Spies like us
Robert De Niro tells David Thomson why he has become hooked on spooks and why pretending to be other people is strange
Friday June 22, 2007
how are you?" You’d know the voice anywhere. It’s harsh, streetwise and
intimate – and there’s a streak of irony or teasing riding on top of
it. It’s one of the greatest voices of our time. It’s the voice that
said "Why not?" in Heat, when Al Pacino tracked him down on the freeway
and said, what about a cup of coffee – and there was a steely lack of
surprise, as if he was well used to coffee invites even when the other
guy came by helicopter and hired car.
"I’m in San Francisco," I tell him.
you sound English," he says. "And I suppose I sound American, but here
I am in London." There’s a pause, and I hear him ask, "Aren’t I in
London?" Voices mutter back to him. "Right, London. You see, these days
it’s all uncertain. You don’t know where you are."
"It’s a spooky business," I say.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Like spying," I say. "Don’t they call it a spooky business?"
"Oh, right, I believe they do."
have this telephone booking to talk about The Good Shepherd. Robert De
Niro is an actor, of course, and on screen in this one he plays the
head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a character based on
Wild Bill Donovan, a hero from the days when the OSS was a new idea, a
band of the best and brightest young minds in America – so long as
there were no blacks, no Jews, not many Catholics, and plenty of people
who’d been to Yale, and been in Skull & Bones at Yale. This was a
kind of fraternity with secret rituals and it channelled talent into
the American secret service in the way a few Oxbridge homosexual
circles kept Britain supplied for the same kind of subterfuge.
fact, Donovan has only a few scenes in The Good Shepherd. And as a
rule, he’s sitting down because he’s sick and the surgeons are taking
bits off his feet and legs every year. "It’s just a small part, just to
show willing," he says, "because when I’m directing, I find it very
hard to trust myself as an actor."
"Why do you think that is?"
"I don’t know. Trust is hard."
in what is a famously busy career, where De Niro is likely to act in
two or three films a year, while taking a close interest in his
restaurant business, he has chosen this epic survey of the OSS and the
CIA (it stretches from the late 1930s to the mid -60s) because he
wanted to direct it.
"Well, it was a labour of love, I suppose.
I was working in something else, but in the same area. And I read The
Good Shepherd and I liked it. And I was meeting its writer, Eric Roth,
for this other project. And I told him it was like he was writing my
picture. And he said if I would direct it, he would write it. And I
think what I like about it is that spy stuff is always fascinating. But
it can be fanciful – James Bond and the Mission: Impossible stuff.
Spectacular but not real work. But I don’t like those leaps of faith. I
wanted to make it as believable as possible."
De Niro had
directed once before – A Bronx Tale in 1993 – a nice little film, set
securely in his New York and in a world he knew. What is most striking
about The Good Shepherd is its amazing movements in place and time –
London in the 30s; Washington during the war and after; Russia in the
same years. Matt Damon plays a man who enters the secret service out of
Yale and who is clearly set on ultimate leadership in the world of
spooks. In his generally unhappy personal life, he marries Angelina
Jolie but neglects her so much that she and their son hardly know him.
"I have to admit," I tell him, "that it’s only after three viewings of the film that I’m really able to follow it all."
"Oh," he says, "I’m sorry about that."
not a criticism," I say. "I love the film, and I love pictures that
need that many viewings. But the structure of the film is very
He sighs. He’s heard the story before. And while he
likes the release version (2hr 37mins), there is a 3hr 20mins version
that he’d like to get shown one day. "But we had to make it a
reasonable length. You see, every action in this sort of film – you
don’t know if it’s for real or a game. And I think that affects the
people in the business. They get to be people who can’t trust anyone."
"Are there any spy films that helped you see what you wanted to do?"
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. And The Third Man, going back. And
the thing the BBC did on Smiley’s People. With Alec Guinness. I liked
those things a lot. I felt I could believe in them."
"But you hadn’t directed much before, and not for 12 years."
And I like directing. But it is a lot of work. You know, all the time
you have to spend with the money people and the budgets. You have to
listen to so many people, and everyone reckons he can say his piece.
Me, I’d sooner say, take it or leave it. I mean, I like to get on with
the work. But this material … it really got to me."
"But these are unhappy people?"
I think a lot of time with real work, that happens. People get carried
away. And Matt Damon’s character, he means well, he wants to be likable
and so on. But as time goes by he gets to be more and more
inaccessible. If you don’t believe what you see you get cut off."
"Do you think there is some kind of deep-down resemblance between actors and spies?"
"How d’you mean?"
the way you spend so much of your life pretending to be other people –
so the real person you might have been fades away. And after 40 or 50
years of it, you can wonder, ‘Where did I go? What happened to me?’"
"Yeah, yeah. You know, I would not disagree with that."
"That has happened to you?"
"Well, I don’t know about that. But I would not disagree with it. It’s a strange thing wanting to be other people."
"Do you think maybe you’ll direct more often now?"
want to. The Good Shepherd has done quite nicely – not great, but OK,
you know? And we are talking about two more films coming right up to
the fall of the Berlin Wall. Trace the whole story. Because, you know,
that’s a war we won – the Cold War."
"There’s a strong passage
in the film where your character makes it clear that spying is for the
‘right’ people – white Anglo-Saxon protestants, Ivy League people, the
members of the club, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do. I don’t think it’s quite the same now. But it was once and old habits stick."
"The Good Shepherd is also quite clear about the damage that can come from too much secrecy."
what it’s really about. If you get very good at secrets you risk losing
something in life, you know. And we have made a business of it. There
are people who would die rather than tell the truth. And it’s where we
are now. And it’s dangerous. And I think there are people in the CIA
who know that very well, and are afraid of it."
"Do you think
sometimes the security service can become like a private fortress in a
free society – something that in the end freedom has to tear down?"
"Well, you know, this is a little deja vu – but I don’t think there’s anything I would argue about with that."
"So, two more films? With some of the same characters?"
"Yeah, that’s what I would like. Some are dead, of course, but some go on."
"It could be a saga like The Godfather."
"Well, I was in that, you know, and I thought it worked out pretty well."
· The Good Shepherd is available on DVD and to "download to own" from Universal Pictures