Robert De Niro on Making His Own Vaccines Documentary, and Returning to Boxing and Cannes With Hands of Stone

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Robert De Niro and Edgar Ramirez. Photo: Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images

Robert De Niro never came to Cannes with Raging Bull — though he was here in 1976 when Taxi Driver got roundly booed and still won the Palme d'Or — so this week was something of a do-over. He got a 15-minute standing ovation for an emotional tribute to his entire career and the premiere of his new Weinstein Company boxing movie, Hands of Stone. The movie's title refers to the nickname of Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Durán (played by Carlos star Édgar Ramírez), who in 1980 defeated Sugar Ray Leonard (a really buff Usher) to win the welterweight world championship title, and the film traces both Durán's life story and his relationship with his trainer, Ray Arcel (De Niro). De Niro doesn't throw on gloves himself, but he's been behind this movie for five years, and it's pretty remarkable watching him work the ring again, feverishly combing Ramírez's hair — a trick of Arcel's to make his guy seem fresh as a daisy every time he came out of his corner. We spoke with De Niro and Ramírez on a rooftop in Cannes about their big night, injuries, and De Niro's decision to show, and then not show, the controversial anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

Have you started shooting Scorsese’s The Irishman yet?

De Niro: No.

But it’s happening?

RD: Yeah.

How do you prepare for that? Is it like riding a bicycle?

RD: I think I’ll just kill a few people to get into the part. [Laughs.]

Ramírez: Huh? What? Sorry, I’m distracted. I’m a little hungover.

You had a big tribute to your career and the premiere of Hands of Stone last night.

RD: It was very nice.

What are your strongest memories of being at Cannes?

RD: I wasn’t here with Raging Bull. I was here with Taxi Driver. I was here with Mean Streets, for Director’s Fortnight before Taxi Driver I was here ... I didn’t come for The Mission because I was doing a play in New York.

ER: Weren’t you here for that movie you made with Depardieu?

RD: With Gérard. I came for that. Once Upon a Time in America, I came for that. I came here for What Just Happened, because some of it takes place in Cannes, so we had a screening like last night, and I was president of the Jury.

Was Taxi Driver the most interesting reception?

RD: Yeah, I guess because it was in competition and it won that year. But it’s all fun.

Didn't you get booed?

RD: I don’t remember. What do I know? I was just happy to be there, next to the people. I didn’t even notice if anyone was booing at the end.

Edgar, had you experienced anything like last night?

ER: Well, I have been here before, the first time I came here was for Carlos, but tonight was special on many other levels because it was within the context of a tribute to Robert, so everything was completely out of protocol, so it was a very special night. We got into the theater. I had the privilege to [show my] respect, gratitude and my love for Robert, and my respect with Harvey onstage, and actually for all the protocol and the elegance and the sobriety of Cannes, it felt very warm last night. It was almost like we were doing a Q&A before the film, and presenting this montage. So everything was very intimate, although we’re talking about the most international stage for world cinema, so it was very special, and then when we screened the film and people clapped for so long, it was very emotional. It was very special. To answer, though, I’ve never experienced anything like this.

Bob, you didn’t have a tear in your eye?

RD: No, but it was great.

ER: He was crying on the inside.

RD: Yeah!

Were you itching to do more boxing?

RD: No, the movie is just a thing I got involved in with [Venezuelan writer-director] Jonathan [Jakubowicz]. I saw his first movie [Secuestro Express] and liked it. He wanted me to play Ray Arcel. We talked, I liked him, I liked the whole thing. It just evolves. There were problems with getting it made, so then I helped steer them in the right direction of having it made in Panama as opposed to Puerto Rico. It worked out well because the money fell through to do it in Puerto Rico, and it never should’ve been there. It should’ve been done in Panama the whole time. So they got a hold of the Panamanian government, got people to pay for it.

You personally called Panama?

RD: No, no, I told them what to do, and then get rich Panamanians to finance it and give them tax breaks. [Laughs.] It’s about a national hero. It’s an easy thing.

ER: But you’re a champion for the film. You stayed attached to the film in its different incarnations.

RD: I was here [in Cannes] five years ago, we were talking about it, and four years ago. I know when I was president of the Jury we were talking about it then.

In the movie were you doing any physical training, holding the pads?

RD: No, but I could’ve done that. I didn’t have the pads, but we did other stuff. I had a great trainer who was there with me at the time so he was giving me what to do the corner, and worked with him all the time with pads. But we just never used pads.

ER: Normally the trainer doesn’t. It’s always a team, so the trainer, like Ray Arcel was, he would have another guy who would hold the pads to the boxer, because they’re all about tactics and strategy, so they need to watch the fighter in order to correct the fighter. So the trainer would very seldom get into the ring or do anything physical. That’s why they have other people. That’s why a physical trainer would be the one who would do the pads, but your trainer is watching you all the time.

Did you have advice for Édgar from Raging Bull on how to take a punch?

RD: No, he and Usher did a great job and I totally empathize with them, what they were going through to stay in shape and suppress their wanting to eat whatever they could. I went through it myself and they did a great, great job.

Did you get injured?

ER: Well, I got an injury before we started the fights because I overtrained a little bit. Durán was really good on the rope, and I got a little out of hand trying to match his title, which was impossible, and I stressed the area around the tibia. Actually there was an injury that I had probably two weeks before we started the fight, and I remember my trainer was the same trainer he’s referring to. I was nervous, because I said, “After all this training, now we’re going to start to shoot the fights and now I’m not in the best shape.” And Mickey said, “If any of my fighters in real life would wait for their body to be in complete sharp condition, they would never fight. You always have an injury and you always have to muscle through.”

Bob, did you have any?

RD: In this film, no.

And I have to ask, you have an autistic child and your own film festival, Tribeca, started out with a controversy over an anti-vaccination documentary you programmed. What do you think you learned from choosing it and then choosing to not show it?

RD: Well, what I learned, first of all, there was a big reaction, which I didn’t see coming, and it was from filmmakers — supposedly, I have yet to find out who it was. I wanted to just know who they were, because to me there was no reason not to see the movie. The movie is not hurting anybody. It says something. It said something to me that was valid. Maybe some things were inaccurate, but if the movie was 20 percent accurate, it was worth seeing. And they were saying it’s because of the filmmaker and he was discredited, but how was he discredited? By the medical establishment? There’s a lot going on that I still don’t understand, but it makes me question the whole thing, and the whole vaccine issue is a real one. It’s big money. So it did get attention. I was happy about that. And I talked about another movie called Trace Amounts that I saw and spoke about it a lot, that people should see it, and it’s there. Something is there with vaccines, because they’re not tested in some ways the way other medicines are, and they’re just taken for granted and mandated in some states. And people do get sick from it. Not everybody, but certain people are sensitive, like anything, penicillin.

Your hope is that eventually people will see the movie?

RD: Yeah, and you always say, you’re not against vaccines, you’re against what they put in vaccines that can hurt certain people who are allergic. It can kill them sometimes. And there’s such an industry. There’s big, big money in vaccines that the CDC will put ...

And you’d show this movie again, given the opportunity?

RD: No, I’m working on something else. Harvey Weinstein and I are working on doing a documentary, but I don’t what to talk much about it, because when I talk about it, something happens. But that’s what we plan to try to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed.