a Godfather poster signed by the cast and a prop from his upcoming film The Irishman, directed by his old friend Martin Scorsese. The brooding, saturnine artist has evolved into a genial grandfather. Perhaps it comes as a relief, at 75, to finally not be asked about himself, his method or whether his best work is behind him.
“I’m older now and I’m just upset about what’s going on,” he explains. “When you see someone like [Trump] becoming president, I thought, well, OK, let’s see what he does – maybe he’ll change. But he just got worse. It showed me that he is a real racist. I thought maybe as a New Yorker he understands the diversity in the city but he’s as bad as I thought he was before – and much worse. It’s a shame. It’s a bad thing in this country.”
Trump, who launched his political career by propagating conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace, has drawn moral equivalence between white nationalists and anti-fascist protesters and turned back the clock on racial diversity in the White House. De Niro, who has six mixed-race children, admits: “Yeah, I worry, and one of my kids is gay, and he worries about being treated a certain way. We talk about it.”
Like many white liberals, he says, he was “naive” about Obama’s two election wins and their implication of a post-racial America. “I felt we were on a new thing. I didn’t realise how against him certain people were – racially against him, offended that he was there.”
Would he call Trump a white supremacist? “Yes,” De Niro says instantly. And what about a fascist? “I guess that’s what it leads to. If he had his way, we’d wind up in a very bad state in this country. I mean, the way I understand it, they laughed at Hitler. They all look funny. Hitler looked funny, Mussolini looked funny and other dictators and despots look funny.
“What bothers me is that there will be people in the future who see him as an example and they’ll be affected in some way, but they’ll be a lot smarter and have many more colours to their personality and be more mercurial and become someone with the same values as he has but able to get much further and do more damage as a despot. That’s my worry. There are people who look up to him: ‘I want to be like him.’ But they’ll do it much better and they’ll be more smart about it.”
De Niro is speaking just after Trump has described his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, as a “rat” for cooperating with federal investigators, prompting news networks to play clips from some of the actor’s greatest mobster hits, such as Goodfellas, The Godfather Part II and The Untouchables. He muses: “I mean, a mob boss calls people ‘a rat’. That means you lied and somebody snitched on you, so you did commit the crime. So that’s interesting and he makes mobsters look bad because there are mobsters who will shake your hand and keep their word. He can’t even do that.
“He’s a con artist. He’s a huckster. He’s a scam artist. And what bothers me is that people don’t see that. I think that The Apprentice had a lot to do with that, which I never saw but once, maybe. It’s all smoke and mirrors, it’s all bullsh*t.”
Trump and De Niro have some things in common. Both are entrepreneurs who own hotels and restaurants. Both are in their 70s. And both are New Yorkers who deliver blunt insults. But they have met just once, De Niro recalls, at a baseball game. They shook hands but that was it. “I never had an interest in meeting him. He’s a buffoon.” De Niro would not go as far as banning Trump from one of the restaurants he owns but vows: “If he walked into a restaurant that I was in, I would leave. I would not want to be there.”
In 2016, De Niro made a video in which he called Trump a punk, a pig and a dog, and said he would like to punch him in the face. Last June, at the Tony awards in New York, the actor took the stage and declared: “I’m gonna say one thing. fu*k Trump!” The primal scream won a standing ovation. The president responded the next day on Twitter, calling De Niro a “low IQ individual” who had taken “too many shots to the head”. There were also voices who warned that such profanity-laced outbursts were counterproductive.
Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, responded that anger is not a strategy and spewing four-letter words is falling into a trap. “When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him,” Bruni wrote. “You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves. Many voters don’t hear your arguments or the facts, which are on your side. They just wince at the din.”
De Niro is aware of the criticism but is not entirely repentant. “I won’t do it again because that’s not the way to get things done. [But] I felt that this is something I should say because it’s basic. Trump is basic. He’s just a guy who just thinks he can rattle off his mouth and say anything. Well, I want to say the same thing to him: there are people who are going to say the same thing back to you, no matter who you are.”