Anticipation is high for “Joker,” Todd Phillips’ grim take on the DC Comics super villain with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, in part because Phoenix’s take on the character seems to have more in common with Martin Scorsese crime movies than anything in recent superhero cinema. As if to help that comparison along, Robert De Niro can be glimpsed in the latest trailer as a TV talk show host named Murray Franklin.
With the movie set in 1981, and Phoenix playing the future Joker as a struggling comedian with aspirations of stardom, it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots with Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” In an interview with IndieWire, De Niro confirmed that his role was a nod to that earlier performance.
Released around the same time that “Joker” takes place, “The King of Comedy” stars De Niro as psychopathic comic Rupert Pupkin, a man obsessed with a popular TV host (Jerry Lewis). The story concludes with Rupert landing his dream gig after a stint in jail, though many viewers have interpreted that conclusion to be a fantasy. Regardless of where Rupert really wound up, however, De Niro said that Murray was conceived in the spirit of his earlier role. “There’s a connection, obviously, with the whole thing,” said De Niro, from his Tribeca offices, while doing interviews for the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival. “But it’s not as a direct connection as the character I’m playing being Rupert many years later as a host.”
Nevertheless, De Niro said he would have been up for reprising the character in more explicit terms. “If they would’ve proposed that to me, I would’ve said, ‘That’s interesting, maybe we’ll try to do that,’” he said. “But by making this type of film, it is connected in a way, as you’ll see.”
De Niro has been revisiting his past in other ways lately, by acting in Martin Scorsese’s Netflix-produced “The Irishman,” which comes out this fall and will be the subject of a conversation between De Niro and Scorsese during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. In the movie, De Niro stars as hit man and union leader Frank Sheeran, and his character — along with those played by Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and others — age across several decades. Scorsese has repeatedly employed pricey VFX to de-age his cast. “They’re trying to really make it the best it’s ever been,” De Niro said. “What I’ve seen looks really good.”
De Niro has some prior experience with de-aging in the 2013 boxing movie “Grudge Match,” but the technology was less sophisticated and required the actors to wear intrusive head gear for the CGI to work. “When I did it in ‘Grudge Match,’ we had more obstructive things on,” De Niro said. “Marty was concerned, rightly so, that we should not have things on us that would be distracting. We had some dots, some reflective things, all subtle stuff.”
De Niro’s producing partner and Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal noted that the camera technology did lend a different challenge to the set. “They did have this three-headed monster of a camera that was around all the time,” she said. “They had hair and costumes of the period, but they didn’t have to worry about anything else that was intrusive. So the goal here was that it was a more intuitive way of working for an actor.”
Coming on the heels of Samuel L. Jackson’s de-aging in “Captain Marvel,” De Niro said his experience on “The Irishman” has lead him to think about new opportunities afforded by the technology. “If it’s going to extend my career by 30 years, that’s fine with me,” he said.
Stay tuned for more from De Niro and Rosenthal ahead of the 2019 Tribeca Film Film Festival, which runs April 24 – May 5.