If you are going to ask for advice from the king of all tough guys, be prepared to hear straight talk. At New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts graduation, Robert De Niro told students: “You’re an artist—yeah, you’re fucked. The good news is that’s not a bad place to start.”
Which is why no one messes around with the iconic actor/producer, especially when he shows his sensitive side. At the Bentonville Film Festival, De Niro candidly discussed the HBO documentary he made about his artist father, who unlike his son, never achieved the kind of fame he wanted.
He had some pretty good, unflinching insights about succeeding as a creative person, too.
“If you are afraid you are going to get rejected, you won’t get anything. You just have to take chances and get out there. Whether it’s positive or negative, you’ve got to go through the experience.”
For a very public figure, you’re a very private person. What’s it like to tell such a personal story like Remembering The Artist Robert De Niro, Sr.?
It is personal, but it’s one for me that’s worth telling. I wanted to help make people aware of who my father was and what he did. He was very special and a great artist. I am partial of course. But even if you said he wasn’t a great artist, he put a lot of hard work and time in. A lot of care went into it and you see that—that you can’t take away. I wanted to make sure that his legacy would be carried on and my kids were aware of what their grandfather did.
Did you ever do any painting with your dad or have him paint you?
No I didn’t. And he never tried to get me to do that—I could never sit still! That’s another thing I regret. I just didn’t have the patience.
What’s your advice for people who want be creatively unique?
As long as you are happy doing it, and expressing what you want to express… whether you get recognized for that is another story. Even if what you are doing is not mainstream, if you are happy, that’s what matters.
How do you deal with rejection and have confidence?
You just have to keep going. God helps those who help themselves. You gotta get out there and do it, whether you like it or not. In the film, I found myself in a very strange situation in Paris, trying to help my father who was dealing with depression; I didn’t know any better; I’d take his art from gallery to gallery, and we would walk and walk, showing it to people. If I didn’t do that, I would never know… you just never know until you try. The main thing is he painted because he loved it. That kept him going to get exposure—you have to steel yourself for that kind of rejection. Some people are more sensitive than others. Some believe in themselves so they don’t take rejection personally. That’s really what you have to distinguish.
People say to me, ‘I have an idea for a great story.’ And I say, ‘Everyone has an idea for a great story but you have to write it and put it in concrete form.’ Otherwise it’s just a great idea. Every person has an interesting story if they just took the time to write it down. You have to go further than that. You have to make it real. It’s not easy.
How do you not give up on yourself and your dreams?
Well, I always say, you have to keep at it. It’s a corny thing to say. If you have a real opportunity to follow through on something, do it. I say this to my kids, ‘if you don’t go, you will never know.’ As an actor, I think in terms of an audition; so if you don’t go to an audition, if you are afraid you are going to get rejected, you won’t get anything. You just have to take chances and get out there. Whether it’s positive or negative, you’ve got to go through the experience. And this holds true for any job–whether you are a writer or singer or submitting your script, or an artist… even if people don’t respond to it in the way that you want them to.
You hear this from famous people all the time, who sent their stuff out and nobody cared, and yet there was someone who eventually did, who gave that person the exposure that they needed.
What do you hope your father’s legacy will be?
That his work finds a home. When something is valued as more, art especially, people treat it as an asset and want to protect it.