ROBERT DE NIRO / TRIBECA NYC

ROBERT DE NIRO / TRIBECA NYC

THERE ARE TWO ROBERT DE NIRO. ONE THE LEGENDARY ACTOR, THE MOVIE STAR. AND THEN THERE'S DE NIRO THE TRAVELER AND ENTREPRENEUR. DE NIRO LAUNCHING AND DESIGNING HOTELS VERY SERIOUSLY, AS EVIDENCED BY THE SUPERB GREENWICH HOTEL IN THE DOWNTOWN HOOD OF TriBeCa. ENTIRELY DESIGNED BY HIM, IF REDEFINES THE NOTION OF 'BOUTIQUE HOTEL' AS SOMETHING EXTREMELY PERSONAL AND VERY SOPHISTICATED AT THE SAME TIME. 


THE LOFT PROJECT 

ROBERT DE NIRO + IRA DRUKIER [ THE QUIET CONQUERER OF THE CITY'S BEST HOTEL COLLECTION ] HAD A DREAM. A 2,800 SQUARE-FOOT, THREE-BEDROOM LOFT WITH HUDSON RIVER VIEW.

Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime," said Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. Now anyone with a king's ransom to spare can check into the newly opened penthouse atop De Niro's Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca. The aerie has many of the supersized amenities one would expect from one of New York's priciest luxury suites: a 2,800-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment, a loftlike living room and a 4,000-square-foot terrace with a heated spa pool and Hudson River views. But the hushed decor -- incorporating coffee tables made out of boulders, a centuries-old French farm trough and a stair rail made out of an old rake -- feels closer in spirit to a Provencal farmhouse, or even a Japanese Zendo, than it does to a five-star Gotham hotel suite.

The mastermind of all this sparse african wabi-sabi charm is Axel Vervoordt, the Antwerp-based design guru credited with launching the popular Belgian look characterized by all those rough linen sofas that now populate Restoration Hardware.

De Niro later visited Vervoordt (whose clients have included Sting and Kanye West) at his 12th century castle near Antwerp and asked for his help. The designer and dealer, who wrote the book Wabi Inspirations, proposed a contemplative retreat based on design principles rooted in the Japanese philosophy of wabi. "The idea was to create an installation more than decoration -- to invoke a feeling of silence and space in the middle of New York," says Vervoordt.

Vervoordt and his colleague, architect Tatsuro Miki, took their plan to the commission. "I was very scared, but we tried to explain the wabi spirit: how it's about thinking global and acting local and using objects that are earthy and humble," says Vervoordt. The proposal unanimously was approved. "It was a fabulous moment. Bob [De Niro] embraced me."

Four years later, the penthouse boasts a kitchen stocked with Japanese ceramics and antique cutting boards. It has a refrigerator and oven, but there's also room service from Andrew Carmellini's Locanda Verde in the lobby. Vervoordt and his team spent years tracking down furnishings like an iron fire basket made of joist hangers from the Louvre. Meanwhile, the objectionable copper roof was removed and, in the spirit of wabi, recycled into gourd-shaped lamps for the terrace.

"Tribeca has its own ambiance and feeling," says De Niro. "Axel wanted to respect that and pull in elements of the city. It's more than interior design: It is art."

 

AXEL VERVOORDT / ANTWERP

AXEL VERVOORDT / ANTWERP

ROBERT DE NIRO : MY HOOD

 

Interview interviewed the notoriously sphinx-like De Niro in November of 1993 to discuss his directorial debut, A Bronx Tale. In the interview De Niro discusses his downtown roots. A true native son, De Niro reasserts himself, and his city, as the center of the universe. 





DE NIRO: My mother worked for a woman, Maria Ley-Piscator, who with her husband founded the Dramatic Workshop, which was connected to the New School. My mother did proofreading and typing and stuff or her, and as part of her payment, I was able to take acting classes there on Saturdays when I was 10. This couple had come out of Germany, and the guy went back, but his wife stayed and ran the workshop. It was a big school with a lot of actors, some of whom were able to study acting on the G.I. Bill. Brando and Steiger went there, the generation before me. When I was 15, 16, I studied with Stella Adler at the Conservatory of Acting, then I stopped again and went to the Actors Studio when I was 18. Stella Adler prided herself on teaching the Stanislavsky Method the way it should be, according to her, and I must say I agree with her standpoint. My feelings were, use a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and whatever works for you as an actor is fine.

R: Did watching your father try to make it as an artist have any effect on you?

DE NIRO: I saw how he was living, and so on. Struggling, I guess, for want of a better word. He led a classic New York artist's life, in a loft, always downtown—Great Jones Street, West Broadway, Bleecker Street. What we know and SoHo and NoHo today was mostly industrial in those days.

R: Did you grow up in SoHo?

DE NIRO: Well, I always lived in the Village, but I would go to see my father. He was separated from my mother.

R: Your mother was very active in the SoHo art world in the late '60s, wasn't she?

DE NIRO: Yes, she was. She can probably tell you more about that, though.

R: Your first movie as director was A Bronx Tale. I noticed you dedicated it to your father.
The film's based on Chazz Palminteri's one-man play, about a boy, Calogero, growing up in the Bronx in the '60s and coming under the influence of a neighborhood mobster, Sonny. How did you come across Chazz's play?

DE NIRO: My trainer told me about it, so I told Jane [Rosenthal, De Niro's partner at Tribeca Productions] to go see it when she was in L.A. She said, "Yeah, it's very good, but Chazz wants to play the part of Sonny himself if it's made into a film." At first, I didn't want anything in the ingredients if I did a film of it—I wanted a totally clean slate—but I saw it and liked it and liked Chazz. While he was writing the screenplay I said, "Let me make this clear. If you give it to a studio, they'll play you for it and people will get involved and they'll give the Sonny part to another actor. If you give it to me now, I can guarantee you'll be in it and we'll set it up our own way and I'll have more control, which is what I want. I don't want any producer getting in the way and telling me what to do." I didn't want all that mishmoshing—I knew what had to be done.            

I felt like Chazz had written from such a specific point. He knew that world, he knew what he was writing about. He wrote great characters, had a very good structure. I just had to fill it with the right people, and I didn't want to use any name actors—other than Joe Pesci, who was perfect, because he knows that world too. A few other actors had parts, but mostly we worked with nonprofessionals. I told the casting director, Ellen Chenowith, that I didn't want her to start calling the agents. I said, "It's not going to be the usual way of casting a movie. You have to hit the streets now, a year before we start shooting. You gotta get out there and look. I knowthe people we want are out there. But I don't have time to teach them. It would take forever to do that, so we just have to get the right people, who have a flair and understand what we are doing, and then put them together." That was very important, because that world is like a medieval village. It's a world unto itself—like it says in the film. We had a wonderful story, and the way to make it work was to have people be totally authentic, totally believable. Even their awkwardness would work for the movie. We had a kid, Marco Greco, who runs the Belmont Italian-American Playhouse in the Bronx, send us tapes of local people, and we'd bring some of them in to read. We looked in Philadelphia, we looked in Chicago—anywhere with an urban feeling. I said to the casting director, "Keep putting out the ads, on the radio stations, in the uptown papers, in the local community papers. Keep hammering away. I want to keep looking until the day we start shooting. I don't want to stop until we're totally satisfied."

R: Most of the cast ended up coming from New York, right?

DE NIRO: That's what I wanted ideally, because it's a New York movie. We had some bonuses. Like, I read some actors to play Eddie Mush. They were very good, but then I said, "This has got to be unique." So then we looked at some neighborhood guys who weren't actors, so we were getting closer. Then I said to Chazz, "Maybe Eddie's around. Where is he now? Can we find him?" And eventually Eddie came in. He read once. I aid, "We don't have to look any further. Where are we going to find someone else like that? Never in a million years."

R: How did you find Francis Capra, who plays Calogero at age nine, and Lillo Brancato, who plays him at 17?

DE NIRO: Marco found Lillo up at Jones Beach, where the Italian kids hang out. He came out of the water and started doing imitations of Joe Pesci and me; it was really funny. Francis came to open call. He has an amazing amount of confidence and natural instincts as an actor; he's a very lovable, sweet kid.

R: What about Taral Hicks, who plays Jane, the black girl Calogero falls in love with?

DE NIRO: Taral came from an open call, too. I think she read one of our newspaper ads and told her mother she was going to go. She always had these great hairstyles, and I used to kid her about being at beauty school. She had something about her that we all noticed. She and Lillo were what I wanted. I didn't want people who would be slick.

R: You obviously enjoy finding new talent.

DE NIRO: I love to find new people. It's not for the sake of their being new; it's because if you find someone who perfectly fits a part, that's such a great thing.

R: Why did you decide to play Lorenzo, Calogero's father, yourself?

DE NIRO: I had promised Chazz the part of Sonny, and I said, "Well, I should probably play Lorenzo and help the movie get off the ground more easily." Also, I hadn't done this kind of part, and it's something really different, and I wanted to do it for that reason, because people would expect me to play Sonny. As Lorenzo, I had my own experiences to draw on, and it's something closer to me because of my kids. I have a son Lillo's age.

R: With A Bronx Tale, you've succeeded in making a romantic movie in a very tough part of New York. Do you personally think New York in a romantic city?

DE NIRO: You could call it romantic. We always think Paris or some European city that is more beautiful architecturally is more romantic. New York is more exciting, I guess, than even Paris or London is, for the moment. New York's the center of something; I don't know what, really—the center of a lot of things. With all its problems and chaos and craziness, it's still a great place to live. I can't see myself living anywhere else.

R: Do you think you, Bobby De Niro, can get lost in New York?

DE NIRO: I can get around pretty easily. People don't expect to see me walking around.

R: You can be anonymous in New York.

DE NIRO: That's the great thing about it. People are pretty relaxed and cool in New York.